Armchair Analyst 2017 - logo ONLY
Rudy Calderon / MLSsoccer.com

Armchair Analyst: Using the crystal ball to predict 2026 World Cup heroes

On Monday afternoon, the US, Mexico and Canada announced a joint bid to host the 2026 World Cup. It is not a given that this joint bid – which you can read the details of HERE – will win the rights for the expanded version of the tournament. There are no givens in life, and certainly none in soccer, so you're free to reserve judgement and contain your excitement until we've moved further down the road in this process.

I, however, am optimistic. And as of Tuesday morning, I've taken slight leave of my senses, making the decision to use my own personal crystal ball in an effort to divine the future. I've identified a team of 11 guys playing in MLS right now who will make international headlines as World Cup heroes nine years hence.

In summation: This is fanfic the future revealed, so proceed at your own peril.

GK: Andre Blake (Philadelphia Union)

The 35-year-old Blake has led the Reggae Boyz out of nearly a decade of troubles on the international stage, and his performance in the final, must-win qualifier over Honduras for the last CONCACAF berth sent the entire country into delirium. Long past the stage where his off-the-line decision-making could be questioned, Blake is now rock solid but still capable of the spectacular.

He's settled into that comfortable, mid-30s sweet spot for a goalkeeper, and is the calming presence for a young team with modest expectations.

LB: Ronald Matarrita (New York City FC)

At age 31 – he turns 32 just before the quarterfinals – Matarrita's lost half a step from his absolute prime, but that really hasn't been a problem, has it? He helped Costa Rica dominate the US- Canada- and Mexico-less CONCACAF qualifiers, and he remains a fearsome overlapping option:

His goal will be to get the Ticos out of the group stage for the first time since 2014's trip to the quarters. Costa Rica head coach Alvaro Saborio named Matarrita his side's captain ahead of the final stage of qualifying, and their resultant turn of form has been inarguable.

CB: Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake)

Glad's 11 years as the rock in the center of the RSL backline have produced the club's second MLS Cup, first-ever Supporters' Shield and, of course, the memorable run to the CCL title in 2023, which enshrined him in club lore. His years in the center of the US backline have been nearly as fruitful, especially given the symbiotic, decade-long relationship he has with his backline partner...

CB: Erik Palmer-Brown (Sporting KC)

Palmer-Brown's ascent began in earnest when he captained the US U-20s to a Youth World Cup win in 2017, which led to a big-money move to Arsenal of the EPL. After driving the Gunners to the 2020 Premier League title, he announced that his work in London was done, he wanted some burnt ends, and that he'd be returning to SKC that summer.

Many Arsenal fans see his departure as the beginning of the end for their club, now in League Two – though manager Arsene Wenger promises this is the year the club secures promotion after some much-needed summer transfer window reinforcements are brought in. For Sporting, however, it was the beginning of a decade of both domestic and continental glory.

Palmer-Brown's been at the heart of that. He and fellow 29-year-old Glad have had a fierce rivalry that's largely defined the MLS Western Conference this decade, but their success together in US colors is unquestioned.

RB: Michael Amir Murillo (RBNY)

Murillo's been a constant for Los Canaleros over the past decade, and earlier this year picked up his 100th cap. He's chipped in with nine international goals during that time, including the winner over Mexico for the 2021 Gold Cup crown. His New York career has been storied, his battles with Matarrita legendary, and his personal trophy cabinet has two US Open Cups and two Supporters' Shields. Still no MLS Cups, though...

The 30-year-old's showed no signs of slowing down. He'll be an endline-to-endline threat for the duration of the group stage, and perhaps a little bit longer.

DM: Carlos Gruezo (FC Dallas)

At age 31 with 130 caps, including the shock 2020 Copa America title, Gruezo is a legend in both his home country and in north Texas. Ecuador are one of the really fancied darkhorses at this event, and while I'm not sold on their ability to put together the types of special goals any World Cup winner needs, I have no doubt that their No. 6 will lock down central midfield and help his side grind out at least one unexpected 1-0 win.

CM: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)

Acosta's time with Napoli – in which he did what Diego Maradona couldn't and led the Italian club to Champions League glory – is what he's best known for worldwide, but to MLS fans he'll always be known as the guy who led FC Dallas to the 2019 CCL title. His set-piece ability is renowned:

And at age 30, now back with his hometown team, he's still deadly from anywhere inside 30 yards.

The USMNT captain will have to be at his very best for the hosts to go one step further than 2022's trip to the Round of 16, which was their fourth straight.

AM: Miguel Almiron (Atlanta United)

Often described as "a one-man wrecking crew determined to repeatedly show that columnist/shut-in Matt Doyle was an idiot for ever doubting his ability to run an attack," Almiron's put up legendary numbers for both club and country. The 32-year-old broke Landon Donovan's MLS record for career assists in 2025, and on the world stage he's of course best known for his four-assist outing against Italy in Qatar in 2022.

As he's aged he's spent more time centrally than in his original home on the wing, but that's been just fine in terms of productivity and results. Paraguay's attack runs through this man, an Atlanta legend whose name is often mentioned in the same breath as Greg Maddux and Dominique Wilkins.

RW: Jack Harrison (New York City FC)

"The Man who Saved Old Blighty," 29-year-old Battlin' Jack was the leading scorer and set-up man in the Three Lions' shocking qualification after missing out on the 2022 World Cup, as well as the 2020 and 2024 Euros. Harrison's finest moment for his homeland came in the playoff for the final UEFA berth, in which he scored a mazy, Lionel Messi-esque goal after a 60-yard solo run against heavily-favored Andorra.

Recently reappointed England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson has said "We need goals when the scoreline is zero-zero." Nobody argued with him, and nobody will argue with the fact that Harrison is easily England's best hope to avoid humiliation. 

CF: Cyle Larin (Orlando City SC)

The hero of Canada's journey to the 2022 World Cup final before falling to Messi's Argentina, Larin has spent the last decade combining with fellow veterans Ballou Jean-Yves Tabla, Alphonso Davies and Jay Chapman to form the world's most prolific and fearsome attack. At age 31 he's topped 50 international goals and rewritten the record books for both club and country, which includes the Qatar 2022 Golden Boot.

He still hasn't lost any of his burst, or straight-line speed:

Canada are heavy favorites to advance at least to the semifinals once again, and their opener against Germany in Moosejaw is widely expected to be the best game of the group stage.

LW: Andrew Carleton (Atlanta United)

The reigning World Player of the Year turns 26 during the group stage, and his body of work speaks for itself. Atlanta have put together a dynasty this decade around their attack, and Carleton's 35 goal/20 assist season in 2025 while leading his team to the domestic treble, CCL title and Club World Cup is justifiably considered one of the best years in the history of the game.

But he's yet to produce a truly signature moment for the national team – torching Mexico captain Rafa Marquez in the 2024 Copa America semis doesn't really count, though no one doubts Carleton's contributions to that trophy-winning squad. USMNT manager Carlos Ruiz remains confident regardless, assuring the fanbase that "This is the stage Andrew needs."

Who could possibly argue with any of that?


Ok, this whole thing turned out to be both dumber and more fun than I expected – kind of went off the rails a little bit with the Acosta bio, didn't it? No regrets!

ExtraTime Radio Podcast

LISTEN: It's official! The United States, Canada and Mexico are joining forces to bring the World Cup back to CONCACAF, making their pitch for 2026 official on Monday at a press conference in New York City. The guys walk you through all the details (31:02), then give their takes on what would be an incredible event. Plus, everything you need to know about MLS Week 6 and David Beckham stories with former MLS MVP Mike Magee (47:45). Subscribe so you don't miss a show!

Series: 
Topics: