Tickets punched? USMNT's World Cup squad may be more set than you think

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-three sounds like a lot, but when you start listing the team out, you see how few tickets may be left for Russia.

Players and coaches like to chew on the old saw about every opportunity in the national shirt being special. They certainly aren’t wrong. Thing is, it’s more than raw patriotism at work; there’s also a very practical payback to consider.

When it comes to positioning vis a vis a potential U.S. men’s national team World Cup spot, any chance to impress lies somewhere between valuable and critical. And you do realize that chances for movement up or down the roster are now scarce at best, don’t you?

In other words, Bruce Arena’s roster for next year’s World Cup is probably more set than you realize.

That’s right, the big moment in Russia may be more than nine months away, and the United States’ place isn’t yet secure, but indulge us here and do this little exercise: Scratch out a list of tested U.S. internationals almost certain to be onboard when the plane goes wheels up for Moscow Now add the guys who can reasonably like their chances. 

Pretty quickly you’ll have 20, maybe 21 or perhaps even 22 names. There’s just not a lot of wiggle room left. There’s some! Just not much.

You just know Arena has done the same little exercise. Over and again.  Believe it, most of the choices have already been made.

Oh, he’s certainly not going to tell us who’s on the list. In fact, Arena might not even cop to having a good picture of the roster just yet. Then again, he’s pretty good at candor, so he just might.

Usual caveats apply

First, of course, comes the presumption that Arena will actually need to fill out a 23-man roster. If he and his men stumble late next week at Red Bull Arena against Costa Rica, that could start looking ominously dicey.

Next and equally obvious, the injury factor. We’re seeing that at work right now, especially along a suddenly brittle back line as John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Omar Gonzalez struggle to get past injury-related absences of varying degrees. Brooks is the most serious: he’s out for up to three months. Any injuries next spring could alter the roster calculus.

There’s also a question of form, although that applies to only a select few. Arena certainly isn’t going to change his mind about, say, Michael Bradley, because he has a stinker or two at BMO Field next spring. Same for Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Christian Pulisic and probably quite a few others.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Now, a few guys further down the list, say Jordan Morris (above) or Graham Zusi, are more vulnerable to a run of poor form. But there aren’t many in that boat.

Just look at the back line, where managers typically bring eight defenders. Cameron, Brooks, Yedlin, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Jorge Villafana and Tim Ream are good bets to make the team. Zusi is in a good spot, too – and that would make eight.

Aside from the Sporting KC right back, you see anybody there who has a good reason to fear for their spot? Ream might appear most vulnerable, but he can play center back or left back, and that versatility is gold on a World Cup roster.

In the midfield, Bradley, Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, Alejandro Bedoya and Darlington Nagbe seem solid bets. Kellyn Acosta and Paul Arriola have solidified their positions this year, and seeing as both are 22 years old – young legs are good legs in the fairly congested spacing of a World Cup – both seem in good shape. That leaves one spot – past U.S. rosters have included eight midfielders – which will probably go to a holding midfield specialist. Seems like Dax McCarty’s spot to lose, but this is place more up for grabs than others.

So you get it. Yes, there are a couple of spots still being contested, probably including a third goalkeeper and maybe one forward. Again, an injury could open a spot for someone like Eric Lichaj, Matt Hedges or Gyasi Zardes to move up the list.

By the way, don’t put much stock in the notion Arena will carry a few younger, untested types just for exposure or seasoning, or whatever. That’s not Arena. History has shown that every player has a purpose. In 2002, Arena used 19 of 23 players over the course of five matches. Those who didn’t get minutes included Steve Cherundolo (injured) and backup goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Tony Meola. In 2006, he deployed 18 of his 23 during a shorter run of just three matches. Arena’s youngest player on that roster, by the way: 22-year-old Eddie Johnson, who got into two matches.

So, no, don’t start wondering about taking someone like Weston McKennie, the 18-year-old Texan currently making us all take notice at Schalke. Not unless Arena truly believes someone like McKennie can provide actual utility.

Why it will be difficult to move

Arena is a manager who needs to trust his players, not just in executing tactical requests but also in their contributions to chemistry and true esprit de corps. But there is a critical logistical constraint in play here: there just won’t be many opportunities for a McKennie or some other candidate to seriously move the needle.

There are these two qualifiers ahead, next week at home against Costa Rica and then four days later at Honduras. Arena and Co. needs results; these aren’t for kicking the tires on fresh faces. The team finishes qualifying with two matches in October. If they are lucky, one will be after qualifying is clinched, prying open a small window for some quick experimentation.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

From there, assuming the United States isn’t in that November last-chance play-in series, there is a FIFA window for a potential friendly or two. That’s tricky, because MLS playoffs will be ongoing. And depending on location, clubs may discourage their players from traveling overseas for a (more or less) meaningless match.

The January camp? Sure, that could potentially open a door. It has before, but not really that often. And remember, that’s almost exclusively for North American-based types.

Next spring? U.S. Soccer is sure to arrange a friendly or two during a March 19-27 FIFA window. But by then Arena will be looking to solidify tactics and roles, closely inspect combinations, and generally smooth out edges rather than tinker and fidget. If there are places still being contested, barring a bunch of injuries, there probably will not be more than one or two.

Opportunities in the national shirt really can be quite precious. For individuals on the brink, the brutal truth of the operating principle, even in a friendly or relatively low-pressure Gold Cup match, comes down to this: impress or perish.

Through that lens, it’s easier to see why every chance is so critical: Because there just aren’t many left. Which is why Arena’s roster is probably more set than you think.

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