Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

USMNT roster prediction for the 2026 World Cup: Who makes it?

Doyle early 2026 World Cup roster predict

The 2022 World Cup cycle, for the US men’s national team, is over – and like most of you, I’m still digesting everything we saw and learned over the past four years. Over the next few days, I’ll be digging into more and more of it (got to grind through some film and some data in the meantime) to present my verdict.

Before we jump into the week ahead, let’s go with our quadrennial tradition of jumping into a time machine to travel four years ahead and predict the next World Cup roster! Mind you, the US are granted automatic qualification as 2026 co-hosts alongside Canada and Mexico. And while we don’t know with 100% certainty rosters will again have 26 players instead of the usual 23, I’ve stuck with the former.

One note before we dive in: I nailed six of 11 starters in my 2018-to-2022 prediction, which, honestly, I think is pretty good. Four years is a long time!

This time through, however, it should be much, much easier. You’ve all heard and read about how this was the second-youngest team at the World Cup and is the second-youngest roster in US World Cup history (1990 was younger) – and, well, it’s reasonable to expect the best players in the pool at age 20-24 will still be the best players in the pool at age 24-28. Ten of the 11 preferred starters this time through could be on the next roster, and as many as nine of them could be considered favorites to hold that job for the next four years. So I’ll put my over/under at 6.5 and hit the over.

Four years ago the crapshoot came further down the roster, and while I did pretty well – 17 of the 23 players I listed got at least one cap, and only three guys (Andrew Carleton, Jesse Gonzalez and Danny Acosta) were complete wash-outs, all for off-field reasons – the relative lack of young players playing real pro minutes at that time made it difficult to really gaze into the crystal ball and come away with more than just wishcasting.

Let’s put numbers to it: in the 2018 MLS season, just 14 Americans aged 22 or under played 1,000+ minutes. By 2022, that number had jumped to 27 despite MLS teams having sold/loaned the likes of James Sands, Ricardo Pepi, Gianluca Busio, Tanner Tessmann, Sam Vines, Daryl Dike, Kevin Paredes, George Bello and Bryan Reynolds over the past few windows. All those guys, save Paredes, then got real minutes in Europe.

Folks, the academies are working! That is, by far, the biggest reason for optimism about both the national team and the state of the league.

And, for the purposes of this column, it makes my job both harder and easier. Easier because I’m almost exclusively going to be picking pros with real experience; harder because I’m now spoiled for choice. There are now multiple good, young players at basically every position (even left back!) who I’ve watched for at least a thousand minutes.

Pro minutes are the most valuable filter we have. You weed out a lot of Carletons and Benji Joyas that way, and the fact that we, as a soccer culture, are finally there… man, it’s been a journey. And it bodes extraordinarily well for the cycles to come.

Goalkeeper (3)
  • Matt Turner (Arsenal)
  • Gaga Slonina (Chelsea)
  • Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest)

Three ‘keepers from three of the biggest clubs in the world!

Turner will still be in his prime four years from now at age 32, and hopefully will be somewhere getting starter’s minutes. I’m pretty convinced he’s good enough to earn those at an Arsenal-level club, though I wouldn’t hate it at all if he traded down to a mid-table EPL/Bundesliga/LaLiga/Serie A side to be assured 3,000-ish minutes a year.

Slonina feels like a flier to me – the Chicago homegrown probably netted out as something around average for an MLS goalkeeper last year, though his fluctuations from super high highs to super low lows were, as expected with a teenager, larger than what we tend to see from locked-on starters. Still, though, the numbers, the improvement curve, the physical tools and the scouting from folks who know a lot more about the position than I do are all boxes that are checked, so I’m not going to bet against the kid.

There are a few different ways to go for the third ‘keeper, and if Horvath keeps not playing, then he’ll lose this spot. But he’s a core vibes guy for this group who will be in his prime and has World Cup experience, so as long as he’s upright and sees the field occasionally between now and 2026, he seems like the safe pick.

Keep an eye on…

  • Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
  • Roman Celentano (FC Cincinnati)
Left Back (2)
  • Antonee "Jedi" Robinson (Fulham)
  • John Tolkin (New York Red Bulls)

I would describe Jedi’s World Cup performance as very necessary because his endline-to-endline running is such an asset in terms of creating both width and penetration (which opens up the half-spaces for Christian Pulisic), but not particularly good. This doesn’t mean he was bad, per se – apart from the final 20 minutes against the Dutch, which I give him a pass for given how many hard miles he’d logged to that point – but he added next to zero value on the ball throughout the tournament.

Can he be upgraded? Maybe, though the one guy who I’d wager the most on to do it is currently not playing left back for his club, so… kinda tough. Given that, I’m going with Tolkin as the pick in this spot since he’s a true left back who’s played the most "good minutes" over the past two years, has done so at a high level (with a higher-level move coming as soon as this winter) and has shown an ability to play the final ball. 

So would you be comfortable putting a 24-year-old Tolkin out there against whatever the 2026 version of Iran and Wales are – i.e., games in which the US would be expected to control the ball? I think you would.

And that, in turn, makes Jedi a fresher, and thus better player for the 2026 equivalent of England and the Netherlands, opponents for which you need that insane endline-to-endline work rate.

Keep an eye on…

  • Kevin Paredes* (Wolfburg)
  • Sam Vines (Royal Antwerp)
  • DeJuan Jones (New England Revolution)
  • Caleb Wiley (Atlanta United)
  • Andrew Gutman (Atlanta United)

(*) Paredes would be my choice if he was basically anywhere but Wolfsburg. They’re awful at developing young talent and are proving it by playing Paredes on the wing instead of at fullback.

Center Back (5)
  • Miles Robinson (Atlanta United)
  • Chris Richards (Crystal Palace)
  • Auston Trusty (Arsenal)
  • Jack Elliott (Philadelphia Union)
  • James Sands (Rangers)

Robinson’s an easy choice, provided he bounces back from his Achilles’ tear. Richards is the most talented player on this list and was pretty ok in qualifying, which makes him an easy choice despite the fact 1) he’s lost most of this calendar year to injury, and 2) he was brutally bad for Palace when he got on the field earlier this year.

I refuse to panic about that at this point in the cycle, though. Even if it doesn’t work out for him by the end of this season, he’s too talented to just disappear.

Trusty has shocked everyone – me included – with his play in the Championship (while on loan at Birmingham), and while I don’t ever expect him to be a factor for Arsenal, it seems likely he’s going to turn into an EPL-caliber center back. Plus you can’t teach 6-foot-4 and left-footed.

Full disclosure: I don't know if Elliott will have American citizenship by 2026, but I sure as hell hope he gets there because he was the best CB in MLS this past season and brings a dynamism on the ball and in distribution only Richards, of this group, can match.

Sands can play/has played d-mid, center back (especially in a back five) and right back at a high level. He should’ve been the 26th man on the 2022 roster, and earns that distinction here for 2026.

Keep an eye on…

  • Cameron Carter-Vickers (Celtic)
  • Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC)
  • Mark McKenzie (Genk)
Right Back (2)
  • Sergino Dest (AC Milan)
  • Joe Scally (Borussia Monchengladbach)

This one feels too easy given Dest’s experience and upside, combined with how well Scally’s settled in at the Bundesliga level before his 20th birthday.

Keep an eye on…

  • Bryan Reynolds (wherever he lands)
  • Shaq Moore (Nashville SC)
  • Reggie Cannon (Boavista)
  • Justin Che (wherever he lands)
Defensive Midfield (2)
  • Tyler Adams (Leeds United)
  • Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers)

Adams proved both his immediate value and his long-term potential over the past two weeks. He’ll remember the Memphis Depay goal that sealed the US’s fate – I will, too – but I will not let that negatively color how spectacular he was throughout this tournament. And the very best part of his performance, at least in terms of how it bodes for the long haul?

It was his distribution vs. Iran. That was maybe the first time I’ve seen him play as a single pivot and do real, high-level metronome stuff. He’ll never be Jorginho, but the kid was orchestrating in a way that has not previously been in his bag.

Will Williamson get the chance to do the same? I don’t know. To tell the truth, I kind of doubt it, since Timbers head coach Gio Savarese doesn’t seem to trust him much (he may get traded this offseason). But I’m betting on Williamson to find real minutes at that spot somehow over the next four years, and I’m betting he’ll prove to be the kind of calm-on-the-ball, line-breaking d-mid/central mid who can move the chains and take some pressure off of Adams against certain opponents, or in certain game states.

Keep an eye on…

  • Leon Flach* (Philadelphia Union)
  • Keaton Parks^ (NYCFC)
  • Kellyn Acosta (LAFC)
  • Obed Vargas (Seattle Sounders FC)
  • Johnny Cardoso (Internacional)
  • Aidan Morris (Columbus Crew)

(*) If you want a like-for-like destroyer to back Adams up, Flach is it. But while Flach’s shown some flashes with his distribution, his passing range at this point makes Adams look like Xavi.

(^) Parks, meanwhile, is the closest thing in the pool to a pure, tempo-setting Spanish central midfielder. I'd pick him for this roster if he didn't have such a troubling recent injury history.

Central Midfield (4)
  • Weston McKennie (Juventus)
  • Yunus Musah (Valencia)
  • Luca de la Torre (Celta de Vigo)
  • Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)

McKennie and Musah, along with Adams, defined:

  1. How the US played.
  2. How high the US ceiling was.
  3. How low the floor was.

Head coach Gregg Berhalter couldn’t rest them, and that lack of rest in the group stage led to heavy legs in the knockout round against the Netherlands. We know how that ended.

This is where I'm going to make the safe wager: de la Torre, Pomykal and Williamson have all proven to be good players at a good level, all three win the ball, keep the ball and progress the ball, and all three will be in their respective primes come 2026. I think it’s likely all three will keep improving, but even if they don’t they’re the kind of guys who would keep the floor high and would allow the US to keep their shape and overall principles of play intact, even when Musah and/or McKennie need a breather.

And that’s got to be the goal here, because the wheel that is this central midfield does not need to be reinvented. It needs to be reinforced with players who can offer a pretty good approximation of what the starters bring.

Keep an eye on

  • Jack McGlynn (Philadelphia Union)
  • Alex Mendez (Vizela)
  • Alejandro Alvarado (Vizela)
  • Tanner Tessmann (Venezia)
  • Gianluca Busio (Venezia)
  • Taylor Booth (Utrecht)
Winger (5)
  • Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
  • Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Tim Weah (Lille)
  • Brenden Aaronson (Leeds United)
  • Cruz Medina (San Jose Earthquakes)

So much of whether the US are a legit threat to make the semifinals in 2026 will come down to how healthy Pulisic and Reyna – the two most talented attackers in the pool – are, and how far they develop. Right now, because of injuries and Chelsea being Chelsea, both guys are somewhat peripheral at their club teams.

But I think everyone understands there is a slice of the multiverse in which both guys stay fit, find the right club and become central figures who are dealing with the pressure to create and score goals every single week at the highest levels of the game.

Those are the kinds of players who lead their teams deep into the World Cup. Neither Pulisic nor Reyna are those guys yet, though both can be.

I don’t think the ceiling for Weah or Aaronson is quite so high, but Weah’s the ultimate complementary piece (and might still be starting four years from now because he fits so snugly across from any ball-dominant winger) and Aaronson is obviously a very good player who provides valuable two-way energy.

Medina, who will be just 19 in the summer of 2026, is the one true bit of wishcasting I’ve done for this roster. He’s smooth as silk and probably more of a No. 10 (or even a No. 8) at the moment, but at the pro level I think he’ll end up as a playmaking winger.

Is it ridiculous to include a 16-year-old with zero top-flight minutes in this roster? Yes. But gang, Medina is so damn good. He reminds me of a cross between Reyna with how smooth he is receiving in traffic and then gliding past defenders, and Djordje Mihailovic with how quickly and precisely he picks the optimal pass.

So you’re going to have to give me this one flight of fancy.

Note that Reyna and Aaronson (and Medina!) can play/have played as a No. 10. So while I picked this roster with a 4-3-3 in mind, the opportunity to change the shape to a 4-2-3-1 or a 3-4-1-2 is built into the squad via individual versatility.

Keep an eye on…

  • Djordje Mihailovic (AZ Alkmaar)
  • Malik Tillman (Rangers)
  • Richie Ledezma (PSV)
  • Brian Gutierrez (Chicago Fire FC)
  • Cade Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes)
  • Paxten Aaronson (Eintracht Frankfurt)
Center Forward (3)
  • Josh Sargent (Norwich City)
  • Brandon Vazquez (FC Cincinnati)
  • Ricardo Pepi (FC Groningen)

Hopefully, by the start of next season, be it in the EPL or the Championship, Sargent will be playing the vast majority of his minutes as a center forward. He certainly looked the part earlier this year when Teemu Pukki was sidelined, and while he didn’t score at the World Cup itself, I thought he was damn good against Iran and made a lot of the right runs against Wales (which were never, ever rewarded with the right ball).

Sargent still has the highest ceiling of any US center forward since Jozy Altidore came through the ranks, and he’s just 22. The US have a long and proud history of seeing their No. 9s develop later than in most of the rest of the world (Brian McBride didn’t score his first US goal until he was 24).

Vazquez fits that mold as well, as he just experienced his breakout year at age 23. He should’ve been in Qatar for his hold-up play, his work drawing valuable fouls in attacking spots, his ability to create off-ball penetration and just his nose for goal. You could argue – I have argued – he’s the best forward in the pool right now, though I don’t think he’ll ever be quite as smooth on the turn as Sargent.

Pepi is more of a poacher at this stage in his very young career, and that’s fine. He got a rough, year-long lesson in the Bundesliga, but the best thing for a young forward is reps, and he’s turning those reps into goals right now in the Eredivisie. I will not knock that at all, though I will certainly hope he moves up in the soccer world over the next few years.

Keep an eye on…

  • Folarin Balogun* (Arsenal)
  • Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas)
  • Daryl Dike (West Bromwich Albion)
  • Haji Wright (Antalyaspor)
  • Jordan Pefok (Union Berlin)
  • Jeremy Ebobisse (San Jose Earthquakes)

(*) At the insistence of certain #USMNT Twitter sickos, I've added Balogun. If he switches allegiance from England to the US he'll immediately walk into the squad and might even be considered the favorite for the starting job, but at this point I don't think it's wise to count on that.

Doyle - USMNT way-early 2026 roster prediction
Final thoughts

A point I want to make here: I didn’t just consider quality for these spots, but positional redundancy. There are five guys who can play center back, four potential left backs, four right backs (yes, Weah counts), three d-mids, five No. 8s, three No. 10s if we want to switch up the shape, six potential wingers (Sargent counts), and four center forwards.

There could be injuries that badly damage the US chances. But with positional and functional redundancy like that, there would be no combination of injuries/suspensions that would drastically change the way the US can play, and the ability to toggle from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1 to a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 to a 3-5-2 is literally built into the team.

Bigger picture… writing this column in the past has provoked catharsis (2014) and anxiety (2018). It bears reminding just how lucky we are that so many of our best young players developed as rapidly and thoroughly as they did over the past four years.

What this column hasn’t produced, historically speaking, is confidence. But that’s where my mood’s at right now because this generation of players has already answered so many questions, and in so doing they have given me basically zero reasons to doubt them.

Quarterfinals or bust. No fate but what we make.