As far as U.S. men's national team fans go, it takes some next-level optimism to not feel a bit melancholy and disinterested in the the team's start to 2018.
If you couldn't care less about the USA's 2018 opener against Bosnia & Herzegovina on Sunday night, you aren't alone. Missing out on the 2018 World Cup has turned the annual January camp into even more of an afterthought than it has been in the past, and the recent controversy surrounding Jonathan Gonzalez's decision to play for Mexico has only added salt to the program's wound. Throw in the fact that the U.S. still doesn't have its next full-time coach in place yet — and may not have one until the summer — and you have all the ingredients for what is just about the least consequential U.S. opener in two decades.
With all that said, there are reasons to watch this young U.S. group against Bosnia & Herzegovina. Caretaker coach Dave Sarachan may just be a placeholder with zero chance of being chosen as U.S. coach for the next cycle, but he has a group with some very talented youngsters, some intriguing options at traditionally weak positions, and some good prospects battling it out in one key position in a state of transition.
Here is a look at the lineup we could see for the Americans on Sunday, and some key storylines to watch for:
PROJECTED USA XI
Sarachan was playing things close to the vest in terms of what sort of system we should expect and which players he would turn to, but this projected group features a collection of some of the best MLS performers in 2017. Juan Agudelo started against Portugal in November and merits some consideration, while Sarachan sang the praises of Gyasi Zardes, so the recently acquired Columbus Crew forward could also force his way into this lineup.
TYLER ADAMS EVOLUTION TO CONTINUE
There is no more exciting a prospect in this group than New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams, who is looking to build on a breakout 2017 for club and country. One of the stars of last summer's U.S. Under-20 World Cup team, Adams shined in a right wing-back role for the Red Bulls in 2017, but will be expected to move into his natural central midfield role this upcoming season. That's assuming he doesn't make a winter move to Europe, which still shouldn't be ruled out given how much interest there currently is in Europe.
For U.S. fans, Adams represents the leading candidate in this U.S. squad to be a key figure in the next cycle, and a player who could blossom into a leader in the march toward the 2022 World Cup. The Bosnia friendly should offer a good glimpse into how he is settling in with the team, and if he has already established himself as someone who needs to be penciled into the starting lineup regardless of what coach is in charge.
The continued evolution of Adams will carry even more interest now in the wake of the U.S. team's loss of Gonzalez. Adams has long been seen as a better prospect than Gonzalez, and even after the Monterrey midfielder's stellar season in Liga MX, Adams remains more highly coveted by foreign clubs. It will be up to Adams to show U.S. fans that the loss of Gonzalez — at least from a strictly midfield personnel standpoint — isn't the end of the world.
THE GOALKEEPER BATTLE FOR 2022 BEGINS
Tim Howard hasn't formally retired from the national team, and neither have Brad Guzan or Nick Rimando for that matter, but it's clear that a new generation of goalkeepers is ready to stake its claim to some soon-to-be-available spots with the full squad in 2018.
The January camp is the first step toward remaking the depth chart in a deep pool of young goalkeepers, and it's also Bill Hamid's chance to establish himself as the leader of a new group. Long considered an heir apparent to Howard, Hamid has left MLS for Danish side Midtjyyland, where he will be facing a battle for minutes. A start against Bosnia would offer a good sign that he has established himself as the leader of a group with some rising prospects in Zack Steffen and Alex Bono.
SIZING UP THE FULLBACKS
Fullback has long been a position with limited options in the U.S. player pool for quite some time, but this camp has offered some promising newcomers a look to show whether they are ready to take charge in the next cycle. DeAndre Yedlin may be seen as a lock starter at right back for the foreseeable future, but there are some good options emerging behind him, as well as at the ever-challenging left back position.
Matt Polster made the switch from central midfield to right back for the Chicago Fire and was arguably the best player at that position in MLS last season. He has taken that momentum into a successful showing in the current January camp, and will be one to watch on Sunday. San Jose fullback Nick Lima is another good prospect at the position, and could see minutes as well.
At left back, the veteran Justin Morrow may not be as appealing to those who are only interested in prospects who project to be factors in 2022, but the 30-year-old MLS Cup champion has evolved into the best left back in MLS and could grab hold of the position for the next few years. Real Salt Lake defender Danilo Acosta looks very much like the left back of the future, and the Bosnia friendly will offer him a chance for his senior national team debut.