Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez have been U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s preferred center back pairing for almost a full year now, ever since the MLS duo combined to help the Americans earn a rare World Cup qualifying point and shutout last March in Mexico City.
Besler and Gonzalez were airtight against El Tri at imposing Azteca Stadium that night, but both players had much rougher outings south of the border this week in CONCACAF Champions League action.
Besler couldn’t stop Liga MX leader Cruz Azul from putting five goals past Kansas City on Wednesday, a day after Gonzalez and the LA Galaxy lost 4-2 in Tijuana against the Xolos.
This is not to say either man was to blame for his club's loss -- MLS teams will continue to struggle in the competition until their payrolls are comparable with Mexico’s best -- but that also doesn’t mean Klinsmann will have liked what he saw from two of his trusted regulars with Brazil 2014 now less than three months away.
As such, it will be interesting to see how the competition for spots in central defense shapes up over the next two months.
Questions remain elsewhere, too -- particularly up top and on the flanks -- and in many cases, the answers will lie in who is performing well for their clubs.
Which players’ stocks are rising (and falling) this week? Find out below. Warming up
Michael Bradley, M, Toronto FC (MLS)
Why he’s here: England striker Jermain Defoe took the plaudits for the second straight match, but Bradley -- whose pass helped set up Defoe’s winner in a 1-0 victory over DC United -- once again was TFC’s backbone in central midfield.
What this means: Clint Dempsey’s struggles upon returning to MLS last year had many worrying that Bradley would also take time to adjust. Two games into the 2014, the Yanks’ main midfield general looks as sharp as ever. Maurice Edu, M, Philadelphia Union (MLS)
Why he’s here: Philly lost for the first time this season Saturday in Columbus, but Edu went the distance in midfield for the third consecutive match and turned in another solid performance for the Union.
What this means: Edu is still on the outside looking in, but the South Africa 2010 veteran’s successful return to MLS has him an injury away, potentially, from a second World Cup trip. Expect to see him back with the national team for next month’s friendly against Mexico. Julian Green, F, Bayern Munich (Germany)
Why he’s here: The German-American prospect is officially in the running for a World Cup roster spot now that he’s committed his international future to the United States.
What this means: Green, 18, is mighty short on experience, having made just one appearance for Bayern’s first team this season. But his speed on the flanks and his finishing ability in the box could propel him past challengers Brek Shea and Chris Wondolowski as a depth player for Klinsmann in Brazil. Cooling down
Clint Dempsey, M-F, Seattle Sounders (MLS)
Why he’s here: On Friday, Dempsey’s two-match suspension for striking Toronto defender Mark Bloom in a March 15 loss was upheld by the MLS Disciplinary Committee following an appeal.
What this means: The U.S. captain will be idle heading into the important April 2 tilt against El Tri, and Klinsmann isn’t pleased. “It comes at a very bad time for us,” Klinsmann said. “It throws him out of a rhythm before the game against Mexico.” Omar Gonzalez, D, LA Galaxy (MLS)
Why he’s here: The big center back -- who signed a designated player contract with LA last summer -- couldn’t prevent the Galaxy from conceding four goals to Club Tijuana in a midweek loss in Mexico, or from gifting Real Salt Lake an early lead on Saturday.
What this means: The 25-year-old Texan is still worrying inconsistent at times -- hardly an ideal trait on the eve of a World Cup -- and as the leader of LA’s backline, much of the responsibility falls on him. If he doesn’t tighten up his (and his fellow backs’) game in the coming weeks, don’t be surprised to see Clarence Goodson or Geoff Cameron make a serious challenge for his starting spot in May. Danny Williams, M, Reading (England)
Why he’s here: Williams played his first game for the U.S. in over a year earlier this month, but picked up a knock vs. Ukraine that has sidelined him for the Royals ever since.
What this means: This isn’t the first time the 25-year-old has been hampered by injury this season, but the timing of this latest setback puts what were already-slim World Cup chances in serious peril.