Analysis

What the USMNT's World Cup roster would look like ... if the team actually qualified

ISI Photos-Mark Thorstenson

As each of the 32 World Cup participants name their final rosters, Steve Davis takes on the melancholy task of predicting what the U.S.' might look like had the qualifying campaign not gone so wrong.

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In an alternate universe, Bruce Arena didn’t deploy the exact same starting 11 on a soggy field just four nights after a draining performance, and a more energized bunch seized the day! In this Syfy channel worthy fantasy, the U.S. men’s national team traveled to Trinidad on the final day of World Cup qualifying last fall, got the result and kept the glorious World Cup finals streak alive. This summer would have marked an eighth straight trip to the tournament.

With provisional rosters now public for qualified nations, and 23-man final rosters due soon, let’s wander a bit further down fantasy lane. Let’s go ahead and pick the United States team headed to the World Cup.

If the United States had qualified and needed to soon choose its 23 for Russia, here’s who we imagine would go, based on the current landscape.

Goalkeepers (3)

Brad Guzan, Tim Howard and Nick Rimando

Whys and wherefores:

Sure, it would be great if some younger gloves would emerge to displace some of the old-and-getting-older set. Stefan Frei, Alex Bono, Bill Hamid, Ethan Horvath, Tim Melia and Zack Steffen are in the younger mix. The problem is that none of these potential choices as the next-generation No. 1 has much experience at the international level. Not yet, anyway.

Also keep this in mind: If Arena had succeeded in his mission and gotten the doggone team to Russia, he’d be steering the ship this summer. And we know Arena likes guys he knows and trusts.

So the U.S.’ choices would most likely be a selection of the tried-and-true blues. And before you get going on the ‘take a younger, third goalkeeper for seasoning’ bit, that always sounds like a good idea. Until, that is, one goalkeeper gets hurt or gets suspended due to ejection. Then you realize that guy is suddenly your backup in a big match. How’s that seasoning taste now?

Defenders (8)

ISI Photos-John Dorton

John Brooks, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, Jorge Villafana, DeAndre Yedlin, Graham Zusi

Whys and wherefores:

Surely you aren’t surprised to see that Geoff Cameron isn’t on the roster, are you? The relationship between Cameron and Arena had already begun deteriorating by those final two October qualifiers. Plus, Cameron and his club, Stoke City, were both in bad form through the spring. Stoke was relegated into England’s second tier.

So, it’s the younger Carter-Vickers over Cameron as the fourth center back, along with three others holdovers from the 2014 World Cup. Carter-Vickers, by the way, would just edge out Matt Miazga for that spot.

Backup right back (behind Yedlin) would be down to Zusi or Eric Lichaj. As Lichaj started just two of Nottingham Forest’s final seven matches in the English Championship, Zusi gets the ticket.

Brooks makes the trip, but he’s no automatic starter. He probably would be, but the Wolfsburg center back has only recently returned from his second lengthy injury layoff. He did start an important weekend match against Cologne, where Wolfsburg secured a spot in the coming relegation playoffs.   

Ike Opara and, perhaps surprisingly, Michael Parkhurst would be alternates at center back in case of injury. Opara and the entire Sporting Kansas City defense have re-tightened all the oddly loosed screws from earlier in the season. And Parkhurst has been outstanding for Tata Martino and Atlanta United, Major League Soccer’s best club so far this year.   

Midfielders (8)

ISI Photos-John Dorton

Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Adams, Paul Arriola, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Kenny Saief

Whys and wherefores:

Arena had promised a minor team makeover for the World Cup itself. The basic thinking went like this: use the experienced guys to get us there, but then go younger for the tournament, a la the 2002 starburst for U.S. Soccer.

So here’s where Arena might have actually leaned to the youngs – and why we could see Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta in the group. Either can play as a holding midfielder or in the box-to-box No. 8 role, which gives the team tremendous flexibility. Between those two, Pulisic and Arriola, half the group is 23 or younger. It’s a young man’s tournament, indeed. Or so we hear.

Those young legs help facilitate bringing Feilhaber, who is 33 but still someone who can make the final pass, someone to bring on for some tactical, in-game midfield problem-solving.

The options are limited out wide, perhaps even more so after Kenny Saief’s injury scare from last weekend. If that turns into something long term, insert Alejandro Bedoya, who generally plays centrally at Philadelphia but has always looked best internationally as an industrious worker from wider areas.  

Fabian Johnson has had a miserable campaign injury-wise with just three appearances for Borussia Monchengladbach since last October and none since mid-March. Danny Williams had a much better campaign at Huddersfield but suffered a late-season, long-term injury.

Alfredo Morales deserves strong consideration, especially if one of the eight in the mix can't go. The 28-year-old midfielder’s steady play at FC Ingolstadt (142 appearances over the last five years) caught the attention Fortuna Dusseldorf, with the recently promoted Bundesliga side signing him to a three-year deal.

Marky Delgado, Dax McCarty, Weston McKennie, Cristian Roldan and Will Trapp are all worthy, but just outside the top order.

Forwards (4)

Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Bobby Wood, Gyasi Zardes

Whys and wherefores:

No reason to sugar coat it: this is a big mess.

And if we’re being honest, this is the place where Arena would probably take six or seven forwards to camp and then beseech the World Cup gods: “Oh, please let someone get blazing hot in these run-up friendlies.”

Altidore, Dempsey, Wood and Chris Wondolowski were the choices for that final pair of U.S. qualifier matches. Well, Altidore is injured and not due back for another few weeks. Dempsey has no goals in five appearances this year for Seattle. He’s 35 and, quite frankly, looking it these days.

Wondolowski is also 35 and has been reduced to a substitute’s role twice in San Jose’s last five matches. As for Wood, he just completed an absolutely miserable Bundesliga campaign by getting ejected from the contest that finalized Hamburg’s historic relegation into 2.Bundesliga. Wood had a meager two goals in more than 1,700 minutes – one on a penalty kick, no less.  

So, you see, quite a mess. And a mess without a lot of options for cleaning up.

Arena would take Dempsey and hope some flag-draped inspiration can coax something better, enough to score in a fourth consecutive World Cup. Arena would take Altidore and hope for the best in a quick return to health. Neither scenario is ideal, but those lack of better options (seriously, we’re mostly talking scraps here) makes it worth the stretch.

If Gyasi Zardes disappoints you, consider two things: Firstly, that he leads MLS in scoring with eight goals in 12 games for Columbus. That’s a hit rate that would make David Villa turn his head and take notice. Also consider a roster that has better choices through the midfield than in the forward spots, which means Zardes would actually be a forward. That’s another way of saying we might finally, mercifully, be done with this confounded determination to make the poor fellow a midfielder. He’s not a midfielder!

Even then, Aron Johannsson would likely be brought to camp and given a chance to unseat Zardes or one of the others. A forgotten man for most of his time at Werder Bremen, the 27-year-old striker finally gained some traction in the spring and finished with two goals in 11 appearances for his Bundesliga club.

Juan Agudelo would be another option for camp – but he has scored just one goal for the New England Revolution while teammate Teal Bunbury (five goals) suddenly looks like the better Revs striker between those two. Other possibilities for camp would include Dom Dwyer and C.J. Sapong. And if none of them got hot – well, Wood gets the call more or less by default.

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