The United States men’s national team might not make the 2018 World Cup. Let’s get that out of the way right off the top.
There’s no avoiding the possibility. No dancing around the subject. And the rest of our FC Yahoo coverage over the next seven days will confront it.
But for now, for what you’re about to read, we’re operating under the assumption that the Americans will qualify. And there’s still around a 75 percent chance that they do.
Bruce Arena, of course, doesn’t have that luxury, which is why he has stuck with familiar faces – 17 MLS faces among them – for pivotal World Cup qualifiers against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago. It’s also why his roster decisions don’t have as much bearing on the decisions he’ll hope to be making next May. The tasks are different. The situation is different. The players, by necessity, are different.
But we’re looking forward, past Friday and Tuesday. We’re using all kinds of factors, from Arena’s roster decisions to club form to injury history, to predict what the U.S. 23-man World Cup squad will look like eight months from now – if, that is, the Yanks qualify.
As with previous sets of projections, the following 1-23 ranking is based on confidence of inclusion in the squad next May. The same criteria extend to Nos. 24-40 – those on the outside looking in. A positional breakdown is included at the end.
1. Michael Bradley | Central Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 1
Criticism of Bradley is unrelenting, but he remains one of the U.S.’s best, most important, and steadiest players. He’s going to Russia if the U.S. is, and he’ll be wearing the captain’s armband.
2. Christian Pulisic | Winger/Attacking midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 2
Pulisic is the top American player in the world. The question is no longer whether he can sustain his current performance levels, it’s whether he can become a superstar, and if so, how soon. With every passing month he moves closer to No. 1 on this list.
3. Geoff Cameron | Defender | Sept. 6 ranking: 3
Cameron remains the U.S.’s best defender, despite a very poor performance against Costa Rica last month. He spent a couple of weeks in between international breaks out with a hamstring injury, but returned to Stoke’s starting lineup for Saturday’s 2-1 win over Southampton. When healthy, he should be a lock to start for the U.S.
4. Jozy Altidore | Striker | Sept. 6 ranking: 4
Altidore, like Bradley, is underappreciated by a large portion of U.S. fans. His game is about more than just goals. Despite poor form during the Hex, he remains the most valuable forward in a thin striker pool, and he’s a lock for the World Cup squad if there is one, and if he’s healthy.
5. Tim Howard | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 5
Howard, apparently, is not the undisputed No. 1 keeper. Arena said earlier this week that he would make his goalkeeper selection for the Panama match on Thursday. And while his public-facing comments could diverge from his actual decision-making process, they jibe with his rotation of Howard and Brad Guzan the last two qualifying windows. Howard would almost surely be in the 23, but he is 38 after all, and will turn 39 next spring. He’s not untouchable at the top of the depth chart.
6. Clint Dempsey | Forward | Sept. 6 ranking: 6
Dempsey has been somewhat pedestrian for Seattle over the past month and a half, and wasn’t great against either Costa Rica or Honduras for the U.S. But … he’s still Clint Dempsey.
7. John Brooks | Center back | Sept. 6 ranking: 7
Brooks remains out with a torn thigh tendon suffered in his Wolfsburg debut. He should be back in November or December.
8. DeAndre Yedlin | Right back | Sept. 6 ranking: 9
Yedlin is back from a hamstring injury, and is already in fine form for Newcastle. He was particularly impressive in his first start of the season, a 2-1 victory over Stoke, and has been solid in two 90-minute Premier League shifts since. Injury history is the only thing keeping him out of the top five on this list.
9. Darlington Nagbe | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 8
Nagbe has started all but one of the U.S.’s qualifiers under Arena, and will surely start Friday. Even if his performance were to dip between now and next May, his versatility would make him a very good bet for the 23.
10. Bobby Wood | Forward | Sept. 6 ranking: 10
Wood went goalless in September for Hamburg after his crucial 85th-minute strike in Honduras. Arena’s selection dilemma for the Panama game – does he start Wood, or Altidore, or both? — is an intriguing one.
11. Brad Guzan | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 11
Guzan is, at the very least, the United States’ clear No. 2 keeper. He has no challengers for that role. And he himself is challenging Howard.
12. Jorge Villafaña | Left back | Sept. 6 ranking: 12
Few are fully convinced by Villafaña as a potential starting left back at a World Cup. But no other American left backs have identified themselves as better options.
13. Kellyn Acosta | Central midfielder/fullback | Sept. 6 ranking: 13
The ongoing emergence of a couple teenagers has made the U.S. central midfield pool a bit deeper than it was a few months ago. But Acosta had been solid when called upon for qualifiers, and, like those emerging teenagers (more on them further down the list), he should only get better.
14. Paul Arriola | Winger | Sept. 6 ranking: 15
Arriola has been decent for D.C. United in nine starts since his summer move, just as he’s been decent whenever national team opportunity has knocked. He hasn’t secured a spot in the USMNT rotation by any means, but he continues to get camp calls, which is a telling sign. And he’s still only 22.
15. Omar Gonzalez | Center back | Sept. 6 ranking: 16
With Brooks still absent, we’ll learn a lot from how Arena handles his center backs on Friday and Tuesday. Cameron, Gonzalez and Ream all made mistakes in September. Who does the manager still trust?
16. Fabian Johnson | Wide midfielder/fullback | Sept. 6 ranking: 14
A surprising omission from the squad, Johnson is still undoubtedly one of the 23 best American players. The word out of U.S. camp was that his exclusion was related to form and fitness – and especially the latter. But neither his form nor fitness in October has anything to do with whether he’ll be in the 23 in May.
17. Jordan Morris | Forward | Sept. 6 ranking: 17
On one hand, Morris suffered a hamstring injury playing for Seattle and won’t take part in the upcoming qualifiers. On the other hand, Arena didn’t really replace him on the 25-man roster, a sign of just how sparse the pool of strikers is. Morris remains the fourth of four on the USMNT depth chart, and if Chris Wondolowski is the fifth, Morris has to like his chances of retaining his spot.
18. Tim Ream | Defender | Sept. 6 ranking: 19
Ream has been a consistent starter for a Fulham team that has only lost twice since the start of the Championship season, and one that has only conceded multiple goals once. We’ll see how Arena weighs Ream’s club performances against his shaky start against Costa Rica over a month ago.
19. Nick Rimando | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 18
Rimando is the prototypical third goalkeeper – a “locker room guy” and a penalty stopper. Unless one of the youngsters behind him steps up to challenge Guzan or Howard, the Real Salt Lake veteran is the favorite for the third of three keeper spots.
20. Weston McKennie | Central midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 30
McKennie has suddenly become a regular starter for Schalke, and has acclimated himself well ever since being thrown to the wolves with a full Bundesliga debut against Bayern Munich. He recently signed a new long-term contract at the German club. He hasn’t yet gotten a U.S. senior national team call, but he understands why. He’ll almost certainly get that call at some point over the next six months. And when he does, expect him to take advantage of it. He has the talent to go to Russia as the top central midfielder off the bench.
21. DaMarcus Beasley | Left back | Sept. 6 ranking: 21
Beasley remains a fixture in the U.S. dressing room, and he has no clear competitor for the backup left-back role. Timmy Chandler is a better player at this point in their respective careers, but Beasley remains the favorite to go to Russia.
22. Alejandro Bedoya | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 20
Strong club performances from McKennie and New York Red Bulls youngster Tyler Adams have loosened Bedoya’s medium-term grip on the utility midfield role, even if only slightly.
23. Graham Zusi | Right back | Sept. 6 ranking: 23
He is clearly the No. 2 right back at this point, even if players like Johnson, Acosta and Adams might be better options as fill-ins.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
24. Matt Besler | Center back | Sept. 6 ranking: 24 — Ream is still slightly ahead of him by our estimation, but we’ll know more at this time next week.
25. Tyler Adams | Fullback/Central midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 33 — Continues to impress for the Red Bulls, and is an option as either a backup midfielder or backup fullback. Like McKennie, he should get the call soon.
26. Sebastian Lletget | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 22 – Still out with a long-term injury. Very difficult to know where he stands.
27. Ethan Horvath | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 31 — Has been starting – and winning – regularly for Club Brugge in Belgium. Could he announce himself as the Guzan/Howard challenger?
28. Timmy Chandler | Fullback/Wide midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 25 — It’s tough to gauge how Arena feels about the Eintracht Frankfurt man in general. But given Arena’s squad selection philosophy for these pivotal qualifiers, Chandler was never going to be called upon.
29. Dax McCarty | Defensive midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 28 — In the squad again, but his inclusion is mostly about Arena sticking with familiar options. Several players will get shots to jump him in the pecking order after qualifiers end.
30. Jermaine Jones | Central midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 27 — Arena continues to look in other directions despite a dearth of central midfielders with international experience.
31. Christian Roldan | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 29 — Omitted from the squad this time around after being one of Arena’s three extra picks last time.
32. Bill Hamid | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 32 — Hamid’s contract at D.C. United is up at the end of the MLS season. European clubs are reportedly circling. In the meantime, D.C. has opted to bench him for the last three games. It’s an odd situation that, for Hamid’s sake, needs clearing up soon.
33. Gyasi Zardes | Forward/Wide midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 35 — Was called into the squad before having to withdraw due to a groin strain. His recent right back experiment is somewhat intriguing.
34. Matt Miazga | Center back | Sept. 6 ranking: 38 — Began the Eredivisie season on the bench, but has started seven games for Vitesse Arnhem over the past month, which is a great sign.
35. Benny Feilhaber | Central midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: NR — Benny is back! But before we get too excited, let’s see if he gets on the field, or even if he merely makes the 23-man matchday squads.
36. Eric Lichaj | Fullback | Sept. 6 ranking: 26 — Just tough to envision him doing anything over the next eight months that would merit a World Cup call.
37. Jesse Gonzalez | Goalkeeper | Sept. 6 ranking: 37 — The third of three keepers on the outside looking in, but long-term, he might be the most promising of the bunch.
38. Lynden Gooch | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 39 — Has started three of Sunderland’s last four games, and appeared in all four. He’s picked up a goal or an assist in each of the last three.
39. Danny Williams | Midfielder | Sept. 6 ranking: 36 — Currently out 2-3 weeks with a foot injury.
40. Chris Wondolowski | Striker | Sept. 6 ranking: 40 — Will undoubtedly make up for his 2014 miss with a Caligiuri-esque goal on Tuesday. You heard it here first.
GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard (5), Brad Guzan (11), Nick Rimando (19), Ethan Horvath (27), Bill Hamid (32), Jesse Gonzalez (37)
DEFENDERS: Geoff Cameron (3), John Brooks (7), DeAndre Yedlin (8), Jorge Villafaña (12), Omar Gonzalez (15), Tim Ream (18), DeMarcus Beasley (21), Graham Zusi (23), Matt Besler (24), Timmy Chandler (28), Matt Miazga (34), Eric Lichaj (36)
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (1), Christian Pulisic (2), Darlington Nagbe (9), Kellyn Acosta (13), Paul Arriola (14), Fabian Johnson (16), Weston McKennie (20), Alejandro Bedoya (22), Tyler Adams (25), Sebastian Lletget (26), Dax McCarty (29), Jermaine Jones (30), Christian Roldan (31), Gyasi Zardes (33), Benny Feilhaber (35), Lynden Gooch (38) Danny Williams (39)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (4), Clint Dempsey (6), Bobby Wood (10), Jordan Morris (17), Chris Wondolowski (40)
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.