DAVID SMITH - Monday, May 9, 2016
While the Copa América hopefuls are still a few days away from gathering in Miami, most of the 40 named players were either in uniform or on the field for their clubs this weekend.
For most of them, this was their penultimate chance to put on a show for US head coach Jürgen Klinsmann and his watchful staff before what will be an abbreviated evaluation period with the entire group. The team will first come together next Monday - May 16 - in Miami, giving the US coaches a grand total of four days to select their final 23.
A strong showing over the final few league games prior to the camp could give some players on the cusp a leg-up on making the final cut. Here is a short breakdown of a few noteworthy performances that happened over the previous weekend's games.
While both of the two goalkeepers who are expected to be fighting it out for the starting position - Tim Howard and Brad Guzan - sat on their respective benches in England, one hopeful for the third spot might wish he had ridden the pine.
Molde youngster Ethan Horvath had one of the worst outings of his young career thus far on Sunday afternoon, committing a late penalty that led to his sending off as the team blew a 3-0 lead in the final 13 minutes of play.
Horvath is already facing an uphill task to unseat incumbent third-keeper Nick Rimando, and the timing of a poor league performance surely did not help his case.
The resulting suspension will give him a rest on their upcoming midweek fixture, and whether he returns for next Monday's visit to Odds BK or boards the plane straight to Miami remains to be seen.
John Brooks notably returned to Hertha's defense for their loss to Darmstadt after a spell on the sidelines with injury, while DeAndre Yedlin and Sunderland gave themselves a booster shot on survival with an unexpected 3-2 victory over Chelsea.
While Chelsea youngster Matt Mizaga did not feature in that game, the late sending-off of John Terry possibly opens the door for the central defender to make one final pre-camp impression in their season-closer against Premier League champions Leicester next Sunday.
Over in Mexico, central defender Michael Orozco and Tijuana kept opponents Atlas out of goal in a 0-0 draw. The bigger news from the weekend's action is, perhaps, the absence of Omar Gonzalez from Pachuca's gameday squad.
The former LA Galaxy standout has been a fixture in the team's starting lineup since making the move in December and was not mentioned in the team's injury report several days prior to the game, making his failure to suit up a possible concern so close to the start of the pre-Copa camp.
Colorado Rapids midfielder Jermaine Jones continued his run of strong play, scoring the lone goal - his third in four games - in their 1-0 win over regional rivals Real Salt Lake.
Elsewhere in MLS, Portland's Darlington Nagbe notched the assist on the team's lone goal in their 2-1 loss at Vancouver, showing strong indication that he is fully recovered from what had previously looked to be a major injury earlier in the season due to a reckless tackle from Nigel de Jong
FC Nantes midfielder Alejandro Bedoya was on point in France, scoring a late consolation goal for the team in their 2-1 loss to Caen. With effectively nothing left to play for in the season, Bedoya will have a chance to end on a high note should he put in a strong performance in their closing game at Ligue 1 champions and Champions League quarterfinalists Paris St. Germain on Saturday.
An injury concern still remain's for Borussia Mönchengladbach's Fabian Johnson, who once again missed his team's weekend fixture - a 2-1 win over Leverkusen that effectively clinched their qualification for next seasons' Champions League - due to a mysterious groin injury.
Seattle's attacking duo of Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris perhaps fared the best of all preliminary roster members, with each scoring a goal on Saturday in the team's 2-0 win over San Jose. Morris is in roaring form as of late, with the goal being his fourth over Seattle's last four outings.
Chris Wondolowski was not so lucky in that game, missing an 84th-minute penalty attempt for San Jose that would have tied it up, just five minutes prior to what turned out to be the winning goal by Morris.
Finally, Los Angeles Galaxy forward Gyasi Zardes continued what has been a strong start to his MLS season. While not getting onto the scoreboard himself, he set up the opening and eventually winning third goal for the Gals in their 4-2 victory over New England Revolution.
The 23 year-old forward has notched four goals and four assists through LA's first nine games, and is only solidifying his position as a near lock in the final roster.
What does all of this mean? Has anybody already helped or hurt their case before camp even begins? Are there any dark clouds peeking up over the horizon?
Horvath was already an outside shot for making the final 23, and Sunday's performance could only have made it even more distant. The third keeper spot is, of course, usually insignificant in any tournament, with only four teams in the history of the World Cup, for example, ever having the need to pull their number-three off the bench.
However, in those rare situations when it's needed, a steady, albeit unheralded veteran like Rimando will be preferred over a highly-promising youngster whose did just demonstrate that he is nevertheless a work in progress.
Brooks' return did remove any doubts as to whether his recent injury problems would limit his ability to participate in the coming weeks. Even though Hertha gave no indications that his injury problems were anything too severe, the fact that he had missed four of the previous five league games as well as both national team games immediately prior was becoming increasingly worrisome.
The same cannot be said for Johnson, whose absence from Gladbach's squad in the previous two games is only made more significant by the fact that these were enormously crucial to their hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League.
The team has remained coy about his injury, listing it only as a "groin problem" for the last two weeks. Whether or not he returns for Saturday's season-closer at Darmstadt could give some indication as to the severity of this injury, although with their fourth-place finish effectively (although technically not mathematically) wrapped up, another weekend off could simply be the team taking the careful approach.
Most likely, we'll be biting our nails for a bit longer and hope that reports from training camp in Miami can eventually give some indication as to his health.
Constant questions have surrounded the status of Jermaine Jones with the team since the team returned from Brazil nearly two years ago. If his red-hot start with Colorado is any indication, the question is emphatically answered: Jones still belongs in the final roster and on the field.
He has taken well to his new role as a more intentional attacking presence for Colorado with three goals and two assists through the first four games since he returned from suspension. His goal output is already beyond what he managed in 28 total games with New England over the previous two seasons. Even if he is still likely to occupy a deeper role for the Stars & Stripes, an in-form Jones with a newfound nose for both scoring and creating goals is something the team can desperately utilize.
Nagbe is a bubble player whose main tasks for having any chance at selection are (a) to show he's fully healthy and (b) that he can produce scoring chances for his team. With now three full 90-minute stints and a pair of assists since returning earlier than expected from injury, he has managed both.
Will this give him momentum heading into camp? Yes. Will he be able to beat out the likes of Lee Nguyen, Mikkel Diskerud or Graham Zusi for a place in the final selection? This most likely will be answered by what happens in the few days in Miami before the final roster is set.
Jordan, Wondolowski and Zardes have all been amongst Klinsmann's core of forwards during the current cycle, but with the sudden emergence of Christian Pulisic and the shift of Bobby Wood to the "rock solid certainty" category, at least one, or perhaps two of the trio is going to be left out.
Zardes has been a mixed bag in the national team uniform, earning significant time on the field with only meager returns. Yet, his current tear for the Galaxy - two goals and four assists over the last four games - gives him indisputable momentum and confidence.
The same can certainly be said for Morris, whose current scoring streak of four games is now the rookie record for MLS, and has been a favorite for Klinsmann since his seemingly incomprehensible inclusion on the national team while still a college player.
Wondolowski can indeed lay claim to currently being the top scorer in MLS - with seven goals through ten games showing he is still ever the valuable poacher - but may still find himself the odd man out. He was already likely working at a disadvantage in spite of his prolific form, having only been an unused bench warmer for the US since last summer's Gold Cup disappointment.
Making matters worse, his untimely penalty miss off the post on Saturday night, with the game still in the balance, will only serve to remind of another costly clutch-time miss two summers ago in Brazil. It would be unfair to completely discount an otherwise strong MLS season on the basis of one missed shot, but he certainly did not do himself any favors.
One more weekend of action still remains for most of the 40 players before they congregate in Miami. For the few who are in a battle to survive the cut, this means one last chance to move the needle. Will league form ultimately matter in the final selection? Probably not...but until then, we can and will speculate.