FIXING THE BACKLINE
As the United States national team finished their 2012 schedule with a 2-2 draw against Russia, fixing the central defense is the number one concern heading into 2013.
The problems in central defense have now been apparent for awhile. Geoff Cameron's emergence this year has been a enormous boost to the national team because without him, the backline would be in critical condition. He is currently the only central defender consistently playing well on the national team.
The rest of the central defending core has had a year to forget. Carlos Bocanegra is injured but even before he pulled his hamstring in the Russia friendly, it appeared as if he has lost a step. His performances defensively in the October qualifiers were poor.
Clarence Goodson has been a national team regular under Klinsmann but his recent performances have also declined for both Brondby and the US team. His performance against Russia will surely have Klinsmann wanting to explore other options.
But what are the other options? Oguchi Onyewu is not playing for Malaga. Tim Ream is not playing for Bolton. Klinsmann has publicly said he is interested in trying Maurice Edu as a central defender but if Edu can't play at any position for Stoke, how can he possibly learn to play a new position? Michael Parkhurst could also be another option but he is far removed from his days as a central defender.
Fortunately, there are other options for Klinsmann to try in central defense. Here are some potential solutions.
At the start of 2012, Omar Gonzalez looked to be the next in line to break into Klinsmann's lineup in central defense. He was coming off a stellar year for the Galaxy and was invited to January camp. He withdrew from January camp to begin a loan with FC Nurnberg but suffered a torn ACL in his first practice in Germany.
Fortunately Gonzalez came by quickly by July. It took awhile, but gradually he began to look like his pre-injury self. He's still not completely there yet, but his return was a big reason why the Galaxy were able to surge down the stretch and make it to the MLS Cup finals.
Gonzalez is continuing to look stronger with each passing month and in early 2013, he will be back to full strength. It is also possible that if he impresses in the MLS Cup final, he could once again attract the interest of European clubs. Should that happen, he'll be back in the national team picture.
2012 has been a breakout season for Besler who won the MLS Defender of the Year and has already been called up to the national team once for a friendly against Mexico where he was an unused substitute.
What's interesting about Besler is that he has improved in every area of his game. He is a strong passer out of the back and is also physically strong. He looks like a polished defender and will likely have a chance soon with the national team.
In the English Championship, Middlesbrough is a strong favorite to be promoted and Seb Hines is expected to be a big part of the team's defense.
Hines, 24, recently signed a three year extension with the club but began the season nursing an injury. He now looks completely fit and has played great soccer over the past month.
Hines was born in England but has always held an American passport. In the past he played for England's youth national teams. He would need to file a one-time switch to play for the United States but he has continuously been adamant this year that he he would gladly switch to the United States should he be asked by US Soccer.
It's unclear where Hines stands on Klinsmann's radar or if he is even on it but if Boro are able to secure promotion to the Premier League, it will be impossible for Klinsmann to ignore him.
John Anthony Brooks
As one of the top teenagers in the US system, Brooks has made great strides in 2012. He has broken into Hertha Berlin's starting lineup and the club look poised to earn promotion back to the Bundesliga next season.
Brooks has all the tools to be an excellent defender. He stands tall at 6'6 but is also smooth on the ball and can pass effectively out of the back. The potential is there and he is showing signs of putting it all together.
The German-born Brooks still does not have a lot of experience but the potential is there for him to be an integral part of the national team. Despite the lack of experience, he may not be as far off as people think. With central defense being such an area of need for the national team, it's not too early to begin integrating a long-term solution. Klinsmann has done it with Terrence Boyd, Alfredo Morales, and even Joe Gyau. It would be just as smart to put Brooks on that fast track.
Brooks has recently played for Germany's U-20 national team but he continues to insist that the United States is his top choice. That should be welcome news to US fans.
Considering Zak Whitbread for the national team is always risky. No one questions whether he has the talent to play the game at a high level but reoccurring injuries have always prevented him from reaching his potential.
Whitbread, now 28, has never been able to play a full season without missing substantial time with injuries. Whenever he has appeared close to earning his first national team cap, he would get injured. In fact, Norwich had to part ways with him last year after they no longer wanted to deal with Whitbread's unreliability.
Now at Leicester City, Whitbread has finally climbed his way back into the starting lineup and the team is playing well. The club is likely to contend for a spot on the promotional playoffs but again the whole issue with Whitbread is whether or not he can stay healthy. If he can, he could make his way into Klinsmann's group but history is not on Whitbread's side.
Just 12 months ago, it looked likely that George John would make his way onto the US national team. Heading into 2013, the situation does not look as good for John.
The year began with a difficult loan to West Ham where he was not able to see any minutes for the English club. When he returned to Dallas, he had to deal with injuries as well as a playing for a team that struggled.
John, 25, remains a good player and he is not completely out of the picture for the US national team. But for him to put himself in contention for a callup, he will have to have a strong start to 2013. His contract with MLS expires and decisions will have to be made in the near future.
After a rookie season that saw him win the 2012 MLS Rookie of the Year, all eyes will be on Chicago's Austin Barry in 2013.
Barry was consistent all year and helped the Fire return to the playoffs. Now he is not likely to make the US national team in the early part of 2013 but if he continues to play well at the start of next season, a callup to the Gold Cup is a distinct possibility.
Philadelphia Union's Amobi Okugo proved in 2012 that he is a player to watch. The reason why is that over the last year Okugo has moved from his natural defensive midfield position and into central defense.
Okugo still has a lot to learn as a central defender but he is improving rapidly. In fact he is adjusting so quickly that a callup to next summer's Gold Cup is not out of the question.