I'm sure that somewhere, on some message board or maybe even in the archives of this very website, you can find my 2014 roster predictions.
I would have written them in the hours (days, really - I had a lot of sorrows to drown back then) after Asamoah Gyan stuck a knife into our 2010 dreams. It was part of the catharsis for me - a reminder that the story of US soccer over the past quarter century is that of constant, steady improvement.
After all, I would have reasoned, the 2014 World Cup will feature Michael Bradley, Maurice Edu and Benny Feilhaber - all brilliant in 2010 - in the same midfield, all in their prime. It would feature Clint Dempsey in a withdrawn poacher role, and Landon Donovan as a floating creator/field stretcher.
Charlie Davies and Stuart Holden would both get healthy, for sure. Jozy Altidore would be polished, right? And whoever the coach was in 2014 wouldn't make the mistake of failing to bring a proper back-up at target forward just in case Altidore had to be subbed - as he was against Ghana in 2010, right before Gyan freaking roofed it.
All of the above hurt to write, and this exercise isn't at all cathartic for me this time around. There are two big reasons for that:
First: Holy crap, I can just not get over how perfectly set up 2014 was to be our year. We returned three (!!!) central midfielders with technique, tactical savvy and World Cup experience, and we added Jermaine Jones to the mix. Even with Holden being the Spinal Tap drummer of the USMNT, this year's team should have been spoiled for choice and able to compete with the very best in the world in the center of the park.
(And spare me the "We're not good enough to do that!" crap - Bradley and Feilhaber all proved themselves against Brazil, Spain and Italy in the 2009 Confederations Cup, and then - with Edu, a Champions League veteran - across all four games of the 2010 World Cup.)
Obviously it didn't work out the way I'd predicted, even if it seemed like - on talent - it clearly should have. And now, this time through, I look at our central midfield and think, "From this group, only Bradley will be coming back in 2018. And he played just 50 of his 390 minutes as an actual central midfielder, with the rest as a pseudo trequartista."
In other words, 2018 is not set up to be our year. It still can be, of course, but it's looking an order of magnitude harder than it did four years ago.
Second: I've run out of any hope that there's some sort of institutional memory preventing us from silly roster omissions. The fact is that failing to bring a proper back-up - at target forward in 2010 and '14, and at D-mid in '06 - has been a major factor in our last three exits. Each time, a crucial absence altered the way we played. Each time, the tactical adjustment proved too much for the USMNT to overcome.
I'm expecting the same to happen again in 2018, quite frankly. Just like Mexico fans should expect Rafa Marquez to rise from the grave and sabotage them in the last five minutes of their Round of 16 game (I'm guessing he muffs a PK), US fans should expect an injury or a red card to eliminate the one guy who you'd look at and say, "Damn - we reallly can't afford to lose him because the coach doesn't have a plan B if that happens."
But … that's not destiny, right? Stats folks tell me three times is a coincidence, so I'm going to believe them. I'm going to pick my 23 and assume that the soccer gods will be kind and the coach will learn the lessons of history, lest he be doomed to repeat them.
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (33), Tim Howard (39), Clint Irwin (29)
Howard was magnificent on Tuesday in defeat, then magnanimous on Wednesday in his praise of Guzan, who has already had a host of great moments in red, white and blue and is probably one of the 15 or so best 'keepers in the world
“I would imagine at the moment the way things look I think Brad Guzan [would be the starter in 2018]," Howard said on the Dan Patrick Show. "He’s a top top goalkeeper … he’s a dear friend, and his talent is incredible.”
For what it's worth, I argued long and hard that Guzan should have unseated Howard at some point in late 2012 or early 2013, as the former was in the midst of his breakout season with Aston Villa and the latter was actually struggling a bit with Everton. Guzan was a good man about it, picking up a Hexagonal shutout at the Azteca to strengthen my argument.
Then Howard upped his game to ridiculous heights in 2013-14, and clearly deserved his No. 1 shirt. He won't give it away easily, even at age 39 (that's how old he'll be in 2018), but Guzan is good enough to take it from him.
Irwin gets the nod for the No. 3 spot because he's less error-prone than the other guys in his cohort (Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid, primarily) and because it's a rule that the USMNT always has to have a guy named "Clint" on the roster.
Left Backs: Fabian Johnson (30), Chris Klute (28)
I mean... it can't still be DaMarcus Beasley in four years, right? He'll be 36 by then.
There are some other names to consider here, most notably probably Greg Garza of Club Tijuana. He's 22 now, already has a ton of top-flight experience, and unlike the two guys above is left-footed.
However, even though Klute is a natural right-footer, he can still do this:
He's also a lock-down 1-v-1 defender who's progressing nicely in his reading of the game, and an electric athlete who will not struggle with the physical pace of the international game.
As for Johnson, his performance these past few weeks speaks for itself. He is a devastating overlapping threat, particularly when he can be inverted - which serves him nicely on the left side. And while there are still defensive issues with him (his mind wanders), it's mostly worth the sacrifice in order to get him on the field.
Right Backs: DeAndre Yedlin (24), Andrew Farrell (26)
Yedlin brings a world-class skill to the player pool: speed. There couldn't have been three players at this World Cup faster than he is.
That speed, however, masks a certain amount of positional naivete, the sort that teams who scout him will exploit. Watch HERE for how New England destroyed the Sounders every time he overlapped a couple of months back.
It's highly unlikely that Belgium or Germany or Portugal scouted him, and even so the Belgians, in particular, were eventually able to find plenty of room on his side of the field. Plus Yedlin has to become better at cutting inside - a la Johnson - as well as showing for the ball in possession, then being legitimately tough on it.
Of course, I'm picking nits here. But progress in the above stuff will determine whether Yedlin is merely a quality starter with world-class speed or a world-class fullback who can destroy teams in a variety of ways. His ceiling is unlimited, but reaching great heights isn't a given.
I picked Farrell for the back-up role because he's the best defensive option available, is very good on the ball, and can slide inside to play central defense if necessary.
Central Defenders: Matt Besler (31), Shane O'Neill (24), John Brooks (24), Omar Gonzalez (29)
Besler got run over by Romelu Lukaku, and people are going to remember that for a long time. That's unfortunate, because it came after 90 minutes of near flawless play from the Sporting KC veteran, and it came when isolated against one of the most overpowering physical presence in the game today.
Given all of that, I have Besler snug and safe in my "2018 USMNT Best XI." I think he reads the game faster than any central defender we've ever had, is extremely reliable on the ball, and is both tough and smart on set pieces. Add in his long throw - which I hope like hell we actually use next time - and I'd be surprised if he's not there.
O'Neill is my "going out on a limb" pick. Hold on a sec:
Do I have your attention now?
Ok, I'm not bringing O'Neill for his ability to score golazos (though I won't complain if that's what he does). I'm bringing him because he's a gifted all-around soccer player, a younger Geoff Cameron who's getting the advantage of playing his best position from a young age instead of bouncing around well into his 20s. O'Neill is fast and aggressive into danger, breaking up most plays before they start and then outletting with precision and maybe a bit too much daring.
He still needs work, of course - particularly in staying tight to his partner in central defense and sealing off gaps. But he's better at that than he was at this time last year, and his improvement curve suggests he'll be better still 12 months from now.
And Brooks, of course, still needs to work on being physical. He invariably loses his first physical challenge of any game, but is so gifted as an athlete that he usually makes up for it. Still, you have to wonder if that's why we didn't see him again after the Ghana game (in which, it must be said, he was excellent).
Gonzalez is there to do what he does: emergency defense in and around the 18-yard box, and maybe as an ad hoc target forward if we're throwing everything into the box late in the game and need someone to win the first ball in the air.
Defensive Midfielders: Wil Trapp (25), Maurice Edu (32)
Wil Trapp does stuff like this:
That's one of the best individual plays of the year by anybody in the league. I like that.
More importantly is his understanding of game shapes - where and how it's being played out - and how to involve the creators ahead of him. He's not yet an elite ball-winner, but that's actually a less important role than how he shields the central defense and moves the ball quickly and accurately to the flanks.
If he figures out how to defend, he's the next Kyle Beckerman. And since Beckerman was the best US player in 2014, I'm hoping that gives Trapp the inside lane for 2018.
Edu, meanwhile, has shown his continued willingness and ability to play anywhere in midfield or the back line. I still remember him best, however, for his role in all those 2010 comebacks, acting as a true No. 6 to free up Bradley to move forward. He gets the nod here ahead of guys like Danny Williams and Perry Kitchen.
Center Midfielders: Michael Bradley (30), Gedion Zelalem (21)
This is where it gets fun.
I'm imagining us playing a 4-4-2 diamond midfield, and I still understand Bradley at the tip of the diamond provided he has two forwards and at least one attack-minded, field-stretching midfielder to play to. Remember the last 15 minutes against Belgium, when the US always looked like scoring and Bradley picked up one of the best assists of the tournament? That's what Bradley looks like when he has three true attackers to pick out, and it's a damn shame he didn't have that for the bulk of this World Cup.
This is why you want Michael Bradley in a position to use aggressive midfielders:
Alternatively, you can use him as a No. 6. Just not as the second-most advanced attacker, please. Somebody find a DeLorean and send a note to Klinsmann.
Because I am still, at heart, a fanboy, Zelalem gets the other spot here (someone remind me to send an "I'm sorry" card to Dillon Powers, and maybe Mix Diskerud too). It is a crapshoot of the highest order projecting teenagers - especially ones that aren't, you know, US citizens yet - but there have been only three other Americans I've seen at that age with this kid's talent for simply receiving the ball.
The first two - Claudio Reyna and Donovan - are two of the three best US players ever. The third - Charles Renken - was destroyed by injuries before his 18th birthday (*gulp*).
If Zelalem stays healthy and figures out how to drive the game forward, he is going to be a star.
Midfield Shuttlers: Luis Gil (24), Benji Joya (24)
Quick definition: "shuttler" in the diamond means the wide midfield players. But it's not really fair to call them "wide midfielders" because they spend more time tucked inside than than do outside, rarely provide width, and don't have a true attacking role. Their job is to aid in possession, fill gaps, and disrupt on defense. Jermaine Jones played as a shuttler in the diamond during the send-off series, while Ned Grabavoy and Gil fill that role for RSL.
Gil will fill it here, as well, keeping up with the modified diamond (which I loved) which fielded one true shuttler and another, more attack-minded shuttler on the other side. Joya, who looked good with the U-20s but hasn't yet translated that against grown men, gets the nod as backup ahead of Alejandro Bedoya and a few others.
It's worth noting that Bradley could - and maybe even should - play this role in 2018. Especially if Zelalem is awesome or if a true No. 10 emerges.
Midfield Attackers: Julian Green (23), Harry Shipp (26), Darlington Nagbe (27)
You saw what happened when Green came on against Belgium, right? His diagonal run between the Belgian right back and right central defender caught a static backline napping, and the kid got himself a hell of a goal. It was beautiful.
And that is why you don't want both wide players in the diamond to have the same skillset. The way I see it, one should be a pure shuttler and one should be an attacker with north-south tendencies. Green obviously fits that mold.
I think Shipp does as well, and adds this for good measure:
Shipp, thus far, looks to be a multi-dimensional talent capable of creating space off the dribble, being goal-dangerous in the 18, and - most especially - what you see above. He really, really sees the last pass.
And that's a valuable skillset for the diamond, because as the game compresses different players take on different roles. You might be attacking the backline off the ball one minute, then sending a fellow midfielder through in the next.
Shipp can do all that. He's got the "Wow!" stuff down. In the meantime, he has to work on being a little more mature in his shot-vs-pass decision-making, as well as understanding when to try for that killer ball vs. when to just hang onto posession and try to break teams down.
He (and Green) also needs to improve his defense.
Nagbe, on the other hand, has evolved into a well-rounded and willing defender, and might actually fit better as a shuttler rather than a midfield attacker. Or he might be a second forward. Or he might be a pure attacking midfielder. The fact that we don't know yet worries me.
Then again, this:
Target Forwards: Jozy Altidore (29), Terrence Boyd (27)
We're bringing two.
Poacher: Clint Dempsey (35)
Will Deuce get to his fourth World Cup? I'm not going to bet against him. And though guys like Aron Johannsson and Jack McInerney will push for this spot, I don't think a 35-year-old Dempsey will be out of gas.
I have to admit that was more cathartic than I thought it would be. I'm not over 2014 yet - I think that'll take a solid decade, considering how I still feel about 2006 - but I'm suddenly pretty pumped about the next four years.
Quarterfinals or bust. No fate but what we make.