The United States' 10 best players under the age of 21
The end of every World Cup cycle brings about major change in the composition of the U.S. national team, and the retirement of Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley means that this time around has proved no different.
For that reason, eyes will be cast on prospects beginning to emerge and, given the quest by U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann to find the holy grail of an attack-minded, proactive playing style, it will require contributions from some rising stars if that goal is to even come close to fruition.
With that in mind, here is this year's edition of the top 10 players under the age of 21.
THE TOP 10 U.S. U-21 PLAYERS
1. Emerson Hyndman
2. Rubio Rubin
3. Julian Green
4. Gedion Zelalem
5. Cameron Carter-Vickers
6. Tommy Thompson
7. Zack Steffen
8. Junior Flores
9. Paul Arriola
10. Christian Pulisic
1. Emerson Hyndman, M, Fulham
It was last August that Emerson Hyndman saw an unfamiliar number pop up on his cell phone.
"I answered 'Who is this?' and he said 'Jurgen.' I was like, 'Jurgen? I don't know any Jurgen.'"
He does now.
The Jurgen in question was, of course, Jurgen Klinsmann, who was calling Hyndman up to the full U.S. national team for the first time for a game against the Czech Republic. Hyndman, the grandson of former FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman, later made his debut in the match, entering the game as substitute in the 67th minute. One giveaway aside -- one that he made up for with a deft tackle -- Hyndman was solid, showing the technical ability, vision and composure that impressed coaches and fans alike.
"Being 18 years old, you don't get too many of those opportunities," he said. "I was thrilled to be able to go and learned a lot from all the guys that are there."
More recently, he used those traits to help the U.S. U-20 national team qualify for this summer's World Cup at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships in Jamaica. A shoulder injury sustained in the qualification-clinching 2-0 win over El Salvador took some shine off the proceedings, but it was evident that Hyndman was the classiest player on display, the metronome that kept the U.S. attack going.
U.S. U-20 manager Tab Ramos is wary of heaping too much praise on his players. In the case of Hyndman, he sees no reason to hold back.
"Emerson has all the tools to be a 10-year national team player," he said. "Not many of those come around, and I can say that without worrying how he's going to feel when he hears that because he's a very hard worker, and he's constantly working on his game."
In Jamaica, Hyndman showed off plenty of skills that caught the eye. He isn't necessarily speedy, yet showed off quick bursts that allowed him to run away from defenders. When just shielding the ball was called for, he did that as well. He always seemed to find the right pass, and nothing ever seems to rattle him.
"That composure, it sure didn't come from me," said Hyndman's father. Tony, who was a U.S. youth international himself before a back injury ended his career. "But Emerson is very logical, he doesn't get real emotional about anything, he doesn't go from one side to the other. He thinks things out, he's very cerebral. He takes risk at the right times if you will."
That accurately describes the younger Hyndman's youth career. It wasn't unusual for him to play up one or even two age groups. Tony recalled Emerson first attending a camp for the U.S. U-14 national team as an 11-year-old. Not even the usually gut-wrenching decision to leave home and join the youth academy of Fulham FC at age 15 was jarring to Emerson.
"I don't think I really grasped how big it was at the time," he said. "I was just very excited, just young overall. I wasn't really fazed by it. It was really tough to hear my parents, what they had to say about it, because they had mixed emotions. They obviously wanted me to succeed, but moving out of the house at 15 years old is a big thing for them."
Hyndman has risen steadily up the ranks since then, and surmounted the various obstacles to becoming a pro. The change in attitude from the U.S. to England, where soccer went from becoming a pursuit to a job with incredibly high stakes, was an eye-opener. So was a switch from attacking midfield to more of a No. 8 role, though the fact that it resulted in Hyndman improving his defense and seeing more of the ball has helped him round out his game. The daunting prospect of playing for the notoriously strict Felix Magath, who has since been fired, held no fear for Hyndman. In fact, he credits Magath for accelerating his development.
"[Magath] helped me tremendously to adapt to professional life," said Hyndman. "He never treated me like a kid, which you don't get all the time. He helped me become fitter, stronger."
So when it came time for Hyndman to move up the first team -- "man soccer," he called it -- he was ready. Mostly.
"It was definitely a big change, especially when I played my first game," he said. "You just notice how much quicker people move. But as the games have gone by I think I've adapted to it, and realize what's coming."
Now he can expect a few more phone calls from that guy named Jurgen.
2. Rubio Rubin, M/F, FC Utrecht
While Hyndman was puzzled, and then ultimately surprised by his first call-up, Rubio Rubin experienced his first national team call-up differently.
"I was crying," he recalled. "I called my parents right away, and told them I was called in, but I couldn't talk to them because I just had tears, all this emotion."
Rubin experienced plenty of other big moments in 2014. He made his professional debut for Dutch side Utrecht last August against Willem II, suited up for the U.S. senior team against Colombia, and scored his first professional goal for his club on Nov. 29 against NAC Breda.
"The best moment was seeing all my teammates, people that I've barely lived with, they were celebrating this goal with me like we won a World Cup," he said. "They were so happy for me, and them jumping on me. Even the goalkeeper, he ran all the way to jump on top of me. That was the moment where I felt, 'These guys really care about me.' You see the joy on their faces."
Rubin has been one of the rare European-based U.S. internationals to earn steady playing time this season. He's made 17 appearances in all competitions, tallying twice. He's also lined up in a variety of roles, seeing time at center forward, right wing and attacking midfield. That versatility has helped accelerate his soccer education, though it has been far from easy.
"One of the hardest things was getting down the system of play," said Rubin. "The Dutch style of football compared to the American style, they're very different. Just learning from position games to 11-vs.-11 and the way they play, what you can do and what you can't do. In the past six, seven months, I've brought my game to a higher level."
Rubin's future, at least as it relates to the national team, appears to be at forward. Good thing considering the difficulty the U.S. has had in producing those kinds of players.
"Sometimes it can take six, seven years before you go from finding one goal scorer to the next," said Ramos. "Rubio finds the goal easily, and that's a quality that's hard to find. His progress has been amazing, but I would have predicted that a year ago, a year and a half ago, because he's a very hard-working player."
Rubin's U.S. debut against Colombia saw him link up well with teammates and draw some fouls to take the sting out of Los Cafeteros' attack. And he nearly capped off his first appearance with a goal, but could only nod Alejandro Bedoya's cross wide.
"Finishing, reading the game, reading the defenders, how he can beat them, that will be the next step for Rubio," said U.S. assistant and newly named U-23 head coach Andi Herzog. "With more and more experience, he will get better and better."
Rubin is eager to get there.
"I've met some goals, but now the goals are even higher," he said. "I want to accomplish more in my career. It's just the beginning."
3. Julian Green, M/F, Hamburg SV (on loan from Bayern Munich)
Green is quick and dynamic in one-on-one situations. Yet oddly, he finds himself at a crossroads as he tries to move from being a prospect into a player who sees the field regularly.
It was less than a year ago that Green was Klinsmann's latest dual-national capture, and his Bayern Munich pedigree generated considerable excitement within the U.S. soccer community. The image of Green scoring against Belgium at the World Cup with his first touch remains indelible. With one strike he appeared to justify Klinsmann's decision to include him on the World Cup roster. When he secured a loan move to Hamburg, he seemed primed to get the first-team experience he needed to propel himself forward.
Yet the ensuing months have revealed the potholes that can upend a young player. Green has looked less than convincing in subsequent U.S. appearances, and his loan stint hasn't yielded the playing time that both his club and Klinsmann had hoped.
"It's different for Green," acknowledged Herzog. "With Hamburg it's a different style of play, and his teammates don't have the same quality like with Bayern. So he has to rethink the situation and work even harder."
There are also questions about Green's durability, as he's twice suffered contact-induced injuries in the past year.
"Everyone was expecting a lot in the one-on-one duels, but because of his injuries he hasn't been in the shape he needs to be," said Herzog. "I think he lost a bit of confidence. He has to fight his way back."
But the U.S. staff is keeping the faith in Green and is confident his touch on the ball, ability to run at defenders and finishing will ultimately shine through. In the meantime, Green has been trying to reestablish his game during Hamburg's winter training camp, where Herzog has received some positive reports.
"He's still young, and you have to think positive," said Herzog.
4. Gedion Zelalem, M/F, Arsenal
With Zelalem now in possession of a U.S. passport, the prospect of him suiting up for the U.S. has become tantalizingly close. It's not often that a U.S. player finds himself at a club like Arsenal, so the sight of a playmaker emerging has fans salivating. Zelalem has been ticking off the boxes in terms of his progression at his club. He's been making the bench for cup games and the occasional league encounter and is receiving steady playing time with the club's U-19 team.
"I think the thing that sticks out the most is just how intelligent a player he is, even at 13 years old when I first saw him," said Danny Karbassiyoon, who scouted Zelalem for Arsenal prior to the player's signing. "Intelligence encapsulates his overall awareness, as well as his technical ability. That's what has enabled him to go to London and progress. It's nice to see him in an environment where there are really good players around him, and he still stands out because of those two features."
5. Cameron Carter-Vickers, D, Tottenham Hotspur
The son of former NBA player Howard Carter, Carter-Vickers was one of the revelations of the U-20 qualifying tournament. His physicality, willingness to play out of the back and ability on set pieces gave the U.S. the kind of well-rounded defender that was in short supply during the last U-20 cycle, though injuries played a part in that. Incredibly, the Tottenham defender turned 17 less than a month ago.
"Carter-Vickers is definitely the center-back with the most upside that I've seen come through the national team program in the last six, seven years," said Ramos. "He's excellent on the ball, he reads the game very well, and he's second to none in the air."
6. Tommy Thompson, M/F, San Jose Earthquakes
In terms of pure one-on-one ability, Thompson is as exciting a player as there is in the U-20 pool. He's full of tricks and clever touches, and can make opposition defenders look silly as he snakes by them.
"Thompson is one of the very few players that I've had that can do everything," said Ramos. "He doesn't necessarily always look the part, but he's a player who makes plays."
If there's one knock against Thompson, it's his consistency in delivering an end product. But his skill is clear, and the hope is that he'll establish himself with the Quakes this season.
7. Zack Steffen, G, SC Freiburg
The University of Maryland product enjoyed a fine U-20 qualifying tournament, and his penalty save in the aforementioned clincher against El Salvador was immense in getting the U.S. over the qualifying finish line. He's also an outstanding shot-stopper and his ability to command his penalty area instilled plenty of confidence. More than once he managed to snare crosses in traffic, taking considerable pressure off of his defenders. Now he'll get the chance to test his skills in the Bundesliga with Freiburg.
"Steffen does little things that people don't give him too much credit for," said U.S. U-15 manager John Hackworth, who saw Steffen up close when he was managing the Philadelphia Union and Steffen was part of the club's academy. "His distribution is solid, he's got better feet than people give him credit for, he comes off his line really well, and he's learned to be vocal. Watching him mature has been rewarding."
8. Junior Flores, M, Borussia Dortmund
The early matches of the U-20 tournament saw Flores look a bit out of sync with his teammates, but the final two games saw him deliver critical plays that led to U.S. goals. His pass released Paul Arriola in the run-up to Bradford Jamieson IV's winner against Trinidad and Tobago, and his clever move against El Salvador created the kind of mayhem that ultimately led to Arriola's clincher. One knock against Flores is he needs to chip in with more goals, but his technical ability is unquestioned.
"I like his unpredictability," said Ramos of Flores. "I like having players on the field who are unpredictable and who sometimes just do their own thing. The game isn't just about what the coach says. Sometimes the game is about how you can create, and he's one of those guys I let be free and create his game."
9. Paul Arriola, M, Club Tijuana
Arriola has seen his time dwindle with club side Tijuana, and he didn't always look comfortable with U-20s in the center of midfield. But Ramos acknowledged that isn't Arriola's best position, and that he's really suited to a wide midfield role. No surprise then that when Arriola was moved there in a substitute's role against T&T, he showed off his one-on-one skills and passing ability to set up the game-winner. Against El Salvador, he scored the U.S. side's second goal with an opportunistic strike. Arriola's ability to make big plays is why he still remains a top prospect.
"He thinks fast, the game comes easy to him and he's got deceiving speed," said Ramos. "He can take his guy on and get a cross in, so I believe his strength is out on the wing."
10. Christian Pulisic, M, U.S. U-17 national team
Pulisic is the latest attacking talent to pass through the U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida, and his skills have caught the eye of Borussia Dortmund, a side he's expected to officially join once he acquires a Croatian passport courtesy of his father's ancestry. Pulisic dazzled onlookers at last month's Nike Friendlies, scoring three goals, including a brace in a 3-1 victory over England. The year prior at the same tournament, he was named MVP.
"He's creative, he's dynamic, he has qualities that allow him to play any one of the front free positions, or be an attacking midfielder," said Hackworth, who saw Pulisic often when the player was suiting up for his youth club, PA Classics. "The part that I like best is that he goes for goal, he looks to penetrate in a variety of ways. He uses his athleticism correctly, but more importantly he uses the ball, and little feints and dips. He's a wonderful player off the dribble."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.