The United States Soccer Federation is currently embroiled in a sticky situation. Shockingly enough, the senior side failed to qualify for the 2018 after an embarrassing defeat to tiny Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the first time since 1986 in which the United States will not feature in the world’s grandest sporting event.
Pressure has increased ten-fold after the debacle. Media pundits have thrown plenty of criticism towards USSF President Sunil Gulati. Many of them are asking him to step down. His four-year tenure ends in February — though he can be reelected for one more cycle (something many hope does not happen). Bruce Arena was supposed to stabilize things after the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann. A veteran coach with knowledge of the situation, Arena seemed like a good fit on the surface.
However, uninspiring tactical choices coupled with a reliance upon older players had the side brilliantly crashing out of the World Cup picture. A temporary stop-gap from the start, Arena unsurprisingly stepped down following the calamity in the Caribbean.
On Monday, it was announced that the United States will square off in a friendly abroad versus Portugal. Cristiano Ronaldo’s side will use this game as a chemistry sharpener for the upcoming tournament the following June. As for the United States, the match is an opportunity to be experimental with a whole new set of players.
There has been no word on a manager for the contest — though many predict U-20 head man Tab Ramos will get the call in an interim capacity. This appointment to the post would be fascinating for the sheer fact that he’s worked with many of the youngsters eager to break into the side.
With this matching holding no significance going forward, it makes absolutely no sense to utilize the same roster we saw fail in World Cup qualifying. In fact, every match going forward should be with an eye towards the 2022 World Cup. Players teetering around age 30 likely won’t have any role in the next cycle. Conventional wisdom suggests getting young, inexperienced players some much-needed time on the international level.
With the match being played in Europe, expect much of the roster to come from European-based clubs. Simply put, the United States has nothing to lose in this scenario. It makes more than enough sense to integrate young players into the fold as quickly as possible.
As such, here’s a roster I’d like to see for this friendly (age listed in parenthesis):
Goalkeepers: Ethan Horvath/Club Brugge (22); Jesse Gonzalez/FC Dallas (22); Bill Hamid/D.C. United (26)
Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin/Newcastle United (24); Cameron Carter-Vickers/Tottenham (19), Matt Miazga/Chelsea (22), Kenny Saief/K.A.A. Gent (23), Shaquell Moore/Levante UD (20), Antonee Robinson/Everton (20), Ashton Gotz/24 (Roda JC Kerkrade), Desevio Payne/Excelsior (21)
Midfielders: Kyle Scott/Chelsea (19), Weston McKennie/Schalke 04 (19), Jonathan Gonzalez/Monterrey (18), Christian Pulisic/Borussia Dortmund (19), Tyler Adams/New York Red Bulls (18), Lynden Gooch/Sunderland (21), Kellyn Acosta/FC Dallas (22), Danny Williams/Huddersfield Town (28), Luca de la Torre/Fulham (19)
Forwards: Bobby Wood/Hamburg (24), Haji Wright/Schalke 04 (19), Andrija Novakovich/Reading (20), Tim Weah/Paris Saint-Germain F.C. (17)
This entire roster is made up of players under the age of 30. The inclusion of MLS players will largely be based upon the playoff standings of their individual clubs (specifically for Gonzalez, Adams, and Acosta). John Brooks would normally make the roster for a European friendly — though he’s slowly working his way back from injury. He’s got nothing to prove going forward — as he’s likely a shoe-in as an integral member of the national team going forward.
It’s time we move away from the Tim Howard (38), Nick Rimando (38), and Brad Guzan (33) trio. Considering their current ages, none figure to be a primary option for the 2022 World Cup cycle. Horvath is the unquestioned top goalkeeper prospect for the program. At only 22, he’s currently the starter for the top club in Belgium. Horvath should without a doubt assume the role as the No. 1 keeper within the national team program.
Gonzalez is one of the more athletic keepers in MLS. It was a coup for the program to pry him away from Mexico — whom he was also eligible to play for. Hamid is essentially being blackballed out of D.C. United over an unwillingness to re-sign with the club. At this point, he appears destined for Europe, where he hopes to realize his vast potential. While the aforementioned trio have far less experience than Guzan, Howard and Rimando, they’re far more athletic.
Defensively, we’re also primed for a huge overhaul. Though not entirely his fault, it isn’t likely we’ll be seeing Omar Gonzalez in a United States jersey any time soon (if ever again). Geoff Cameron figured to be a fixture for the squad in a World Cup year. However at 32 years of age, he’s about to exit his prime. Miazga and Carter-Vickers have been playing exceptionally well over the last few months. Miazga in particular has the technical ability to be a very good international center back. Carter-Vickers pairs nicely with him as more of a bruiser.
Robinson has been on loan with Bolton, and has actually received some decent playing time. He holds even more value as a true left-back (something the United States hasn’t had in years). Payne plays sparingly in the Dutch top division. Moore is on the cusp of breaking in with the first team. As opposed to perplexingly utilizing midfielders as fullbacks (Graham Zusi), the team can integrate young players at their actual positions. Much like the goalkeeper position, all represent a massive upgrade in overall athleticism and pace.
The midfield is where we see plenty of intrigue. We all know about Pulisic and his antics. He’s without a doubt the best player in the pool, and should be for the next 10-12 years. After that, two of the biggest gems within the program are McKennie and Gonzalez. McKennie has established himself as a starter for a very respectable Bundesliga club. Playing with tons of energy, McKennie has positional versatility as a destroyer in front of the back four, and also as a box-to-box type.
Duly, Gonzalez is starting for the best club in Mexico. He’s come out of nowhere to become a very good prospect in a short amount of time. Like McKennie, he possesses some advanced defensive traits. Gonzalez is also incredibly silky with the ball at his feet, and is adept at springing wingers and strikers with deftly-played balls. Those within the program are nervy that he may switch his allegiance to Mexico. As a means to stem the momentum of missing the World Cup, a November call-in could help. Both McKennie and Gonzalez appear primed to be huge pieces for the program going forward.
Adams was a big member of the recent U-20 World Cup roster. He’s since broken in with the New York Red Bulls — and has arguably been the best player for the team. It’s very feasible to see Adams head across the pond sooner than later. His work-rate — coupled with his pace — makes him a very intriguing prospect.
Wood will return as “the guy” spearheading the attack. It’s hard to believe that the Honolulu native is only 24 years of age. We could see the likes of Terrence Boyd, Aron Johannsson, or Jerome Kiesewetter, but none look like viable options going forward. Instead, the side will be introduced to three fresh faces in the form of Wright, Novakovich, and Weah.
All three have long been members of the youth national team set-up. Wright and Novakovich both stand at 6’4″ — which is a welcomed sight for the senior side. Pairing Wood with Jozy Altidore, or Altidore with another striker hasn’t worked well simply due to the fact that they are too similar when it comes to skill-set. Novakovich is a big, strong forward. As a true target man, he’s terrific on set pieces and holding the ball up.
Wright is rather unique, as he possesses pace and skill rarely seen for a player of his stature. He can shoot out wide in a 4-3-3 formation, or can play along side another attacker up top. Novakovich has scored five goals in nine matches for second Dutch division side Telstar. A move back to parent club Reading — or somewhere else — is likely in the cards sooner than later. Wright is on loan with SV Sandhausen from Schalke with the sole purpose of gaining first-team football. So far, he’s been a consistent starter with one goal to his name.
Weah is the huge wildcard. Josh Sargent was also an option for this spot. However, he won’t join Werder Bremen until February, and it’s plausible to think both player and club won’t want to risk an injury. Weah has the pedigree to be arguably the best American striker of all-time. His father, George, starred for major clubs such as PSG, Milan, Manchester City, Monaco, and Chelsea. He became the first African player to win both the Ballon d’Or and the World Player of the Year Award.
The younger Weah has been cutting his teeth at world renowned club PSG. A fixture within the youth set-up for the French giant, he’s also been playing consistently with the United States. During the U-17 World Cup, Weah scored a hat-trick en route to a 5-0 drubbing of previously-undefeated Paraguay. The U-17 side will now head to the quarterfinals with a real shot at winning the entire thing.
Weah has both pace and immense technical ability. While he may be a little ways away from featuring next to Neymar and Edinson Cavani, there’s no denying his elite talent level.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the U-17 squad, and the young players currently plying their trades in MLS. Danilo Acosta, Brandon Vincent, and Brooks Lennon are three players that should get looks with the senior side in the upcoming months. Chris Durkin, Andrew Carleton, and Jaylin Lindsey have been instrumental in getting the United States to the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup.
As it pertains to Europe, Matthew Olosunde of Manchester United, Emerson Hyndman of A.F.C. Bournemouth, Josh Perez of Fiorentina, and Mukwelle Akale of Villarreal have bright futures.
Time will tell as to how these young players develop. With that said, the United States Soccer Federation should be doing everything in its power in fostering the growth of these exciting prospects. Having a four-year window to throw these players into the proverbial fire will only pay dividends down the line.