FourFourTwo's USMNT 50: 20-11
We kicked off our countdown of the 50 best players in the U.S. men's national team pool with guys who have loads of potential. You saw those at 50-41, then 40-31 and even more so in the 30-21 section of our list.
Now we're into the real heart of our countdown, looking at national-team regulars and guys who could be ready for even bigger roles as they thrive at the club level. Here's our list of 20-11:
20. BRAD GUZAN
It is not easy to knock Tim Howard off his perch as the U.S. national team goalkeeper, and only one person has been able to do so thus far. Guzan quickly ascended the depth chart among American goalkeepers for his sturdy play in net both in MLS and abroad. He may not be known for the full-stretch saves of his American counterpart, but Guzan has shown a knack for understanding the nuances of the position. His play in net earned him a move from MLS to the English Premier League, where he spent eight of the past nine seasons, starting in net for Aston Villa, Hull City and Middlesbrough.
Guzan seemed to be the front-runner to be in net for the 2018 World Cup, but he has struggled to see the field with Boro and now looks to be on his way back to MLS with Atlanta United. The change in scenery may be just what Guzan needs to take over the starting role. Howard is injured and won’t be available for March qualifiers, but Guzan will need steady playing time to secure the job. If he gets his opportunity in net, he’s unlikely to look back. The return to MLS may be good for Guzan, too, as it will put him in a leadership role with an expansion franchise that has stocked up on talented, but young, players. If you’re Bruce Arena, those are the leadership responsibilities you want from a veteran goalkeeper.
-- Paul Tenorio
19. Benny Feilhaber
Bruce Arena says better passers are needed in the U.S. midfield as he re-directs a national team adrift. Benny Feilhaber damn sure knows how to pass through the midfield. So … how about that! Things are already falling into place, eh?
It won’t be quite that easy for the Sporting Kansas City man, who just signed a new deal with the club. First, the guy is 31. While he has some short-term value, it’s hard to see Arena building the bigger plan around a 31-year-old midfielder who has been on the outs for a while. There’s also a bit of baggage; nobody ever accuses Feilhaber of being a bad teammate, just maybe a little grouchy. But when you’re behind the eight ball in World Cup qualifying, eliminating someone because they get a bit grumpy … well, that looks like a luxury.
The guy has experience aplenty here and abroad, including minutes in the 2010 World Cup. And knows how to steer that critical, final pass; 28 assists over the last two years at Kansas City prove it. There’s also an edge to his game, a good tool in any belt for these difficult qualifiers ahead in less-friendly locations. He isn’t Jermaine Jones in this way – but neither does he possess Jones’ harmful tendency to sow chaos through tactical inattention or ill-advised passing.
More to the point here, Feilhaber could become the ultimate beneficiary of the United States’ coaching change. Klinsmann had clearly made his mind up on the guy; Arena seems open to re-building bridges.
-- Steve Davis
18. STEVE BIRNBAUM
If there is an argument for the continued relevance of college soccer, it can be found with Birnbaum. The center back was drafted second overall in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft at the age of 23 – not exactly a young buck – and quickly established himself as one of the top defenders in MLS. His performances with D.C. United earned him an invite to the U.S. national team, and he’s been able to work himself into the rotation.
Birnbaum has a great mix of qualities as a center back. He is among the most dangerous defenders on the attacking side of the field, scoring three goals and adding two assists in 2016, mostly off of set pieces. Birnbaum has also shown some good ability with the ball at his feet in distribution, and he has enough physical presence to deal with bigger strikers. His work in his first three pro seasons grabbed the attention of European teams, and ultimately earned him a new deal with D.C. United.
Only now is Birnbaum approaching his prime as a defender, and he will likely be given more responsibility as a leader in the next few seasons with United. It’ll be the next major step of his career, and he’ll need to show that continued growth in order to propel into a starting role at one of the deepest positions in the U.S. pool.
-- Paul Tenorio
NEXT: Biggest beneficiary of Klinsmann's firing is a still-hidden gem