Imagine for a moment that the U.S. national team’s fateful loss in Couva, Trinidad, eight months ago never happened. That Bruce Arena’s side had managed just one more stinking goal—or at the very least, that one of the equally unlikely results in Costa Rica and Mexico that conspired against the Americans on that October night had gone slightly differently — and that they instead secured a spot at an eighth consecutive World Cup.
What would Arena’s 23-man U.S. roster for Russia 2018 have looked like? Now that FIFA’s deadline for teams to submit their final squads for the tournament has arrived, let’s break down the likely picks using a mix of history, current form and a recent conversation with the former U.S. boss and others involved with or close to the program. (Players with a * next to their name were included in the 2014 World Cup squad.)
*Brad Guzan, 33 years old, Atlanta United (MLS) – He backed up Tim Howard for most of Arena’s first year in charge, but the smart money was on Guzan leapfrogging Howard before the main event kicked off. He’s been solid in Atlanta this season even if his save percentage is only middle of the pack in MLS.
*Tim Howard, 39, Colorado Rapids (MLS) – A fan of the saying “father time is undefeated”, there’s no doubt Howard began to show his age late last year. His experience is unmatched, though, and in a pinch the 2010 and 2014 starter still would’ve been more than capable of manning the net in Russia.
*Nick Rimando, 38, Real Salt Lake (MLS) – The consummate pro and locker room favorite would have had no problem accepting the cheerleading assignment that comes with the No. 3. role.
No room for Alex Bono, Bill Hamid, Ethan Horvath, Zack Steffen:
It’s entirely possible that Steffen, the frontrunner (as of today) to backstop the U.S. during the 2022 cycle, would’ve made Arena’s 23 on the strength of his strong start to the MLS season with the Columbus Crew. The 23-year-old certainly would’ve pushed kept Guzan and Howard on their toes. However, Arena went with experience in the No. 3 role twice before; he took Tony Meloa over a young Howard in 2002, while 33-year-old Marcus Hahnemann served as third string in 2006. Bob Bradley and Jurgen Klinsmann employed a similar strategy in 2010 and ’14, picking Hahnemann and Rimando respectively.
Tyler Adams, 19, New York Red Bulls (MLS) – He’s a natural central midfielder, and that’s where Adams’ sky-is the-limit future lies for the national team. But with the U.S. in desperate need of right back depth, the technically sound, tactically aware and mentally tough teenager probably would’ve gotten his Cup chance on the back line.
*Matt Besler, 31, Sporting Kansas City – While Besler would be on the bubble, his play so far in KC (only one MLS team has surrendered fewer goals than Sporting) and his ability to provide emergency cover at left back could’ve helped him survive the cut.
*John Brooks, 25, Wolfsburg (Germany) – A thigh injury cost the country’s most naturally gifted defender most of his first season with Wolfsburg, but the rangy Berlin native returned to the lineup just in time to help the Bundesliga mainstay narrowly avoid relegation.
*Omar Gonzalez, 29, Pachuca (Mexico) – He had a nightmare in Trinidad, and then lost his starting role in Liga MX. But he won it back by season’s end and has been a longtime favorite of Arena’s. The coach is loyal to a fault. You have to think Gonzalez would’ve gotten the benefit of the doubt.
Matt Miazga, 22, Vitesse (Netherlands) – A month after the qualifying failure, Arena went on television and suggested that Miazga would have been a starter alongside Brooks in Russia. It’s hard to see his opinion changing after Miazga helped humble Vitesse reach next season’s Europa League.
Tim Ream, 30, Fulham (England) – Ream rebounded from a poor performance in his last U.S. appearance (the 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica last September) by leading Fulham back to the Premier League. Arena noticed. And like Besler, Ream’s experience at left back doesn’t hurt.
Jorge Villafana, 28, Santos Laguna (Mexico) – He would be the starting U.S. left back because of a lack of competition as much as anything else. But Villafana is also right in his prime, and he just won a Liga MX title with his club.
*DeAndre Yedlin, 24, Newcastle United (England) – Right back Yedlin is as entrenched at his position as any player in the national team pool. A surprise inclusion four years ago, his experience and all-world wheels would have been vital to the U.S. in Russia.
No room for DaMarcus Beasley, Geoff Cameron, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Timmy Chandler, Eric Lichaj, Walker Zimmerman, Graham Zusi:
Cameron was in Arena’s doghouse before he lost his job with relegated Stoke City, one of the two worst defensive teams in the Premier League last season. Converted winger Zusi never seemed completely comfortable at right back. Lichaj was an unused sub in five of Nottingham Forest’s last seven games. Chandler’s club from has never translated to the national team, plus he didn’t play a minute for the U.S. in 2017. Arena liked Zimmerman, and the LAFC center back could’ve edged out Besler or Gonzalez. But that would’ve been a surprise. Carter-Vickers isn’t ready. And at 36, four-time World Cup vet Beasley’s legs appear to have finally deserted him, at least at the sport’s highest level.
Kellyn Acosta, 22, FC Dallas (MLS) – Acosta has played well for hometown club FCD lately after returning from hernia surgery. He could’ve filled in at fullback if necessary, too.
Paul Arriola, 23, D.C. United (MLS) – As one of the few natural wingers in the U.S. player pool, the speedy San Diegan would’ve been in contention to start on the right side this summer.
*Michael Bradley, 30, Toronto FC (MLS) – The U.S. captain wasn’t great during qualifying but he was lights out for the Reds during last year’s MLS Cup run and this spring against a trio of Mexican foes in the CONCACAF Champions League.
Sebestian Lletget, 25, LA Galaxy (MLS) – Arena fast-tracked his former Galaxy handyman into the U.S. squad in early 2017 only for Lletget to suffer a season ending foot injury in a qualifier against Honduras. But he’s started 11 of 14 games so far this year, including eight of the last nine.
Weston McKennie, 19, Schalke (Germany) – In his first full season in the Bundesliga, the hard-tackling future U.S. captain helped Schalke to a second-place finish (and the Champions League spot that comes with it).
Darlington Nagbe, 27, Atlanta United (MLS) – The silky smooth Nagbe has started all 14 games for the domestic league’s top team following six seasons in Portland.
Christian Pulisic, 19, Borussia Dortmund (Germany) – Obviously.
Kenny Saief, 24, Anderlecht (Belgium) – His age, ball skills, ability to play out wide and easygoing attitude would’ve been enough for Saief to claim a spot on Arena’s roster.
No room for Alejandro Bedoya, Marky Delgado, Benny Feilhaber, Fabian Johnson, Sacha Kljestan, Cristian Roldan or Danny Williams:
Arena never seemed to appreciate Bedoya and didn’t start the 2014 vet once during qualifying. Johnson (back) missed the last two months of the Bundesliga season. Williams isn’t recovered from the broken leg he suffered in March playing for Premier League side Huddersfield. MLS playmakers Kljestan and Feilhaber, at ages 32 and 33, were never serious contenders for Russia, while Delgado and Roldan lacked experience this time around.
*Jozy Altidore, 28, Toronto FC (MLS) – Altidore was in some of the best form of his career late last year and early this one despite playing with a broken foot for the better part of eight months. Although he finally underwent surgery to repair it in May, one would think it could’ve waited until after the World Cup.
*Clint Dempsey, 35, Seattle Sounders (MLS) – The joint-top scorer in U.S. history is goalless through six games with the Sounders, but maybe that wouldn’t be the case with a trip to a fourth World Cup up for grabs. Either way, a lack of better options combined with Dempsey’s nose for goal and the way he accepted (if not embraced) a supporting role under Arena would’ve gotten him to Russia.
Bobby Wood, 25, Hamburg (Germany) – After a trying year during which he scored just twice for HSV, joining the national team ahead of his first World Cup would’ve rejuvenated the Hawaiian striker, who has two goals in his last two U.S. games.
Gyasi Zardes, 26, Columbus Crew (MLS) – The top American scorer in MLS this season, Zardes is enjoying a career year after moving from the Galaxy last winter. With 37 caps, he also offers valuable international experience.
No room for Dom Dwyer, Aron Johannsson, Jordan Morris, Josh Sargent:
Morris was a no-brainer before he suffered a season-ending knee tear in February. Dwyer was a long shot even before he missed Orlando’s last three games with an injury. (He’s only played seven matches in 2018.) Johannsson is hurt, too. Sargent, Ar-Jo’s teammate at Werder Bremen, is at least as qualified as Julian Green was four years ago but was unlikely to crack Arena’s final 23 before making his Bundesliga debut.
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