The looming 2014 World Cup is drawing most of the attention of U.S. fans, but we are also just two years away from the next Olympic cycle, and the next generation of young talent.
This year also signifies another important point in the development of the U.S. in that it marks the halfway point between the next Olympic games, with the 2016 competition also being played in Brazil.
It might not seem like it, but two years have already passed since the infamous failed U.S. Olympic qualifying bid. The ‘Nightmare in Nashville’ was seen as a low point for American soccer, and at the time, it was expected to ruin head coach Caleb Porter’s career and stunt the development of an entire generation.
Neither of those things happened. Porter recovered and went on to be a successful coach with the Portland Timbers, winning MLS Coach of the Year last year. Meanwhile, many of that team’s players saw their careers blossom in the coming years, with players like Terrence Boyd, Mix Diskerud and Joe Corona eventually transitioning to the senior national team, while players like Amobi Okugo, Juan Agudelo, Kofi Sarkodie, Perry Kitchen, Sean Johnson and Bill Hamid continued to progress in their careers.
As we sit two years away from the next Olympic Qualifying cycle, there is a growing conversation being had about what is widely considered one of the bigger problems for American player development. The void between ages 18 and 22 where not enough players have a sufficient development structure to help them maximize their growth as players.
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Strides are being made with the growth of MLS player academies, and changes in MLS guidelines are giving young players more opportunities to play. Time will tell just how much of a difference those new opportunities will make on the development of top prospects.
In 2016, we should really get a sense of how much progress is being made when we start looking at the player pool that will make up the U.S. Olympic qualifying team, and eventually the Olympic team (assuming, of course, that the Americans qualify). An early look at the projected 2016 U.S. Olympic team reveals a pretty impressive group of players, though it should be cautioned that the 2012 Olympic player pool was widely regarded as the most talented the program's history.
Here is a sneak peak at what the 18-man U.S. Olympic team could look like in 2016 (keep in mind three overage players would be added):
GOALKEEPERS- (Cody Cropper, Zack Steffen)
With no age-eligible American goalkeepers currently starting professionally, the advantage goes to two members of the 2013 U.S. Under-20 World Cup team. Cropper is on the books at English Premier League side Southampton, while Steffen is currently at the Unversity of Maryland and widely regarded as a future national team star.
Other Prospects to Watch- Jon Kempin, Ethan Horvath,
DEFENDERS- (John Anthony Brooks, Will Packwood, Shane O’Neill, DeAndre Yedlin, Eric Miller, Kellyn Acosta)
Four of these six defenders have already established themselves as pro starters, while a fifth (Acosta) earned a dozen starts as an 18-year-old with FC Dallas. The sixth, Miller, is set to begin his pro career after being drafted by the Montreal Impact, where he is projecting to start in year one.
Brooks has yet to be formally cap-tied to the U.S., but with all signs pointing to him choosing the U.S. over his native Germany, he would be penciled in as an Olympic starter alongside Packwood, who has overcome a gruesome broken leg to reestablish himself as a starter for English League Championship side Birmingham City.
O’Neill and Yedlin enjoyed outstanding 2013 seasons, their first as pro starters, and were rewarded with call-ups to the U.S. national team in January. There is still some question about whether O’Neill will ultimately wind up a central defender or defensive midfielder, but it is a safe bet he will be on this team one way or another.
Other Prospects to Watch- Oscar Sorto, Walker Zimmerman, Jordan Allen, Michael Amick, Christian Dean, Matt Miazga
MIDFIELDERS- (Luis Gil, Paul Arriola, Wil Trapp, Caleb Stanko, Benji Joya, Marc Pelosi)
Gil, Joya and Trapp all showed well at the Under-20 World Cup, and all three will have plenty of experience when the Olympics roll around in 2016. Gil earned his first senior national team call-up in January and could have a move to Europe in his future now after two years as a solid starter for Real Salt Lake.
Arriola is a very exciting attacking prospect at Club Tijuana who could slot in as a winger or forward. One of the top rookies in Mexico in the fall, Arriola has drawn comparisons to a young Landon Donovan.
Stanko is still working his way up the ranks at Bundesliga side Freiburg, but has the quality to make this group. Pelosi is a quality prospect at Liverpool, though he has yet to break through and play first-team soccer.
One player sure to attract some attention is Arsenal propect Gedion Zelalem, but at present he is not a U.S. citizen and has been training with German youth national teams. In other words, don't hold your breath on him ever representing the Unied States.
Other Prospects to Watch- Cristian Roldan, Tommy Thompson, Dillon Serna, Joel Sonora, Danny Garcia, Rubio Rubin, Victor Pineda
FORWARDS- (Omar Salgado, Mario Rodriguez, Jack McBean, Daniel Cuevas)
If there is a position lacking established pro veterans, and one primed to field one or two overage players at the Olympics, it’s forward.
One name not listed here who could wind up being part of the squad is Julian Green. The Bayern Munich prospect has yet to make a decision on which national team he will play for, USA or Germany, but if he chooses the U.S. he would undoubtedly be one of the featured players on this potential Olympic team.
Salgado is a bit of a reclamation project, but if he can finally put his foot injuries behind him, he could have a breakout 2014 with the Vancouver Whitecaps. Early signs this pre-season are that he is healthy and much stronger, so a good 2014 could spark his resurgance into the youth national team picture.
Rodriguez was a key member of the Under-20 national team in 2013, but has gone of the radar a bit as he plies his trade with Borussia Moenchengladbach’s reserve team. McBean is another big forward who has yet to really break through with the first team at the Los Angeles Galaxy, and could find that tough going again in 2014.
The lack of clear-cut forward options in this age group could lead to some younger options being considered. U.S. Under-17 forwards Haji Wright and Joe Gallardo are generating plenty of buzz, and the next two years could see one of them develop into a real option for this group.
Other Prospects to Watch- Alonso Hernandez, Jose Villarreal, Jordan Morris, Haji Wright, Joe Gallardo