The 2018 World Cup kicks off in 1,437 days, and between now and then Jurgen Klinsmann will evaluate hundreds of players across multiple competitions. Here's a glimpse into the future of American soccer.
SO WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
July 03, 2014
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After the United States national team’s dramatic but disappointing exit in the Round of 16, where does the team go from here? Who likely won’t be part of the team in four years, which stars will take their place, and in what competitions will Jurgen Klinsmann evaluate them?
The last question is the easiest to answer. If fans enjoy seeing their boys in red, white and blue as much as they seemed to during the World Cup, they’re in luck. The calendar is already full.
First there is the biennial CONCACAF Gold Cup in 2015. Playing Honduras and Trinidad ain’t the same as facing Portugal and Belgium, but these games matter. They’re important for the FIFA rankings that help determine the World Cup draw and they are key gauges for player evaluation. And they often give the U.S. a chance for another head-to-head game with Mexico, which is never a bad thing.
And because the U.S. already won the 2013 Gold Cup, it can guarantee passage to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia if it wins the 2015 Gold Cup. (If the U.S. does not win in 2015 it would engage in a playoff with the 2015 winner.)
The Confederations Cup features reigning champions of the six FIFA confederations plus the host and the team that wins this World Cup in Brazil. The U.S. had a memorable run in 2009 when it beat Spain to make the final—where it lost to Brazil—and the competition is a rare chance for the U.S. to get some games with a trophy on the line against elite competition like it will see in the World Cup.
Then there’s the Copa America Centenario, the event the U.S. is hosting in 2016 to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the South American confederation. It’s a blatant cash grab on the part of CONCACAF and its South American counterpart, CONMEBOL, but it’s also a 16-team tournament that will give the U.S. a chance to play tournament games against South American teams—and names like Neymar, Lionel Messi, and Luis Suarez.
And if all that weren’t enough, assuming the U.S. qualifies, there’s also the 2016 Olympics, which for men’s soccer is an under-23 event (in this case, players born after Dec. 31, 1992) for which World Cup starlets DeAndre Yedlin
, Jonathan Brooks, and Julian Green are age-eligible.
And, oh yeah, the 16 games of World Cup qualifying start in 2016. And there will be plenty of tasty friendlies along the way, too, as Klinsmann continues to challenge his team against elite competition. In short, there are going to be a lot of games, most of them with something on the line, between next summer and the end of qualifying, and it will be fascinating to see how Klinsmann handles the player pool and weeds out players from the team in Brazil and adds different and sometimes new components.
Often players bow out or are dropped from national team contention after a World Cup. Either they say their bodies are too old for the stress of extra games and travel at the international level, or the national team coach doesn’t see them as part of the picture for the next World Cup and focuses the playing opportunities on younger players.
However, the Copa America is such a unique event, especially since the U.S. is hosting it, that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see players like Tim Howard (35), Jermaine Jones (32), Clint Dempsey (31), DaMarcus Beasley (32), and even Landon Donovan (32) using the tournament as a send-off series of sorts. Aside from giving the players one last moment in the spotlight—which frankly they, especially Donovan, deserve—it also lets Klinsmann blend their experience with the newcomers he’ll be leaning heavily on in Russia.
Whether it plays out like that remains to be seen. It could be there’s no send-off at all and Klinsmann wants to start fresh. At 32 (and a-half, if you want to quibble) Jones and Brad Davis were the oldest field player on this year’s World Cup team and it will be a surprise if any field player older than that is on the roster in four years.
Father Time, as the cliché goes, is undefeated and that means at some point before the next World Cup stalwarts like Dempsey, Howard, and Beasley will most likely play their last games in a U.S. uniform—if they haven’t already.
They could prove us all wrong—Brian McBride started for the U.S. at 34 in 2006—but for the purposes of this discussion we’re going to assume that 32 is the cutoff for realistic inclusion on the 2018 roster.
Further, being in your mid-20s—like Omar Gonzalez (25), Matt Besler (27) and Alejandro Bedoya (27) are now—doesn’t guarantee the players on the roster in Brazil a seat on the plane to Russia in four years. Just ask Maurice Edu (28), Ricardo Clark (31), and Stuart Holden (28), all of whom played for the U.S. four years ago in South Africa but watched on TV with the rest of us this year.
So who takes their place?
That’s the $1 million question, and projecting isn’t as simple as looking at the current U-20 pool or the top players under 23 in MLS. After all, four years ago who would have guessed that Kyle Beckerman would start three World Cup games in Brazil, or that Davis and Chris Wondolowski would be World Cup debutants at 32 and 31?
Playing well at the club level goes a long way in helping your national team chances so solid club players on the fringe of the national team pool now like Tim Ream
(26), Edgar Castillo
(28), and Eric Lichai
(25) could all re-emerge.
There’s also a solid cadre of players in their early-to-mid 20s who have gotten little or no looks with the national team who are grinding away in MLS or teams abroad who should merit a look. Amobi Okugo
(23) of Philadelphia, D.C. United’s Perry Kitchen (22), the Impact’s Jack McInerney
(21), Will Bruin
(24) of Houston, the Rapids' Chris Klute
(25), and Andrew Wooten (24) of Kaiserslautern all come to mind, but there are many others.
And then there are the current youth national team stars, many of whom are projected to star for the senior team some day. But whether the likes of Junior Flores
(18) and Rubio Rubin
(18), attacking players who recently signed with Dortmund and Utrecht respectively, are part of the pool for the coming cycle will depend on how quickly they earn first-team minutes.
It should be noted that it’s just as likely an anonymous player currently toiling in college soccer or some reserve team emerges over the next four years as a youth national team player.
Howard’s monster showing against Belgium belies his age, but 39, which he’ll be in four years, is old, even for a goalkeeper. Nick Rimando is the same age and right now he’s the best goalkeeper in MLS. So clearly these guys can still play. But four years is a long time.
The more likely scenario is Brad Guzan
, currently 29, moves up to the starter’s role... and after that things are wide open.
Besides Guzan, the Fire’s Sean Johnson (25, 4 caps) and D.C. United’s Bill Hamid (23, 1) are the only American GKs under 30 who have a cap to their name. That makes them frontrunners to be Guzan’s understudy but they could be pushed by an eclectic mix of net-minders that includes the Crew’s Steve Clark (28); Houston’s Tally Hall (29); New York Red Bull’s Luis Robles (30); Chris Seitz (27) of FC Dallas; Clint Irwin (25) of Colorado; Southampton’s Cody Cropper (21), the starter for the U.S. at last year’s Under 20 World Cup; and William Yarbrough (25), a son of American ex-pats who was born and raised in Mexico and has led Leon to a pair of Liga MX titles.
The best of the bunch, however, might be Zack Steffen (19), a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland from the Philadelphia Union academy who is the No. 1 goalkeeper for the current U-20 national team. He plays like a young Tim Howard, though he may be too young to be a factor in this cycle.
With the exception of Beasley, every defender on the U.S. roster in Brazil is young enough to be in contention for the 2018 cycle. (Geoff Cameron, who turns 29 next week, will likely be among the oldest contenders in 2018.) Still, there are plenty of players who can push them. Birmingham City’s Will Packwood
(21), a six-foot-three centerback who overcame a horrific knee injury to become a first-team regular last season, is age-eligible for the Olympics and should push Besler, Gonzalez, and Brooks for minutes with the senior national team very soon.
Okugo could also be a factor here though he’s just as likely to see time as a holding midfielder, where he splits time at the club level.
A player to watch is Ream, who has struggled at times in a U.S. uniform with physical play but is coming off a season in which he was Bolton’s player of the year in the rough-and-tumble English Championship. Besler didn’t make his national team debut till he was a few days shy of 26 and fellow solid MLS contributors like Dallas’ Matt Hedges
(24) and Salt Lake’s Chris Schuler
(26) could follow a path blazed by Jimmy Conrad and Jay DeMerit: late-blooming American center backs who went on to national team success.
emerged as one of the U.S.’s top players and has shown he can play any of the four flank positions equally well. And Yedlin, the revelation of the World Cup for U.S. fans, will allow Klinsmann to use Johnson’s versatility while Timothy Chandler will likely be a factor at both fullback spots as well.
After that? Two left side specialists, Klute and Tijuana’s Greg Garza
, (22) have shown enough at the club level to warrant consideration for the national team and Salt Lake’s Tony Beltran (26) and Lichai could be factors on the right.
Replacing Jones and Beckerman to play behind—or alongside—Michael Bradley
(26) in central midfield will be one of the biggest issues facing this team going forward. Edu is a strong candidate to re-emerge for this roll. So could Holden, if he finds a way to avoid injury.
Reading’s Danny Williams
(25), who has gotten a handful of caps already, is a strong candidate. Klinsmann has tried to utilize his athleticism on the flank but that experiment went poorly. If Williams is to have a future with the U.S., it’s likely as a holding mid, where his take-no-prisoners approach to defending will come in handy.
Okugo could also factor here while other players who have earned a look with solid MLS play are Kitchen, a grinder in the Beckerman mold, and Columbus’ Wil Trapp
(21), a heady two-way player who has the feel of a younger Michael Bradley. And let’s not forget Colorado’s Dillon Powers (23), the reigning MLS Rookie of the Year.
If Klinsmann ever puts his money where his mouth is and commits to having more attack-oriented central mids on the field, then we could see an expanded role for Mix Diskerud
(23), who went unused in Brazil. He could be pushed for that role by Luis Gil
(20) of Salt Lake and New England’s Kelyn Rowe (22) or Lee Nguyen (27). Don’t sleep on Fire rookie Harrison Shipp (22), a natural playmaker who has great vision but needs to get stronger.
Rarely has a U.S. player pool had this much creativity available at central midfield, and it would be disappointing, especially after all the talk about playing “proactive football,” to not utilize more of these types.
If this World Cup showed us anything, it’s that the U.S. attack is at its best when it pushes with pace up the flanks. Often that was left to the backs, as Graham Zusi (27) and Bedoya, while doing a lot of under-appreciated grunt work, offered little in the way of playmaking from wide midfield spots. This reality was a big reason why Yedlin was such an effective weapon and why we’ll likely see him playing midfield a lot in front of Johnson this cycle. While players with Yedlin’s wheels are few and far between, there are available flank players who would be an upgrade.
Zusi, Bedoya, and Tijuana’s Joe Corona (23), one of the final cuts in May, will still be part of the next cycle. But don’t be surprised to see Castillo get a chance here on the left. He’s been tried as a back and that, to be polite, hasn’t gone well as Castillo is a turnstile on defense. But going forward, he brings a pace and skill combo few Americans can match, especially on the left. He has too much to offer for Klinsmannn not to figure out a way to utilize it.
Before he blew out his knee last year, Molde’s Josh Gatt
(22) had shown similar pace and skill both in Norway and with the U.S. national team. If he can make a complete recovery, he should be a real factor on the flank.
And despite a penchant for being a Grade A knucklehead, Brek Shea (24) is a Klinsmann favorite who has shown he can contribute to the national team against lesser opponents. If he can ever get out of his own way off the field, he could be a factor here, too, though until his professionalism improves it’s probably best not to count on him as a contributor.
A year ago Tijuana’s Paul Arriola (19) had just finished high school and weeks later he was debuting in Liga MX. He has a lot left to learn but he has a great combination of pace and skill that will be tough for Klinsmann to ignore. In England, Duane Holmes
(19) burst on to the scene at Huddersfield last season with a combination of Yedlinesque hair and speed (and some skill).
Like Yedlin, Holmes, Castillo, Shea, Gatt and Arriola bring an explosiveness that puts opposing defenders on the back heel and leads to the kinds of chances the U.S. usually relies on to create shots.
Up top, the U.S. has a solid foundation in Jozy Altidore
(24) and Aron Johannsson
(23), which is good because the national team’s two leading all-time scorers, Dempsey and Donovan, are likely to be phased out. One thing this World Cup showed us is how vital a target forward is for the U.S. to maintain possession, as they struggled to do so when Altidore went down so early in the tournament.
To that end, expect Terrence Boyd
(23), one of the last players cut from the team that went to Brazil, to have a much bigger role the next four years. The six-foot-three Bruin may push him.
And if Klinsmann wants a really big body as a target, there’s Ben Spencer
(19), a six-foot-five forward on loan to the NASL’s Indy Eleven from Molde in Norway. He is raw but he’s shown with the U-20s that he plays big and can still score goals. By the time rosters are named for Russia he will potentially have played in the U20 World Cup and Olympics while having five seasons of pro experience. The U.S. has never had a forward as big and physically imposing as Spencer—at any level.
As for playing off the target forwards, Green, who scored a goal in his World Cup cameo, could be the guy. He can also play as a wide midfielder. Hannover-bound Juan Agudelo
(21) should be a factor and McInerney has shown a poacher’s knack for scoring in MLS but needs to be given a shot to show he can do that at the international level.
And there are the passport players, either dual-citizens living abroad or foreign-born players in MLS who could be in the mix pending either choosing to switch to the U.S. or obtaining a U.S. passport. Or both, which is the case of Arsenal central midfielder Gedion Zelalem
(17 – seventeen!) who has already made his first-team debut. Born in Germany, he lived in the U.S. for six years before leaving for the Gunners and his father is reportedly on the verge of American citizenship, which would make his son eligible for the U.S. providing the father is sworn in before the son turns 18 in January.
Augsburg's Shawn Parker (21), yet another soccer-playing son of an American serviceman in Germany, is capable of playing forward or on the flank. He’s provisionally cap-tied to Germany but is on Klinsmann’s radar for a one-time national team switch. Blackburn fullback Adam Henley (20) was born in Tennessee but raised in the United Kingdom and is provisionally cap-tied to Wales.
In MLS, attackers Darlington Nagbe (23) and Steve Zakuani (26) of Portland and Vancouver’s Kekuta Manneh (19) are close to U.S. citizenship, while despite his Boston accent New England’s Diego Fagundez (19) is a long shot to get processed before 2018. Manneh has explosive pace while Nagbe and Fagundez offer a nice combination of creativity and goal-scoring acumen that could allow them to play several attacking positions.
Again, these are really just guesses at this point—educated guesses, yes, but so much can happen between injuries, players losing form with their clubs, coaches changing what they want and the emergence of the unknown that it’s a fool’s errand to try and predict the player pool in pen and not pencil.
Regardless, what is known is that despite the likely loss of some of the best players to have ever worn a U.S. national team jersey, plenty of viable and perhaps even better replacements are available to the United States—even if we don’t know who they all are right now.
Brooke Tunstall, a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft, is an ASN contributing editor. Follow him on Twitter.