I still don't believe there's a real silver lining to the USMNT missing the 2018 World Cup. You know what'd be better for Weston McKennie, Matt Miazga and Tyler Adams than playing a bunch of friendlies? Playing a bunch of pressure-packed games on the world's biggest stage. Now that won't happen.
But even in the face of catastrophic failure the world keeps spinning, and the next 12-to-18 months are about identifying a core group who can lead the US to a victory at the 2019 Gold Cup, and then start 2022 World Cup qualifying (which begins 23 months from now) on the right foot.
Thus, there will be a purge of some old hands – even those in good leagues, and in good form. It does the US no good as a program to see, for example, Geoff Cameron in a friendly over the next 18 months, as he will be 34 years old the next time the US plays a meaningful game. Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey are both likely done, barring testimonials. There are others on the way out.
Bear in mind, however, that the player pool of the next 12-to-18 months is not a prediction of what the player pool could or should be in 2022. If nothing else, this past failure of a cycle has to be a reminder that the first job, the job of actually qualifying for the damn thing, can never be taken for granted, and that the people in charge need to have a clear and understandable process for creating a "team." That means creating partnerships all over the field (but especially in central defense), a go-to if not "play it every time out" formation, and hopefully a locker room less fractured than the one that's been at the heart of USMNT dysfunction since 2011.
The good news? The kids are all right. The US are one of two teams to have made the quarterfinals of the last two U-20 World Cups – Portugal are the other – and success at the U-20 level has long been a predictor of success at the full national team level. The fact that the Yanks did it without a single minute from McKennie or Pulisic suggests that the talent pool is both wide and deep in a way it simply hadn't been in US history.
In other words, the investments made in youth development are starting to pay off(), and those are the players to build around going forward.
() No, I'm not saying everything is fixed. But the template at use in creating the likes of McKennie, Adams and Miazga can certainly be duplicated elsewhere and turbo-charged with continued success in the particular markets already doing good work.
With that in mind, here's the current USMNT depth chart/player pool as I see it:
- Bill Hamid (FC Midtjylland)
- Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC)
- Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas)
- Alex Bono (Toronto FC)
- Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)
- Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)
- Tim Melia (Sporting KC)
If we had to play a meaningful game right now, I'd still go with Guzan. And I won't bet large against the 33-year-old being the No. 1 choice come 2019, given the relative inconsistency of the other guys in the race.
But over the next year at the very least, I'd hope that the kids get much more time with the US than Guzan. We need to see if Steffen can build on his first year as a fulltime starter, and if Gonzalez can progress into the monster shot-stopper he often looks like, and if Hamid – still the most talented 'keeper in the pool – can make the leap as he enters his prime.
Bono is a cut below the first three guys in terms of raw shot-stopping ability, but he's been more consistent than any this year, and is out there winning trophies. That shouldn't be ignored.
• Waiting in the wings: Nobody in particular.
- Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire)
- Greg Garza (Atlanta United)
- Danilo Acosta (Real Salt Lake)
- Antonee Robinson (Bolton Wanderers)
- Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna)
I give Vincent the edge over Garza here because of he tops out as a better athlete – you can run away from Garza, as Shane Long showed so aptly a few years back – and because he's a few years younger.
Acosta and Robinson are younger still, as each is just 20 years old. Robinson is playing every week for a terrible Bolton squad, and Acosta is a potential game-breaker with is ability to distribute from the back:
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• Waiting in the wings:Marco Farfan (Portland)
- John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg)
- Matt Miazga (Vitesse Arnhem)
- Cameron Carter-Vickers (Sheffield United)
- Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake)
- Matt Besler (Sporting KC)
- Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls)
- Walker Zimmerman (FC Dallas)
- Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City)
I've been down on CCV over the years, but he's finally getting real playing time and he's making the most of it for the Blades. He's been better than I thought he would be, and he was just fine in a cameo yesterday, so as far as I'm concerned that's all the more reason to keep getting him minutes with the US.
Glad should obviously be one of the focal points of the January camp, as should Long and Zimmerman (despite Zimmerman cratering during the second half of the season).
Besler is one of the veterans I want to keep, as he was A) the best US player at Honduras, B) rock-solid vs. Panama and at T&T, and C) will be 32 in 2019, so it's not like he's past his peak.
If we're still using him in 2022, we're probably in trouble. If we're using him in the next Gold Cup and as a Brooks back-up in early qualifiers, I'm good with that.
• Waiting in the wings: I almost put EPB here given his unimpressive displays with Sporting down the stretch. We'll need to see how he does in Europe. We also need to see if Auston Trusty (Philadelphia Union) can start earning MLS minutes this year.
- DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
- Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls)
- Matt Polster (Chicago Fire)
- Shaq Moore (Levante)
- Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)
Adams might end up being a central midfielder instead, but for now I've got him here since he checks every box necessary to be an elite fullback, but isn't quite there (his first touch in traffic is wanting) to be an elite midfielder.
Polster proved to be a playmaker as a right back this year, and he competes like hell. The 21-year-old Moore is just starting to get meaningful minutes with Levante – it remains to be seen, of course, if that ends up being significant long-term. But if he keeps getting on the field for a La Liga team, he should certainly get on the field from time to time for the US.
Lima was very promising before an injury ended his season.
As with the list of left backs, many of these guys can/do play as wingbacks should the US end up going in a 3-5-2/5-3-2/5-4-1 direction in the future.
Waiting in the wings:Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United U-23s)
- Jonathan Gonzalez (CF Monterrey)
- Danny Williams (Huddersfield Town)
- Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
- Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)
- Russell Canouse (D.C. United)
- Caleb Stanko (SC Freiburg)
Gonzalez is the easy choice here, provided the US are able to keep him from committing to Mexico. Word is he's still rock-solid for the US, but El Tri are trying and I can't blame them – the kid is a prodigy. At age 18 he has locked down the toughest spot on the field for the best team in Liga MX.
Williams will be entering his 30s as the cycle really kicks off two years from now, which is fine. Bradley's a couple years older, and will almost certainly still be around at the start of the cycle.
From there, it's question marks. Trapp and Stanko have athletic limitations, and while Canouse is more gifted in that department, it's not yet clear whether he's a No. 6 or a No. 8.
• Waiting in the wings:Chris Durkin (D.C. United), James Sands (New York City FC)
Both these guys were awesome at the U-17 World Cup, but both played more at CB than d-mid.
- Weston McKennie (Schalke 04)
- Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
- Marky Delgado (Toronto FC)
- Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
- Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)
- Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union)
- Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers)
You could take the guys in slot Nos. 2-thru-5 and arrange them any way you like (and you could certainly list Lletget at other positions), and you'd have a good argument. I just went with my personal preference based upon what I've seen over the last couple of years.
Regardless, they're all, at this point, playing to win the job as McKennie's back-up:
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Maybe that changes as one or another finds a new level, or as McKennie turns into more of a true No. 6. But for now, these are the 8s.
Bedoya gets his spot here for the same reason Guzan, Besler and Bradley have held onto theirs.
• Waiting in the wings:Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes) turned into a real two-way player this year, at home both as a wingback and a central midfielder. He needs to win a starting job outright this season, though.
- Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund)
- Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)
There just aren't a lot of domestic No. 10s that get playing time, either at home or abroad. Pulisic is much more often used on the wing in Germany, I've got Rowe listed here even though he's rarely played as a 10 through his six-year professional career.
• Waiting in the wings:Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United), Emerson Hyndman (Bournemouth).
Yueill is much more of a "control the angles of the game and play attackers into space"-type of playmaker – a true midfielder – while Carleton is just a pure, inventive attacker. I'm high on both of them for different reasons.
As for Hyndman, it's not quite make-or-break for him just yet, but he's played all of three minutes across all competitions for the Cherries, and it's not like he's a kid anymore. The soon-to-be 22-year-old needs to go on loan as soon as the transfer window opens in January, and he needs to stay somewhere he can get on the field every week.
- Paul Arriola (D.C. United)
- Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
- Kenny Saief (KAA Gent)
- Lynden Gooch (Sunderland)
- Brooks Lennon (Real Salt Lake)
- Fabian Johnson (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
- Ethan Finlay (Minnesota United)
Lots of problematic stuff here, including the fact that I still don't know if Morris is best as a winger or a second forward or a center forward. And Saief is more of a pure midfielder, and Gooch hasn't played a ton for an unwatchably bad Sunderland team, and Johnson (who will be 31 come next Gold Cup) may not be interested in playing for the US anymore, anyway.
Lennon was good in his first year at the pro level, but is similar to Arriola in that his game is more about pace, commitment and two-way play than it is about true creativity. Both guys can use the space others create to good effect, but neither is the type who can/will break down a locked-in defense. Finlay is just an older version of that.
Bear in mind that either/both of Pulisic and Rowe could figure here, as could Lletget, as could a few of the forward options. But if the US are going to play a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3, the wings currently look a little thin.
• Waiting in the wings:Jonathan Lewis (NYCFC), Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro IK), Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
As I've said before, I have a lot of Lewis stock:
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Pomykal might be more of a No. 10 or even a No. 8 than a true winger, and Ferreira is more of a Mike Magee-esque "touch-and-move" type of attacker. Sabbi is just starting to get minutes in the Danish top tier, which is a good level.
None of those four guys is a regular yet, though. 2018 is a big year for all of them.
- Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution)
- Christian Ramirez (Minnesota United)
- C.J. Sapong (Philadelphia Union)
- Bobby Wood (Hamburg)
- Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
- Dom Dwyer (Orlando City)
- Haji Wright (SV Sandhausen)
You could argue this in any direction you want, really. Maybe Agudelo finally gets a full season worth of minutes as a true center forward this year and makes it moot, or Ramirez bags 20 and does the same.
Anyway, Agudelo is younger than either Ramirez or Sapong, which is why he gets the nod. If he doesn't end up being a No. 9, then fine – shake the list up however you want, and maybe marry yourself to the possibility that the US will be turning toward a 31-year-old Sapong for the next Gold Cup, or that Altidore goes on a personal mission to exercise any and all demons.
I haven't given up on Jozy, by the way. He was the man of the match vs. Panama despite coming off nearly a month's layoff with a hamstring tweak, and somehow the only person in the world who didn't know he was going to be spent at T&T was Bruce Arena. I'm still incredulous that he started back-to-back games in the tropics on short rest while coming off a muscle injury.
Hopefully the 19-year-old Wright starts climbing, but his lack of production in the 2. Bundesliga isn't encouraging. And Wood (who hasn't had the same burst over the last 18 months because of a persistent knee injury) has just lost his starting job with Hamburg.
The picture isn't exactly "bleak" but I wouldn't term center forward a position of strength, either. Good years from a few of the above guys could change that in a hurry, and one of the big things to watch will be who shows up to January camp in the best shape. Altidore, Agudelo, Ramirez, Sapong and Dwyer should be murdering each other to win the beep test.
• Waiting in the wings: Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers)
I don't expect either guy to get a lot of first-team minutes in 2018. Fingers crossed that I'm wrong.