World Cup: Predicting the 2022 USMNT roster | Armchair Analyst

The World Cup is officially over! That means it's time for a quadrennial tradition: I predict the USMNT roster for the subsequent World Cup, in this case Qatar 2022.

First a little context:

  • This is hard. I went 0-for-23 last time hahahaha ohgodIcan'tbelievewedidn'tmaketheWorldCup.
  • Seriously though, I had some wild misses from the 2014 version of this column. There just wasn't enough top-tier young talent making a case for themselves.
  • The young guys who were supposed to evolve into USMNT regulars (Luis Gil, Joe Gyau, Josh Gatt, Junior Flores, Shane O'Neill, Emerson Hyndman) largely didn't.
  • Even in a well-developed soccer nation, it's difficult to predict who will rise. Four of England's starters in 2018 had, in 2013-14, played in the Championship or below, and a fifth (Harry Kane) was a little-used sub.
  • The US have more talent coming through than at any other point. This is good (yay, talent!) but also makes my job difficult (which prospects will turn into players?).

Younger players are getting more MLS minutes than ever before, and developmental curves have accelerated. This is an unvarnished good thing, as Homegrown players are, generally speaking, more polished at a younger age than their predecessors.

But yeah… I'm mostly throwing darts here.

Below is my list of 23 players for the 2022 USMNT that will head to Qatar, including each player's age four years from today. Please enjoy this for what it is:

GOALKEEPER: Zack Steffen (27), Tim Melia (36), Jesse Gonzalez (27)

Steffen seems to have a leg up over the rest of his cohort – which includes Gonzalez, as well as Alex Bono, Matt Turner and Ethan Horvath – despite oopsies like this past weekend against NYCFC. His pure shot-stopping ability is unrivaled, and while his ball-playing ability remains a work in progress, by forcing him to work with his feet now, Gregg Berhalter's doing Steffen a long-term solid.

Melia is currently the best all-around goalkeeper in the US pool, just edging Brad Guzan (who will be 37 in 2022, and very much in play to claim a spot here). 

The biggest disappointment is that Bill Hamid hasn't made any sort of run at this job. He's on the bench in Denmark these days, and was poor in his most recent US appearance.

LEFT BACK: Danilo Acosta (24), Antonee Robinson (24)

Acosta has fought through an early-season benching to lock down the permanent starting LB job for RSL, and adds value on both sides of the ball – which continues a trend he set last year both at the U-20 World Cup (the US made the quarterfinals) and with his club team late in the season.

He is easily the best passing LB prospect the US have had in the pipeline in recent years, which is probably a function of having spent a good part of his youth development at defensive midfield. His ability to hit line-breaking passes from the fullback slot can and often does change the shape of the game for the Claret-and-Cobalt, and he's done very well in 1v1 defending against the likes of Alberth Elis and Michael Barrios.

Robinson, who got 30 games in the Championship and might be playing for Everton in the EPL this year, beat the hell out of a bad Bolivia team seven weeks ago:

His speed and crossing ability are both weapons that need to be maximized, and can be in either a typical back four or any version of a 3-back or 5-back set-up.

If you want to focus on a young, up-and-comer: George Bello is your guy. But he's just 16, and is probably two or three years from getting regular MLS minutes.

CENTER BACK: Matt Miazga (26), John Brooks (29), Tim Parker (29), Erik Palmer-Brown (25)

The first two pick themselves, and I'll be surprised if they're not the go-to CB pairing for the majority of the upcoming cycle. Something will have gone very wrong if they're not.

Or perhaps something will have gone very right, because Palmer-Brown is one of three relatively young options (Justen Glad and Cameron Carter-Vickers being the other two) with a ton of experience and a ton of upside. I'm currently betting on EPB to outperform the other two because unlike Glad he doesn't get ragdolled, and unlike CCV he can pass the ball.

But it's still wide open.

Parker I have in there because he is a rugged and steady backline presence who is adequate or above at everything, and has the added bonuses of being 1) a superior athlete to just about everyone else in the CB pool, and 2) two footed to the point that I actually thought he was left-footed.

RIGHT BACK: Tyler Adams (23), DeAndre Yedlin (29)

I've said it a million times, but I won't let that stop me from saying it again here: Adams has the talent to be a really, really good defensive midfielder. He has the talent to be a world class right back. I think he ends up there.

Yedlin is and has been an EPL starter for a while now, but it's strange to me he's still so often a liability in 1v1 defense, and I wonder if that will ever change. But even though there are a bunch of up-and-coming right backs – Reggie Cannon, Brooks Lennon, Shaq Moore, Jaylin Lindsey – it's hard to imagine Yedlin falling out of the rotation while he's in his prime.

DEFENSIVE MIDFIELD: Weston McKennie (23), Chris Durkin (22)

I hate the fact that Schalke keep using McKennie – who's probably a No. 8 right now, but should be a No. 6 by this time next year – as a center back in fits and starts. It's a bizarre decision considering the kid's potential:

Durkin outright won the starting d-mid job from an in-his-prime Venezuelan international already, and he is a game-controlling distributor who's manning the toughest spot on the field as an 18-year-old. He's not exceptional at digging the ball out of a scrum in 1v1 defensive situations, but he reads the game very well, has good strength, and generally makes things easier on his teammates.

CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Keaton Parks (24), Cristian Roldan (27), Paul Arriola (27)

Parks has maybe the softest feet in the pool, as well as the greatest passing range. His ability to receive the ball in traffic, spin away from pressure and then switch the field of play – and then get forward – is why he was winning minutes for one of Europe's best clubs at age 20. He has a good shot at being a starter for Benfica this coming season.

I had to flip several coins between Roldan, Marky Delgado and Kellyn Acosta, but the short version is this: Even when his team has been bad, he has been consistently good, and he can play three or four different spots (depending upon how you feel about him as an off-the-ball attacking midfielder). The same goes true for Arriola, who has turned into an all-energy No. 8 over the past couple of months, but has also played as both a pure winger and a two-way, touchline-to-touchline wingback in his young and thus-far-pretty-impressive career.

This list can and will change a ton over the coming years, and there are a few younger guys who have, I think, greater potential than either. But Roldan and Arriola are my calls (for now).

ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Andrew Carleton (22), Sebastian Lletget (29)

Has he played only 29 total MLS minutes? Yes. Has he been inconsistent in USL? Yes. Does he have some of the best players in the league ahead of him? He sure does. But I've still got my money on Carleton, who's looked good-to-great every time he's gotten to play with the full Atlanta squad, be it in brief regular season cameos, or in the US Open Cup where he did this:

It looks like he'll have to prove he can dominate in the USL, and then dominate with the US U-20s – the CONCACAF Championship is in November – before getting real minutes in MLS. So be it. I think he'll get there.

Lletget's been largely forgotten about because of his injuries over the past two seasons, but as an all-around attacking presence he's been excellent when healthy, and long-term I hope he wins a spot in the hole underneath the Galaxy front line.

There aren't a ton of 10s coming through the ranks, but you'd probably want to keep an eye on Gianluca Busio, Frankie Amaya and Richie Ledezma.

WINGER: Christian Pulisic (23), Tim Weah (22), Jonathan Lewis (25)

Pulisic's the first name on the list. Weah wasn't as good with the U-17s as Carleton, but he's gotten minutes for PSG and hasn't looked out of place, and he's scored goals for the USMNT. I think most would consider it a stretch not to include him on this list.

Lewis has been a game-changer pretty much every time he's gotten on the field for NYCFC, and I don't see why that wouldn't continue. In fact I expect it to continue – he plays with a purpose and clarity lots of young attackers lack, and punishes the hell out of backlines that aren't precise when trying to play through him:

There are a few other young wingers who should be in the mix, like Bofo Saucedo, Chris Mueller, Jonathan Amon and Emmanuel Sabbi, while the even younger, USL-based cadre has too many prospects to list.

CENTER FORWARD: Josh Sargent (22), Jozy Altidore (32)

Sargent is, hands-down, the best forward prospect in the player pool, and my great hope is that we get to see him prove it this year in the Bundesliga for Werder Bremen. He hasn't been playing much with the first team in preseason, but he's been scoring a bunch for the second team and that bodes well for his near-term and long-term future.

As for Jozy... he's better than Bobby Wood, better than Jordan Morris, better than Gyasi Zardes, better than Andrija Novakovich (whose numbers in the Dutch second flight were not as good as Jozy's in the Dutch top tier). Age 32 is long-in-the-tooth, but not precisely old, and I'll just say it: I'm not super confident that any of the younger forwards I've seen (besides Sargent) will be able to displace Altidore this cycle.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Four years ago writing this column was cathartic. Writing it this time has been much different, a mixture of anxiety (which of these guys will actually live up to their potential?), worry (goodness, that's a really young roster I just picked) and hope (goodness, that's a really talented roster I just picked).

Whoever the next head coach is will have a ton of questions to answer, but a ton of raw material to work with. I've been following the USMNT for 35 years, and this is the blankest I can remember the slate being since the very beginning of that span. No fate but what we make.

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