U.S. Youth Development

10 MLS Players Who Might Matter in 2018 World Cup

The under-23 national team missed the Olympics, but the under-20s punched their ticket to the U-20 World Cup. Stars of both teams will be suiting up for the full team starting next cycle—but which ones?
BY Liviu Bird Posted
February 27, 2013
12:00 PM
THE UNITED STATES' QUALIFICATION for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup has fans and experts alike looking to the future of the national team program. On the squad for the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship are several players who could make a big splash on the senior level two World Cups from now.

Add into the mix those players who are slightly older than 20, and although it is very early, a picture emerges of who could be in uniform to kick off the Russian World Cup in 2018.

Following up on our list of 10 MLS players who might matter for Brazil 2014, here are 10 players in the league who could be taking over from Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, and Clint Dempsey in 2018.

Honorable Mention: Danny Mwanga (Portland Timbers)

The only reason Danny Mwanga is just an honorable mention is because the U.S. national team programs have largely ignored him so far. Mwanga could represent his native Democratic Republic of Congo or the United States, making him one of many players with dual possibilities in this global soccer age.

He has skill in spades, and they have been on full display since he entered Major League Soccer with the Philadelphia Union in 2010. Now, under Caleb Porter with the Portland Timbers, Mwanga will be under one of the best coaches of young players the country has to offer. If Jurgen Klinsmann doesn’t have Mwanga’s number in his phone already, the dynamic attacking midfielder could be at the top of his wish list by the end of this MLS season.

10. Mikey Lopez (Sporting Kansas City)

Keep an eye on Sporting Kansas City’s first-round pick in the 2013 SuperDraft. Mikey Lopez is an incisive, creative midfielder that picked apart defenses for the University of North Carolina before signing a Generation Adidas contract with MLS.

Lopez is also on the American under-20 roster for the CONCACAF Championship. He picked up two yellow cards in the two group matches and was forced to sit out the decisive quarterfinal match against Canada, but he is far from the next Jermaine Jones.

A more apt comparison would be to Michael Bradley. Lopez plays the holding role in midfield, and once he learns to become more dangerous going forward in any situation, his vision, and finishing ability around the penalty area could rival Bradley’s.

9. Jose Villarreal (Los Angeles Galaxy)

Learning from Landon Donovan, David Beckham, and Robbie Keane in the Los Angeles Galaxy attack seems to have paid off for Jose Villarreal. He has three goals to his name in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship so far, including two in Tuesday’s 4-2 win over Canada that sent the team to the Under-20 World Cup.

The 19-year-old Galaxy Academy product scored two goals in 12 appearances in all competitions last season. It only took him two games to score his first professional goal, a stunning strike to secure a late 2-2 tie in Vancouver. That came three days after his MLS debut, a stoppage-time appearance coming on for Keane.

Villarreal is a quick learner, it seems. If he continues to improve at his current pace, a spot complementing Jozy Altidore’s hold-up play at forward awaits.

8. Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)

Kelyn Rowe was a revelation of skill and the most technical player on a struggling New England Revolution squad in 2012. The veteran of youth national team programs and Generation Adidas has not received a look with the full team yet, but he should soon if he continues improving his pinpoint passing ability.

Even as a wide player, Rowe has a strong ability to finish. He likes to get forward and make runs into the box. In his first season in MLS, he scored three goals and added five assists in 1,897 minutes.

For an in-depth look at his development, click here.

7. George John (FC Dallas)

George John has quietly been a top defender in MLS since he joined the league in 2009. Still just 25 years old, John could be at the forefront of a changing of the guard in the U.S. defense, which has already begun and will continue after the 2014 World Cup.

His decision-making with the ball at his feet could mark a transition to central defenders who are as good at initiating attacks as they are at defending them. As Carlos Bocanegra does now, John provides a viable and dangerous option in the penalty area on set pieces.

John went on a two-month loan to West Ham in 2012 that did not result in any first-team playing time, but he did get exposed to the hard-nosed brand of soccer in the English top flight. It could be right up his alley in the near future.

6. Jack McInerney (Philadelphia Union)

Straight out of high school, Jack McInerney was ready for MLS. He scored his first professional goal just over a month into his career, and he enjoyed his most successful year yet in 2012, scoring eight goals for a struggling Philadelphia Union side.

The most impressive thing about McInerney’s strike rate is that he can score in a variety of ways: placed shots, powerful shots, scrappy tap-ins, and the occasional header. As far as pure finishing goes, it doesn’t get much better, but his runs are smart as well.

At age 20, he is already entering his fourth season with the Philadelphia Union. He will have been a professional for nine years by the time Russia 2018 rolls around, but he will still be just 25 years old. Those are encouraging numbers.

5. Teal Bunbury (Sporting Kansas City)

An ACL tear in August will keep Teal Bunbury out of action for a while, but if the U.S. under-23 forward can make a strong comeback, he will be in contention for more time with the full team. He has four caps for the U.S., scoring a goal against Chile in 2011.

Bunbury is another of the foreign-born contingent eligible for an American jersey. He is Canadian, and he played for Canada at the under-17 and under-20 levels before switching allegiances in 2010 after being called up to the full American team.

He is another one of Caleb Porter’s products from the Akron factory of fine MLS players, playing on the 2009 NCAA Division I finalist Zips.

4. Amobi Okugo (Philadelphia Union)

A recent convert to center back, Amobi Okugo has shown versatility at an early stage of his professional career. He can also play as a holding midfielder, and he should be a part of that imminent American defensive revolution.

As a midfielder-turned-defender, he has the feet of a creator with the mind of a defender. Like George John, Okugo would represent a shift toward center backs with more attacking sense than their predecessors.

Despite a somewhat calm demeanor, Okugo is a big talker on the field and reads the game very well. This leadership could eventually lead to him wearing the captain’s armband for his country.

3. Will Bruin (Houston Dynamo)

Will Bruin tripled his goal count between his first and second MLS seasons with the Houston Dynamo, going from five in 2011 to 15 in 2012. He does what forwards are supposed to do: He scores a lot of goals.

It’s Bruin’s nose for goal and desire to get into good positions that sets him apart from the other forwards on this list. He is just a bit better than the others at both; his runs are intelligent and he is adept and finding gaps between defenders.

This intelligent running ability also makes him dangerous on set pieces, where space is limited and it is hard to hide. From the collegiate level to the professional game, Bruin has been able to adapt and excel. The international level could be next.

2. Sean Johnson (Chicago Fire) and Bill Hamid (D.C. United)

Questions surrounding the next generation of American goalkeepers have been loud and frequent. Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid have seemingly been tapped to replace Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, but their performances so far at the youth level have been less than satisfactory.

The 2012 CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament provided the chance for either player to solidify his spot as the heir to Howard, but neither was able to do so. At this point, it looks as though one of them will play a key role in 2018. Luckily for them, they have some time before then to figure it all out.

Both are young, especially by goalkeeping standards, and the only way to discern whether Johnson or Hamid is best prepared to take over is by giving both more opportunities in full national team games.

1. Luis Gil (Real Salt Lake)

Real Salt Lake has developed Luis Gil nicely so far, not rushing him along and following Klinsmann’s model of not treating young players like deities. The result: one of the most dynamic young American midfielders in the league.

In 2013 Gil will play a central part in RSL’s league campaign given the departure of Will Johnson. Following a spotty role in the first couple seasons after signing at age 16, Gil will be challenged more than he ever has been before—a wonderful opportunity.

His development to this point has been gradual, so if he doesn’t shine right away, it may just be a matter of time. For now, based on Gil’s role at his club and how much the national team system seems to like him, he is the brightest spot in the future of American soccer.

OK, we want to hear what you think now. Who did we miss? Who doesn't belong on this list? Tell us below, please.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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