As your high school guidance counselor liked to remind you, it’s never too early to start planning for your future. And the future of the U.S. Men’s National Team is the 2018 World Cup in Russia. So as a final offering before we lock the doors and shut off the lights on this iteration of Goal Posts, we thought we'd take a stab at predicting what Jurgen Klinsmann's starting eleven might look like four years from now.
But first, a necessary caveat: Though the following list was informed by knowledgable USMNT watchers, it is also pure speculation. Some of these players haven’t yet chosen the U.S. yet over another country they're elible to play for. Others are extremely young and could end up out of soccer or really into video games four years from now. The point being, this is merely an exercise in excogitation using what we know now.
With that said, here is the ABSOLUTELY DEFINITE USMNT STARTING LINEUP FOR THE 2018 WORLD CUP:
Goalkeeper: Brad Guzan
Club: Aston Villa
Look, we all want Tim Howard to still be able to save infinity Belgian shots at 39. And maybe he will still be a very good keeper four years from now. But it’ll be Guzan’s time. He will be 33 years old in 2018, and—as he just signed a four-year extension with Aston Villa last year—will likely still be plying his trade at the highest level in the Premier League. Guzan is a fantastic keeper in his own right and shut out Mexico and Costa Rica in crucial World Cup qualifying matches in 2013. Plus, along with Brad Friedel, he comes from a long line of distinguished American “Brads” in goal. You just can’t turn away from that sort of legacy.
Centerback: Matt Besler
Club: Sporting Kansas City
The most consistent of the center backs at this Cup, Besler will be 31 when Russia rolls around, and—after his strong showing—is allegedly being pursued by EPL and German teams. If he spends the next few years strengthening his game, awareness, and positioning in Europe (while learning useful foreign swear words to mutter at international referees), his position has to be considered locked down.
Centerback: John Brooks
Club: Hertha BSC Berlin
With apologies to the still-not-very-old Omar Gonzalez and the gracefully tatted Geoff Cameron, the lanky goal scoring German-American has the most upside here, considering he’s just 21; likely the starting centerback on a team in the Bundesliga; already scored one of the biggest goals in American history; and has plenty of time to perfect his goal celebration, in which he appears to pass out face down on the field for a frighteningly long period of time.
Wingback: DeAndre Yedlin
Club: Seattle Sounders
One of the breakout stars for the U.S. team in Brazil, Yedlin’s rise from obscurity to the USMNT roster to World Cup game changer has now been transcribed in flowery cursive in the annals of U.S. soccer lore. And the legend continues to grow as pro teams from all over the world (Spain! Italy! England! France?) now vie for his rights. Four years from now, he could be the United States's faster, more exotically coifed Philipp Lahm.
Wingback: Fabian Johnson
Club: TSG 1899 Hoffenheim
Often the most dangerous player on the field for the U.S. this time around, Johnson’s speed and his crossing abilities will continue to be vital for the team in Russia, even as he flirts with 30. But (!), should Fab falter as he gets older, remember the name Kellyn Acosta, who already starts for FC Dallas as an 18-year-old fullback and might just be next Cup’s Yedlin.
Defensive Center Midfielder: Shane O’Neill
Club: Colorado Rapids
Other Countries He Could Still Play For: Ireland
Although he’s been tearing it up at centerback, and got called up to the USMNT as a centerback, and likely, at this point, has a vanity license plate on his car that says “CNTRBCK”, the 20-year-old Colorado Rapids star prefers to play as a defensive center mid so he can make runs forward and show off his underrated creative abilities and touch. The only potential hitch? He can also play for the Republic of Ireland. As I LOVE THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND, I win either way, but if O'Neill is being pragmatic, he’ll understand that he’s got a much better chance of actually qualifying for a Cup with Team America.
Defensive Center Midfielder: Michael Bradley
Club: Toronto FC
Despite a lackluster World Cup that had the whole of social media casually vilifying him and my mother calling to ask “What is wrong with that short-armed bald guy?" you can’t just toss aside your best all-around player, especially considering he’ll only be 30 next time around. Bradley's ability to distribute and cover ground box to box (he ran nearly 34 miles in his team’s World Cup matches) mean he’s sticking around. Sorry, Mom.
Offensive Center Midfielder: Gedion Zelalem
Other Countries He Could Still Play For: Ethiopia, Germany, England
The only way the hype surrounding the 17-year-old Arsenal player could get any louder would be if someone piped in the vuvuzelas from South Africa. Born in Germany to Ethiopian parents who then moved to the United States, Zelalem was discovered at 14 by an Arsenal scout at the Dallas Cup playing for the Olney Rovers out of Maryland. Arsenal gave him a trial, and he impressed Arsene Wenger, who invited him to their academy when he turned 16. Once there, Zelalem shined, making his senior side debut this year in an FA Cup match two days after his 17th birthday. Everyone compares him to Cesc Fabregas, thanks to passing ability and vision. The only question for the U.S. is: Will he play for us? He’s been training with the younger German national sides, though rumors abound that his father is going to gain American citizenship, and that, in turn, Gedion will gain eligibility and sign up as Klinsmann's biggest ever recruit. Wishful thinking? Possibly! Potentially fortune-changing for America? Definitely.
Wing-midfielder: Luis Gil
Club: Real Salt Lake
Though he’s not even able to legally hang out in those strange Utah bars where bartenders make cocktails behind frosted glass partitions, Real Salt Lake’s Luis Gil is already drunk on MLS glory, thanks to a fantastic 2013 campaign that basically solidified his place as a legit MLS star. With Javier Morales in the squad, Gil was forced to push out to wing in the diamond midfield, as opposed to his natural offensive center mid position, which has done wonders for his all-around game, forcing him to defend in a way he’d never done before, while also affording pockets of space he wasn’t used to having while playing in the middle. Gil showcased his talent at the U-20 World Cup, where he was quite clearly the best player on the U.S. side. Kyle Beckerman has said that Gil could be “a player that we eventually build a national team around,” and 2018 seems like "eventually" to me.
Wing-midfielder: Julian Green
Club: Bayern Munich
The greatest American prospect in history! Or...the skinny boy who can’t compete against bigger, stronger senior sides! And the inexperienced player sitting in Landon’s roster slot! But then: The only American to score against Belgium! Having just ended his polarizing first Cup campaign on the highest note possible, with a volley that kept American chances afloat, Green can now take a page from Cristiano Ronaldo’s mirror-embossed book and spend the next few years slowly building up his strength to go along with his incredible speed and footwork. Although many pundits would like to seem him get transfered or loaned from Bayern in order to get more time on the field, just training with such top level players at his young age is going to pay off.
Striker: Jozy Altidore
Damn you, hamstring! Even though Jozy tragically missed his opportunity to put a mark on this past Cup, he’ll only be 28 by the time the next one rolls around, and he is still the only true possession striker the U.S. have, outside of maybe Terrence Boyd, or Eddie Johnson, who’ll be 34 next Cup. Altidore is vital to Juergen’s system, and if he's healthy, he stays. Hopefully, he’ll find a greener pasture than Sunderland to practice scoring, though.
OFF THE BENCH
Here are a few others players you could potentially see on the 2018 roster. I’m purposefully omitting guys like Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi and the centerbacks (Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron) I mentioned earlier, not because they don’t deserve to make the team again, but rather because, if they do, you will already know why. My focus was on the names who may join them. They include:
Club: Portland Timbers
Other Countries He Could Still Play For: Liberia
The Timbers striker/winger is incredibly versatile, and should be eligible to play for America by 2016. A great guy to have on the roster because of his jack-of-all-offensive-trades abilities.
Club: Stoke City FC
The scary athletic Stoke City lefty is another versatile player who already has 23 caps for the USMNT. Now if only he’d land with for a club that wants him on the field.
He’s just old enough to drive, and he’s off playing for Fiorentina in Serie A. Four years from now, he could be a force. Or really sick of Italian food.
Club: Seattle Sounders/Stanford
The best player in college right now is currently playing striker for Stanford, as well as the Seattle Sounders's U23 squad. He’s got the size (nearly 6 feet tall and 185 pounds) to hold the ball up, but he’s also skilled enough to play the Dempsey-esque trequarista sitting in behind.
Club: Borussia Dortmund
A third-generation winger who U.S. fans have been drooling about for years now, the 21-year-old Gyau currently sits on the Borussia Dortmund reserve squad. The next four years will decide whether all the initial hype about his skills was just that.
Club: Borussia Dortmund
Also an attacking midfield who plays for Borussia Dortmund, but he’s 18 and, more so than Gyau, trending upward.
Club: Birmingham City
He plays for a good side in the Championship in England. He's 6'3". He’s been getting time, and making the most of it. He is basically the only central defender on the radar that could supplant any of the others in that super-competitive pool of experienced tall people.
He plays for Southampton, and that’s my team, and so obviously he's one to watch. Only problem is, “plays” is more potentially than actually at this point.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.