Let's step away from the present – you're welcome – and focus, for a bit, on the future. We are all in need of a good, solid daydream under sunny skies, right?
So into the time machine we go, forward more than two years, all the way to late autumn of 2022. We are now going to daydream about the next World Cup.
And when I say "we," I mean US men's national team fans (Canada fans, I promise I will get to you with this exercise at a future date). We are daydreaming of a world in which Gregg Berhalter's guided his team through Concacaf and to Qatar, a world in which the failures of 2018 qualifying informed the successes of 2022.
The US won. They made it through the Hexagonal and made the World Cup again. People celebrated. I might've had a Heineken or two on the postgame show. I doubt my analysis was coherent.
But now we're at the event itself. In this near-perfect world – and I'm going to stay within the realm of what I deem to be plausible, so it's only "near-perfect" and not actually perfect – here is what the team looks like, including some players who will switch clubs and move upward:
Zack Steffen, Manchester City; Matt Turner, New England Revolution; David Ochoa, Real Salt Lake
There are Steffen skeptics out there, and I'll admit to being one of them. Whether it's been in MLS or thus far in the Bundesliga, the underlying numbers* don't love him and he's developing a pretty good reel of conceding saveable goals in big moments (the 2018 MLS playoffs against the Red Bulls come to mind). I feel less sure about Steffen than I did about, say, Brad Guzan at a similar age.
(*)I am a big believer in the numbers, but 1) not to the exclusion of any/everything else, and 2) underlying GK numbers are even more of a work in progress than other advanced analytics. Still, when they match up with what I'm seeing with my own eyes, I tend to trust them.
But even the skeptics – myself included – will happily admit Steffen is incredibly gifted and looks to have worked incredibly hard to improve his feet, which are now an active strength of his. I do not expect him to actually break into Manchester City, ever. But it absolutely is a possibility, and since we're doing some Blue Sky daydreaming, here he is two years from now in sky blue and wearing the No. 1 kit for the US.
Yeah, he can be that guy.
The underlying numbers, meanwhile, love Turner. Through 48 games with the Revs his shot-stopping prowess registers as just shy of "that's impossible," and he's managed that by being just relentlessly mistake free. Turner still needs to work on his feet and his command of the box, but "he keeps the ball out of the net" is a great starting point for any goalkeeper.
So in this scenario, the underlying numbers about Steffen are lying a bit, while when it comes to Turner they're telling the truth.
Given our Nos. 1 & 2 goalkeepers are in their primes, Berhalter can use that third spot to look to the future. Ochoa, who was in goal last autumn for Real Monarchs as they won the USL-Championship title as an 18-year-old, will be RSL's starting 'keeper by 2022 as a 21-year-old. There are other good, young 'keepers in the US pool, and predicting youth development is always a crapshoot. But for my money, Ochoa's got the highest upside and clearest path to first-team minutes.
Sergino Dest, Bayern Munich; Reggie Cannon, Schalke 04
Dest still needs to work on his defending. He struggled with anything in the air at last year's U-20 World Cup, and Tecatito Corona turned him into an orange cone in his US debut, and his teammates at Ajax had been demonstrably less than thrilled with his effort and awareness on that side of the ball in early 2020, before the Evedivisie season was suspended.
Look, we all saw what Dest was able to do against Alphonso Davies last November when he was locked in and focused on his 1v1 defending, and when I say "we all saw" I'm including Bayern Munich in that, because Bayern almost immediately began registering interest in the aftermath of that performance. Obviously said interest was reciprocated.
Just as obviously it almost doesn't matter if Dest improves defensively or not for the US's purposes because, as both a possession hub and an attacking threat, he is head-and-shoulders above every other fullback in the pool. Full stop.
That includes Cannon, who's been doing stuff like this for club and country for a while:
Don't forget when the USMNT needed someone to make a decisive attacking play against the full, senior Costa Rica roster this past February, it was Cannon who got forward on the overlap and drew a penalty. Don't forget it was Cannon who executed those overlaps so well during last summer's Gold Cup, creating dynamic dominance out of the positional dominance Berhalter's system is built for.
Like Dest he still has occasional "that's a young defender" moments, but his linear progress since turning pro in 2017 has been remarkable. I have him moving to Schalke because 1) Schalke know a thing or two about Americans; 2) they have just one RB on the current roster (Jonjoe Kenny), and he's there on loan, and 3) I think Cannon tops out as a Schalke-level player.
I don't think it's unlikely Dest ends up starting as an inverted LB with Cannon at RB as a way of getting them both on the field.
John Brooks, VfL Wolfsburg; Miles Robinson, Atlanta United; Aaron Long, West Ham United; Chris Richards, Bayern Munich
Brooks, when healthy, offers a combination of experience, distribution, size and athleticism no other defender in the pool can match. In this perfect daydream of ours, Brooks stays healthy, stays with Wolfsburg, stays in the lineup there, and stays written-in-pen for Berhalter at left center back. We can even daydream as he hits his late 20s, he dispenses with a propensity for losing his first physical duel of the game (yes, it's a thing).
As for Robinson, remember what folks were saying last year at this time?
He did, in fact, have a big year for Atlanta United, and earned himself a big contract, and will hopefully have many more big years in the future. They might all be with Atlanta (remember that Eddie Pope, the best center back in USMNT history, played his whole career in MLS), or they might be with a big European club. The Five Stripes explicitly want to move their young talent on, so nobody should be shocked if Robinson crosses an ocean sometimes in the next 24 months.
But he hasn't publicly expressed the desire to do so in the way that Cannon has, so for the purposes of this exercise he's with Atlanta.
West Ham, of course, have seemed very interested in acquiring Long's services, and Long, of course, has seemed to reciprocate. Long has shown well for the US over the past several years. In addition to all the usual defensive stuff you'd expect out of a CB, he's a monster threat on set pieces and is a better passer than he's usually asked to show for RBNY.
I'm not sure he'd get too many chances to show that with West Ham. I'm ok with that with the third guy on the CB depth chart, though.
And for the purposes of this exercise, Richards is with Bayern Munich despite the up-and-down past 10 months he just had himself in the German third tier. As it stands he's probably further from the Bayern first team than he was in August, so let's say, come 2022, he's returning to Bavaria after a productive loan stint with, I don't know, Paderborn or some such club of that level.
Richards can be good enough to play for the Bayern first team some day. In this version of reality, he's on the verge of breaking through, and earns himself a trip to Qatar for his efforts.
Other considerations:Mark McKenzie (TSG Hoffenheim), Matt Miazga (Reading), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), Aboubacar Keita (Columbus Crew), Justen Glad (RSL), Erik Palmer-Brown (Austria Wien), Mauricio Pineda (Chicago Fire)
Antonee Robinson, AC Milan; Sam Vines, Colorado Rapids
I was as surprised as anyone AC Milan were trying to sign Robinson this past winter, but they really, really were. And let's hope the heart abnormality they discovered during the physical is something that will be handled in its entirety over the next few months, and that, sooner rather than later, Robinson actually will get that move to the Rossoneri.
Vines kind of snuck onto the scene in 2019 as a lockdown defender who scrambled exceptionally well, but didn't really add too much going forward, save for the occasional nice diagonal. In 2020 he showed "oh wow, I didn't know he had that" on-the-ball technique for club and country. If you can give the ball to your fullbacks under duress and they can get out of it, then your team is suddenly very, very difficult to press.
But this right here is the good stuff:
Modern fullbacks have to be able to make progressive passes. Modern fullbacks in Berhalter's system have to be able to make this progressive pass in particular.
I think there's a really good chance Vines is a much better player than literally anyone realized 18 months ago. In this reality, the 2022 World Cup is his last act with the Rapids before being sold for many millions of dollars to, let's say, Hertha Berlin.
Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig; Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes
Berhalter has said Adams' next cap, whenever that happens to be, will come in midfield. But he pointedly pushed back on the notion it would be as the No. 6, the tempo-setting, quarterbacking defensive midfielder (though it should be noted he didn't use those words).
I get it. Adams' biggest strength as a soccer player is still his ability to absolutely destroy whatever the opposing team is trying to do, not organize what his own team is trying to do. This is from two years ago, but this is still who Adams is:
In this perfect world, however, he spends the next 30 months healthy and grows fully into the Makelele role as both a destroyer and a distributor. And if that's the case, maybe the team should be Liverpool or Manchester City instead of RB Leipzig.
2019 finally provided us a taste of what Yueill could do for both club and country, as he pretty regularly flashed those game-management skills while adding defensive workrate and knowhow to his game (as well as sharpening his elbows. Defensive midfielders have to take every opportunity they can to inflict pain – Ozzie Alonso, Diego Chara, Kyle Beckerman, Gustav Svensson, Jeff Larentowicz... these guys don't let you run through their neighborhood without leaving a mark).
Plus I just love this:
Other considerations: Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Dusseldorf), Frankie Amaya (FC Cincinnati), Brandon Servania (FC Dallas), James Sands (NYCFC), Christian Cappis (FC Copenhagen), Chris Durkin (Anderlecht)
Weston McKennie, Schalke 04; Paxton Pomykal, Bayer Leverkusen
We started to see, under David Wagner in 2019/20, a more responsible and calculating version of McKennie. His biggest strength as a player had always been his unbridled, almost effervescent on-field enthusiasm – he might be the all-time USMNT Body Language World Champion, up there with Pablo Mastroeni and Frankie Hejduk. McKennie's just always up for it, which is a fantastic building block and should, in theory, make for a fantastic player when you wed it to plus athleticism, plus vision and a really nicely honed instinct for late-arriving runs into the box.
But under previous managers, McKennie was as likely to run himself out of a play as he was to run himself into the right spot. He also struggled early in Berhalter's system, finding too little of the ball to run the show as the No. 8.
That started to change around October, and come January it looked like McKennie had started to reach a new level as a player. There were fewer headlong charges into challenges he couldn't win (which has the added benefit of reducing the number of "oh crap, he's gonna injure himself" moments per match, which in general is way too high) and many more instances of smart positional play. Sometimes he was even just functioning as a link man rather than a raging, try-to-run-everywhere-at-once ball of fire.
Maybe it wasn't Wagner's work. Maybe McKennie figured it out himself, or maybe all it took was reps. Any way you slice it, about the last dozen or so games McKennie played before the Bundesliga suspension, he was finding the ball more and doing more good things with it. He looked like a starting No. 8 for a Champions League-caliber, Bundesliga team. Which, y'know, he actually is.
This was the best game I've seen him play as a pro:
If he starts hitting this level regularly, Schalke will build the team around him. Or, because they're Schalke, they will accidentally let him go to a bigger club for free.
FC Dallas are not going to let Pomykal go for free, but those who think the fat new contract he signed this winter means they won't be letting him go at all are wrong (as they are about Cannon). Just from a cap math standpoint, the new contracts make teams more likely to sell these players since they are no longer incredible bargains.
Anyway, I picked Bayer Leverkusen's name out of a hat, kind of (they were scouting MLS games last year, but I'm not sure for whom). And yes, I think when Pomykal moves to Europe he'll walk directly into whichever team's starting XI, just as Adams did.
Brenden Aaronson, RB Leipzig; Richie Ledezma, PSV Eindhoven
I did not load up on Aaronson stock last year, when I should have:
He didn't make defensive plays like that last year. He did this year, as a 19-year-old, against one of the very best teams in the region. He isn't a Pomykal or McKennie-level athlete, but he doesn't appear to be at an athletic disadvantage in the blender against the likes of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing et al. If this is what we were going to get out of Aaronson at age 19, then I have no qualms about sending him to Leipzig 18 months from now – especially given Ernst Tanner's connections.
Ledezma still has to grow into his body and make the defensive leap Aaronson seems to have pulled off, but PSV are betting he'll be able to do it, and I'm going to bet they're right.
In this world he is PSV's starting No. 10 because Mohamed Ihattaren has been sold for, like, $50 million to Barcelona.
Do we try to conjure a world where these two guys share the field together? Perhaps! Or perhaps neither of them start because the three-man CM of Adams/McKennie/Pomykal is so good on both sides of the ball you can't justify going with a different lineup.
Just because it's a daydream doesn't mean there won't be hard decisions to make!
Christian Pulisic, Chelsea; Tim Weah, Lille; Jordan Morris, Seattle Sounders; Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund
Remember when Christian Pulisic was sold for $70 million, and then took two months to break into the Chelsea lineup and everybody was freaking out? And then remember how he finally broke into the Chelsea lineup and was probably their best player for a solid eight weeks before getting injured?
Christian Pulisic did not score or assist a goal. He made just 19 passes and saw far less of the ball than the busy Willian on the opposite flank.And in many ways this has always been the major criticism of him: that for a player of such natural gifts he is rarely as straightforwardly impactful as he should be. But here he demonstrated what he does best: running a game without – for the most part – appearing to do much of interest at all.Partly, of course, this is simply the nature of the creative midfielder. The creator needs to play on the off-beats, to feel the game on a different wavelength from everyone else. In the modern game this is a doubly difficult task, because as well as attacking to a syncopated rhythm, the creator is also usually required to defend to a conventional one.
There's been exactly one American who's ever been the recipient of that kind of praise after a Champions League game. In this version of the world, that's the Pulisic Chelsea get just about every weekend, and that's the Pulisic the USMNT get on international dates, and THERE ARE NO INJURIES!!! Please, we've had enough.
Speaking of injuries, let's talk about Tim Weah. Actually, no: let's watch Tim Weah play soccer for a minute, since most of us haven't seen much of that since last spring:
Weah was sold to Lille for $10 million last summer. He got hurt in mid-August. He came back in mid-February and played 10 minutes... and got hurt again.
He is still awesome. He is still a kid who was a $10 million, Champions League-level winger as a teenager. By November of 2022 he is a starter for my USMNT.
No disrespect intended for Morris, who just had one of the most productive years of any attacker in USMNT history, and plays for the club that literally invented soccer. He's so, so much better going to his left than I ever thought he would be and remains, other than Landon Donovan, probably the best breakaway finisher the US has ever produced. As long as Morris is healthy and playing like he has been, then it will be difficult to pass him.
Weah has the talent to do so, and Pulisic is already No. 1 on the entire depth chart.
Reyna could challenge either or both, and based upon the 180-minute sized sample of him playing for Borussia Dortmund's first team, maybe I'm underselling his chances here. He is probably the smoothest player on the ball in the entire pool, possessed of an absolute liquid grace when receiving between the lines, and is able to square up and beat a defender or simply glide away from pressure with a feint and a touch. He is brave, he is athletic, fearless and more than just a little bit mean and arrogant. I have written before his upside is "Clint Dempsey, but a much better athlete" and I stand by that.
I am still not convinced he breaks lines often enough (read: at all) with his passing or with his movement off the ball. That blurb about Pulisic? Reyna is the opposite of that, the kind of player who really only affects a game when it's playing through him. But play him inside as a No. 10 and the game bogs down, as we saw time and again for the USYNT.
Even in a daydream, I have trouble seeing past Reyna's flaws. To be honest, I almost left him off the roster in favor of Uly Llanez.
He is 17, though. Let's hope in two years we can look at the above and regard it as the three dumbest paragraphs I've ever written. That is entirely plausible.
Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen); Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas)
Jozy Altidore is still, currently, the best center forward in the US pool and Gyasi Zardes, when the chips were down last autumn, got the start and delivered. But Jozy's going to be 33 by the time of Qatar 2022, and while it's possible he's healthy and hungry and ready to finally have a monstrous, injury-free tournament, it doesn't feel entirely plausible, does it?
Gyasi's going to be 31, and here's a secret: He's been pretty productive in his USMNT career when played at center forward, scoring about .45 goals per 90. It is not his fault that the vast, vast majority of his caps before the Berhalter era came out position. Gyasi should not be a meme (though the face goal should be).
But in a daydream scenario, this is Sargent's job, right? He actually has started four of the past five USMNT games, and he's been productive. He has struggled for Werder Bremen this year, but everybody has struggled for Werder Bremen this year. I was actually hoping they'd go down to the 2. Bundesliga so he could get his confidence up with a (hopefully) 20+ goal season at a lower level.
And that's what happens in this universe. Sargent goes down, has to scrap, drags Werder back up, and proves he's not only the best No. 9 in the USMNT pool, but he's the type of No. 9 who can lead a successful Bundesliga team. He's not going to be Robert Lewandowski, but how about Vedad Ibisevic? Still on the table, right?
I don't think I'm totally in the clouds hoping for that kind of career progression from Sargent.
As for Pepi, it is more than plausible he's FC Dallas's starting No. 9 by the start of 2022. I'd go so far as to say it's likely. And I think, given his talent, it's likely he's productive. Here's what he did in his pro debut as a 16-year-old a year-and-a-week ago:
A month ago, at age 17, he scored his first MLS goal – the equalizer in Dallas's come-from-behind draw against Montreal. So far he has 12g/2a in 1355 professional minutes, and he's scored those goals in a variety of ways.
I don't think he's as smooth on the turn or as natural a link-up forward as Sargent is, but he might be a better, hungrier goal-scorer. And if that's the case, he's got better than a puncher's chance of being on this team.
This was fun, and cathartic, and I hope it distracted you at least for a little bit. This world of ours is in some bad times right now, but this too shall pass. And when it does, soccer will be back – and there will be a World Cup to look forward to.