SALVADOR, Brazil — The future is bright.
This was a mantra heard on several occasions on Tuesday night, in the hours after the U.S. national team saw its World Cup ended by Belgium. It was easy to understand why this notion came to the forefront. After all, the emergence of youngsters DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green in the loss was one of the few bright spots for the Americans.
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But just how bright is the future really? To understand, we have to take a look at the player pipeline and the talent pool building behind the scenes. As much as we heard about the depth of the 2014 U.S. player pool, the reality is that the roster options for 2018 should be even more plentiful.
The transition to 2018 won’t be an easy one, with key players like Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and potentially Tim Howard moving on, but for a program that needs young talent developing at earlier ages, and on higher levels in order to compete with the world’s elite, there is reason for optimism.
No, there isn’t a tidal wave of Champions League-caliber youngsters on the way. No, there isn't a blue-chip class like Belgium currently has. What the building U.S. player pool has is more quality young options than at any point in national team history, and while not all of those young players will turn into stars, the more prospects there are, the better chance Klinsmann will have of filling a team with good, young talent in the coming years.
Projecting a World Cup team four years ahead of time is always an exercise in futility, but one worth doing anyway because it gives us a picture into the future and the possibilities for this U.S. team. Until you stop and really think about the players who could be factors in four years, it’s easy to ignore just how much promising talent is in the pipeline.
With that in mind, here is a look at the projected starters and projected 23-man roster for the U.S. 2018 World Cup team:
As much as Tim Howard was amazing in the team’s loss to Belgium, he will be 39 in 2018 and has stated on several occasions that he doesn’t plan to be playing into his 40s. He could very well still be on the next World Cup team as a backup or third goalkeeper, but the 2018 team should feature Brad Guzan in goal.
The Aston Villa goalkeeper has become a force for the Villans and he will be 33 in Russia, a peak age for a shot-stopper. Throw in the fact that there are currently no other goalkeepers really looking like threats to Guzan’s claim to the No. 1 and Guzan is one of the safer picks for a projected 2018 roster.
As for the other keepers for Russia? Howard could be a backup, and Under-20 goalkeeper Cody Cropper will be one to watch if he can land a starting role in the next few years. Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid and Zac MacMath all have the potential to play their ways into the conversation as well. Want a long shot? Try University of Maryland prospect Zack Steffen, who many believe has Howard-like potential.
Considering the World Cup he just had, you have to put DeAndre Yedlin on this list. He will be just 24 at the next World Cup, and is sure to be drawing interest from European scouts.
With Yedlin at right back, look for Fabian Johnson to slide over to left back, giving the 2018 U.S. team some serious speed on the flanks. With a move to Borussia Moenchengladbach up next for him, Johnson should continue to grow as he gains more experienced in European competition.
Other players for the fullback radar? Greg Garza and Timmy Chandler are two who are young enough and playing regularly who could absolutely be in the mix.
The central defender slots are a bit tougher to project. John Brooks looks like a safe bet to be on the 2018 team, and if his career trajectory continues on its same path, he should be a lock to start in Russia. Matt Besler might have something to say about that, though he’ll be 31 by the next World Cup.
Omar Gonzalez impressed at the 2014 World Cup, and it’s easy to forget that he’s still relatively young at 25, meaning he’ll still be in his 20s when the Russia World Cup takes place. Young defender Will Packwood is another player to keep an eye out for. He has the size and technical ability to be a factor in 2018.
Others to consider? Matt Hedges has some good potential, and Amobi Okugo is one to watch, unless he transitions into a midfield role. Andrew Farrell could also develop into a difference-making central defender. Shane O’Neill is definitely a player in the conversation, but his big issue at this point is sorting out what position will be best for him in the coming years.
Michael Bradley had his struggles in Brazil, but still showed quality as well and it’s tough to not see him be an important part of the 2018. He will be 30 then and could be the team’s captain. What will be interesting to see is the role he will play, and whether he will transition into a more defensive-minded role going forward.
With Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman already in their 30s, Klinsmann will need to find a new group of defensive midfield options, and Wil Trapp and Perry Kitchen are two players who come to mind as possibilities. German-American Danny Williams could have pushed for a 2014 World Cup spot if not for a knee injury, and he will be 29 in 2018, so he has to be considered as well.
Mix Diskerud didn’t play a minute in Brazil, but the 23-year-old midfielder has the technical ability to continue developing into a starting-caliber option in central midfield. He will face serious competition from Joe Corona, who just missed out on 2014 but has the talent to surpass Diskerud.
Someone else to consider is potential dual-national Gedion Zelalem. The Arsenal youngster is rumored to be considering playing for the United States, and as highly regarded as he is, it is easy to see him being a 21-year-old selection in 2018 for Klinsmann, assuming he decides to play for the U.S.
If you are looking for some more new blood to be a factor in 2018, then Luis Gil is a player who has to be considered a leading candidate to play his way into the conversation. The Real Salt Lake midfielder impressed at the Under-20 World Cup last year and should continue to develop into a starting-caliber option for Klinsmann. And if he doesn’t? Colorado Rapids midfielder Dillon Powers and New England’s Kelyn Rowe are worth keeping eyes on.
Jozy Altidore saw his World Cup limited to just 23 minutes, but at age 24, he has plenty of time to keep developing as a player, and if he is healthy, you have to pencil him as the team’s target forward. Terrence Boyd could develop into a player who could push Altidore for that role, but Altidore remains the most likely striker option for 2018.
Klinsmann will probably have to decide at some point how he wants to use Altidore and Aron Johannsson together. The pair could start in a 4-4-2 together, but with the number of talented and fast flank players coming through the pipeline, Johannsson might not be assured of starting come 2018.
Juan Agudelo shouldn’t be forgotten either. He is only 21 and had moderate success in his half season at FC Utrecht, but his next club move will be very crucial to his chances of reestablishing himself as a serious national team option.
One thing Klinsmann craved for his team is speed in 2014, and while the midfield lacked it for the most part, the 2018 team should have some good wide forward options with pace in a 4-3-3. Julian Green will be 23 in Russia, and if he can settle into a good club situation where he receives regular playing time he should only blossom.
A player who could be a serious difference-maker for the U.S. if he becomes eligible is Darlington Nagbe. The Portland Timbers star is not yet a U.S. citizen, but the process for that citizenship is in the works, and he has the talent to potentially be a starting flank player come 2018.
Then you have Joe Gyau, a blazing fast 21-year-old winger who just signed for Borussia Dortmund’s second team. Gyau has been plying his trade in the lower divisions of Germany for some time after having signed with Hoffenheim, but he has difference-making pace and if he can develop under Jurgen Klopp, he could be a breakout player in 2018.
And if Gyau doesn’t emerge? Mexico-based Paul Arriola and Chicago Fire rookie standout Harrison Shipp are two other players who will be worth watching in the coming years as Jurgen Klinsmann should find himself with a wealth of young flank options.
We also shouldn’t forget about prodigal son Brek Shea, who was once a Klinsmann favorite, but who has to get his club situation sorted first before he can be considered a serious contender again.
PROJECTED USA 2018 WORLD CUP ROSTER
GOALKEEPERS- Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Cody Cropper
DEFENDERS- DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Will Packwood, Timmy Chandler, Greg Garza
MIDFIELDERS- Michael Bradley, Mix Diskerud, Joe Corona, Luis Gil, Geoff Cameron, Wil Trapp
FORWARDS- Jozy Altidore, Aron Johannsson, Terrence Boyd, Darlington Nagbe, Julian Green, Joe Gyau