AMSTERDAM – Every time we enter the final year of a World Cup cycle, playing the squad-prediction game in our US soccer bubble requires that same tantalizing question: Can anyone pull off a famous late run and make the 23-man roster?
If your mind has gone there, here’s a Top 5 list of uncapped Americans working overseas to include in your discussions.
While the Yanks have had several guys sneak onto a World Cup plane over the waning months before roster finalization arrives in May, none has achieved this particular feat from across the pond. David Regis came closest, carrying just two spring tune-up caps when he featured for the US at World Cup 1998 in France.
Unfortunately, some players eligible for such a shocking late charge from Europe likely won't get close to a foot in the door ahead of Brazil 2014, for various reasons. Hønefoss netminder Steve Clark has the misfortune of being down a long depth chart, while previously upstart youngsters Will Packwood and Marc Pelosi have had possible roster runs hampered by serious injuries.
The applicable cupboard is not bare, though, so let's get to their files. These candidates count down from least to most likely to make a serious bid for a place on the plane to Brazil, even if we're all fully aware none are assured an audience with Jurgen Klinsmann during this cycle.
No. 5: Conor O'Brien
The Odense BK tempo-master is always a January camp candidate while playing in Denmark, but the reality is he's in a long central-midfield line regardless of how many Superliga Team of the Week mentions he logs.
The main reasons O'Brien remains a slight possibility are technical skills and versatility. Despite often playing as a deep-lying outlet passer, the 25-year-old regularly gets into the scoring columns.
It should be no surprise, as the New York native was originally a playmaking midfielder type positioned further up the field. He has also had a few decent club trials at right back, but breaking into the US rotation by next summer is still a real long shot.
No. 4: Joseph Gyau
It sounds crazy, but wait. The 21-year-old wide scoring threat had been unable to turn fruitful in the ranks of Hoffenheim and assorted loan homes for a few years now, but the goals have suddenly started to flow.
Gyau has four in his last seven games for the Bundesliga side's reserve team. Sure, Hoffenheim is tied for second in the league in scoring, but exactly zero of them have come from a left-side player.
It does not seem unheard of that Gyau could get a look with the senior side. If he starts reaching Bundesliga fields, a call up certainly could be earned with more quick success. Unexpected? Yes. Impossible? Nope.
No. 3: Duane Holmes
Still bummed out that potential game-changer sub Josh Gatt went to the shelf? Similarly worried you won't be seeing Julian Green in a US shirt any time soon? To quote Yoda: “There is another.”
Though he just turned 19 a couple weeks ago, the slippery playmaker already has a handful of Championship experience with Huddersfield Town, including a game-tying assist on his debut. Holmes (No. 38, right) may not be well seasoned, but he dribbles at pace, has an eye for the entry feed and can strike from distance.
Besides, World Cup pace won't seem quite so fast coming out of this league and Huddersfield Town have at least 31 games remaining this term. I'd not be shocked to see him at least get a call in the new year if his recent hot start continues.
No. 2: Zak Whitbread
If life were fair, the Derby County loan defender (pictured at top) would have been capped long ago. He was even called up in 2011. But every time Whitbread makes the USMNT radar, injury taps him on the shoulder for another dance.
The Houston-born center back with a northwest England accent is 29 now, and he hasn't worn the US shirt at any age level in a decade. But when healthy, he can be as consistent and solid as they come on the backline.
Equipped with 87 games of EPL and Championship experience, Whitbread positions well, battles hard and excels in the air at both ends of the pitch. With the current US defensive stable still trying to gain traction, this cycle's latecomer could well be a center back.
No. 1: Babajide Ogunbiyi
Picking up where we just left off, the first uncapped American in Europe that requires a look is the Viborg backline cop. With a physical stature and set piece danger that echoes of Oguchi Onyewu, Ogunbiyi has already made the Superliga Team of the Week four times on the season.
Not only has the former New York draft pick been cleaning up messes left and right, he's also bagged a pair of key corner-kick goals in 15 games for the promoted Greens. Ogunbiyi may now have actually progressed past where he was when a knee injury bit him in 2011.
With all the young US defenders going through growing pains, it might seem obvious to give the 26-year-old a look in January. Though probably not starter material at this time, Klinsmann could always decide he needs a late-game marshal if Ogunbiyi continues to draw rave reviews.