With the 2014 World Cup just over four months away, the focus is firmly on the present for the U.S. men's national team. Manager Jürgen Klinsmann is putting an MLS-heavy squad through its paces outside of Los Angeles, while the European-based members of the squad are being watched closely.
But the future is never far from the minds of Klinsmann and the rest of the coaches in the U.S. soccer pyramid. After impressing with the U.S. U-20 team, players like Real Salt Lake midfielder Luis Gil and Seattle Sounders right back DeAndre Yedlin are already being given the once over by Klinsmann. The Olympics are only two years away and once this summer's festivities are over, a World Cup cycle begins anew for 2018, opening the door for the next generation to step in and do what they can to impress the U.S. manager.
With that in mind, here are some candidates who could step in during the next qualifying campaign, as well as a few younger players further down the depth chart to keep an eye on.
(Please note: Only current U.S. citizens will be listed here, hence why Arsenal phenom Gedion Zelalem isn't included.)
1. Julian Green, M/F, Bayern Munich One of the final cuts from the U.S. U-20 squad that went to last summer's World Cup, Green's ascension to the fringes of Bayern Munich's star-studded first team has been astonishing. After impressing in preseason -- and later tearing up the fourth-tier Regionalliga Bayern to the tune of 15 goals in 18 games -- Green made his first-team debut with a substitute appearance in the UEFA Champions League against CSKA Moscow back in November.
As a dual national who also holds German citizenship, Green has a choice as to which team to represent internationally. However he resisted an initial overture from Klinsmann late last year and has since appeared in several European Championship qualifiers for Germany's U-19 team. FIFA regulations stipulate that Green can still change his international allegiance, and at least outwardly, he remains noncommittal about his international future. "In the end, it is not only my decision which international jersey I will wear," said Green via email prior to the Bundesliga's winter break. "You have to get an invitation. If I should have the possibility to make a decision, I will discuss this important topic with my family, my club, the coaches, and my management, and I hope to make a good decision when it comes to the final choice."
Reached via telephone, Green's father Jerry stated that he hadn't discussed the situation further with his son, though he suspects it won't happen before the World Cup. That said, an invitation from Klinsmann to play for the U.S. this summer, as unlikely as that seems, could force his hand. In the meantime, the U.S. can only admire Green's skills from afar.
"Green is a very dynamic, special player," said U.S. technical director and U-20 manager Tab Ramos. "He's definitely got tools that separate him from other people. One-on-one he's excellent, the timing of his runs is excellent, and the better players he plays with, the better he is. That's why I'm not surprised he continues to move up so fast."
2. Luis Gil, M, Real Salt Lake The U.S. soccer landscape is littered with phenoms who never lived up to the hype. Luis Gil is proving to be the exception. At just 20 years of age, Gil has already made 88 league and playoff appearances for a Real Salt Lake side that has routinely been among the league's best. This past season he started 25 regular-season games and recorded five goals and three assists, mainly as a support player. But his ability to connect passes and also deliver the killer ball in the final third has him poised for bigger things.
"I think Gil has got a great opportunity to be in the next pool of players for the World Cup, for sure," said Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth. "He's really good technically, he's comfortable on the ball and he's proven he can be better tactically than people give him credit for. He's effective. He's done a fantastic job when given the opportunity."
Klinsmann has already taken notice, inviting Gil to the current January camp with an eye toward grooming him for the next Olympic team. Having already taken on a leading role with last summer's U-20 World Cup side, that appears to be the next logical step in Gil's progression.
3. Kelyn Rowe, M, New England Revolution The transition from college to MLS can be difficult for creative players. Getting on the field oftentimes means subverting one's attacking instincts in order to provide support for a more experienced player. But as Ramos put it, Rowe "made the transition look easy."
Not only did the UCLA product put up impressive numbers last year with seven goals and eight assists, but several of his strikes were of the spectacular variety. Operating in an advanced midfield role, Rowe's ability to set up teammates proved impressive as well. "Rowe had success in being skillful and being good on the ball and doing all the things that everybody likes to see," said Ramos. "From the moment he stepped into the league he just played soccer the way he’s always played."
Rowe's exploits weren't enough to garner an invite to the January camp, but if he continues to build on his 2013 season, such an opportunity won't be far off.
4. Amobi Okugo, D/M, Philadelphia Union Entering his fifth MLS season, there is still debate over what Okugo's best position is. Though he entered the league in 2010 as a holding midfielder, Okugo has increasingly spent time at center back, including the entire 2013 season. Of course, the reason there is a debate is that Okugo has impressed at the back thanks to his steady distribution and ability to play physical when needed -- Hackworth indicated he'll likely stay there for 2014.
Like Rowe, Okugo's exploits weren't enough to get an invite to the January camp but he remains on the U.S. team's radar, an important factor given that his parents hail from Nigeria.
"Okugo is a smart, talented player," said current Chivas USA head coach Wilmer Cabrera, who saw Okugo up close when he managed the U.S. U-17 team. "He's athletic and intelligent but also has good technique. He's also shown his versatility playing in the back, and that's very important."
5. DeAndre Yedlin, D/M, Seattle Sounders One player who did enough to get an invite to national team camp was Yedlin, and while some might argue this was down to the open competition at right back, the play of the former Akron Zip did plenty to impress during the 2013 MLS season. In particular his ability to attack down the right flank proved to be a significant asset for the Sounders last season, as well as for the U-20s last summer.
Yedlin's rookie season did reveal that his one-on-one defending needs work, but the fact that he survived a round of cuts during the U.S. camp speaks well to the impression that he's made on Klinsmann and the rest of the coaching staff. "When Yedlin attacks, he's another forward," said Cabrera. "He creates a lot of problems. If he improves his defending, he can be one of the top right backs in the world, because you don't see too many right backs defending well and bring the skills and possibilities he brings."
6. Wil Trapp, M, Columbus Crew The reigning USSF Young Player of the Year, Trapp adapted quickly to MLS after the U-20 World Cup, settling into a Columbus side that had its share of difficulties in 2013. And more than anything else, it is Trapp's ability to link defense to attack from his position as a deep-lying midfielder that has coaches raving about his potential.
"I think Wil Trapp will be a professional for the next 15 years, and I’m hoping he's the next guy to make a jump to the first team because he does all the things right," said Ramos. "He connects the team better than anyone. He's always there. He's always in the right place, and when the ball gets to him, he puts it in an even better place. He's a Xavi kind of player. Obviously you can't compare him to Xavi because he's been doing it for the last 15 years, but he's that kind of guy. He connects the dots like that."
Younger guns to keep an eye on...
7. Rubio Rubin, F, FC Utrecht Rubin emerged from last year's U-17 residency class as the top forward prospect given his ability to play either wing or as a center forward. Better yet, he parlayed his impressive performances into signing a pre-contract with Eredivisie side FC Utrecht, the same club where U.S. international Juan Agudelo currently resides.
"Rubin was a guy that we counted on to create opportunities and finish them as well," said U.S. U-17 head coach Richie Williams. "In terms of his talent, technique and his understanding of the game, he's a very coachable player. He always plays with a smile on his face and he doesn't have a big ego."
8. Junior Flores, M, Borussia Dortmund The attention surrounding Flores has gone down a bit since he exited the U.S. U-17 residency program in favor of Dortmund, but that's more due to him not being able to play in official games until he turns 18 in March. In the meantime he's had to content himself with playing in friendlies and training sessions with the club's various youth teams. Yet optimism remains that once unleashed, Flores' creative instincts will see him grow into an impact player.
"Junior is a pure talent," said Cabrera, who coached Flores while managing the U.S. U-17 national team. "He's a guy who can be around three or four guys and take those guys out with one movement, with one fake. He's talented in that aspect and very skillful, and unpredictable in his movements."
9. Erik Palmer-Brown, D, Sporting Kansas City Palmer-Brown gained some notoriety recently when it was reported by SI.com that a $1 million bid for his services by Italian powerhouse Juventus had been turned down by Sporting Kansas City. Closer inspection of Palmer-Brown's skill set reveals why. Even though he's just 16, the 6-foot-2 Palmer-Brown already has the size and strength to cope well against older players, and has already impressed in some U.S. U-20 training camps. Yet the SKC defender also boasts plenty of skill on the ball to be able to play the ball out of the back.
"It's no surprise, you can see that he has all the tools to be a very good center back," said Williams.
10. Shaquelle Moore, D, IMG Academy The captain of last year's U.S. U-17 team, Moore has continued to rise up the ranks, excelling with the U.S. U-18 side before taking part in the initial U-20 training camps that have been held. Williams feels that Moore's best position is at right back, especially given Moore's athletic gifts.
"He's a very good defender, quick and strong in the tackle," said Williams. "And he has good pace and stamina getting up and down the line, so he can get into the attack."
"He has a future for sure."