I did not make this headline up
possible future employment?
The message boards have a good deal of speculation about Hoke's job security. At what point will Dave Brandon's job security come into question? A while back you outlined a number of failures during Brandon's tenure. To me, the fact that ticket sales are so slow, that even the students seem to have had enough of this BS, has to raise some eyebrows with people in power. Or is Brandon firmly entrenched as long as wants to be here?
As Brady said, "This is Michigan, fergodsakes." It's not feeling much like Michigan lately.
Class of '93
I don't think Brandon is particularly entrenched.
I've heard chatter that certain people in positions of power would be happy to see a change… a lot of chatter. But I've heard that chatter for over a year now, and predictions that Brandon would be replaced have come and gone. At this point I'm skeptical that the people are inclined to do much, or have the power to do so.
That said, Brandon's now in the same situation Rich Rodriguez (and big swathes of the department he replaced) was: his boss did not hire him, and his performance is in the range where replacing him wouldn't raise eyebrows. It's quite a trick to get the entire student body to hate you.
Gents of MGoBlog -
In these recent times of hardship for the football program, Dave Brandon has taken a lot of heat for his cardboard cutout marketing/branding efforts when it comes to the team and other University athletic programs. There seems to be a large and growing consensus of fans (at least on the MGoBoard) that point out every misstep they believe he makes - there have been quite a few dud ploys he and the AD have rolled out.
However, i'm curious to know if there are any decisions or moves he's made as AD that the MGoPolitburo or wider UofM community have received positively. Have any of the AD's ideas under his leadership had a direct positive impact on any or even one of the school's athletic programs? Whatever the case may be, who are some Athletic Directors who "get it" at their respective institution who you would like to see in charge at Michigan?
The main thing people point to in Brandon's favor is the pile of cash. I'm not that impressed, because you or I could have been appointed AD and sat there wibble-wobbling our lips and Michigan would have seen an enormous uptick in revenue. Brandon's first official day on the job was the UConn game when the luxury boxes opened. The Big Ten Network and the expiration of the Big Ten rights deal provided another large bump.
What revenue that is attributable to Brandon comes from piling a bunch of rights together and selling them in a pile to IMG and testing the outer limits of what people will pay for Michigan football tickets. That's good if you're running a public company and your stock options are about to vest, but there are indicators everywhere that the fanbase has finally been worn down. Brandon is chipping away at fan goodwill constantly, and I worry about the long term impact of the clear divide between big chunks of the fanbase (and all of the students) and Brandon.
Meanwhile, what do I care about the amount of money flowing into Michigan's pockets? It does me no good. It doesn't seem to do anyone any good. The Big Ten has been the nation's best money extraction device for some years now and they still end up hiring Tim Beckmann. Meanwhile, every athletic department in the Big Ten is trying to find ways to launder their piles of cash by plowing it into minor sports that hold the same interest for me no matter how well they're supported.
I do like the legends patches (if only they'd stop screwing with people's numbers), but the rest of the changes he's made to the Michigan gameday experience have been negative.
As for potential replacements, there are a couple of Michigan alums at prominent schools: Jeff Long is at Arkansas and Warde Manuel at UConn. Long got handed a poop sandwich when Bobby Petrino had his motorcycle sexytime accident, but recovered impressively by pirating Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin. Whatever your personal opinion of Bielema, that is a coup of a hire for a school like Arkansas. He was just named the chair of the CoFoPoff's selection committee, as well, so he's respected within the AD community.
Manuel hired Turner Gill at Buffalo, who briefly made Buffalo not the worst team in D-I, and then ended up hiring Kevin Ollie at UConn, though that was not much of a decision. Paul Pasqualoni was already in place when he was hired at UConn; he fired him and replaced him with ND DC Bob Diaco after taking a swing at MSU DC Pat Narduzzi. That may or may not work out but that process seems pretty sensible to me.
Importantly, both of these guys have experience in the job they'd have at Michigan.
Could you give odds/estimates on the likelihood of all six freshmen redshirting next year? At the end of the regular season we expected Doyle and probably Wilson to redshirt. Now they're both potentially heavy rotation players while two unheralded wing players signed up that may play key roles or may redshirt. Help us sort out the situation.
Doyle, Wilson, and Chatman are all going to play. I don't expect Hatch to. MAAR/Dawkins is where it gets interesting. Michigan has tried to redshirt guys who are young and need some polishing, but both MAAR and Dawkins are older than average freshmen. For MAAR that's just because he's older; for Dawkins it's because he took a prep year.
It would make sense for one to redshirt with Michigan looking at a small (one member?) 2015 class, but with the NBA attrition these days you might want to play both in an effort to see which guy can help you more down the stretch and prepare both to take over for LeVert and possibly Irvin. I'm guessing everyone plays.
There have been three high level recruits who have decommitted this recruiting season. My question relates to the bagman article mgoblog referred to a couple months back: is there a possibility that there are Michigan bagmen who disapprove Brady Hoke and have pulled their resources from high level recruits in an effort to more quickly dump Hoke? I realize there are many factors that play in, I just can't help but wonder after reading the bagman article.
No. While I imagine bagmen play into the recruitment of one of the guys who has decommitted, the situation there was more local guys getting involved with family members than anything Michigan did or did not do.
I don't know if Michigan actually has bagmen per se. It doesn't seem like their style, and it doesn't really seem like their style to remove support even if they do exist.
Occam's Razor suggests that the guys who have decommitted have done so because they saw last season's football team and are a little leery of signing on with a program that might be seeing a coaching change in the near future.
[After the JUMP: some soccer stuff.]
The Beas is finally at ease. Probably. I don't think the USA will have to resort to Beasley in 2018, but 1) left back is a difficult spot to fill for anyone and 2) if anyone is going to have a Frankie Hedjuk zombie USA career it is the Beas.
Demonstrating this: there's not a lot in the pipeline here.
FABIAN JOHNSON – Borussia Monchengladbach (Germany) – 30 in 2018 -
Yedlin's emergence should kick Johnson back over to left back, where he was just as much of a dynamic attacking force for the Nats during qualification and the like. Hopefully he retains his speed at 30; hopefully another four years at outside back will let him work on some of the mental errors that saw players get in behind him late in games—his guy scored in both the Ghana and Portugal games after the 80th minute.
If things are going very well at outside back you could see Johnson slide up into a wing midfield spot. What are the chances of that? Not great. But I'm saying there's a chance because of…
CHRIS KLUTE – Colorado Rapids – 28 in 2018 – 0 caps
Klute appeared from nowhere in 2012 after his career had seemingly fizzled out. He lasted just one year at Furman and was idling in the reserves of the NASL's Atlanta Silverbacks; a year later he was Colorado's defensive player of the year.
He's a lightning bolt like Yedlin and is capable of playing either side, a versatility that will help him get on the roster. He is in fact more natural on the left—his crosses from there have generated a number of Rapids goals—and is thus a treasure. Already called into a USA training camp with his teammate Shane O'Neill. He is the most likely uncapped player to make the 2018 23. Because left back, yes. But also guy has talent.
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GREG GARZA – Tijuana (Mexico) – 26 in 2018 – 0 caps
soundtrack is rad, totally tubular, bitchin' yo
Garza is an on and off starter for Tijuana, having seemingly pushed Edgar Castillo out of favor there. It's been difficult to figure out just how much he's playing for the Xolos; it appears he's made 34 appearances since his 2012 arrival. So not exactly first name on the team sheet. Since I can't say I've seen him I'm going by what's out there on the internet and it's a bit confused as to whether he is a clear first choice riser or not.
But as a guy seeing time at left back for a good Mexican side you can be sure the USMNT takes a look.
JUAN PABLO OCEGUEDA – UANL Tigres (Mexio) – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
Ocegueda was a hotly contested recruitment battle between the US and Mexico that the US won. Unfortunately for Ocegueda, he made this decision at the same time he went on a loan to Chivas. Chivas only plays Mexican nationals, so he was frozen out. Why they didn't just terminate the loan is unknown.
Ocegueda's stuck behind Jorge Torres Nilo, a Mexico international, at Tigres and will have to find a loan or move to get the playing time necessary to become a part of the full national team picture. He should be first choice for the U23 2016 Olympics, for a start.
ERIC LICHAJ – Nottingham Forest (England 2nd) – 29 in 2018 – 10 caps
Lichaj is a natural right back who's been trying to diversify his game and become, like Johnson, comfortable with both feet. He played fairly regularly for EPL side Aston Villa after coming through their academy; last year he signed with Forest on a two-year deal and saw plenty of playing time before a hip issue knocked him out of the lineup and any potential consideration for a World Cup spot. (Not that Klinsmann seemed to give him any notice when he was healthy.)
Lichaj has not appeared under Klinsmann when even Edgar Castillo was given multiple chances, so it's a bit grim for him. If he can add that versatility, though, and play regularly for a solid team he'll be in the picture.
LONGSHOTS: Edgar Castillo has 16 caps to his name but has looked like a defensive disaster in almost all of them; he'd be 31 and on the downside in Russia. Also, Garza forced his way into the starting lineup past Castillo. It's almost certainly curtains for him.
And don't ever count out DaMarcus Beasley.
Meep meep, y'all.
DEANDRE YEDLIN – (probably) Roma (Italy) – 24 in 2018 – 7 caps
Yedlin's breakout World Cup demonstrated he was one of the fastest players in the world, and his crossing was consistently dangerous. It took under a week for AS Roma to swoop in on him and complete a transfer that will see him finish the year with Seattle, then move to Italy midseason. From there he'll be loaned out to a mid-table Seria A team (Italy allows only one non-EU player to come in per year, and Roma's used theirs) and then attempt to replace Maicon, the 32-year-old Brazilian international. So… yeah. Big shoes.
He's supposedly a little deficient when it comes to reading the game, but I mean, nits. He is 20. If he continues improving he's a holy lock… and probably even if he doesn't. But let's hope for the former.
ANDREW FARRELL – New England Revolution – 26 in 2018 – 0 caps
Farrell was the first pick in the 2013 draft after a formative period in Peru(!)—his parents were missionaries there for ten years—and three years at Louisville and has established himself one of the top young outside backs in MLS already. Bonus points for growing a beard until he scores.
Also bonus: depending on how he develops, Farrell may add enough positional flexibility to only bring seven defenders, as he was a center-back in college and has seen time there in MLS when injury has forced him to. He is technical:
"When he has the ball at his feet, he’s willing to do things in the back that defenders like me never did," Heaps said. "He’s so strong, good in the air, but for me the thing that makes Andrew as good as he is, his feet are so quick. I've never seen it before on a player his size. He’ll dribble. He can get himself out of a tough situation by passing out of the back. That’s just his nature. ‘I can do this. I can get by this guy, make a move here, get by one player and open it up for a [teammate]."
That'll help him, broken record about technical defenders being a must, etc., etc.
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TIM CHANDLER – Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany) - 28 in 2018 – 13 caps
Chandler's indifferent-to-miserable form after a promising start and wavering dedication to the US cause puts his place in question. At 24 he's probably not going to make a great leap forward, either. Nonetheless, he is a regular Bundesliga starter at a spot where the US doesn't currently have a lot of options.
Chandler will have plenty of opportunities to confirm or dis-confirm his ability and desire before 2018, and if he's into it he does have the most impressive career to date. I just don't know if Klinsmann's going to play ball here—he cut Donovan ruthlessly over dedication issues.
KELLYN ACOSTA – FC Dallas – 22 in 2018 – 0 caps
Acosta skipped college entirely to become a homegrown signing for Dallas and ended up moving to right back for the bulk of this season. He's having some troubles staying on the field and picked up an injury recently, as will happen to 18-year-old pros. Dallas fans seem to think his long-term future is in the midfield; we'll see. At an international level the opportunity is greater at outside back. Like it always is.
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Never count out DaMarcus Beasley, I guess? It's tough to find other reasonable options. This list already has a converted CB and converted mid. Plus Tim Chandler.
Besler and Cameron will be 31 and 32, respectively, when 2018 rolls around. Gonzalez will be 28, Brooks 25. It is a possibility the US rolls with the same four central defenders they did in 2018.
MATT BESLER – Sporting KC – 31 in 2018 – 21 caps
Besler is not likely to be in MLS for much longer after a terrific World Cup. Yeah, Romelu Lukaku ran through him. That'll happen in the 93rd minute against one of the most athletic strikers in the world fresh off the bench. In just about every other situation Besler found himself in, he was terrific. Dude's going to get paid, and any theories about the USA back line for the next cycle should start with Besler.
Now, if we could just incorporate his long throws…
JOHN BROOKS – Hertha Berlin (Germany) – 25 in 2018 – 5 caps
Corner hero and celebration expert. As of early June a pile of EPL teams were readying runs at him after a standout final half-season with Hertha, one that came after he infuriated his manager by getting a back tattoo so large he had to miss time because of inflammation. Getting back in the manager's good graces after that is perhaps the best sign of his talent yet.
Brooks was stuck behind Besler this World Cup as Klinsmann stuck to a strict left/right CB pairing. Odds are by 2018 they will make a serious attempt to use Brooks, a Bundesliga starter at 21, and Besler together.
GEOFF CAMERON – Stoke (England) – 32 in 2018 – 30 caps
Cameron's lack of Beckerman-ness was ruthlessly exposed by Belgium. However: other than a couple of scuffed clearances, one of which fell directly to Nani, he was otherwise excellent as a centerback. (I don't put much blame on him for the Portugal equalizer, as Varela was Johnson's man and Cameron slowed up in anticipation of having to check one of two runners coming from his zone.) I know that is a bit "but how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln" but if Cameron's mishit clearance goes two yards further in any direction, we're talking about him as one of the revelations of the tournament, along with Besler.
Can he maintain through 32? I don't see why not. Centerbacks generally endure longer than other outfield players because positioning and anticipation are ever-burgeoning attributes.
Cameron's positional flexibility has to be considered hypothetical after Belgium, and Brooks is going to come after his job hard. Even so it's unlikely he gets bashed off the roster.
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OMAR GONZALEZ – LA Galaxy – 29 in 2018 – 23 caps
everybody checks Chicharito
Gonzalez was surprisingly able when called upon for the USA's last two games, and that counts for quite a bit. The "surprising" part is something built upon a good six months of Gonzalez making goofy decisions and being obviously culpable for goals, though, and he's still the guy under the most threat for the next cycle.
One major reason: compare him to cultured CBs like Kompany and David Luiz and the difference is obvious. Hell, compare him to Cameron. Gonzalez has his uses. Unfortunately for him, they do not extend to his feet, and a US team that desires to possess the ball against elite teams may look elsewhere.
TIM REAM – Bolton (England 2nd) – 30 in 2018 – 8 caps
Ream was horrible when provided the opportunity to start at the beginning of the 2011 Gold Cup. He ceded a penalty to Blaz Perez in a 2-1 loss to Panama and was benched for the remainder. A few months later he came on as a substitute against Ecuador and was beaten for the winner in a 1-0 loss*. He faded from the national team picture, then surprisingly transferred to then-EPL side Bolton.
Bolton got relegated, with Ream a peripheral player. But Ream hung on to become a first-choice defender and occasional midfielder, appearing in 41 of Bolton's 42 league matches in 2013-14. He was named the player of the year by the club and the fans after.
Ream's best asset as a central defender is his technical ability on the ball, something that the US can really use if they're going to survive high pressing and have more of the ball. Ream's also spent some time as a defensive midfielder, a spot that's going to open up for the next cycle. He should get another look. I won't be surprised if he ends up on the roster somewhere.
*[Should be noted that this may have been the weirdest USA lineup of the past four years, as the US played a diamond with Maurice Edu in front of Kyle Beckerman, flanked by Danny Williams and Brek Shea. Okay! The D that day was the last-gasp crew: Chandler, Bocanegra, Onyewu, Cherundolo.]
WILL PACKWOOD – Birmingham City (England 2nd) - 25 in 2018 – 0 caps
Packwood debuted with Championship side Birmingham City at just 19, whereupon he almost immediately suffered a severe leg injury. He made his recovery and resumed playing on loan in the fourth tier of English football late last season; after injuries struck Birmingham he was recalled, immediately securing a place in Birmingham's starting lineup. He was named the Football League Young Player of The Month in February.
Packwood got called up for the weird game against the Ukraine that had to be played in Cyprus, though he didn't get in.
ERIK PALMER-BROWN – Sporting Kansas City – 21 in 2018 – 0 caps
At just 17, Palmer-Brown is probably one for 2022, not 2018, but he is starting in MLS right now thanks to Kansas City's injury misfortune and Besler's World Cup absence—an absence that figures to become permanent soon. Before that, Juventus came in with a 1 million dollar offer that SKC rejected. He should be a key figure in the Olympic campaign, with all eyes on him as he attempts to be the first bonafide OMG center-back prospect the USA's had.
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Should be noted that while I included Shane O'Neill as a defensive mid, he is a center back for Colorado and may figure in on the back line.
Traffic Sports is finally done wrecking Gale Agbossoumonde's career, so if he can latch onto the right MLS team and see the field he could start living up to his potential, once considered vast. After 14 appearances in MLS last year, he has yet to play in 2014.
German-American Alfredo Morales has a cap to his name and will be 28 in 2018. He's playing in the German second division.
No need to belabor it: it'll be Brad Guzan unless Tim Howard wants to hang on until 39, and probably even if he does. The third option is unclear right now, but also irrelevant.
ONE MAN'S 23
Note that this doesn't exactly match up with the lines above, as my thinking has changed, man.
Goalie: Guzan, Howard, Hamid
Howard passes the crown to Guzan for this cycle but remains available for tournaments and as a backup; DCU's Hamid is your current leader for ceremonial third keeper.
Central D: Besler, Brooks, Cameron
Dropping down to three because three other guys on the roster can play CB. Top challengers here: Gonzalez, Ream.
Outside back: Johnson, Yedlin, Farrell, Klute
I actually feel confident about this. Disaster is around the corner, then. Top challengers: Chandler, Garza.
Defensive mid: Bradley, Trapp, O'Neill, Stanko
Bradley is obvious, and then it might depend on matchups. Trapp might have a slight edge now. Challengers: Edu, Williams.
Wing: Green, Gatt, Gyau
Speed and attacking verve here is an absolute must. The USA was playing quad-A players here this cycle and that was viciously exposed by the World Cup. I'm only including two guys here because Agudelo, Yedlin, and Johnson are good backup options. Challengers: Pelosi.
Attacking mid: Nagbe, Diskerud, Dempsey
Forgot to even mention Dempsey in the attackers category, which was an oversight. Even at 35 he should be worth dragging along to put on the field at 70'. Main competitors here: Gil, Zelalem if he does go with the US.
Striker: Altidore, Boyd, Agudelo
A like for like with Altidore and here's a dollar that says Agudelo finds a home in the Bundesliga and plays like he belongs. Competitors: Johannsson, Zardes.
This concludes the three weeks every four years where I flip out and soccer blog. Normal service resumes currently.
Previously: Strikers and attacking mids.
Brad Davis is gone. Zusi and Bedoya will be 31, plausible but perhaps not ideal. Since neither is exactly the first name on the team sheet it's 50/50 whether they hang on for the entirety of another cycle. The guess here is no.
I won't be splitting the wings into different bins, because these days so many of them play inverted. Oddly, most of the available talent for the next cycle is more comfortable on the left, but especially here take right/left with a grain of salt. The US projects to have a couple of bombers at fullback, so cutting in will be at least as important as crossing.
JULIAN GREEN – left wing – Bayern Munich (Germany) – 23 in 2018 – 3 caps:
The USA's most hyped prospect ever already has as many World Cup goals as Wayne Rooney, even if it doesn't seem like he's quite ready yet. Ideally he'll break through into the Bayern first team. Pep Guardiola says they want him on the first team this year, FWIW. That would be terrific if he actually sees time; more likely perhaps is that he gets loaned out to a mid-table Bundesliga team.
Whatever happens on a club level, US will integrate him with the players he'll be combining with over the next four years as early as possible. One dollar he gets his first start against the Czechs in September. (It is a FIFA date.)
JOSH GATT – right wing - Molde (Norway) – 26 in 2018 – 2 caps
Lightning quick, Gatt was gathering attention from big clubs after a stellar introduction at Molde. Then back-to-back ACL tears hacked him down. He is on the shelf until 2015 (like the US, Norway plays over the summer). Multiple serious injuries are always a concern, but the latest one was a 'clean' ACL tear that he's projected to recover from fully.
A fixture in the Norwegian champions' side when healthy, the best case for Gatt is that he recovers from his ACL, has a strong 2015, and transfers to a second-tier European league like Holland. As long as he maintains his speed he's a good bet for the US, as he's ahead of his competitors in age and experience.
After Green this is all a WAG, but the prospect of the US starting Green/Johnson/Gatt/Yedlin would give the US the fastest flanks in the 2018 World Cup unless Holland has an army of Arjen Robben clones on the way.
MARC PELOSI – left wing – Liverpool (England) – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
Pelosi skipped the US system for a youth contract with Liverpool and was promising enough to ink a long-term contract despite a nasty broken leg. Pelosi is also a prospect at left back and potentially in the center of midfield, a versatility that gives him the nod here, for what little that's worth right now.
He returned to the field for Liverpool's U21 side in April; before the injury he was named to the 18 for one of Liverpool's Europa League matches.
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JOE GYAU – left wing – Borussia Dortmund(Germany) – 25 in 2018 – 0 caps
enjoys a dance
Gyau just moved to Borussia Dortmund, a Champions League regular, despite a lack of playing time so far. He is explicitly in their U23 reserves. Even so, that's a good sign, as Dortmund has a habit of scooping up talented young guys and making them stars.
Gyau is one slippery little bugger who immediately caught my eye when I saw him play for the US on some youth level or another, an excellent example of the what-if-slot-receivers-played-soccer thing. He has produced in buckets in the lower German leagues (in Germany there isn't a separate reserve league; instead there's a Dortmund II that plays in the third or fourth tier).
BREK SHEA – left wing – Stoke (England) – 28 in 2018 – 26 caps
The enigmatic Shea has proven he's got the ability to turn games around as a substitute, and at 6'3" with wheels he has a tantalizing physical package. Unfortunately he hasn't been able to do anything with that package since his move to Stoke, with just three appearances in the EPL.
Shea's departure from Dallas was acrimonious and a brief loan into the Championship was terminated after a blow up between Shea and some opposing fans, so he may not be a great fit on the USMNT. If he finds a club, establishes himself a regular starter, and performs then we can start talking. Now that seems a long long way off. Shea should in fact be in the next section but I wrote this up so here he is.
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Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya should feature on and off for the next couple years as the young guys mature. You wouldn't go amiss predicting one makes the roster, if you're pessimistic. Fabian Johnson could also figure in here if the situation at outside back looks suddenly rosy—his existence is why I'm projecting only three winger types on the roster.
Younger fringe options include DC's Nick DeLeon, who had a great rookie year in 2012 before hamstring issues submarined his sophomore year. If he doesn't get a look pretty soon he'll probably play for Trinidad & Tobago. He'll be 27 at the next World Cup, time to decide.
The brutal physical demands of defensive midfielder will excise Jones and Beckerman, who will be 36 in 2018. Either might hang on for a year or two as the US tries to lock down a Confed Cup slot in next year's Gold Cup and prepares for the Super Copa America or whatever they're calling it in 2016, but the US should start blooding a new generation immediately.
MICHAEL BRADLEY – Toronto FC – 30 in 2018 -
I think this: Bradley needs a guy with him if he's going to play at the top of a diamond. The US's possession got much better when Wondolowksi came in and Dempsey dropped back to help out. Whether that's a 4-4-2 of some variety or Bradley moving back into a second D-mid slot to provide a true #10 a spot on the field I don't know.
I also think this: in the next cycle it seems like a 4-3-3 suits the US best, as they can go with one true holder and put Bradley and the next gentleman in front of him.
WIL TRAPP – Columbus Crew – 25 in 2018 – 0 caps
One sentence description: the exact opposite of Maurice Edu.
I split these into attacking and defensive mid sections for simplicity, but Trapp doesn't really fit either category. He's got Damarcus Beasley's frame but plays central midfield for the Crew, where he is a homegrown player and vice-captain. Yes, at 21. He's a key component of Gregg Berhalter's possession-based approach, popping up on a number of MLS stat leaderboards. Soccer stats never tell you the whole story, but this one is eye-popping:
American Xavi! Or Pirlo! Or something, anyway. Gonzalez being #2 on this list is bizarre; as always, take soccer stats lightly.
Even so, in April he manufactured a 90th-minute equalizer with an inch-perfect pass from his side of midfield to the 18-yard box. Trapp's technical quality will get him a look, probably as soon as September.
SHANE O'NEILL – Colorado Rapids – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
O'Neill has been starting for his club at central defense, but with those slots likely in older hands for 2018, O'Neill should get a look in central midfield, which he has the skillset for—before breaking through in Colorado he was a midfielder and sometimes a forward.
One note: O'Neill is an inverse Johannsson, born in Ireland before moving to the US at a young age. He has suggested he would accept a call-up from the FAI if the US wasn't forthcoming. Expect him to get capped sooner rather than later as a result.
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CALEB STANKO – Freiburg (Germany) – 24 in 2018 – 0 caps
Stanko is on the verge of breaking through to the Freiburg first team at 20. He was the USA's first choice central defender in the most recent U20 World Cup, a competition in which the US gave up piles of goals as they tried to press the likes of France and Spain—not really his fault.
At Freiburg he's a defensive midfielder, sometimes captain of their reserve team, and he's made the bench for a couple of games.
MAURICE EDU – Philadelphia Union – 32 in 2018 – 46 caps
Edu should have been on this year's World Cup roster if Beckerman and Jones were going to play together, but was omitted. He's been a pure destroyer for the US for years; fast and physical with limited ability on the ball, he's a stereotypical USA D-mid. Ideally he'll get passed by younger players.
DANNY WILLIAMS – Reading (English 2nd) - 29 in 2018 – 13 caps
Williams had a run of caps in the middle of the last cycle at D-mid and sometimes in an odd right wing role that didn't fit his skillset. He's dropped from the Bundesliga to the English Championship. He is getting plenty of PT at Reading and should be in his prime in four years.
Like Edu he's not the most technical guy. His best bet is if the US is still in the market for a pure destroyer; his problem is that there are a number of promising CB/DM hybrids who seem like they can fulfill that role and do a better job of retaining possession.
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DC United mainstay Perry Kitchen was also on that Akron team. He's turned into a pretty good MLS player but not the star some were projecting he'd be. Philadelphia's Amobi Okugo is a younger version of Edu. Both will be in their mid-20s and could slide onto the roster.
There is a pile of guys who move back and forth from central D to defensive mid covered in the central defense section. O'Neill is one; there's also Will Packwood, Tim Ream, and Jeff Cameron.
This three part series and then we're done for four years, haterz. This three part series: projecting the USA's 2018 roster. All sections ordered by likelihood of inclusion.
The USA's single outfield player older than 32 since 2002 was Brian McBride in 2006, who was a starter at 34. That should eliminate Brad Davis, Chris Wondolowski, Jermaine Jones, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, and Clint Dempsey, along with various others in the player pool (Gomez, Donovan, etc) who didn't make the 23.
In addition, Tim Howard will be 39 in 2018. It's not unheard of for a goalie to make it that long, but with the US in possession of Brad Guzan it seems likely Howard will retire internationally, as will Nick Rimando.
Then there are three guys in the age danger zone: Bedoya and Zusi were already weak points at 27. If they're on the roster in 2018 the US will not have progressed as far as we want them to. Cameron will be 32, obviously workable but less than ideal.
There is some chance one or two of the old guys hangs on. Dempsey is the most likely, as there seems to be an obvious we-need-a-goal sub role for him. Beasley, amazingly, would be next since left back is a bitch to fill and he may be immortal.
That leaves the US with approximately 10 spots to fill, 8 of them outfield players.
- The US plays a four-man backline.
- Michael Bradley returns to a defensive mid role, because he can't cover as much ground at 30 and the shape of the player pool changes pretty dramatically this cycle.
- The end result is either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1.
- There is a kid no one's ever heard of who will be on the team.
JOZY ALTIDORE – Sunderland (England) - 28 in 2018 – 71 caps
Jozy's obvious. Hopefully he'll get away from the crap end of English football to someplace where the ball comes to him every once in a while.
TERRENCE BOYD – RB Leipzig (Germany 2nd) – 27 in 2018 – 13 caps
Assuming that the US does go with a single central striker most of the time, Klinsmann won't make the same mistake he made in this cycle by leaving without a like for like replacement for his starter. The 6'2" Boyd is capable target forward coming off scoring nearly a goal every two games in the Austrian league who's just transferred back to Germany. While the fact that he's in the 2.Bundesliga is a bit of a disappointment, RB Leipzig is ripping up the divisions after Red Bull purchased them and gave their director a pile of money to rip up the divisions. By 2018 they very well could be a Bundesliga club.
Anyway, Boyd's the most like-for-like guy on the US radar right now, and as a bonus he's pretty good.
JUAN AGUDELO – free agent – 25 in 2018 – 18 caps
Agudelo's in a bit of limbo at the moment since he couldn't get eligible for his club. England restricts non-EU players to exceptional talents. If you've got some percentage of your international team's recent caps they'll let you in, and they'll also make exceptions for particularly young players who have broken through. (Players like Marc Pelosi avoid this process thanks to possession of an EU passport.) Stoke thought Agudelo counted; the board has said no twice. He was forced to play in Holland on loan as a result.
That and ill-timed injuries (he was supposed to be on the 2013 Gold Cup squad) have seen him drop out of the national team picture. He's too talented to remain out of it. His 14 appearances for Utrecht saw him collect three goals and three assists for a relegation-threatened club in desperate need of offense. As of late May he was supposed to be joining Bundesliga outfit Hannover 96.
------------this line demarks the sadness of being left out---------------
ARON JOHANNSSON – AZ Alkmaar (Holland) – 27 in 2018
It's 50/50 whether Johannsson gets on the next roster after only being deployed against Ghana, and then passed over for one of the USA's marginal wing midfielders. Has been bagging goals in Holland, but that's just what happens in Holland.
GYASI ZARDES – LA Galaxy – 26 in 2018 – 0 caps
Despite a late debut as a pro after a four-year career at UCSB that in fact featured a redshirt(!), Zardes has impressed with a combination of size and speed at LA Galaxy. He may be a prime example of a guy who the US development system hurt, but looking through the pool for Lukaku types who can change a game by being large and mean and fast and you land on Zardes.
RUBIO RUBIN – FC Utrecht (Holland) – 22 in 2018 – 0 caps
Speaking of Holland, Rubin is there for a mid-table club trying to break through, impress, and get sold. It's not a bad plan; Rubin was a youth star for the MNT.
---------------you're not sad at this point because you didn't come that close----------------
Jack McInerney had a couple of promising years with Philadelphia before hitting a rough patch and getting traded to Toronto; he could be a 25-year-old version of Wondo if things break right for him.Harry Shipp has made an instant impact in MLS after a brief career at ND.
Bobby Wood's been playing in the second tier of German football as a 21 year old and got a Gold Cup callup before his team requested he pass on it. 18-year-old Lynden Gooch is impressing on Sunderland's youth side; similarly barely-legal Paul Arriola is playing for Tijuana in the Mexican league. A kid named Dembakwi Yomba is at Atletico Madrid, having popped up on everyone's radar when he signed there.
The US loses no one from this spot since they don't really have anyone. With a lot of the D-mid depth chart dropping out due to age and the clear problems the US had maintaining possession in this World Cup, goal #1 is going to get something resembling a true #10 on the field so Bradley can slide back.
Fortunately, there are a number of attractive options here. There is in fact a pile.
I don't think anyone's necessarily in or out yet. These guys are ordered by likelihood to show up on the 2018 roster.
DARLINGTON NAGBE – Portland Timbers – 27 in 2018 – 0 caps
Nagbe was born in Liberia and moved around the world a bit before landing in Cleveland as an 11 year old; you may remember him from Michigan's trip to the soccer Final Four. Nagbe was the super-skilled attacking-mid for Akron. A few years later he's become the focal point of Portland's attack. He does crazy, crazy stuff. I would like him to become an American citizen.
Fortunately, Nagbe recently married a citizen. That pushes his timeline forward to 2015. Count on him getting a call-up at the first available opportunity. He'll be in the heart of his prime in 2018.
MIX DISKERUD – Rosenborg (Norway) – 27 in 2018 – 20 caps
Diskerud made this most recent World Cup roster and then didn't get a game. Brad Davis got a game. I am worried about him. Diskerud is talented but physically slight and not extraordinarily fast. He's also still in Norway at 23. If he's in Norway at 27 I don't think he's on the roster.
LUIS GIL – Real Salt Lake – 24 in 2018 – 1 cap
Gil has a shocking number of MLS appearances for a 20-year-old: he's currently on 95, all with RSL. He was the focal point of youth national teams for three or four years—he has a whopping 51 youth caps—and showed incredible craft on the ball.
He's found the transition to MLS a little rougher than you'd like, but he is still a regular starter for RSL and, remarkably, is entering his fifth season as a pro. He got a call-up in the last cycle and will get a heavy look in this one.
------------------------line of sadness----------------------------
JUNIOR FLORES – Borussia Dortmund (Germany) – 22 in 2018 - 0 caps
Flores was impressive enough to sign a four year deal with a major German club when he was just 16. Since U18 kids can't transfer abroad he had to wait until just a few months ago to sign. Flores led the US to a 3-1 win over Brazil's U20s in some Nike thing or another in which he was clearly the man of the match; he is a true #10, if he can only develop.
Flores can also play for El Salvador but turned down a call-up from them.
GEDION ZELALEM – Arsenal (England) – 21 in 2018 – 0 caps
Zelalem is the other hot prospect USA fans are in vapors about. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, Zelalem spent a good chunk of his childhood in the US before Arsenal signed him. His citizenship quest was thought to be a lost cause, but a few months ago someone figured out that if his dad became a citizen before Zelalem turned 18 he would automatically become one without losing the German passport that allows him to skate by England's restrictive foreigner laws.
Zelalem's already made his debut for Arsenal in an FA Cup match and was on the substitutes bench for three league games. That is kind of a big deal at 17. Here's a completely reasonable evaluation of him:
'dribbles like Iniesta and passes like Xavi'
All right then.
Obviously, acquiring US citizenship is hurdle #1 here. Then it's getting a good loan somewhere and establishing himself a EPL-level player.
-------------------line of not that close-----------------------
Joe Corona has 11 caps and will be 27 in 2018 but I just don't see it happening for him. For one, Nagbe's about to blast ahead of him in the pecking order. For two, he just doesn't seem to have that je ne sais quoi.
The "I can't believe you're still that young" twins: Jose Torres and Freddy Adu are just 26 and 24 at the moment, respectively. It could still happen! Really!
There's also this generation's John O'Brien, Stuart Holden. Holden is 28 and what with all the injuries seems highly unlikely to get to 2018 without seeing his physical abilities drop below the international level, but you never know. Fresh legs, that's the ticket.
Diego Fagundez would not be in this category except for the fact that he's not a citizen yet despite having been in the States since he was five. He recently acquired a green card and will be eligible for citizenship in 2017. That's hypothetically long enough to slot in the team before the World Cup, but at that point he'd have to climb over a number of other aspirants. Also, Uruguay could come calling before then.
7/1/2014 – USA 1, Belgium 2 (ET) – out of World Cup
I never really forgave the guy. Admittedly, it's not like there was a huge amount to forgive. I just thought that after I'd indulged his desire to go to a couple of shows that I normally would not have he would reciprocate. Instead, he sulked through the entirety of a fun Robert Earl Keen show that I should have enjoyed about 15% more.
We were 20-ish, in Austin, Texas. We were engineers on summer internships, suddenly stripped of our friend networks and ill-equipped to forge new ones. In such circumstances, horizons broaden rather quickly, which is how I'd ended up at a Smashing Pumpkins show a few weeks earlier.
I know exactly what I wore: a terrible replica Michigan hockey jersey forged from whatever that fabric is that comes with large, regular holes and feels more like plastic than anything else that humans put on their bodies. I know this because after the show this material was absolutely soaked with sweat. Some of it was mine; the majority was from the writhing mass of humanity that had surged to and fro for the duration of the show.
I had no idea the thing could even get so sodden. I'd washed it several times and knew it was the kind of material that exited a washing machine as dry as it entered. After that show the thing was ten pounds heavier than it was two hours before.
I sat on a stoop in the bright Texas sun and tried to process the weird communal thing I'd just gone through. It was, above all, exhausting.
On the day that hooked me for life, I force-marched myself down to the pub at halftime. I was in Ireland for a summer mostly because a girl had dumped me and I wanted to broaden the ol' horizons and the United States had just roared out to a 3-0 lead against impregnable invulnerable super-skilled Portugal. My place was about 20 minutes from the city center at reasonable pace; I got myself down there in 15, huffing and puffing as the second half kicked off.
To the Irish, the USA game that had just blown my mind was just an appetizer to Ireland-Germany. Group stuff meant that a draw would just about see the Irish through—they had Saudi Arabia last. Germany scored, because Germany. A loss was deadly. Everything was desperation and death until stoppage time, when Niall Quinn knocked a ball down to Robbie Keane and Kahn was finally breached.
Pandemonium. I ended up hugging a guy who was definitely not Irish. 12 years on I can only say he was Pakistani-ish. We hugged like we'd known each other since birth and jumped up and down and I was permanently in the power of the World Cup.
Ireland decided to take the afternoon off to drink by the river.
Four years later I watched the USA get blasted off the field by the Czechs. Six-foot-one-hundred Jan Koller pounded in a cross in the first ten minutes and things got worse from there. I sat across the table from Anthony, who'd moved to Ann Arbor and read my blog and knew I liked the USMNT. He'd emailed me because he needed someone to watch them with.
A number of months later, a guy who'd just moved to Ann Arbor named Jerry joined us at Charley's for some match or another—Gold Cup?—because he needed someone to watch the USMNT with. I don't remember what it was. It doesn't matter. From there it the web expanded to encompass most of my friendships forged after college. When I got married three years ago, Jerry was our officiant and Anthony was the best man.
Four years later I was in Chicago for the very exciting Blogs With Balls conference; the World Cup was in South Africa and the USA was playing a tune-up friendly against Australia on the premises, which meant the thing was at approximately 7 AM. I met a guy I'd known as Orson and kind of now know as Spencer (but who is still mostly Orson) at a bar somewhere proximate to Wrigley Field and watched Robbie Findley round the goalkeeper and shoot about 20 feet wide.
When I started this blog, there were two other college football blogs, period. Orson ran one. As college football blogs developed it gradually dawned on a large percentage of the early adopters that we had another, odder obsession: the US national soccer team. I think it's because the kind of person into college football enough to start a blog about it prefers his emotional gambling on sports to be as high-stakes as possible.
We gathered it ourselves in weird ways. I watched the 1994 World Cup in my basement on a 14 inch TV, just like FIFA wanted, and then helpfully forgot about it in 1998. I honestly have no idea what drew anyone else to the national team other than Orson, who's written about it. At the moment I was force-marching to the King's Head in Galway, Orson was running up a darkened street towards a lunatic screaming "WE'RE UP ON PORTUGAL" at five in the morning. I imagine all of us were, in some manner of speaking, running towards a lunatic at some point.
We were together then. I saw Landon score against Algeria in a bar with my best friends, both the half-dozen I knew already and the two hundred who just happened to be there.
I love the US national team. I love it in the way you can only love your wife: I chose it. It was not given to me by my father, like Michigan was. As something approximating an adult I made a decision. It stuck in a way that the Red Wings did not stick, that the Oilers did not stick, that every single other attempted non-Michigan affiliation did not stick. I chose it, and somehow it chose me.
Now I am in so deep that in some weird way the anger cannot stick. If I saw Chris Wondolowski today I'd buy him a beer and say "it's okay, man." I wrote a column earlier this year about how I invented a slur for people who annoy me by being even slightly incompetent. And yet here I am after getting crushed and all I want is for September 23rd to roll around. That's the next time the USA takes the field.
So I'm under this table. I'm under it because the US has just worked a brilliant drawn-up-in-the-dirt free kick that results in a goal a universe where being really clever is everything. I am aware I am not in this universe. If I was being a teenager would have gone a lot better. Therefore the US is still down a goal with five minutes left.
I am under this table an unusually long time. I am the kind of person who screams SHOW ME THE GAME when, say, a basketball broadcast cuts away from a point guard bringing the ball up the floor uncontested. I am still under the table, though. If I remain under the table I will not have to see the clock ticking inexorably upward. I know that I have to stop being under the table pretty soon, but I like it under the table where time has stopped.
Eventually I undo the emergency squat and stop being under the table, and time resumes. I'm not soaked in sweat but it's not for lack of trying. I have lurched to and fro only metaphorically this time, with a mass of humanity that extends to the table I had to abandon to get to the spot where I could stop time, to Atlanta and Alabama and Denver where Orson and Jerry and Jess are, to that setup in Kansas City or Chicago they keep showing on TV in an attempt to catch that Landon-vs-Algeria video live.
Above all, it is wonderful. Except for the score, of course, which is a crime and a lie. But I would not trade the horrible roiling feeling of doom for anything. As Michael Bradley said, the World Cup is about suffering well. We do, together.
I ain't got nothing. I mean, I could, but I can't. Instead, some goodbyes to guys who probably aren't going to see 2018:
BEASLEY. I may have been excessively strident in my attempt to stab anyone who said anything bad about Beasley, and then Beasley goes and redeems all excessive strident-ness. Amazing career, terrific player, terrific story arc, still weighs about 65 pounds. Most underrated USMNT player ever.
HOWARD. YOU SHALL NOT PASS, he said. He had an incredible beard as he did so. "Distribution… brilliant."
DEMPSEY. 1000% Anthemface. 1000% Deuceface. Scored goal after goal and stood as an eagle-riding, gun-waving avatar of America. Made it impossible to accuse USMNT of being euro floppers for duration of career. A hard man for hard times.
JONES. Anyone who says this is not an American is going to get run into the ground and then lashed in the face by a shot. Jones may not have known it, we may not have known it, but the man was born in Kansas and never left. He has overalls, and has always worn them.
BECKERMAN. Sanneh 2014. The guy who you're just like "remember when Beckerman played out of his mind?" Legacy is being that guy in the movie who gets on the Sports Or A Capella Team just at the end and kills it.
DONOVAN. Mexico feared Landon Donovan.
|WHAT||USA vs Belgium|
|LINE||Si Se Puede|
WIN OR DIE. Image via a "spritegirl".
THE THEM: IT CAME FROM GERMINAL BEERSCHOT
Belgium is ludicrously talented for a nation with about the same population as Michigan, especially since this is not a country like Holland that has a rich history in the game. The Flyin' Waffles haven't so much as made either the World Cup or the European Championships since 2002. This has not stopped them from growing a generation of talent that has seen them rocket up the FIFA rankings and the bookies' odds. Pre-tourney, Belgium was fifth-favorites.
This is because the team is full of club-level stars. If you took each World Cup team and sold them on the transfer market right now, only Brazil would cost more.
Part of that is because Belgium is so danged young. The other part is because they are good.
This hasn't really shown in the group stages. The Waffles haven't scored before the 70th minute of any of their games despite fielding an all-star team in a group that was kindling waiting for a match.
There are two main reasons for this. One is the absence of striker Christian Benteke, who was injured just before the World Cup. Romelu Lukaku, his replacement, is a big name himself, but for whatever reason the team seems to lack je ne sais quoi when he's the main guy. The second is Belgium's lack of outside backs. Without overlapping runs from them, teams have been free to double up on Belgium's talented wingers.
There hasn't been a whole lot to learn about Belgium in two of their three games. They faced an Algeria team that was parking the bus virtually the whole time, and in the group finale against South Korea they played a heavily rotated lineup against what may have been the worst team in Brazil.
The Russia match is the closest thing to what will transpire against the US. Russia had half the possession and matched the Belgians in shots, finally ceding a goal in the 88th minute as the defenders on Eden Hazard faltered.
And then there was the friendly about a year ago in which Belgium thrashed the USA backline to a 4-2 win. The US started a back four of Beasley-Goodson-Gonzalez-Cameron in that one and Christian Benteke, who is out of this World Cup, was around to harrass the USA… but if they play anything like they did in that friendly it's going to be ugly.
GOALIE: Thibaut Courtois has spent the last three years as Atletico Madrid's goalie, during which time Madrid's stingy defense saw them win La Liga, shockingly. He's a strength.
Kompany and Vermalen (background) are doubtful, apparently
DEFENSE: Health issues abound. Anthony Vanden Borre, the Zangeif-lookin' mofo you may have noticed menacing his way around the field against South Korea, is out with an injury. While he was not a likely starter he may have been called on as a substitute if Belgium found themselves trailing; as a natural outside back he offers more going forward than their other options there.
That's because the rest of those options are center-backs. Like Germany, Belgium have entered this tournament determined to play a back four entirely consisting of naturally central players. In Belgium's case it's because they have a pile of excellent CBs and no fullbacks.
The first-choice central defenders are supposed to be Vincent Kompany and Thomas Vermalen, but both of them are nursing injuries. Kompany has a groin issue, Vermalen a hamstring problem. Kompany missed the South Korea game, for whatever that means. It does sound like he's having issues that might make him a risk his coach may not want to take:
"Now we wait for the reaction, the training and the development day by day, but you saw the last game too – he tried hard in the last training session and had to stop after half an hour"
If one of those guys can't go, expect 36-year-old Daniel Van Buyten to get a start. Van Buyten has played all of Belgium's games so far; at 6'6" he is obviously a force in the air, but he may be susceptible to getting outrun. He is a backup at Bayern Munich who's gotten about a dozen appearances per year for the last three. If both are out Zenit's Nicolas Lombaerts is likely to draw in. He's is a downgrade but only because Kompany has a claim to be the world's best central defender. He actually scored against the USA in 2011, but that USA lineup had Howard and Dempsey and no one else who will play tomorrow.
As previously mentioned, the outside backs are a bit of a weak point. Toby Alderwereld is the right back; he's a backup center back for Atletico Madrid. The left back could be Vermalen but is more likely to be Jan Vertonghen. Vertonghen had an up and down group stage, giving up the penalty that put Algeria up and scoring the lone goal against South Korea.
These guys aren't hoofers or anything…
these are talented technical footballers who impress at centre-back because of their ability to bring the ball out of defence, so they certainly aren’t useless clodhoppers. Amazingly, Alderweireld, Vermaelen and Vertonghan had almost identical footballing educations, raised at Germinal Beerschot before moving across the border to Ajax, where they were encouraged to play proactively in a high defensive line, and bring the ball out of defence intelligently.
…but while they can help the team get it out of the back, overlapping is not in the cards. Against Russia they barely approached the final third.
Belgium outside backs versus Russia
Belgian outside backs did get a bit more forward in the other games. If the US gets trapped in their own end with 30% of the possession or just flat sucks, fullbacks popping up on offense will be a symptom, not a cause.
MIDFIELD: Belgium is likely to field Alex Witsel in their version of the Beckerman role. Insert the usual "except he's paid a bucket of money by a major Euro club" here. In this case it's oil-gorged Russian outfit Zenit St Petersburg. Witsel as described by Zonal Marking:
The primary holder is Axel Witsel, a strong, reliable and commanding midfielder that doesn’t advance into attack, but can move up the pitch to shut down opponents and leave space between the lines – as mentioned, the centre-backs deal with anyone in that zone.
The primary attacking midfielder will be Kevin De Bruyne, who shredded the US with through balls in that friendly and has easily been Belgium's most dangerous offensive player aside when allowed to play in the center of the field behind the striker. (He was anonymous as a right sided midfielder for about 60 minutes against Algeria, then became a huge threat as soon as substitutions shoved him into the middle.)
The third midfielder is in question. Marouane Fellaini made a major impact in the Algeria game as an out-and-out striker looking to pound things in with his head. He also scored a thundering header against the US a year ago. He was deployed against Russia in Belgium's most important group game, so it seems like he'd be the obvious pick. But then there's a calf injury that forced him off the field early yesterday. That would open the door for Mousa Dembele, except he's suffering from basically the same injury. The Ghana witch doctor may be on our side now.
Anyway, pick between these gentlemen:
They’re very different options – Fellaini is a physical destroyer who lacks guile on the ball, and Dembele is a peculiar, converted forward who is excellent at dribbling forward and evading challenges, but offers surprisingly little end product, preferring to keep his passing simple.
Fellaini's ability to hit things hard with his head gives him the edge, health being equal.
De Bruyne (left) and Lukaku (right) haven't been able to hook up so far
FORWARD: Belgium's been looking for something more impressive than what 21-year-old Chelsea forward Romelu Lukaku's been able to offer so far, but they don't have great options. Kevin Mirallas is not a physical presence at 5'10" and Divock Origi is promising but just 19.
The wingers will be problems. Dries Mertens has consistently gotten into dangerous areas coming in from the right.
Mertens vs Russia
The area just inside the box towards the end line that Mertens got to repeatedly is assist central.
Premier League assist density, last three years
Mertens could not find the final ball against Russia, or his strikers weren't in a spot to run on to it. Mertens may just be a guy who isn't too good at making goals right now.
Even so the US will be playing with fire if they allow anything similar—Russia finally got bit when Eden Hazard, the left winger, got into that spot on the other side of the box and set up Origi for an easy slam home. Hazard is the most expensive and highest-regarded of any of Belgium's players—he was just named Chelsea's player of the year at the ripe old age of 23—but he hasn't had much impact with the national team. He's scored just six times in 47 caps and for much of the tournament he's been anonymous. That's where Belgium's lack of full-backs really shows. Defenses can overplay him and take him away. Expect the same from the US, with a defensive mid shaded to him.
Facing down another 4-3-3 with super dangerous wingers and question marks at outside back, expect a reprise of the Portugal game plan: a 4-5-1 with defensive responsibility on the flanks and Johnson bombing forward in an effort to exploit the lack of defense provided by the 4-3-3.
DEFENSE: Beasley, Besler, Cameron, Johnson.
Beasley and Besler are locks if healthy; Johnson is going to start. There is a faint chance that he gets moved up into the midfield, allowing Yedlin or Chandler to start. Faint, though.
While Gonzalez had his best game for the US in a long time against Germany, Cameron is likely to return to the lineup. He provides more ability with the ball at his feet and the USA is going to need more possession than they did against Germany in a game they actually have to win. Also, his mobility will be a major asset against Hazard.
The US has a little bit of a luxury here, as they can afford to give their outside backs cover since Belgium won't be overlapping much. Job one for the US outside backs and midfielders is to keep Belgium's wingers out of the danger zone. If they cross, they cross. The US has decided to live and die with crosses by jamming the middle, and with Fellaini in question all the more reason to double down.
time for meep meep?
MIDFIELD: Beckerman, Jones, Bedoya, Bradley, Yedlin
Beckerman, Jones, Bradley are locks. Jones has been the USA's player of the tournament so far. This is the game Bradley's touch returns, I promise. Beckerman is going to be absolutely critical as he strives to prevent De Bruyne from playing Belgians in on Howard's goal. If he can quiet the Belgian #10 as the US reaches the quarters hell have cemented an unlikely place in USMNT lore.
The wing spots are in doubt. Davis was invisible and lifted early. Zusi's touch has been off and his service poor aside from the winner against Ghana; Bedoya seems like he's about ready to fall over and expire on the regular. Given what we've seen so far, Bedoya makes sense. He's the only guy who's given you two-way play on the left this tourney, and he's relatively fresh.
Aaand… this could be a spot where Klinsmann does something wacky like start Yedlin. It's easy to see Yedlin zooming past the Belgians' left back, whoever it is, into the assist zone he got to for the second against Portugal. Yedlin's speed will also help the US cover on Hazard. Meanwhile any individual defensive issues he has are not likely to come into play.
Zusi is of course a possibility.
What about Jozy? There have been reports he's doing some running, and Klinsmann has said he's "very optimistic" again:
‘‘We are very optimistic,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “Every day is a big step forward with Jozy. It’s 11 days now and it’s looking better every day, so we are optimistic we have him being a part of the Belgium game.’’
"A part" is one thing. A start that might go 120 minutes with a still-lingering muscle injury is unlikely.
SUBS: If the US finds itself down they'll have to go for it, so expect some sort of midfielder-for-striker swap with Beckerman the most likely to go out since he offers the least going forward. This is a recording.
In a tie game pushing towards extra-time, the US might lift one of the wingers for Wondolowski, and then if things get very deep Dempsey will probably be cashed out, allowing Johannsson to enter.
If the US is fortunate enough to be protecting a lead, bringing in Gonzalez will make sense. Fellaini is truly terrifying in the air, and Belgium's response to Algeria suggests they will go 4-4-2 with Fellaini up front if they need to. Whether that's a straight swap for Cameron or something else I don't know, but whatever it is it should not be Gonzalez as some sort of ostrich defensive mid.
Algerian Djamel Haimoudi has drawn the game. He did the most recent African Cup of Nations final and a Confed Cup semi; so far in this tournament he's done the Costa Rica-England and Holland-Australia games.
The latter featured a pretty ridiculous PK call for Australia when a Holland defender's arm hit a cross that came from about two feet away and seemed an obvious case of ball-to-hand. On the other hand, Haumoudi has a number of opportunities to bite on dives in the box and passed.
I'd mention cards but at this point it's clear that the refs have been instructed to be very lenient with yellows. That's no doubt an attempt to keep suspensions down since yellows now clear after the quarters instead of the group stage.
KEYS OTHER THAN SCORING MORE GOALPOINTS
Good goddamn Bradley. This is not the Michael Bradley I know. The above is. Bradley's history with the US when allowed to forward is one of constant activity, through balls that come off, and late runs into the box that are a danger few outfits are adequately prepared for.
He hasn't exactly been terrible in this tournament, but he has not provided the attacking edge he has for the last four years. It's probably just bad luck and bad form at the wrong time, but it's unlikely the US wins this game without Bradley having a hand in a USA goal.
Fitness will be tested… again. The US got an extra day of rest compared to Germany, but unfortunately they are going up against a team that rested a bunch of guys in their final group match.
However, the tests will go both ways. Belgium has a number of guys in various states of injury. If Kompany or Vermalen or Fellaini play there's a chance that one of them has to use up a substitution early, and as the US learned four years ago you really do not want to have to use early substitutes in a game that can go 120 minutes.
Keep the ball, have the ball, keep and have the ball. The US has gotten boxed in by two of its three opponents so far, and while the situations they found themselves in (up a goal thirty seconds in and soon without Jozy; playing Germany needing to not lose by lots) lent themselves to that kind of cagey play, now it's win or die time.
This means keeping the dang ball and playing Belgium like an equal. The good news is that Belgium is not particularly good at pressing. Algeria and South Korea abandoned any idea of possession pre-game, but a not particularly technical Russian side had exactly as much of the game as Belgium did, with relatively few Aimless Upfield Punts.
Center backs and goalie unsuccessful passes, Russia vs Belgium
The Shin Guardian's take on Belgium's panini game:
Defensively, Belgium claim to be a pressing team but that’s a dangerous description for it. They’ll occasionally go through spells when they’ll press high when commanding the run of play; but, if not, they’ll usually just retreat behind the halfway line and attempt to loosely swarm the ball. <– i.e. not pressing defense. Sampaoli would be mortified.
The first pass or two out of the back will be crucial, especially without Jozy. Bradley should be dropping deep to provide an outlet on the regular.
Fullback offense. The US fullbacks didn't have much impact on the Germany game aside from a couple of slaloming Beasley runs on which Run DMB seemed a decade younger, but this was largely because the US couldn't hold the ball long enough for them to get upfield. Once the US clears Belgium's pressure, the best offense they'll have is their speedy wing backs against the Belgium flanks.
WIN THE GAME. #winthegame
SECTION WHERE I PREDICT THE SAME THING KENPOM DOES