“It is impossible to live in the past, difficult to live in the present and a waste to live in the future.” ― Frank Herbert, Dune
There are a million reasons to be excited about the United Bid, between the US, Canada and Mexico, that last week won the right to host the 2026 World Cup. I am old enough to remember the 1994 World Cup and how it turbo-charged the game here, and that's one reason. We should all remember the 2016 Copa América, and the joy of watching some of the world's greatest teams performing on these shores, and that's another.
And obviously: Money makes the world go 'round, and this will be a windfall for the three federations. Be as cynical as you like, but if this means futsal courts in Montreal and Miami and Monterrey and all stops in between (and it should!), that's going to mean a lot of kids play a lot more soccer. It's going to mean, in the long run, better soccer for the respective national teams as well as the respective club teams that compose this league of us. It's going to mean kids get better faster. It's a "rising tide lifts all boats" proposition and I'm a fan of those.
There are also a million miles between now and 2026. In general it's foolish to try to predict any team's roster even a year out from any given tournament, and eight years is… irresponsible. Injuries happen, lack of form happens, and if you'd asked me to do this in 2010 here's the USMNT lineup I'd have provided you with for this summer's World Cup, for which we'd have surely qualified with ease:
You see what a mess this is, right? How much different would this past decade had been if Stu Holden, Steve Zakuani and Ike Opara had stayed healthy for most of it? Or if Eric Lichaj hadn't been exiled? Or if the Freddy Adu who played for the US in the 2011 Gold Cup hadn't lost his spark? What if that guy was the real Freddy Adu?
You just can't predict those things. And you certainly can't predict, with acceptable accuracy, the rise of a bunch of 10-12-year-olds like Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic. Those four guys (as well as a few others of roughly the same cohort) look like they'll be the core of the USMNT for the next decade, but I guarantee that some of you reading this column right now will be screaming bloody murder about them – demanding they have their minutes cut, be outright benched, banished to the moon or launched into the sun – by 2025, and begging for **insert head coach here** to play **insert hotshot 18-year-old here** in their place. The 18-year-old that future you is screaming about is currently a pre-teen.
That's the circle of this sporting life, folks. These things are impossible to predict, and if you don't believe me here's an eight-year-old article on then-15-year-old Jean-Marie Dongou, who was the first Barcelona academy player to play up three age groups since Messi. And here's another from 2013, when Dongou was 18. That one includes this quote from Graham Hunter:
"I’m not going to say he’ll be better than Messi, but he made far more of an impact on me than Messi did as a 16-year-old."
And more from him:
"For the moment you'll just have to take it from me that Barcelona's youth system has uncovered a talent so rare that the Messi comparisons will flourish, despite the two playing styles bearing little if any resemblance.
"Dongou will, one day, conquer Spain, Europe and the world with Barcelona and it wouldn't surprise if one day he's a Ballon D'Or winner. That is his range."
Dongou is now 23, just entering his prime. He never scored more than 11 goals in a season for Barca B, and only one ever (in the 2013/14 Copa Del Rey) for the full Barcelona squad. He just finished his first year with Gimnastic of the Segunda Division (Spain's second tier). He played eight times and scored zero goals in 140 minutes. In the previous season – with Real Zaragoza, also in the Segunda Division – he played 14 times, scoring three goals in 527 minutes. He has conquered nothing.
There are millions more Dongous than there are Messis. And if you really need that point driven home, take a look at the wreckage from the 2009 US Under-20 roster. With all due respect to Opara, Sean Johnson and Jorge Villafaña, the most successful pro athlete from that group is certainly Josh Lambo … who kicks for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
So take all of the following with a grain of salt, and measure all your hopes and dreams one set of games (friendlies, qualifiers, whatever) at a time. Measure your expectations by club form and, quite frankly, the competence of whoever's hired to be the next USMNT manager. And for God's sake never ever ever take qualifying for granted, because sometimes the answer to "Yeah, but could he do it on a rainy night in Couva?" is "no."
With that as prologue, I have decided to let the spice flow and have peered into the future. So here's the USMNT roster for the 2026 World Cup, including their current team right now and age eight years from today, in the second year of the reign of Padishah Emperor Shaddam I:
It certainly seems like Steffen's got a leg up on the competition at this point but things can and will change in the years to come. We've seen Gonzalez win a starting job, then lose it, then win it back; we've seen Turner come out of the blue to become probably the Goalkeeper of the Year at this point; we've seen Ethan Horvath (31) have a wildly up-and-down season for Club Brugge, even by young 'keeper standards.
All of these guys, and a few others, are good enough to win the job outright. None is so good that they can take it for granted. And for what it's worth, don't rule out Brad Guzan for 2022.
LEFT BACK: Antonee Robinson, Everton (28); Danilo Acosta, Real Salt Lake (28)
Here's a truth that makes my head swim: It looks at least somewhat like the USMNT will spend this decade having something called "left back depth." Robinson put in a couple of very promising debut shifts for the US in this last set of friendlies, and his speed is impossible to miss. He got 30 games at a good level this past year as a 20-year-old, and it seems a decent bet that he'll figure into Everton's plans this coming season.
Acosta has worked his way out of Mike Petke's doghouse and back into the starting XI for RSL. He lacks Robinson's pace, but nobody's faster than the ball, and no young fullback in the US pool has shown anything close to Acosta's ability to break lines with it:
Portland's Marco Farfan (27) and Philly's Matthew Real (26) are two other young left backs on the come-up, as is Atlanta United's George Bello (24) and former RBNY product Chris Gloster (25), who's now at Hannover 96. And it's worth watching Aedan Stanley (26) of St. Louis FC in the USL if you get ESPN+.
I am as excited about Miazga for the next 10 years as I am about Pulisic and McKennie, who are both starters for Champions League teams in a top four league. Miazga hasn't had his breakthrough on that level yet, but since he arrived at Vitesse he's 1) helped lead them to the club's first trophy in its 125-year history, and 2) helped captain them to back-to-back appearances in the Europa league, including a goal in the playoffs.
Miazga competes like a SOB, he wins, and he keeps improving. He is also better with the ball than you realize:
You’re sleeping on Matt Miazga’s line-splitting passes. You just are. pic.twitter.com/krnaiKkLI2— Joseph Lowery (@joeInCleats) June 10, 2018
Glad has struggled this year, but … well, that's true of everybody in this age-group to be perfectly honest. And yes, that includes Cameron Carter-Vickers (28), who just doesn't do enough with the ball to move me. Other guys like Auston Trusty (28) will probably get their looks, and there could always be late-bloomers who push their way in.
John Brooks will be 33 by 2026, by the way. Let's hope he and Miazga have a wonderful 2022 cycle together, and then Brooks is phased out by 2024.
There are not many outstanding CBs who've shown themselves in the '99s and afterward, but the '95s through '98s are stacked.
Sorry, but I still expect Adams to get moved back out wide once he makes the jump to (I'm gonna assume) the Bundesliga. He can and will play some defensive midfield as a pure, field-shrinking destroyer, but his upside is higher as a right-sided player. Put him out there and you cut out an entire half of the field for the opponent, but still retain your ability to push forward.
Cannon has the edge on the other options at this point, though Shaq Moore (29) was promising for both Levante and the US this spring, and Jaylin Lindsey (26) has been really good thus far for Sporting KC on both the right and the left, at both fullback and wingback. Plus don't rule out Brooks Lennon (28), whose transition to right back is currently "promising."
There are a ton of good right backs coming through the ranks as well.
DeAndre Yedlin will be 32 by 2026. Hopefully he'll follow a similar path as Brooks.
DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Weston McKennie, Schalke 04 (27); Chris Durkin, D.C. United (26)
Right now McKennie is more of a No. 8 than a No. 6. Part of that is just the positional indiscipline of youth, part of that is Schalke's approach, and part of that is the needs on that roster. But starting in August I believe they'll start to move him back into more of a pure protector/orchestrator role, and he'll settle into that spot long-term (before being sold on for $$$$, because that's what Schalke does).
Durkin, who is wonderful and is drawing interest from Benfica (amongst others) for a reason, already plays that spot, and does it well:
Durkin did indeed win the starting job outright in the weeks after that performance.
There are a handful of other defensive midfielders coming up, some more destructive/purely defense-minded, others game-spreading pseudo registas. I will be shocked, though, if any surpass McKennie and Durkin. Both these guys have the world at their feet if they keep working hard and stay healthy.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Keaton Parks, Benfica (28); Alex Mendez, LA Galaxy II (25); Jackson Yueill, San Jose Earthquakes (29)
Parks is probably going to end up being more of a No. 8 than a No. 6 largely because he struggles so much to win balls in 1v1 situations, and to the kid's credit he pretty consistently looked like a force multiplier when pushing into the attack both on and off the ball for Benfica B. They expect him to compete for (and win) a starting job next season.
Mendez has been the best central midfielder for the US U-20s so far this cycle, and is getting 90 minutes every weekend with Los Dos. Yueill is not getting 90 minutes every weekend for the Quakes, which is bizarre given their current midfield issues. It's not do-or-die time yet, but San Jose's inability to properly value and develop young talent has been a calling card over the past decade and it doesn't look like changing under the current regime.
And that's a shame because Yueill changes the game with his passing ability and natural inclination toward "la pausa."
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Andrew Carleton, Atlanta United (26); Richie Ledezma, Real Monarchs (25)
You probably know all about Carleton by now – he is, I think a singular attacking talent. He's getting 90 minutes with Atlanta United 2 just about every week, scored a banger in the US Open Cup last week, and is currently in the midst of melding his creative instincts with the "be responsible in how you use the ball" necessities of running the show for a professional soccer team.
Ledezma is less well-known. In part that's because he didn't have the same USYNT platform Carleton did, and in part that's because he's not as flashy. But he's really, really good – smart, patient and tidy both on and off the ball:
This is a good, patient, professional run, and then he does a nice job of sending the 'keeper the wrong way. He also had an assist that game, and over the past month has asserted himself as arguably the best attacker on Real Monarchs, as well as with the US U-20s.
Here's a question: How much does it matter with regard to his development that Monarchs (currently atop the USL standings at 11-3-1) go out there and try to win, while Los Dos (3-7-4) and Atlanta United 2 (2-7-5) are terrible? My own take is that I don't think it's an accident that NYRBII – who've won a USL title, and are contenders every year – have been the most successful USL team at producing top-tier talent thus far. My hope is that Carleton and Mendez overcome that handicap.
Other guys in the discussion here could be Gianluca Busio (24), who's playing a bunch with Swope Park Rangers and just made his Sporting KC debut; Frankie Amaya (25), who is the odds-on favorite to be college freshman of the year with UCLA; Paxton Pomykal (26) of FC Dallas, and Bradford Jamieson IV (29) of the Galaxy, who is a different kind of attacking midfielder.
There's are a million other skilled, young attackers coming through the ranks as well.
The differentiator is probably going to be "will the club you sign with give you minutes?" Josh Sargent, for example, signed with Werder Bremen over Bayern Munich because he'll get minutes with Werder, and in my opinion that is the right move.
WINGERS: Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund (27); Giovanni Reyna, NYCFC Academy (23); Tim Weah, PSG (26)
Pulisic is obviously the centerpiece. And look, Gio Reyna already has an adidas commercial at age 15!
What could possibly go wrong?
Reyna's been dominant for the NYCFC academy and for the US youth national teams, and there are both rumors and reports that he will be signing with a big club in Europe sooner rather than later (he was born in Scotland, which means he can move to anywhere in the EU). Reyna is more technical than physically dominant, but his quickness and comfort on the ball are reminiscent of his dad. And unlike his dad, he has a killer's instincts in the final third.
Projecting out with 15-year-olds is dumb – nobody thought, when Pulisic was 15, that he'd be starting Europa League games at 16 and Champions League games at 17. But what the hell, right? Shoot your shot.
I almost picked NYCFC's Jonathan Lewis (29) over Weah because he's a better passer of the ball, and Jonathan Amon (27) will factor in as well. Chris Mueller (29) has had a very promising start to his pro career, and I'm actively enraging some friends by leaving Los Dos's Ulysses Llanez (25) off this list.
There are a ton of young wingers coming through the ranks. Put the ball in the net, kids.
CENTER FORWARD: Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen (25), Cristiano Ronaldo's kid (16)
The child is half-Yank! Cap him now!
Ronaldo's son showing off his skills.— Airtel UG Football (@AirtelUFootball) June 11, 2018
Like father like son pic.twitter.com/hu2tcuhTui
To borrow another line from Dune: Hope clouds observation.
Don't sweat 2026 too much, folks. The next set of friendlies are mere months away.