In the world of soccer, nothing is a certainty. Giants are felled against the odds. Goal-line sitters soar over the bar. All-time leading goal-scorers are left off of World Cup Finals rosters. (Speaking of course about Iran's Reza Enayati, who at the tender age of 37 was refused a ticket to Brazil this past summer. And no one else.)
That goes double for picking a World Cup roster—hell, maybe triple, considering it's some three-and-a-half years before the next tournament kicks off in Russia. After all, despite recent form, qualifying is by no means a gimme: The U.S.'s recent stint of seven-straight World Cup qualifications came off of a 36-year cold streak. And with three CONCACAF nations squeaking into the round of 16 in Brazil, getting into the next dance has rarely looked more difficult.
But with a newly inspired fan base, young talent to spare, and the wunderbar German connection, it's an exciting time for U.S. Soccer. Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan won't see another cup cycle, but for once, there's a clear line of sight for the future of American soccer. On that note, let's do the impossible and guess at what a prospective starting eleven might look like for the 2018 World Cup.
Because defense wins championships, and right now, we need all the help we can get back there. Without extremely skilled or at least dependable defenders, the next best option is to congest the backfield. This obviously leaves our attack less potent, but zippy outside midfielders and a good hold-up striker render this a capable counter-attack formation.
This isn't to say the game plan should be to absorb attacks all day and spring the counter when possible—that has almost never worked for the USMNT. It's a simple acknowledgment that against higher-ranked teams, of which there are many, the U.S. will be on the back foot more often than not. A 4-5-1 should give enough support to ensure Guzan won't have to break any records to keep the U.S. in a match against a potent offense.
Joey Altidore is the closest thing to a definite on the roster. So long as his form remains, he'll be in Russia. The 4-5-1 depends heavily on Altidore's hold-up game, which has admittedly been spotty thanks to an often stiff first touch. Thankfully, that can be improved upon. What can't be taught is brute strength, which Altidore has in spades. Provided he gets the minutes on a top-flight team—whether in England or elsewhere—Jozy could blossom into the striker fans have believed him to be. But really, unless Klinnsman digs out another surging young talent—Gyasi Zardes seems ripe—Altidore doesn't really have that much competition. Once Dempsey is gone, the current scarcity of quality strikers will be a borderline crisis, which is why we've seen unknowns like Bobby Wood and Alfredo Morales given chances recently. Even if Altidore rises to prominence in the next four years, he needs a backup, some form of contingency lest he sustain an injury.
This is where it gets interesting. If their potential is realized, the midfield will be the most formidable part of the U.S.'s game in 2018. Since his introduction to the side, DeAndre Yedlin has done everything but get on the scorer's sheet for the United States—and that's as a defender. The 21 year old's trial in midfield in the U.S.'s friendly against Ecuador this October proved a natural transition from his post as a marauding right back. His ability to speed up the line and fling dangerous crosses will be integral to set up the attack, and no doubt his well-laid defensive foundation will keep his work rate high on the other end of the field. With a move to Tottenham in the imminent offing, Yedlin will only benefit from the competition for a spot on the first team and eventually, against the best the world has to offer.
Joe Gyau is no less exciting of a prospect. Before he tweaked his ankle against Honduras, Gyau showed pace, strength, and an all-around willingness to take on defenders that's been too scarce in a Donovan-less midfield. Now that he's getting minutes in the first team at Borussia Dortmund, expect a sharp rise in his stock from here till 2018. That is, so long as he stays healthy.
Another recent call-up to the senior squad is also seeing a deserved bump in attention, though at a later phase in his career than he would have preferred. Attacking midfielder Lee Nguyen has had a breakout season in the MLS, and though he only played about 20 minutes in a friendly against Colombia, set-up one of that game's most inspired moments. Nguyen has the skill and cheek in creation that Bradley lacked at attacking midfielder, and looks capable as the go-to playmaker at the top of a five-man midfield. (Another possibility here but with too many question marks: wunderkind Gedion Zelalem. The soon-to-be 18 year old Gunner looks like the real deal, but who knows how that will pan out? More pressing, whether or not he'll even play for the U.S. He's rumored to be leaning that way, but it's best not speculate until that crucial information is settled.)
Despite the folly of the Michael Bradley attacking midfielder experiment in Brazil (terrible band name), Bradley is—and in all likelihood will be—the player most vital to the USMNT's success. He can see the field like few others on the roster and has proven time and time again how deadly he can be in distribution. And though we haven't seen it recently, he's just as capable of thumping it in the goal as he is setting up a teammate. Every team needs a rock in midfield, and Bradley is it for the U.S.
Though traditionally employed as an attack-minded midfielder, Mix Diskerud has seen a few looks as a defensive midfielder to some promising effect. It isn't among the strongest aspects of his game—that would be his passing and finishing—but he is learning the position on the job, and alongside the best the U.S. has maybe ever had in the position. Though Diskerud never saw any game time in Brazil, he's now a regular fixture in USMNT friendlies and will be important to the team's success going forward.
Let's start with a long shot: Jermaine Jones as a central defender. After a strong showing in the 2014, fans embraced the German-American like a long-lost cousin. The only problem was his age: at 32 years old, it was assumed that Jones was playing his last world cup. After all, defensive midfielders like Jones need to have the legs to get them from box to box quickly, which is far from guaranteed the older you are.
But Klinsmann's decision to slot Jones in at center back suggests two things: one, he wants to prolong Jones' talented presence on the team, and 2) a general lack of confidence in other central defense options. On both counts, you can't blame him. Jones has proven a capable field general both in midfield and in his recent trials as a center defender, and as Ireland so kindly pointed out via a recent 4-1 drubbing, our defense lacks a leader without him or Omar Gonzales on the pitch.
For the strongest squad, the U.S. would start both of them. At 6'5, Gonzales not only locks down the box in the air, but he's generally the soundest and most consistent defender on the roster. Barring a turn in form (completely possible) or a patch of injuries (equally so), he'll be at the height of his powers in four years, perfectly weighted between experience and youth.
On the flanks, Fabian Johnson will command the left side, opposite Timmy Chandler on the right. Nearly full-footed and with plenty of attacking prowess, Johnson is versatile enough to plug any hole south of the strike line. That said, it'd be preferable to see his talents keep the net empty rather than compete for a slot in an already packed midfield. Still, Yedlin and Johnson could almost be interchangeable, with complementary skill sets and Road Runner-esque speed. Right back is still the USMNT's biggest weakness, and Chandler will take some developing before he's a known entity over there. But unless Yedlin remains a fullback in four years, Chandler is the best option.
Tim Howard had a career year this past year, both for club and country. He finished top three in the Premiere League for best shot/save ratio and least goals conceded per game, and had a much fawned-over display in the World Cup, batting away a record 16 shots against Belgium alone.
However, barring a serious resurgence in form, Howard has played his last meaningful game for the U.S. national team. He owes it to his decision to take a year break from the squad, which he took in order to spend more time with his family and allow him to focus on Everton's year at home and abroad in the Europa league.
From a human perspective, this is completely understandable. From a coach's perspective, not so much. As we saw with Donovan, Klinsmann has no reverence for the old guard and takes particular umbrage in self-imposed hiatuses. Howard has said he expects to fight his way back onto the squad next year, but the way things are going for him at Everton this year, he should maybe concentrate on keeping his day job.
While he isn't necessarily better than Howard, Brad Guzan, the U.S.'s new number one in net, has a lot going for him. He's been Aston Villa's first-string keeper for the past three seasons, with no sign of that changing. While Villa haven't by any means had a barn-storming season this year, they are averaging less goals conceded than Everton by a small margin. That's reductive, of course. But watching both sides play, Guzan may not make as many unexpected saves, but he does appear more consistent than Howard, who tends to be hot or cold on the whim of the stars. Then there's the bald thing, which has been a talisman for quality U.S. keepers for years now. Here's hoping he doesn't pull a Rooney and keeps that cue ball shined.