Six USMNT long shots whose 2018 World Cup hopes are still alive — barely

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Here are six U.S. men’s national team players watching from afar who could still book a ticket to Russia:

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Aron Johannsson, forward

It’s never too late for a goal-scorer to turn heads with one of those impressive scoring runs. The thing is, Johannsson simply must find a better club situation. Now into his third season at Werder Bremen, injuries and managerial changes have contributed to the Alabama-born striker making only 16 total appearances. For whatever the reason, it just is not working out for him with the Bundesliga club.

If he can find a new club address, well, Johannsson is 26 years old, so there’s still some upside to discover. We know he scored prolifically at AZ in the Dutch Eredivisie (also Jozy Altidore’s old club). And we know Jurgen Klinsmann took him to Brazil in 2014 (where he subbed in for Altidore when the U.S. starter pulled a hamstring in the team’s opener). At this point, Johannsson would have to show that he can contribute something Altidore, Jordan Morris, Bobby Wood or Clint Dempsey cannot; Morris looks most vulnerable, but even then Arena has other options. It’s a long shot either way, but it most certainly starts with getting to a club where he’ll actually get on the field.

Ike Opara, defender

File this one under “deserved but unlikely.” The guy is having such an outstanding season for Sporting Kansas City, one half of the league’s top center back combination (alongside U.S. international Matt Besler). But, as they say: if it weren’t for bad luck, the guy would have no luck at all.  

First came the injuries that kept interrupting his chance to be everything he could be. The league’s No. 3 overall draft pick back in 2010, Opara averaged just 11 starts through his first seven MLS seasons. So while reaching this level wasn’t totally surprising when he finally got healthy and posted a lengthy run of games, the timing was just all wrong. Behind the eight ball in World Cup qualifying, Bruce Arena’s hands were somewhat tied on incorporating too many fresh faces. Combined with the abundant U.S. center-back depth, Opara was odd man out.

Again, injuries happen. If so, he’s surely on the outer edges of the radar.

Danny Williams, midfielder

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

No one is calling Huddersfield Town the “Leicester City of 2017-18.” Not yet. But the Terriers have charged fast out of the gate, undefeated in three Premier League matches. And while Danny Williams is not starting now, he’ll almost certainly get his chances.

If that happens, it could be increasingly hard for the U.S. program to ignore a Premier League midfielder with so much two-way industry and ample power to be enforcer. As such, Williams could be a backup at holding midfielder, another option to sit alongside Bradley in a dual-holding midfielder formation or a far more experienced box-to-box guy than Kellyn Acosta.

C.J. Sapong, forward

Who is Altidore’s backup? There is one, right? Or have we forgotten how pedestrian the U.S. attack became when the one and only U.S. target presence fell to injury early in the 2014 World Cup?

With 12 goals in 23 starts (for a team that otherwise doesn’t score a lot), Sapong has been a bright spot in another Union season that otherwise appears to be going nowhere. Without all his hold-up play and contributions to the bottom line, it’s hard to say if Jim Curtin’s club would even be as high as 8th in the 11-team Eastern Conference.

Sapong has just two U.S. caps, and at 28 years old, it’s probably a little late in the game. Then again, good form and the right coaching circumstance have combined previously to launch a late national team career. Kyle Beckerman, for instance, was a peripheral national team figure for much of his career, but got right into the middle of things with the national team around 2011. He was 29 by then.

Again, this one is a long shot. But if Sapong keeps scoring, Arena could find himself pondering the need for another target striker and perhaps bring Sapong into the January camp. From there, who knows?

Sebastian Lletget and Kenny Saief, midfielders

Hopes were high for both players before injuries derailed the plan. Lletget was hurt in late March playing for the national team and hasn’t played since.

Saief is a Florida-born, Israeli-raised midfielder who joined the national team this summer. He had just debuted in the U.S. shirt and seemed set to be a significant element in the Gold Cup squad when a groin injury forced his replacement on the U.S. roster.

Saief, 23, had seen his career blossom over the last couple of years at Gent in Belgium. Lletget, 24, has become a versatile fixture in the LA Galaxy midfield. Either one has time to recover and can still make a run at a roster spot, assuming he can get back into previous form. If Paul Arriola or Alejandro Bedoya were to be injured, leaving U.S. manager Bruce Arena in need of some young legs and midfield industry, either player could potentially fit in.

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