Pressure mounting: 6 USMNT stars who face make-or-break 2017 seasons
With Bruce Arena back in charge of the U.S. men’s national team and January camp just around the corner, plenty of players in the American soccer pool seem on the verge of opportunities that may not have existed with Jurgen Klinsmann still in charge.
Whenever new faces are thrown into the mix, however, some more established veterans are pushed out the door. The Gold Cup this summer could be the perfect tournament for that sort of transition, and it makes 2017 is a make-or-break year for several players both on the fringe of the U.S. pool or looking to lock down a spot with the team in 2018.
Here is a look at a few players who face make-or-break seasons with the U.S. national team in 2017:
The goalkeeper is likely to be a part of the roster that goes to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but if Guzan wants to grab hold of the starting job he’ll have the best chance to do so in 2017.
Tim Howard will likely miss the March qualifiers due to an adductor injury that required surgery. That leaves an opening in net for the U.S., and Guzan may be leaving Middlesbrough and moving back to MLS to get the playing time he needs to make a claim for the job. If he earns the job in March and plays well enough to keep it through the Gold Cup, Guzan may just unseat Howard for the starting job in this cycle.
If Guzan isn’t able to start in March or misses out on that opening, it could not only be enough for Howard to hold on to the No. 1 job, but it could also open the door for the likes of Bill Hamid, Ethan Horvath or others to jump him in the rotation after 2018.
When at his best, the winger was one of the more consistent pros in U.S. soccer. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Zusi over the past two seasons. The injuries haven’t been enough to keep Zusi on the bench – he’s played 46 regular season games over the past two seasons – but playing through pain has kept Zusi from being as dynamic as he was in 2011-2014, when he racked up 21 goals and 38 assists.
With a new crop of young wingers coming into the national team, Zusi will need to prove he’s capable of again reaching that consistent level of performances that helped him earn a starting job at the 2014 World Cup. Otherwise, Zusi could be pushed out of the national team picture.
The U.S. has relied for the past two cycles on a central midfield pairing of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones. The latter, however, is reaching the late stages of his career, and there doesn’t appear to be a natural replacement in the pool.
Kitchen has been given chances to fill that role, but he’s yet to truly grasp the job. A move to Europe helped bring him on to Klinsmann’s radar, but with Arena in charge now, Kitchen will face competition from the likes of Dax McCarty and other MLS players.
If the Hearts captain is going to have a chance to be the successor in central midfield, he’s going to have to win the job in 2017 with breakthrough performances at the Gold Cup.
He’s still just 24 years old, but Agudelo will need to have a true breakthrough season in 2017 if he’s going to work his way back into the U.S. national team picture.
Agudelo has all the talent in the world, but he hasn’t been able to show the consistency necessary to earn a job with the U.S. The path is tougher now with the likes of Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris ahead of him in the pecking order. Agudelo has scored seven goals in each of the last three seasons for the New England Revolution, but he’ll need more production in 2017 if he wants a chance to get back into the picture under Bruce Arena.
It sounds like he’ll get his chance to make an impression at January camp.
He is one of the most athletic players in the U.S. pool, but Shea has struggled since returning from Stoke City and fell out of the U.S. picture. The upcoming year needs to be one in which Shea makes a claim for why he deserves to be in the picture.
Shea’s struggles haven’t been all his fault. He showed plenty of promise as a left back for Orlando City, playing far better than what fans said on social media, but he got yanked around from midfield to defense due to injuries in Orlando. Shea has world-class size and speed, but he needs consistency and he needs to be in the right system.
He can help the U.S. national team if that happens, especially if they lean toward a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1, but he’ll need a strong start to the 2017 season in order to earn a chance under Arena.
The Portland playmaker fell out of favor with the U.S. under Klinsmann, and he dropped a bit in production with the Timbers in 2016. With new leadership under Arena, however, Nagbe could be the player to open things up in the final third for the U.S.
Arena has mentioned a potential Pulisic-Kljestan pairing in central midfield, but playing Nagbe-Kljestan with Pulisic on the left wing is another enticing option. In order to get that chance, however, Nagbe will have to win Arena over in January camp and prove his quality in the domestic league translates to the international stage. It’s not an easy jump for all players, but if Nagbe shows well in January, he could get an opportunity to lock down a job at the Gold Cup this summer.
If Nagbe misses out, it might be tough to break in before the World Cup, especially if Arena settles on that Pulisic-Kljestan pairing in the middle of the park.
Paul Tenorio is a reporter for FourFourTwo. He works as a freelance reporter on Fire home TV broadcasts. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulTenorio.