One vestige of World Cup coverage remains.
THE THOUSAND FOOT VIEW
Welp. The World Cup proceeded without the United States. Sunil Gulati finally got the message and is gone; in his place is Carlos Cordiero, who was nominally Gulati's right-hand man but not the chosen successor. That was Kathy Carter, who does something or other for SUM, the shadowy money machine that's attached to MLS, US Soccer, and the Mexican Federation.
Cordiero and Gulati reportedly had a falling out. I choose to believe that was over Gulati's insane dedication to Klinsmann, for sanity's sake.
The federation hasn't done much since except play some friendlies and hire Earnie Stewart as a "general manager," a vague job title with vague responsibilities and no ability to hire and fire the national team coach. Stewart, at least at first blush, is exactly the right guy for the job. A Dutch dual national with 101 caps, Stewart had a couple years of MLS experience at the tail end of his career and then transitioned into front office roles with a couple of Dutch clubs before becoming the sporting director of the Philadelphia Union. Now just hire a coach who is vaguely competent and things will start moving in the right direction.
Actually: they already have. The MLS 3.0 era has been going on long enough that it's starting to pay off. MLS 1.0 was about survival. MLS 2.0 was about expansion. MLS 3.0 is about development. Most MLS teams now have fully-fledged academies and reserve/youth sides playing in the USL, which is a quantum leap from even five years ago. When MLS first started up, it piggy-backed on the existing soccer infrastructure. The "Super Draft" was really important and most Americans in the league had significant college soccer experience. While college soccer still has a role to play, these days virtually all of the country's top-end prospects skip college in favor of going direct to the pros. MLS is now creating an alternate path that's closer to the way soccer prospects develop worldwide.
The result is an unprecedented wave of young Americans both at home and abroad at major clubs, striving to break through and in an increasing number of cases actually doing so. The US had two teenagers playing major minutes for top-end Bundesliga sides last year and is poised to have a couple more breakthroughs this year. There's now a steady stream of US prospects getting signed by German clubs, in part because they're free—a hole the USSF really has to patch—but in part because the academy structure has created a class of legitimate teenage prospects.
As a result this cycle has far too many young prospects at major Euro clubs to name, and the rate of signings seems to be going up annually. Projecting these guys has a bunch of wild-ass guessing involved, obviously. The edition of this post four years highlighted a certain Dortmund attacker... Junior Flores. In my defense, Christian Pulisic was 15. May there be another 15 year old out there I have no knowledge of.
Anyway, one man's guess at the main contenders for the roster in Qatar. Or, for cynics, the last match in the hex when we run out a 4-1-3-2 in a game we need one point in. All ages are as of the 2022 World Cup. Players are roughly ordered by beautiful perfect son-ness.
Josh Sargent (22), Werder Bremen. Sargent is the real deal, the only player to score for the U17s, U20s, and main national team in the same calendar year. Sargent's on-field awareness is leagues better than any 18 year old's should be; he seemingly always knows the position of his teammates and how to unbalance a defense. He's not big-huge but he's comfortable with hold-up play and puts himself in excellent positions on the regular. His ability to pull off the line and find pockets of space leapt out at the U20 World Cup, which he played in despite also being eligible for (and playing in) the U17 World Cup:
Sargent signed with Bremen, a mid-table Bundesliga side, afterwards and moved to Germany despite being ineligible to play with the main team—FIFA rules state you have to be 18 to leave your country of origin and Sargent just turned 18 in February. If he does make the breakthrough people expect him to he could end up at the top of the US depth chart almost immediately. Bremen's coach is outright saying they will not bring in a striker because of Sargent and another young player.
[After THE JUMP: less beautiful, less perfect sons]
Bobby Wood (29), Hannover. Wood had a miserable year with a Hamburg team that got relegated for the first time in its history but did secure a loan move to Hannover to stick in the Bundesliga and will remain near the top of the pool unless forcibly displaced by the young guys. Wood is an industrious gent who likes playing off the back shoulder of defenders and has a role, but he's not that useful against teams that want to bunker.
Gyasi Zardes (30), Columbus Crew. Yes, him. Zardes was traded to Columbus this offseason and has thrived as the kind of striker who doesn't touch the ball until it's time to dump it in the net.
berhalter's weaponized that by making sure gyasi's in a position where his first touch just goes into the net
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 25, 2018
He has 10 goals thus far to lead Americans in MLS. As a traditional #9, Zardes's donkey touches are limited; his athleticism and aerial ability come to the forefront. He's able to run the channels and track down long balls to relieve pressure, and after a little hold up play he plays a poacher role well.
It's clear he was miscast by Klinsmann, who used him as a winger, and now that he's a pure 9 he's moved into the weakest part of the player pool. If he continues being the top-scoring American in MLS he'll get another shot. If Columbus's Gregg Berhalter gets the USA job his chances likely increase. How do I feel about this? Middling!
Andrija Novakovich (25), Reading. Novakovich tore up the Dutch second division last year and his new loan bumps him up to a newly-promoted club in the top flight. He'll get plenty of opportunity in the wide-open Eredivise; he's good on the end of set pieces, takes penalties, and is fast enough to get a bunch of through balls in a lower league. This year will announce him as a real prospect or not so much.
Sebastian Soto (21), Real Salt Lake. Soto's apparently on the verge of a move to Germany after training with Borussia Monchengladbach, which I like saying out loud. Try it. It's fun! If so, Soto is in for a limbo year similar to the one Sargent just went through and then has to make the first-team breakthrough that Sargent is apparently about to. Tall order, but Soto promises to be the same kind of multi-dimensional 9 that Sargent could become.
OTHERS: Jozy Altidore (32) will be old-ish and has suffered so many injuries in his career it seems unlikely he'll be World Cup quality in four years. Aron Johannson (31) is the only person in history who regrets defecting from the Iceland national team. His career has been derailed by injury but he's part of Sargent's competition after having recovered. Jordan Morris (27) has fallen off considerably in MLS, been injured a lot, and probably hit his ceiling. Rubio Rubin (25) needs to actually play some soccer. Dom Dwyer (31)... eh? Haji Wright (24) landed at Schalke last year but a loan to the second Bundesliga did not go as well as hoped.
Bonus weird one: Frenchman Theoson Siebatcheu (26) was born in DC and just made a fairly expensive transfer to one of the better French sides after a 17 goal, 6 assist season with Reims in the French second flight. Siebatcheu has a slightly intimidating climb to the French national team that the US could probably sway him from but is also eligible for Cameroon. The US has inquired.
WING INSOFAR AS THE US EVER HAS WINGERS
actually wait there are a fair number of these guys now
Christian Pulisic (24), Dortmund. The lockiest lock on the team sheet at the moment, a 24-year-old Pulisic should be the most high profile Euro star in USMNT history by 2022. He could be a central attacking midfielder or a wing threat; the assumption here is that the US remains more bereft on the outside than up the middle. Also he seems to be settling in as a right winger at Dortmund.
I'd rather play a guy at his club position than elsewhere unless it's absolutely necessary to deviate. The general dearth of central playmakers in the US pool may in fact make it absolutely necessary to deviate. For now, we'll call him a winger.
Kenny Saief (28), Anderlecht. Saief was a mildly touted one-time switch from Israel who got hurt and then had a scary infection almost as soon as he was eligible for the US; his move to Belgian power Anderlecht is good for his playing time, as he got a ton of minutes in the back half of the last season under his old coach at Ghent. Saief is a left-sided player, which helps him in a pool that's got quite a lot of right wingers, and will be dead in the middle of his prime in four years. He's tricky and has passing range...
...and top teams in Belgium are usually USA-quality destinations. (Yes, that is Memo Ochoa.)
Paul Arriola (27), DC United. Arriola is an old school USA player who will run all day and work his ass off on defense, and that should go a fair way towards keeping him in the picture. His offensive upside remains somewhat in doubt; he was DC's record signing a couple years ago and hasn't produced at the level you might expect from a DP/USMNT level player. Also DC is real bad.
Tim Weah (22), PSG. Weah is the sun of legendary George Weah, who's now president of Liberia, and made his PSG debut in their final game last season before getting some full US callups. He's probably not going to unseat Kylian Mbappe—call it a hunch—and should probably get loaned out somewhere he'll play extensively. In his US appearances he's gotten a fair number of opportunities that usually get booted straight at the goalkeeper.
I'll fight you if you say anything bad about my glorious son Josh Sargeant but I'm a bit skeptical about Weah. Hopefully he gets enough playing time and results this season to put some doubters on a one-way train to coldtakesville.
Jonathan Lewis (25), NYCFC. Inexplicably did not play for his club this year until Patrick Viera left and a new guy took over and then instantly became a game-changing super-sub. Produces whenever he's on the field, now maybe put him on it? I'm just sayin'. Right? At 21 needs an MLS breakthough now to stay prospect-ish and should get it.
Jonathan Amon (23), FC Nordsjaelland. Uh...
Jonathan Amon (@FCNordsjaelland)
Position - Winger
Amon is a pacy winger with an explosive first step which he has used to blow by defenders. This past season was his first pro season and he certainly performed. He dealt with some injuries throughout. Amon next plays on 7/2. pic.twitter.com/95AzVFIUBD
— USMNT (@USMNTvideos) June 30, 2018
...let's explore this. Amon piled up a lot of highlights in ten appearances but was limited with the injuries that perpetually strike down promising US wingers abroad. (Remember Josh Gatt? Joe Gyau? No? Well, injuries.) Amon is also a left-sided player, which will help him.
OTHERS: Julian Green (27) recently made a permanent move to a bottom-half club in the 2nd flight in Germany and is no longer a big-time prospect. Kekuta Manneh (27) is a super fast guy who was recently naturalized but a move to Pachuca was disastrous and now he's in the Swiss league being fast at people. Romain Gall (27) is probably going to move after impressing in the Swedish league, possibly to a big Dutch club or Malmo, the Bayern of Sweden. Lynden Gooch (26) should have a major role with Sunderland this year, but they've suffered consecutive relegations so it'll be in the third flight. Nick Taitague (22) made another Bundesliga-at-17 move as one of three Americans Schalke picked up. Injuries have held him back but a breakthrough would spring him way up the list here.