If the World Cup started today: Pulisic, McKennie key for U.S., now and in 2022
If the World Cup began today -- and the U.S. had qualified -- how would they line up? As Jeff Carlisle writes, there are some obvious choices, as well as others who can stake a claim.
The key words here are, "If the World Cup started today," which explains why some veterans from the last cycle are in this lineup, as well as why some youngsters aren't. To wit, Zack Steffen may yet supplant Brad Guzan as the starting keeper, but Guzan's experience gives him the nod.
Jorge Villafana is the choice at left back given that Antonee Robinson has had some rough outings in friendlies, though the on-loan Wigan defender figures to get better as time goes on. Since this is a team for now, Geoff Cameron would join John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin even though, in actuality, it looks like Cameron's international career is over.
The midfield is more muddled. Is Michael Bradley's experience enough to compensate for the fact that his legs are not what they once were? (His struggles late against Colombia hint strongly they are not, at least in a starting role.) That leaves the likes of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams to take the field in support of Christian Pulisic. Fabian Johnson is the program's forgotten man given he's 30; again, though, this is a team for today and on that basis the U.S. could use him.
Up top, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood are the two forwards. For those calling for Josh Sargent, as of now the St. Louis native has yet to make a first-team appearance for club side Werder Bremen. Yes, the expectation is that he'll make that breakthrough sooner rather than later. But like it or not, Altidore remains the best forward in the pool, while Wood is still plenty useful.
If the U.S. can somehow shed its dependence on a two-striker formation, that may yet allow for another creative element in midfield to get into the lineup. Based on current evidence, that has yet to occur.
Next Gen talent
The U.S. is in a generational shift and, for that reason, there are plenty of candidates to choose from in terms of up-and-coming talent.
The bulk occupy spots in midfield and led by McKennie, who has shown box-to-box qualities for both his country and club side Schalke, and Adams, whose strengths lie more on the defensive side of the ball, though his ability to contribute to the attack is growing.
Tim Weah has flashed some moments in the attacking half, but it seems likely that he'll need to move away from Paris Saint-Germain in order to find first-team minutes and develop. The path appears more wide open for Sargent, given the positive reviews he's received from the Bremen hierarchy.
On the defensive side, Matt Miazga and Cameron Carter-Vickers comprise the next generation of centre-backs, though Miazga has struggled to settle in with Ligue 1 side Nantes and Carter-Vickers is constantly being loaned out by Tottenham. As such, there might be room for an Aaron Long or Tim Parker to stake their claims for more international minutes. At outside-back, Robinson and Shaq Moore will be players to watch.
The best prospect of all, though, remains Pulisic. The Dortmund attacker has been established in the team for some time, but is still only 20; the hope is that there is more room for him to grow.
First things first: Before there can be any talk of World Cup goals for the U.S., it needs to qualify. Given what transpired last cycle, nothing can be taken for granted. Now, if the U.S. was to successfully navigate its way to Qatar, the aim would be what it has long been: Get out of the group stage and hope for a fortuitous draw that might allow for a deep run in the tournament.
Granted, the U.S. has reached the knockout rounds three of the past four times it has qualified, so the temptation is to aim a little higher. But the program is very much at a low ebb, and for that reason, getting out of the group stage might even be too ambitious.
Issues to address
The most glaring issue at the moment is that, 13 months after the failure to qualify, there still is no full-time manager in place. With the Columbus Crew eliminated from MLS Cup playoffs, the expectation is that Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter will be put in charge, but until then there is a state of limbo.
On the field, the single biggest problem is a lack of creativity. By the end of the last cycle, Pulisic was the lone creative force and opponents knew it. As a consequence, teams engaged in plenty of tactical fouling in bid to limit the Dortmund attacker's influence in the final third. That will need to change and it is imperative that whoever manages the team finds some attacking alternatives.
There are some candidates to take the creative burden off Pulisic, but they've either struggled with their health or are otherwise unproven. Sebastian Lletget has shown he can be a crafty performer, but the broken foot he sustained in 2017 has slowed his progress at international level. Kenny Saief is of similar ilk, but his defensive shortcomings give one pause.
Weah, Jonathan Amon, Emmanuel Sabbi and Romain Gall all could evolve into potent attacking forces, especially given their ability to run at defenders. But all three are still in the embryonic stages of their careers and have much to prove before they can be counted on to be consistent performers at international level.
The respective games of McKennie and Adams may also evolve to the point where they can chip in. If that comes to pass, the U.S. will be a much more potent attacking force.