U.S. Hot List: Kellyn Acosta on the rise, Alejandro Bedoya on the outs?
As much as our U.S. Hot List exists primarily to track how American players' performances with their clubs impact their standing with the national team, the recent international break revealed even more about where members of the squad stand in the estimation of coach Bruce Arena.
The choices Arena made both with his roster and with his lineup for last month's World Cup qualifiers against Honduras and Panama provided a window into the current pecking order. That information that will be invaluable as we try to handicap who will be part of the manager's plans when qualifying resumes June 8 with a game against Trinidad and Tobago in Commerce City, Colorado, one that will be followed by a tricky visit to Mexico City just three days later.
Of course, Arena's decisions will always be largely based on how players are faring in their day jobs. Club form between now and June will also matter a ton, not least because there's less time than you think; the Americans are scheduled to report for camp in the thin Denver-area air on May 27, giving those hoping for a spot on the field or the bench only about a half-dozen games to prove they can help get the U.S. to Russia.
Who's looking good at this stage? Who could be on the outside looking in unless things change in the weeks to come? Here's how a dozen U.S. players are trending right now.
Kellyn Acosta, MF, FC Dallas (MLS)
Why he's here: The 21-year-old Texan played a solid final 15 minutes after replacing Jermaine Jones against Panama. He's in the form of his career for an FCD side on the brink of a CONCACAF Champions League final berth.
What this means: Acosta isn't quite ready to replace Jones on a full-time basis, but his combination of skill, athleticism and ball-winning grit -- he has added notable steel to his game this MLS season -- have him looking like the veteran's likely successor.
Clint Dempsey, FW, Seattle Sounders (MLS)
Why he's here: With four goals in the two games, the national team's active scoring leader pulled within one strike of Landon Donovan's record of 57 and, after missing eight months with an irregular heartbeat, silenced any doubts about his fitness in the process.
What this means: Plenty can happen between now and May 2018, but at this stage, there's no reason to think a 35-year-old Deuce won't at least be on Arena's roster -- if not contending for a lineup slot -- at his fourth World Cup.
Omar Gonzalez, DF, Pachuca (Mexican Liga MX)
Why he's here: With first-choice defenders John Brooks, Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin unavailable last week against Los Canaleros, the Americans needed a strong game from the imposing 28-year-old in Panama. They got one.
What this means: Gonzalez's comfort level playing for his former club coach Arena was obvious in both games, and he has been dominant for the Tuzos too; Pachuca has conceded just 10 goals in 11 matches this season. Only defending champion Tigres has allowed fewer.
Sebastian Lletget, MF, LA Galaxy (MLS)
Why he's here: It might seem strange to include the 24-year-old, given that he is sidelined four-to-six months because of a foot injury. But Arena, who handed Lletget his qualifying debut in a huge contest against Honduras, clearly believes in his former Galaxy player.
What this means: That won't change when Lletget returns. He's probably a long shot to be ready in time for July's Gold Cup, but you can bank on the former West Ham United reserve getting every opportunity to reclaim his place before 2017 is out.
Darlington Nagbe, MF, Portland Timbers (MLS)
Why he's here: Nagbe manned the left side of midfield in both U.S. games and rose to the challenge with a pair of smart displays in his first World Cup qualifying starts. Particularly impressive was his defensive effort, long considered a weak point of his game, on the road in Panama City.
What this means: It remains to be seen whether Nagbe can keep the spot when fellow wingers Fabian Johnson and Gyasi Zardes return from injury. This much is clear, though: Regular minutes for the U.S. will make one of the program's most technically gifted players that much more complete.
Tim Ream, DF, Fulham (English Championship)
Why he's here: Perhaps he could have done better on Panama's equalizer, but Ream played well overall and has pulled past 2014 World Cup starter Matt Besler on Arena's depth chart for now.
What this means: The 29-year-old's ascendancy has everything to do with consistency. Before entering during stoppage time of Fulham's 1-0 loss at Rotherham on Saturday, Ream had made 21 consecutive starts for the Cottagers, stretching back to early December.
Jorge Villafana, DF, Santos Laguna (Mexican Liga MX)
Why he's here: The former Portland Timbers left-back went from uncapped curiosity to World Cup qualifying starter -- a distinction he justified with polished performances against Honduras and Panama.
What this means: Perhaps more important to his U.S. prospects is the fact that Villafana just won back his starting spot at Santos after being limited to Copa MX games early this year. That should help him keep his job when the U.S. meets up in June.
Alejandro Bedoya, MF, Philadelphia Union (MLS)
Why he's here: The hard-running veteran put in a strong 72 minutes off the bench after Lletget went down against Honduras, but even that wasn't enough to earn Bedoya a lineup spot in Panama City.
What this means: That Arena went with the inexperienced Lletget over the more defensive-minded Bedoya points to an evolving role for a player who has been a U.S. mainstay for much of the past four years.
Matt Besler, DF, Sporting Kansas City (MLS)
Why he's here: Besler wasn't on Arena's original roster and didn't feature in either game after being added to it later.
What this means: Missing the January camp following ankle surgery didn't help the 2014 World Cup vet, who has fallen behind Ream on the coach's depth chart.
Fabian Johnson, MF, Borussia Monchengladbach (German Bundesliga)
Why he's here: The hamstring strain that prevented Johnson from reporting for international duty continues to keep him out. 'Gladbach announced that the 29-year-old won't play against Hertha Berlin on Wednesday.
What this means: Injuries are nothing new for the German-American, who has plenty of time to recover from this latest ailment before the American squad reconvenes late next month. Johnson remains an automatic starter when healthy.
Jermaine Jones, MF, LA Galaxy (MLS)
Why he's here: Jones wasn't wrong when he said earlier this week that nobody has been able to displace him from the national team lineup, and he's likely to be part of Arena's plans at least through the end of qualifying. Still, one has to wonder how warmly his comments were received by the coach and other U.S. players.
What this means: The real conundrum facing Arena when it comes to the 35-year-old is whether Jones would accept a diminished role if it's in the interests of the team. That -- not Jones' advancing age -- could ultimately determine if he's still kicking around come Russia.
Sacha Kljestan, MF, New York Red Bulls (MLS)
Why he's here: Viewed by many as a potential starter last month, Kljestan was passed over entirely before Arena eventually added him to the roster in place of the injured Bobby Wood. He didn't appear in either game, though.
What this means: Lletget's long-term absence might keep Kljestan in the mix for a reserve role next month, but it's fair to assume that Kljestan is still behind Dempsey, Christian Pulisic and even Darlington Nagbe for that central playmaker position.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.