The United States men’s national team failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is a disaster for the program. There are no excuses, there are no “well, but” statements to mollify things — there’s just failure. A lot of that failure is on the shoulders of the players who simply did not do enough to qualify for the World Cup, but there are some players who should still give fans hope of a brighter future with a much better USMNT.
Yes, there are a number of players currently in the USMNT who should not receive significant minutes in any setting moving forward. Tim Howard. DaMarcus Beasley. Matt Besler. Geoff Cameron. Alejandro Bedoya. Graham Zusi. All of these players have played a major role in the team over the last few years, but it’s time for them to step aside or at least into drastically reduced roles to let the next generation of United States talent come into the team and make it their own. Even the legendary Clint Dempsey needs to take a much smaller role moving forward.
But there are a lot of players players either in the team now or on the fringes of it who can make a big difference for the USMNT over the next five years to 2022 and beyond. Here are 11 of them.
The “wonder boy” is the obvious name here, the 19 year old attacking superstar who has already made a huge impact on the USMNT despite his tender age. Tuesday night’s disaster for the team saw him make his 20th cap and score his ninth goal for the national team, and while it’s a shame that his first World Cup cycle will be a waste, he can be the one to lead this team into the future.
When he was coming up, Pulisic was often dubbed “the American Messi” by over-exuberant fans, but two years later and they’re at least partially right. While Pulisic’s significant technical gifts are not on Lionel Messi’s level — that’s an awfully high bar, after all — he does have one of Messi’s best traits in spades: the heart and fire to put his team on his back in crunch time and will them over the line in their biggest matches.
We saw some of that on Tuesday night when Pulisic took matters into his own hands at the start of the second half to score the USMNT’s lone goal of the night, and we’ve seen it at times during big matches in the last six months as well. That didn’t quite work out on Tuesday because he looked exhausted and like he wasn’t quite playing at 100 percent after the knock he took on Friday night, but with that trait and his ever-increasing quality on the pitch, Pulisic will be the central element of the national team moving forward.
Yedlin is the only other starter from the loss against Trinidad and Tobago who deserves a place on this list, and despite a performance that was sometimes shaky from the young right back, Yedlin was one of the few players on the pitch who could consistently be seen running his ass off trying to make things happen at either end of the pitch.
At 24 years old, Yedlin is still young enough to keep helping the USMNT over at least this next World Cup cycle and hopefully beyond, and he has the physical and technical skills to do it at a fairly high level. He’s not a perfect player, but he’s head and shoulders the best right back the national team has right now, and with his speed and ability to make things happen in the final third coupled with his ever-improving defensive skills, he has the ability to be a major player for the national team moving forward after a stop-start early phase to his career.
The injury-forced absence of John Brooks has been keenly felt the past two months for the USMNT, losing their best defender at a crucial time. If having any one missing player would have changed Tuesday’s result, it might have been Brooks, because he’s been much less prone to the kinds of mental errors that plagued the U.S. defenders against the Soca Warriors.
But more than that, Brooks is actually a really good defender. Good enough that VfL Wolfsburg paid €20 million to sign him last summer, the highest transfer fee ever paid for an American player. He’s helped change games for the USMNT in the past, and he can be a dominant anchor in the defense going forward. That’s a nice piece to know that you already have.
Acosta is already a fringe member of the national team, and he has the ability to start taking on a larger role. At 22 years old he’s still a bit away from his prime, but close enough that he’s improving rapidly, as exemplified by his excellent season for FC Dallas. His 16 USMNT caps have been a little hit-or-miss so far, but he has the ability to be a great defensive element in midfield, something the national team has been sorely lacking for some time now.
Weston McKennie, Jonathan Gonzalez and Tyler Adams
This trio of teenaged midfielders may eventually be the go-to starting trio in the center of the pitch for the USMNT if things pan out for them, but what’s truly impressive is that all three of them are already making an impact for their respective club sides despite their young age.
McKennie debuted for Bundesliga stalwarts Schalke late last season, and has already started earning starts in their midfield this season and has generally impressed for the German side. Gonzalez is already a regular player Liga MX leaders Monterrey, hanging evenly with some of the toughest and roughest midfielders in Mexico with his all-action style. Adams has already drawn comparisons from his coaches to Italian toughman Gennaro Gattuso, and has added some impressive long-range passing to his game with New York Red Bulls this season.
All three players also already have significant experience working with each other in the U.S. U-17’s and U-20’s, and that familiarity coupled with their early strides taken at high levels will only make them a more complete and valuable unit for the national team in the future should their development continue apace.
The USMNT has another top-shelf young central defender climbing closer to cracking the national team squad, and Palmer-Brown is someone who’s been excellent for Sporting Kansas City when called on this season, and has been drawing significant attention internationally. Juventus tried to sign the 20 year old two years ago, Porto loaned him into their club last summer and saw him help their B team win the Portuguese second division. Manchester City even saw fit to sign him to a pre-contract last month, taking him to the Premier League after this season.
He’s got all the talent to justify that attention — now it’s time for Palmer-Brown to start growing into that talent, and if he does, the USMNT could have a fearsome defense for years between him and John Brooks.
Josh Sargent and Andrew Carleton
Aside from Pulisic, this list has been concentrated on the midfield and defense, and while that’s incredibly valuable in the international game. But you have to score goals too — and if Sargent and Carleton keep developing as they have, the pair of 17 year olds could be helping Pulisic spearhead the U.S. attack for years to come.
Sargent is a strong and lithe forward with a good head for using space in the final third, something most forwards don’t learn until much later in their careers. Already set to join Werder Bremen this winter, Sargeant is one of the top prospects the U.S. has had at center forward in a long, long time. Carleton is a speedy and powerful winger with a nose for goal and a knack for crossing up defenders to cut inside, and he and Sargeant have already paired for a whopping 38 goals combines with the U.S. U-17 team. They could be an explosive combination for the senior team, and if they reach their potential, they’ll be causing headaches for opposing defenses in CONCACAF and around the world for years to come.
Now, the tricky part of getting excited about young players in any sport is that they so often don’t pan out. Injuries happen. Bad fits with teams happen. Bad luck happens. Some guys plateau early. Some just never quite “get it.” But the good thing about seeing this list is that there are so many young players to be excited about — only two are as old as 24, and the rest are 22 or under, most of them still being teenagers.
And they’re far from alone in the United States development system. The U-17’s are at the FIFA U-17 World Cup in India right now, and have dominated their group early on, already securing a knockout round spot after just two matches. The U-20’s won their group in the U-20 World Cup earlier this year as well, advancing to the quarter finals before falling in extra time to eventual finalists Venezuela.
Despite many United States fans often deriding the national team’s development system, there’s a lot of excellent talent in the pool right now. There are too many promising young talents to mention in this post.
The USMNT needs to figure out how to get more of that talent to take the next step, but given the number of young players already starting to make an impact for some good teams, they may be on the cusp of having that issue figured out. There’s a lot to like about the top end of the USMNT’s younger talent, and hopefully they can use the disappointment of this World Cup cycle’s failures to launch the national team to greater heights than ever in the next few cycles to come.