Welcome to the Wednesday Q&A series, where we focus on one particular topic – today's being the future of the US roster – and ask you to react, share, and discuss in the comments section. However, feel free to ask about anything game-related (MLS, USL, NASL, USMNT, CanMNT, etc.) over the next several hours.
Copa America has come and gone, and the US men's national team put together a solid showing: Fourth place, achieved via lineup consistency, veteran know-how and good, old-fashioned defense. The US didn't pull off any sort of landmark wins over superpowers that have characterized previous managerial regimes, but they exited the tournament a better team than they entered it as:
The one guy who absolutely, positively broke-out from a US perspective was center back John Brooks, and that should give you the tenor of the overall US showing. His ability to put out fires covered up for mistakes made higher up the pitch while his ability to distribute accurately from the backline helped open up the game -- specifically against Ecuador.
Scroll to the 32-second mark of this video:
Yes, that's Brooks. And yes, that's brilliant.
So it's safe to say that Brooks is the rock that the next few years for the US should be built upon, and extending it out from there we should also include his central defensive partner, Geoff Cameron, and Michael Bradley at defensive midfield (there is some contention about that point in the fan base, but given that once Bradley moved to d-mid to shield the backline the US didn't allow an open play goal for five straight games, I feel comfortable rolling my eyes at the "Bench Bradley!" brigade).
Beyond that, however, there are questions to answer regarding age, injury, fit and improvement curve. Jurgen Klinsmann has a ton of talent to choose from, and a new generation of players to work into the pool. As Tutul's tweet above says, there's yet more work to be done.
As it stands, here's the 23 I'm projecting to be in Russia two summers from now:
Guzan wasn't error-free, but he was mostly very good for the second straight summer as the No. 1 option between the sticks, and is still in the prime of his career. Right now it's unclear what his next club will be, but given his experience and overall talent, I don't think he's going to lose his spot on the roster.
The Nos. 2 and 3 spots, however, are very much up for grabs. Hamid is the best shot-stopper in the pool and has improved by leaps-and-bounds in his command of the box and organization of the backline, and I think he very likely would have been on this summer's Copa squad if he hadn't been hurt. My guess is that he surpasses veterans Tim Howard and Nick Rimando, while holding off David Bingham in the hunt to be Guzan's back-up. Horvath, who's younger (just 21 years old this month) and brings a Rimando-esque sweeper-keeper mentality, will hold onto the No. 3 spot.
Just missed the cut: Howard, Rimando, Bingham
The first three are all pretty easy to pick, especially given Besler's newly rediscovered ability to play out at left back in a pinch -- that's a level of flexibility Klinsmann put to good use in the Copa, even if it wasn't an ideal time to be testing it out. The controversy here might be the inclusion of A) five center backs in total, and B) Gonzalez and Miazga over D.C. United's Steve Birnbaum, so let me address each point individually.
First: In a tournament where two cards is an automatic suspension, I believe in loading up on central defenders. Everyone remembers that the US lost to Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals, but nobody remembers that if we'd advanced, the central defense would have been an injured Jeff Agoos, an out-of-position Tony Sanneh, and prayer.
Second: Gonzalez was arguably the best defender in Liga MX this past year and led his team to a title, while Miazga's upside remains huge. I suspect he'll be loaned out to Vitesse Arnhem to spend this year in the Eredivisie, and that's both a pretty huge deal and a pretty great stage. Miazga has the talent to make the most of it.
No slight is intended to Birnbaum here, by the way. He could easily end up in one of these spots, but I give the edge to the other two guys.
RB: DeAndre Yedlin, Timmy Chandler
I badly want to include Union rookie Keegan Rosenberry here -- he has the tactical and positional nous, is a force-magnifier on the ball, and his quickness in 1-v-1 situations is superior to every other potential right back in the pool:
I suspect, however, that he'll have to wait behind Yedlin and Chandler, two guys who already have Klinsmann's trust.
Just missed the cut: Rosenberry, Eric Lichaj
Neither of these guys is actually a left back! Johnson, to his credit, had a very solid tournament on the defensive side of the ball after two summers of struggle with that exact thing. Acosta, meanwhile, is a full-time central midfielder who has only moonlighted at left back on the international stage. It's an awkward fit, but one that both Klinsmann and his underlings have gone to time and again.
All that said, I badly want to include Brandon Vincent, who's improved pretty steadily since March, and already has one USMNT camp under his belt. Don't be surprised if he makes a leap over the next 12 months.
Besler's presence on the roster means the US would actually go three-deep at this spot.
Just missed the cut: Vincent, Edgar Castillo, Jorge Villafana, Greg Garza
DM: Bradley, Perry Kitchen
Yes, Bradley struggled with some wayward passing. But that happens in a team that lacks structure or a defined style of play -- anybody would have struggled in that position (and we've seen that both in last year's Gold Cup and early in qualifying, when other US players have struggled with the exact same things against inferior opposition).
I give Kitchen the nod for the backup job over Danny Williams since Kitchen actually won the backup job this summer. It also needs to be noted that Cameron can step up and play in this spot, as he did for the last 12 minutes of the third-place game against Colombia.
Just missed the cut: Williams, Kellyn Acosta
One of the effects of Bradley playing a deeper and more circumscribed role was that Jones could just get out there and run. He was the soccer equivalent of Russel Westbrook, imposing his will by making the playing surface smaller and forcing the kinds of mistakes that turn into goals:
Jermain Jones goal for USA vs Costa Rica | 2-0 pic.twitter.com/RtVuC7CyKh— SD Football Videos (@SDFootballVids) June 8, 2016
Nobody else on the US roster makes that play, and even though he'll be 36 by the time the next World Cup comes around, I'm not going to bet against him.
I'm also not going to bet against Bedoya, who is the consummate glue guy, nor Nagbe, who's probably the most talented individualist in the player pool. If there was one big disappointment this summer's it's that he didn't get more time.
Just missed the cut: Emerson Hyndman, Alfredo Morales
Yup, wingers. I think that the ascendance of Pulisic and Manneh in particular will give the US the flexibility to move to a 4-3-3 with two true, wide attackers. It's not a look that's been used to great effect all that often, but I do think that it's the future given the state of the player pool.
And that's my way of saying "I don't think Clint Dempsey is going to make it to 2018." Dempsey has been the team's leading scorer for thee straight summer tournaments and has thus far appeared to be ageless with the US, but at some point that's got to end. My guess is that "some point" happens either just before or just after next summer's Gold Cup.
As Deuce exits, so does the raison d'etre for playing the 4-4-2 – namely that doing so allows the best US attacker to play in his best spot (as a free-roaming second forward underneath a true No. 9), and does so without taxing him unduly as a two-way player. With that exit enters the era of the winger, spearheaded by Pulisic.
Johnson can obviously play here as well. And while I don't consider Zardes to be a natural wide player, Klinsmann clearly does.
While Wood didn't explode quite as gloriously as Brooks did, I think he came out of the Copa America as the clear No. 1 on the center forward depth chart, displacing the too-often-injured Altidore. Jozy hasn't made it through a summer tournament at full health since the 2010 World Cup. He's a talented forward who simply struggles to stay healthy enough to be a consistent threat.
Yet, that talent is why he makes this roster, and to be honest a substitute's role might be the best use of him. He's still a much better hold-up forward than the other options, and his passing around the box can be game-breaking.
As for Morris, I've seen nothing in the first four months of his pro career that says he'll fall out of the player pool. His makes clever yet deceptively simple runs, has elite speed, and is a good-and-improving finisher on the break. His hold-up play is less advanced than Wood's, but more advanced than it was in March, and while his lack of a left foot is a concern it's not a deal-breaker.
Just missed the cut: Dempsey, C.J. Sapong, Aron Johannsson
Ok folks, thanks for helping me while away another day!