Though the sting of missing out on this year's World Cup will likely never subside, the United States Men's National team has recently uncovered some newfound optimism.
In 2019, there will be a plethora of significant matches going forward for the program. The 2019 Gold Cup could determine admission into the 2021 Confederations Cup. Olympic qualifying matches will take place next year ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Duly, the start of the 2022 World Cup qualifying process will begin.
For as somber as this summer will be, there's plenty to look towards.
Many sides enter this ambiguous post-World Cup period in transition. Veterans passed their prime are normally weeded out in favor of new talent. This is particularly the case for any side still clutching onto a supposed 'Golden Generation' which has spanned (in some cases) up to eight years.
For instance, a side such as Uruguay figures to see a massive overhaul of its player pool by the time 2022 rolls around. This is due to the fact that core members Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, and Fernando Muslera will all be in their mid-30's four years from now. Though it didn't qualify for this cycle, Chile also will experience a similar dissolving of its reliable core (Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel, Jean Beausejour) based upon overall age.
In a perfect world, programs transition with a mixture of veterans and up-and-coming talent. This amalgam theoretically would possess the experience plus energy needed to careen forward.
Interestingly enough, the United States finds itself staring squarely at the prospect of building from the ground up. Considering the recent history of the program, this might not be too bad of an idea.
Since assuming the caretaker role, Dave Sarachan has -- rightfully so -- leaned on youthful rosters for the last two friendlies (versus Paraguay and Bolivia, respectively). Against Bolivia this past week, the average age of the players selected for the match was under 23.
Tougher tests arrive in the next two weeks -- as the squad travels across the pond to face Ireland and France.
There were some positive developments from the 3-0 victory over Bolivia. We should offer the caveat that this Bolivian side was atrocious -- and would be their "C" side from a pure talent standpoint. With that said, there were multiple performances by young players which could become significant down the line.
The left-back position has been a black hole within this roster for nearly two decades. There's been both insufficient depth and quality at the position. Frankly, there's also been a lack of a true No. 1 option the manager could pencil in without batting an eye.
Antonee Robinson may be ready to change that narrative. The 20-year-old is on the books at Everton -- though spent this past year on loan with Bolton. The starlet developed into a weekly starter in England, an aspect only a handful of Americans can currently boast about.
Against Bolivia, Robinson displayed a real prowess in bombing up the flanks with overlapping runs. He was threatening all match long -- and even contributed an assist by whipping in a neat cross into the box. His athletic ability is impressive, and Robinson seems to have advanced technical ability for a player of his age. Though it's unknown as to whether he will feature with Everton next season, it's clear that Robinson has massive upside.
Pictured above, Tim Weah's national team debut was met with plenty of hype. The son of George Weah (the former FIFA Player of the Year), Weah has long been a staple within the United States youth national team set-up. The 18-year-old made multiple appearances this year for French super club PSG.
Though naturally a striker, Weah appeared in the midfield versus Bolivia. From the start, Weah demonstrated a willingness to push forward. Utilizing sublime pace, he often put pressure on Bolivia's wing backs. His goal was a tap-in courtesy of the Robinson cross. His growth will only be aided by going on loan somewhere this upcoming year. This will enable Weah to get consistent time on the pitch -- something he desperately needs.
While still a bit raw, the athleticism and character is there for Weah to develop into something special. There aren't many like him in this current pool.
The last youngster making waves is Josh Sargent. A wunderkind within the system, Sargent arguably has been the most hyped American prospect over the last three years. He made the move to German side Werder Bremen at the beginning of the year -- and figures to potentially start for them next year as an 18-year-old.
A true number-nine, Sargent holds the ball up exceptionally well for a player his age. This was evident multiple times in the Bolivia match. Duly, Sargent has impressive anticipatory skills. His movement in the box is excellent, and the potential is there for him to one day become a true poacher. His nifty score versus Bolivia was highly splendid considering it was the first professional match of his promising career.
As we take a step back and widen the proverbial scope, the future of the national team appears to be very bright. The vast majority of the pool's players under 25 years of age all ply their trades in Europe. These aren't small clubs, either.
From a best-case scenario standpoint, here's a potential lineup we could see heading into the next qualifying cycle:
From a context standpoint, we'll offer the respective ages and clubs of every player listed above:
GK Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew/23 years old)
LB Antonee Robinson (Everton/20 years old)
CB John Anthony Brooks (Wolfburg/25 years old)
CB Matt Miazga (Chelsea/22 years old)
RB DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle/24 years old)
MF Weston McKennie (Schalke/19 years old)
MF Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls/19 years old)
MF Keaton Parks (Benfica/20 years old)
MF Jonathan Amon (FC Nordsjælland/19 years old)
MF Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/19 years old)
FW Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen/18 years 0ld)
As one can see, this entire group will be approaching their respective primes by the start of the next World Cup in 2022. Not only do all play first-team football, but each has featured for their clubs this season.
Steffen -- a former Freiburg prodigy -- is easily the best goalkeeper in the pool. It's only a matter of time before he's back across the pond. His ceiling is that of a Tim Howard or Kasey Keller. Brooks already featured in one world cup, and (when healthy) is the best defender on the squad. Miazga had arguably the best season of any American abroad. He -- along with Yedlin -- appear to be locked into the USA Starting XI for the foreseeable future.
McKennie is a player full of promise and upside. Rarely does an 18-year-old get minutes for a major Bundesliga side -- let alone start for them. He should continue to grow in the 'destroyer' role for the USMNT (though he can also function at an elevated spot on the pitch). Adams is the epitome of positional versatility. Already the captain for his MLS side, reports indicate that Adams will also move to the Bundesliga by the end of the year. Parks is a 6'4" anomaly coming out of nowhere to get minutes for a very accomplished club in Portuguese side Benfica. His footwork for a player of his size is quite good -- as is his ability to move the ball. Parks is one to watch for -- as his ceiling is also exceptional.
Pulisic is the best player in the pool -- and ultimately may be the most talented American of all-time (sorry Landon). Amon is a player the casual fan may not know too much about. Much like the left-back position, the United States had been essentially void of any quality wing play. Amon starts in the top Danish division -- and is insanely fast. His ability to beat defenders in one-on-one situations, along with adding width on the pitch, is something the current team doesn't have. With apologies to every other uncapped prospect, Amon's eventual debut with the national team should be more eagerly anticipated than anyone else's.
The lineup above features very good speed on the wings, bite in the center of the park, an athletic keeper, an intuitive striker, and a tall yet technically gifted center back pairing. When further factoring in the collective age of this XI, there's a lot to like.
Within the same token, there's a new found sense of depth that likely will be built. Preexisting members of the core (Michael Bradley, Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore, Tim Chandler, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe) could still figure into the mix. MLS players Alex Bono, Marky Delgado, Justen Glad, Tim Parker, and Wil Trapp could see themselves heading outside of the United States sooner than later.
Additionally, players competing abroad -- such as Konrad de la Fuente (FC Barcelona), Ben Lederman (FC Barcelona), Josh Pynadath (Ajax), Kenny Saief (Anderlecht), Matthew Olosunde (Manchester United), Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge), Juan Pablo Torres (Lokeren), Rubio Rubin (Tijuana), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna), Shaq Moore (Levante), Erik Palmer-Brown (Manchester City), Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham), Zyen Jones (Schalke), Romain Gall (GIF Sundsvall) -- are all viable options in the upcoming years.
It's an exciting time to be a fan of the USMNT. While the burn of missing this year's World Cup isn't positive in the slightest, the ever-burning light at the end of the tunnel is starting to become more and more visible.
Image Sources: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports