Armchair Analyst: My US national team 2018 World Cup squad!

Hello folks, it's time for some alternate-reality fanfic. In this version of the day's events only two things are different:

  1. The US national team beat Trinidad & Tobago last October
  2. I have been appointed manager

And so today I am announcing my 23-man USMNT squad to go to this summer's World Cup. I believe that we will win!

Please note that I won't be making the mistakes of my predecessors and bringing in injured players, old players and (too many) guys who are in terrible club form. So that rules out Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, Jordan Morris, Danny Williams, Kenny Saief, Geoff Cameron, Justin Morrow, Clint Dempsey, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Howard, Ethan Horvath, C.J. Sapong and Fabian Johnson. It should also rule out John Brooks and Bobby Wood but hey, beggars can't be choosers.

That's... quite a list. In retrospect aren't you glad we didn't qualify for this thing?

GOALKEEPER (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Bill Hamid (FC Midtjylland), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC)

As a manager I would mostly, at this point, be bummed that Hamid hadn't won the starting job in Denmark and thus would be my backup for Russia instead of the starter. But you play the hand you're dealt and you play the players that play, which means it's Guzan (who's been consistently good for both club and country) who's wearing the No. 1 kit this summer.

Also considered: Tim Melia (Sporting KC), Alex Bono (Toronto FC), Sean Johnson (NYCFC)

LEFT BACK (2): Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Brandon Vincent (Chicago Fire)

Jorge "Sueño" Villafaña had a nightmare down in T&T in that other timeline, but in this one he was fine. And he's been better than fine for Santos Laguna in Liga MX this year, having locked down the LB spot for the majority of the season for a team that's now in the liguilla final. He will not be one of the best LBs at the World Cup by any stretch of the imagination, and smart teams will do their best to isolate him and try to pick on his lack of athleticism. I'm ok with that, though – I can gameplan for it.

That said, I've chosen Vincent over the other options as the backup LB specifically because he's a better 1v1 defender and a better athlete in open space. That robs Greg Garza of a spot, but so it goes.

Also considered: Garza (Atlanta United), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Antonee Robinson (Bolton Wanderers), Ben Sweat (NYCFC)

CENTER BACK (5): Matt Miazga (Vitesse Arnhem), Matt Besler (Sporting KC), John Brooks (Wolfsburg), Ike Opara (Sporting KC), Tim Ream (Fulham)

Little-known fact: Back in 2002, when the US almost made it to the World Cup semifinals – we absolutely outplayed Germany in the quarters, were denied a clear handball in the box, and would have won if Ollie Kahn hadn't stood on his head – we were pretty much out of center backs had we advanced. Everybody would've been suspended via yellow-card accumulation and South Korea would've dropped nine on us.

And so I'm bringing five CBs instead of the usual four, which is also a necessity given that both Brooks and Opara have, historically, been injury prone. And because I might decide we're playing in a 5-3-1-1, exclusively on the counter, if we run into somebody who scares me.

Miazga had a second straight excellent year for Vitesse, by the way. I'm not sure he's going to ever be a regular for Chelsea, but I mostly believe the whispers about Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord, Schalke and RB Leipzig (which would be humorous) being intrigued:

Ream, because of his experience, passing and ability to play left back in a pinch, wins the final spot.

Also considered: Tim Parker (RBNY), Aaron Long (RBNY), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Ipswich Town)

RIGHT BACK (2): DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United), Tyler Adams (RBNY)

Yedlin's locked in as the starter despite some defensive struggles – he's not as good on that side of the ball as he should be, quite frankly. As for Adams, yes I know he's been playing primarily as a d-mid this year, but he's nonetheless spent about 20 percent of his minutes as a right wingback, and played almost exclusively at that spot last season. He has a ton of miles under his belt for a 19-year-old and is the superior defensive option.

Adams, to be clear, has been excellent as a d-mid for RBNY this year save for one soul-crushing giveaway against Chivas. It might end up being his long-term position, and he might end up being very good there. But his ceiling as a RB/RWB is two levels beyond "excellent."

For what it's worth I never considered Timmy Chandler. He never picked up the phone for one USMNT coach (Bob Bradley), quit on another (Jurgen Klinsmann), and our overall record when he plays is ghastly.

Also considered: No one, really. Graham Zusi's having a nice year for SKC, but Yedlin and Adams are locked in here.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD (2): Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC)

Bradley was phenomenal in TFC's Concacaf Champions League run and is still the best defensive midfielder in both the league and the USMNT pool, so he gets the shout here. I just won't be letting him take any penalties.

Trapp has slowly improved his physical presence as a No. 6, which is key to leveling up into a full national teamer. Truth be told, if Bradley gets hurt/suspended I'm probably going with Adams as the backup d-mid instead of Trapp, but 1) I want to have depth at d-mid, and 2) I want a pure, ball-playing d-mid to toss onto the field if and when I deem it necessary.

Also considered: Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Alfredo Morales (FC Ingolstadt), Keaton Parks (Benfica B)

Keep an eye on Parks. The 20-year-old got a handful of games for Benfica this year, and is expected to be in their plans for next season. 

CENTRAL MIDFIELD (2): Weston McKennie (Schalke 04), Darlington Nagbe (Atlanta United)

You can't imagine how ready I am for the Weston McKennie era. There are a ton of good No. 8s in the pool, but to my eye he's head-and-shoulders above the rest of them:

He, more than anyone who's come through the pool since, reminds me of prime Claudio Reyna except with a "drive the game forward" mentality and very good-to-excellent athleticism (he can, at times, be out-quicked). There's a reason he was a pretty regular starter for a Champions League team at age 19, and why he's going to be captaining the US for years to come.

Nagbe I thought I'd never want to see again after last autumn, but he's playing the best soccer of his life these days for the Five Stripes, and his elite, on-the-ball skillset can allow me to do some creative stuff with my sub patterns and formation.

Also considered: Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Joe Corona (Club America), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Sacha Kljestan (Orlando City), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution)

Imagine, if you will, a world in which, for the past decade, the USMNT had a creative central midfielder who took MLS by storm as a rookie. Imagine he worked his way into the full national team, and then made a move to a UEFA Champions League club in a good league. Imagine he spent a half a decade there – pretty much all as a starter, including dozens of Champions League appearances – winning seven domestic titles in all while playing in a deeper, sort of "game conductor" role.

Imagine he then returned home to MLS. In his first year he led his team to a Supporters' Shield. In his second he became just the second player in league history to provide 20 assists in a season, and in his third he became the first player ever to lead the league in assists in back-to-back years. Imagine the underlying metrics all met the eye test as his passing vision and touch powered the league's highest-scoring attack.

Let's also imagine that this player, in the only two games he was ever allowed to play with Christian Pulisic, showed an uncanny knack for combining with the young star:

We wouldn't be silly enough to use that player out of position, or ignore him entirely for most of this decade, would we?

You probably know you don't have to imagine that we would be exactly that silly.

Kljestan's limited in how much ground he covers, and because he takes chances he's capable of some bad turnovers, but I don't care about that.  I've got McKennie and Bradley behind him, and I want Kljestan to take chances. I care about the fact that he can actually pass the ball – all three of those guys can, actually – and that frees up Pulisic to not have to do freaking everything. My whole (only, really) attacking gameplan is "get Pulisic in space" and Kljestan, more than anybody else, allows me to do that.

In the ~100 minutes they shared the field together in World Cup qualifiers the US scored six goals. On five of them one or the other either scored or had the primary assist.

I still can't believe we never saw Kljestan + Pulisic together in attack again after the T&T game above. Our cultural aversion to trusting our own creative players was our doom this past cycle, and I will not make the same mistake in the World Cup itself. Sacha's starting.

Rowe was great at last summer's Gold Cup and can also potentially help me on either wing or as a No. 8. I still don't understand why he's not playing centrally for the Revs but he's clearly not the first or only domestic attacking talent we're destined to squander.

Also considered: It crushed me to leave Benny Feilhaber off because A) he's playing well for LAFC (though as a No. 8) and B) there pretty much is no one else with any experience as a No. 10, but so it goes. Emerson Hyndman and Junior Flores shot for the stars and have thus far come up short; Mix Diskerud is nah; Paxton Pomykal can't stay healthy; Andrew Carleton is a year away; Lee Nguyen's out of the starting lineup.

WINGER: Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Jonathan Amon (FC Nordsjælland), Miguel Ibarra (Minnesota United)

Let me introduce you to Jonathan Amon:

The 19-year-old earned a starting job for the No. 3 team in Denmark this spring and picked up 2g/3a in about 560 minutes. He is, as you can see, a baller.

Am I stupid enough to start a pair of 19-year-old wingers? Absolutely! I'm also not afraid to make early subs if I need to. Managers are always too slow to change things if they're not working. Also, it's not like there's a cadre of MLS wingers making a great case for inclusion, so the kid stays in the picture.

Ibarra is my "let's close this game out so get ready to run yourself into the ground" workhorse.

Also considered: Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Chris Mueller (Orlando City), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Tim Weah (PSG)

FORWARD: Dom Dwyer (Orlando City), Bobby Wood (Hamburg)

Dwyer, like Rowe, was excellent at last year's Gold Cup and that matters to me. He's also been the best/most productive domestic attacker in MLS since getting healthy seven games ago:

On top of that I love the fact that he's a grinder and a gamer who wants to get on the ball in tough spots, will do unselfish running for his teammates and is, um, totally willing to engage in the dark arts in order to win a foul/get inside a defender's head. Dwyer is the most Concacaf'y striker in our pool and I'll be damned if I'm not planning on going full, unrepentant Concacaf this summer.

Wood had about as bad a season as is possible – worse than Jozy at Sunderland or Hull – with a terrible Hamburg team this year. But he's come up big in qualifiers from time to time and I'm certain he's better than he showed over the last eight months.

Also considered: Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC), Christian Ramirez (MNUFC), Andrija Novakovich (Telstar)

I want Zardes to win the Golden Boot so bad, but he's clearly a product of the system. I need my No. 9 to create a little more space than he does.

Ramirez is maybe the best native goalscorer, but his injuries and stop/start form worry me. Novakovich I thought about until I remembered that the Dutch second tier is roughly USL level.

MY STARTING XI

It's more of a 4-2-1-3 rather than a 4-2-3-1. I don't want Villafaña to overlap, I just want him to push up and support. If I need width on the left as Pulisic dives inside to get goal-dangerous it'll come from either Kljestan or McKennie flaring out following a build-up.

Only one field player (Kljestan, 32) is older than 30. Six are 25 and under.

MY HAHA I'M KILLING THIS GAME OFF XI

Seriously tho, I dare you to leave me space on the counter:

Enjoy the World Cup, everybody. I think we've got a strong team and a real chance to do some damage this year.

Series: 
Topics: