Summer Soccer Preview: You Must Be This Tall to Ride With the USMNT

I have some not-breaking news: if you want to root for a winning national soccer team, start watching the U.S. Women. They hold all kinds of records, are the reigning World Cup Champions, and have dominated the international competition for such a sustained period, it is hard to remember when they were not the best. They deserve more recognition and, if you aren’t aware, payment for their services. The USWNT is the real deal and a very stable team to support. They are like a ride at Disney World – extremely well-engineered, fun, and a winning brand. I recommend them.

If, however, you are like me and also enjoy the unstable, uncertain roller coaster at your local carnival, you should focus your eyes on the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team. In 2015, the USMNT went from beating traditional powerhouses Germany and the Netherlands in Europe, to losing at home to Jamaica and Mexico in the span of five months. The team was positioned to qualify for the Confederations Cup (a World Cup warmup against some of the best from around the world) but instead couldn’t hold serve against the 55th best team in the world, against whom they had only previously lost one time. Highest highs, lowest lows, and all that. As it has been for some time, this is a team that will make you proud to be an American one minute, and so very sad the next.

While there may be several reasonable theories to explain that inconsistency, one has to be the strange roster and positional choices by current manager Jurgen Klinsmann. However, instead of getting bogged down in the controversy, this piece is about trying to enjoy the terrifying ride. And to get you ready, we need to talk about the Copa América Centenario.

The Copa América is a tournament held between the South American countries typically every two years involving 12 teams (the 10 South American teams, plus two special invitees). This year, however, is the 100th year anniversary of the tournament. For a number of reasons, maybe involving bribery, the tournament is being held in the United States and has grown to 16 teams. As the host country, the U.S. will potentially get to play against some of the best in the world. We are talking about Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Colombia and our own rival Mexico. This is a special opportunity for the USMNT to compete in a tournament very similar to the World Cup and measure themselves against the elite players of the world. It is also perhaps a final chance for oft-criticized manager Jurgen Klinsmann to get the right players on the pitch ahead of the last round of World Cup qualifying and the 2018 World Cup itself.

U.S. Soccer has released the preliminary 40 player roster for the Copa, and there are a few things worth pointing out. First, Jurgen has included most of the core group of 2014 World Cup veterans, headlined by Tim Howard (GK), Matt Besler (D), John Brooks (D), DeAndre Yedlin (D), Kyle Beckerman (M), Jermaine Jones (M), Michael Bradley (M), Fabian Johnson (M), Alejandro Bedoya (M), Jozy Altidore (F), and Clint Dempsey (F). There is nothing surprising about any of those guys being included on a list of what may viewed as the best 40 players in the U.S. pool right now. I would also wager that, barring injury, Jurgen will put all of them on the final roster.

This is not, however, a collection of spring chickens or undeniable superstars. Howard, Jones, Beckerman and Dempsey are putting the senior in senior team in terms of soccer years and new players are pushing to overtake them. Meanwhile, Besler, Altidore, and Bedoya have had huge ups and downs when playing for the U.S. team in the past year and are not irreplaceable. Of the above “core”, Fabian Johnson is probably the best current all-around player, while captain Michael Bradley is still an underappreciated maestro in the midfield (he just doesn’t need to be playing up so high on the pitch).

I also have some concerns about certain inclusions on the roster. Jurgen continues to put players like Chris Wondolowski, Ventura Alvarado, Omar Gonzalez, and Mix Diskerud into the … *ahem*  mix … despite clear indications that they struggle at the international (and sometimes club) level. Even if Jurgen believes they bring something in practice, their spot on this preliminary roster also comes at the expense of other players, particularly some younger midfielders like Emerson Hyndman and Gideon Zalalem, who would benefit from preparing with the full team. Also, I’m just never going to forgive Wondo for missing the sitter against Belgium.

To balance against that, however, is the inclusion of some exciting younger players. Brooks, Yedlin, Matt Miazga, Jordan Morris, Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and Gyasi Zardes all are relatively new, young faces. Although the U.S. soccer community has had a problem anointing young players as the “savior” of U.S. Soccer, these are the guys who will probably be a part of the new core going forward. Morris, who has four goals in four games for the Seattle Sounders, is already hitting a strong stride in his first professional year. Pulisic is not just getting first team minutes in meaningful games for Borussia Dortmund (one of the premier German clubs), but scoring goals, too. Matt Miazga made the move to Chelsea and is slowly earning minutes. This is, by all accounts, a promising group of players.

The question, then, is how does Jurgen and U.S. Soccer (let’s be honest, Jurgen is making all the decisions) pick the final Copa roster. Should it be all established veterans or should a larger group of untested players take the field? Considering we’re here to embrace the USMNT’s uncertainty, let’s go with the excitement and the optimism of picking the younger players, while keeping only the tried and true veterans. Given the lack of consistency displayed up to this point, why not see what the future holds? In that vein, this is my prediction/pipe dream for the final 23 man roster:

GOALKEEPER: Tim Howard, Nick Rimando, and Ethan Horvath

Notes: Sorry, Guzan. You haven’t looked good for much of the season, and while some of that may be due to a lackluster defense, I think we both know between you and Timmy, it was always going to be Timmy. Rimando has earned the right to be next-man up and we need the youth of Ethan to have hope for the future of American goalkeeping. Timmy stays because (a) Jurgen loves him and (b) this is probably his last hoorah.

DEFENSE: Matt Besler, John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, Deandre Yedlin, Edgar Castillo

Notes: First off, Jurgen did not give me a lot to work with here in the way of either youth or natural outside backs, which forced me to include older guys and indicates someone is going to have to play out of position come June. I miss DaMarcus Beasley. Anyway, Besler, Brooks, and Cameron can all reasonably be placed in at starting centerback, with Cameron also an option left, right or even in the midfield. Yedlin and Ream are going out wide. We’re still dangerously thin, but some of the midfielders below can fill in as need be.

MIDFIELD: Michael Bradley, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Alejandro Bedoya, Kyle Beckerman, Danny Williams, Perry Kitchen, Graham Zusi, Gyasi Zardes

Notes: I have a small observation to make: I don’t think Jurgen has realized yet that Bradley plays best with Beckerman behind him. But, since Beckerman is probably on his way to playing guitar full-time in a reggae band, there needs to be someone ready to take his place. That person is not, I repeat, not Jermaine Jones. Jones brings something to the team, I will reluctantly admit, but that something is not a willingness to sit back defensively and secure the backline without being reckless. Instead, let Perry Kitchen (great name) or Danny Williams develop into that role. Meanwhile, Johnson, Bedoya, Zusi, and Zardes (he’s playing midfield to make the roster) give the midfield width.

FORWARD: Jordan Morris, Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, Jozy Altidore

Notes: Yeah, I left Dempsey off the roster. #HotTakeCity. I like Clint, but I liked Donovan too and we all saw where that got him with Jurgen. In any case, I think Wood, Morris, and Pulisic are all natural finishers who can fill Dempsey’s role. Altidore, despite my personal doubts about him, can hold the ball up well and is probably one of the strongest players on the team. Wood, too, may develop into the kind of player that allows the team to get forward.

I think that leaves us with a competitive, but forward-looking team. Jurgen still should have included one or two more youthful outside backs and midfielders, but those are dangerous positions to let developing players get meaningful minutes during games that count. Especially when the guy running at you may be Messi or Suarez.  It might also be true that the USMNT’s performance this summer is a make-or-break moment for Jurgen, in which case I wouldn’t expect him to ride unproven talent. Regardless, it will be interesting to see the final 11 he chooses and how they line up. For my money and using my roster, I would go with:

Howard

Yedlin  — Cameron — Brooks — Johnson

 Williams

Bedoya — Bradley — Zardes

Altidore — Morris

It offers speedy attacking width, Bradley pulling the strings, and a strong, tall centerback pairing. The hope is that Yedlin and Johnson get forward with the attack, while Williams offers cover. The U.S. has had a bad habit of being weak in aerial attacks recently, so Brooks and Cameron will offer a solid presence. I am not sold on Zardes starting, but he is fast, is willing to run at the defense, and will get back to cover when Johnson overlaps. The goal has always been to play Attacking Fútbol™. Well, this would, theoretically at least, offer that much.

This summer will be exciting times for the USMNT. A real competitive tournament in between World Cups to play the best in the world. At the moment, there is so much hope for something better than the performance a year ago.  And for U.S. fans, the tournament is here at home, meaning the experience of a lifetime if you can get to a game. And if I may, you should absolutely go to a game; there are very few things in sports like that atmosphere. Time to buckle up boys and girls, this creaky ride starts again June 3, 2016, against Colombia.

-Jordan Curet

Photo Credit: US Soccer

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