Ashley Wagner skates during her free program that helped her win the silver… (Ivan Sekretarev / Associated…)
OMAHA — Who's No. 2?
That is the big question in the singles competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which begin Thursday with the women's and pairs short programs.
The bigger question is whether whoever winds up as the No. 2 skater in women's and men's singles will be good enough at the World Championships in March to help the United States earn a third spot in the 2014 Olympic field.
Given the world meet performances the past few years, that doesn't seem likely.
And the No. 1 U.S. skater hasn't exactly been stellar much of that time, either.
"The U.S. ladies need to get that third spot back," said Ashley Wagner, a prohibitive favorite to win a second straight national title this week. "There is a little bit of pressure on us for that."
Wagner, 21, did her part last year. Her fourth was the highest finish for a U.S. woman at worlds since Kimmie Meissner's fourth in 2007.
But the United States fell far short of the result needed to get a third spot — the top two finishes adding up to 13 or less — because Alissa Czisny was 22nd. That meant the U.S. qualified only two women at worlds for the fifth straight year, which had happened only twice before in the previous half-century.
The men will have gone two seasons with two world spots. The failure to have three this year owes as much to yet another poor showing by No. 1 skater Jeremy Abbott — eighth last season — as it does to that of his teammate, Adam Rippon (13th).
Abbott, 27, who seems likely to win a fourth U.S. title, has been consistently underwhelming in four world meets. His best finish was a fifth in 2010, when the field was weakened by post-Olympic defections, and he was 11th twice.
In a women's field without Czisny, whose comeback from hip surgery ended when she dislocated the hip in a fall earlier this month, there are four seemingly prime contenders:
•Gracie Gold, 17, last year's national junior champion whose senior Grand Prix debut was rocky. Gold came back to finish second in her next Grand Prix event.
"Getting second was a big confidence boost," she said. "I had put a lot of pressure on myself earlier this season, which was unnecessary."
•Agnes Zawadzki, 18, third at last year's nationals.
•Harvard freshman Christina Gao, 18, who put aside thoughts of retirement to become the second-highest U.S. finisher in the overall Grand Prix standings but wound up last in the Grand Prix Final.
•Mirai Nagasu, 19, who has shown little evidence of being able to regain the skills that got her fourth in the 2010 OIympics.
After defending Olympic champion Evan Lysacek and three-time U.S. champion Johnny Weir pulled out of nationals with injuries, a potentially exciting men's event lost most of its appeal.
U.S. men have generally been such stumblebums internationally since Lysacek won worlds in 2009 that there has been undue enthusiasm over one good recent performance by Ross Miner — in the long program at the Grand Prix event in Japan.
Miner, 22 on Thursday, thinks he should already have been taken more seriously for finishing third at the past two nationals, no matter that he was 11th in his lone world appearance (2011).
"I'm proud I showed everyone [at the 2012 nationals] I'm not a fluke," Miner said. "I'm here to stay."
Miner would seem the likeliest bet for second this year, given Rippon's awful skating on the Grand Prix circuit last fall. A longshot? Joshua Farris, 18, second at the 2012 junior worlds but only 16th at last year's nationals.
U.S. pairs have been mediocre for a decade, but this year looks like a nadir even by that weak standard. The top three teams from last year's nationals all are absent: two ended their partnerships, and the defending champs, second-year partners Caydee Denney and John Coughlin, withdrew because he needed hip surgery.
How bad is it? Only two pairs in the field at nationals have achieved the minimum score for worlds.
It's not all doom and gloom. Barring injury, Meryl Davis and Charlie White will be deserving winners of a fifth straight ice dance title and the only certain U.S. medal at worlds, where they have gone silver-gold-silver the past three years.