U.S. Hot List: Competition brews as Howard heats up and Guzan sits out
With less than two weeks to go until the U.S. national team's roster for the World Cup qualifying matches against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago is revealed, which players are putting themselves in position to participate?
Attackers are leading the way once again, although at least two of them are probably best considered long-term projects rather than locks for coach Jurgen Klinsmann's squad next month.
The situation in goal is almost equally as interesting, with an open competition brewing between two of the program's most decorated veterans. Injuries are again a factor, as is always the case, with time quickly running out for one regular starter in the midfield.
It's all below in this week's U.S. Hot List.
Jozy Altidore, F, Toronto FC (MLS)
Why he's here: Altidore was in Toronto's lineup for the first time in three months against the Houston Dynamo on Sunday and scored a beauty of an equalizer in the 1-1 away tie. The veteran striker, who had come off the bench in the Reds' previous three matches following a hamstring injury, now has three goals in his last 186 minutes of action.
What this means: He's sharp and noticeably svelte but still not fit for a full 90 minutes (Altidore was substituted midway through the second half against the Dynamo). TFC play three more times before the Americans convene in Florida ahead of their trip to the Caribbean, though, so the 26-year-old should at least be ready for a role off the bench for his country next month.
Steve Birnbaum, D, D.C. United (MLS)
Why he's here: The central defender's goal against the Portland Timbers on Saturday was his second in as many weeks; the 25-year-old also scored a 94th-minute equalizer against the Philadelphia Union on Aug. 6.
What this means: Birnbaum's knack for finding the net -- he had the game-winner for the Americans in a January friendly versus Iceland -- is one of the reasons he's been a regular for the U.S. this year. It's also why he's expected to move overseas at the end of the current MLS season.
Ethan Finlay, M/F, Columbus Crew (MLS)
Why he's here: On Saturday, Finlay scored twice late in Columbus' 3-3 tie against New York City FC -- his first start for the Crew in a month.
What this means: Finlay, 26, got off to a slow start this season after making his U.S. debut in January and didn't crack the Copa America roster. Needless to say, Saturday's performance comes at a good time.
Lynden Gooch, M/F, Sunderland (England)
Why he's here: The 20-year-old Californian was a surprise starter in the Black Cats' Premier League season opening loss to mighty Manchester City on Saturday, going 64 minutes on the left wing.
What this means: It's just one game, and next month's international matches will probably come too soon for the former U.S. under-20 player, but Gooch's speed, versatility and pedigree will probably be irresistible to Klinsmann later this year if he continues to earn minutes from manager David Moyes.
Tim Howard, G, Colorado Rapids (MLS)
Why he's here: Howard stood on his head against the LA Galaxy on Saturday, making five saves -- including three spectacular stops -- in a 1-1 draw.
What this means: The 37-year-old was Brad Guzan's deputy at Copa America, but so far the pair have split the Americans' four qualifying games of the 2018 cycle. With Guzan idle in England, expect Howard to get at least one of these two upcoming tilts, too.
Aron Johannsson, F, Werder Bremen (Germany)
Why he's here: The oft-injured striker saw the field for the first time in nearly a year following hip surgery, appearing in Werder's two most recent preseason matches.
What this means: Even if Johannsson isn't fully ready by the time the Bundesliga season begins (against Bayern Munich on Aug. 26) or for the September qualifiers, his return is great big-picture news for both the 2014 World Cup vet and the U.S., which is quietly building considerable forward depth heading into the Hexagonal.
Jordan Morris, F, Seattle Sounders (MLS)
Why he's here: A week after running Orlando City SC's back line ragged and setting up two Clint Dempsey strikes, Morris scored his team-high eighth goal of the season in Sunday's 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake.
What this means: Morris' progress with the Sounders has been fun to watch this season. He has struggled at times, as expected, during his first professional season, but the 21-year-old Seattle native has also responded to the inevitable adversity with aplomb and is deserving of his first senior team invite of 2016.
Gyasi Zardes, M/F, LA Galaxy (MLS)
Why he's here: Zardes came back from a two-game injury layoff in Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup loss to FC Dallas, then started and went the distance against Colorado three days later, getting robbed by a point-blank Howard stop along the way.
What this means: Given the amount of minutes the hard-running 24-year-old has played for the U.S. since making his international debut in 2015 -- more than anyone besides Michael Bradley -- having him healthy and available next month is hugely important for the team.
Brad Guzan, G, Middlesbrough (England)
Why he's here: Guzan watched from the bench as former Barcelona keeper Victor Valdes manned the net for Boro in Saturday's 1-1 draw with Stoke City.
What this means: The decision wasn't unexpected, as the job is considered Valdes' to lose. But while the 34-year-old played well enough against Stoke, it was only Valdes' eighth first-team appearance since leaving Barca two years ago (he made two for Manchester United in 2014-15 and five on loan to Belgium's Standard Liege last season). The Spaniard is also mistake-prone at times. So while Guzan will have to wait for his chance, it figures to present itself at some point.
Jermaine Jones, M, Colorado Rapids (MLS)
Why he's here: He was listed as questionable before the game in LA, but Jones (knee injury) ended up missing his sixth consecutive match.
What this means: It's looking less and less likely that Jones, 34, will be able to play any role for the U.S. next month.
Gregory Garza, D, Club Tijuana (Mexico)
Why he's here: Garza was not in the Xolos' 18-man roster for Friday's 2-0 victory over Leon.
What this means: Garza, 25, started the first two games of the season under former Mexico national team coach Miguel Herrera, but he could be falling victim to the Liga MX's new 10/8 rule. Despite the fact that he holds Mexican citizenship through his father, the Texas-born left-back is no longer counted as a domestic player south of the border. If that's the reason he didn't dress, it's a worrying development. He was on the bench the last two matches following a concussion scare.
Edgar Castillo, D, Monterrey (Mexico)
Why he's here: The little full-back is out for two months with a knee injury, sidelining him for the U.S. games in September and October.
What this means: While it's true that Castillo is mostly a squad player for the Americans -- he was added to the Copa roster only after Bundesliga-based German-American Timmy Chandler was forced to withdraw because of injury -- his absence robs the U.S. of some badly needed depth at left-back.
ESPN FC's Tom Marshall contributed reporting from Mexico.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.