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May 27, 2014

Five Americans for 2018's Top 50

Just because no American cracked our list of the World Cup Top 50 Players this time around doesn't mean it won't happen in 2018.

Four years is more than a long time in international soccer. It's an eternity, as last week's omission of Landon Donovan -- scorer of three goals in four U.S. games in 2010 -- from the Yanks' 2014 roster reminds us.

Donovan's numbers in South Africa would have put him on any post-tourney Top 50. Would he have made the cut beforehand? That it's hard to say isn't a knock on the country's best-ever player.

While Donovan showed his class time and again at the top level, the best 50 breathe rarefied air. Ask yourself: How many players on the Brazil-bound U.S. squad would make the 23 for 2014 favorites Brazil, Argentina, Germany or Spain?

(For the record, Tim Howard was the only American on my list this year.)

Let's look instead at who might make it by Russia 2018.

Michael Bradley, perhaps? He's already the Yanks' most indispensable player and he'll be right in his prime as a 30-year-old in 2018. On the other hand, playing in MLS may hurt his case the way it always did Donovan's through the years. Same goes for someone like defender Omar Gonzalez, who signed a long-term contract with the L.A. Galaxy last year.

Maybe a genuine star will emerge from the Yanks' European-based crew. Few (if any) U.S. fans had heard of "Iceman" Aron Johannsson back in 2010; if the skillful, hardworking forward continues to develop, could he turn himself into the long-awaited all-world U.S. striker?

And Brad Guzan figures to become the top American keeper in the next four years -- who's to say he can't be among the best in Europe as well? But if there is an American on the list in 2018, it seems just as likely that a younger player -- one we know less well -- will make a huge leap forward in the years to come.

Such as who? Two of the possibilities just made Jurgen Klinsmann's World Cup squad. Three others are either already on the books of or being chased by some of Europe's leading clubs. Together, they comprise our five best bets for next time out.

John Brooks, D, Hertha Berlin (Germany)

The 21-year-old had his ups and downs as a Bundesliga rookie in 2013-14 and appeared to be a long shot for Klinsmann's final 23 heading into this month's training camp. In the end, though, Klinsmann determined that Clarence Goodson's experience was less valuable than Brooks' talent.

John Anthony Brooks possesses the physical skills and comfort on the ball to become a world-class defender.
John Anthony Brooks possesses the physical skills and comfort on the ball to become a world-class defender.

The Berlin-born defender has plenty. Quick and imposing, the center back's physical tools (he's 6-foot-5) measure up at the highest level. The left-footed youngster also has the silky ball skills and passing ability coaches covet in the modern game.

If Brooks adds experience, maturity and continues to develop at his current pace, he has the goods to emerge as one of the top young defenders in Germany over the next few years.

Junior Flores, M, Borussia Dortmund (Germany)

U.S. fans first became aware of the shifty playmaker during the U.S. U-17 team's late-2011 upset of Brazil. Since then, Flores, the L.A.-born, Virginia-raised son of Salvadoran immigrants, signed a pro deal with perennial Bundesliga power Dortmund and graduated to the Yanks' U-20 squad, where he will be at the forefront of coach Tab Ramos' efforts to qualify for the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.

In an interview with ESPN FC last year, Ramos called Flores an "amazing player."

"That's the kind of guy we need to push up and move forward," the coach said.

Flores will be just 22 in 2018, and he has much to prove in the coming years -- mainly that as a smaller player, he can hang in Germany's physically demanding top flight. Only then will we know how his undeniable skill and vision compare to the continent's best.

Julian Green, M-F, Bayern Munich (Germany)

As expected, the 18-year-old Tampa native made Klinsmann's 23. The hard part comes next. Expectations are already sky high for the tricky attacker, who had seen just 42 minutes of first-team action (between the U.S. and Bayern combined) heading into the Yanks' May 27 friendly against Azerbaijan. We'll find out soon enough if Green's lack of experience will stop him from being a difference-maker on the biggest stage.

Julian Green might be considered a lock for 2018 given his rise at both the club and international level.
Julian Green might be considered a lock for 2018 given his rise at both the club and international level.

What's certain is that Green's coaches with club and country rate him highly. Bayern boss Pep Guardiola isn't in the habit of handing Champions League minutes to teenagers, while Klinsmann insisted that Green's ticket to Brazil was well-earned during the recent Northern California training camp. "Julian didn't hide," Klinsmann said last week, one day after the World Cup squad was announced. "Not even for one second."

Gedion Zelalem, M, Arsenal (England)

As recently as April, it seemed that the Gunners prodigy -- who made his first-team debut for Arsenal two days before his 17th birthday in January -- would never have the option of representing the United States.

Zelalem was born in Germany to Ethiopian parents, and because he spent only part of his childhood stateside before leaving for England, he appeared to have no path to U.S. citizenship. Then earlier this month the Washington Post reported that Zelalem's father had maintained U.S. residency and was to be naturalized, making his son -- still a minor in the eyes of the law -- eligible for an American passport, too. There's still no guarantee Zelalem casts his international lot with the Yanks, though; he remains eligible for Ethiopia and Germany, which have both expressed interest.

But whatever nation he eventually picks will be getting a player whose upside is off the charts.

Erik Palmer-Brown, D, Sporting Kansas City (MLS)

It's not every day that Italian champion Juventus comes calling for the services of a then-16-year-old American defender, but that's exactly what happened to Palmer-Brown in January before the Lee's Summit, Missouri, native had even played a professional match.

SKC turned down Juve's million-dollar offer, but that hasn't deterred the Serie A giants, who reportedly remain hot on his heels. It's important to note that Palmer-Brown will barely be 21 in four years -- he just turned 17 last month -- and like goalkeepers, central defenders tend to peak later in their careers. So forget that shaky first-team debut for Palmer-Brown earlier this month because in the big picture, it means nothing. Who knows where he'll be on the eve of the next World Cup.

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