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Jul 17, 2014

Judging the United States' players

The Last Call crew discusses the United States' future and reflects on some of the highlights of its run in Brazil.

With the dust finally settled on the 2014 World Cup -- one in which the USMNT escaped a "Group of Death" with Portugal, Ghana and Germany before losing in extra time to Belgium in the knockout stage -- we asked experts for their opinions on where things stand. Part 1 focused on Jurgen Klinsmann's fit as coach. Today, Part 2 looks at the players who starred in Brazil and those who either didn't make it or have yet to break through. What's next for them?

Our experts:
- Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC.
- Doug McIntyre, staff writer for ESPN The Magazine, has covered the USMNT since 2005.
- Gabriele Marcotti, a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer.
- Mike L. Goodman, freelance football writer based in Washington, D.C., and contributor to Grantland.com, Foreign Policy magazine and Statsbomb.com.
- Alexi Lalas, ESPN soccer analyst and former star for the U.S. national team.

1. Which players do you see excelling for the U.S. as the likes of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard retire?

Jeff Carlisle: I think the goalkeeping position is in great shape given Brad Guzan's continued growth as a player. You also have Cody Cropper, Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson waiting in the wings. No worries there.

Otherwise, I think the spine of the team will remain somewhat the same. I think Matt Besler, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore will all continue to play significant roles. I think Bradley in particular, once he's moved back to a position on the field he's more comfortable with, will continue to be an important presence both on and off the field. With Dempsey nearing the end of his international career, I think Bradley should be made captain. I also think a player like Fabian Johnson will see his role increase, as it should given how well he played in Brazil.

Even though Howard and Dempsey may have played their last World Cup, the U.S.'s future is bright.
Even though Howard and Dempsey may have played their last World Cup, the U.S.'s future is bright.

I think for players such as Alejandro Bedoya and Graham Zusi, they are at a bit of a crossroads in terms of their international careers. Both will be over 30 by the time the next World Cup comes around. Is there more upside to their respective games? I really do think Zusi needs to get overseas and see if he can grow his game even more.

Doug McIntyre: Based on their performances off the bench in Brazil, you have to think youngsters John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green will be ready to step into major roles in the coming years. But I also think Bradley will become the heart and soul of this team, if he isn't already, and that central defenders Besler and Omar Gonzalez will continue to improve on their World Cup experience and form. While Mix Diskerud didn't play in the tournament, he's someone who could get a shot at running the midfield in the near term.

Regardless of new additions to the U.S. squad, Michael Bradley should be the next captain.
Regardless of new additions to the U.S. squad, Michael Bradley should be the next captain.

Gabriele Marcotti: Tough for me to say because I haven't seen many of them. Green, John Brooks and Yedlin obviously look like guys who can contribute.

Mike L. Goodman: It's always a difficult task to project roster composition four years into the future. Obviously Klinsmann and the U.S. staff have high hopes for the younger players they brought into the national team setup this year.

Beyond that, the only certainty is that Klinsmann will cast a wide net as he builds the team going forward. For a country whose talent base has expanded dramatically over the last decade that's a very good policy to have. Whether that means the U.S. remains reliant on foreign imports we've seen very little of yet (like Gedion Zelalem, who is still undecided), a crop of young MLS-developed players who haven't broken through yet or many of the players we've come to know this time around remains to be seen. Every four years, we seem to forget that four years is a long time.

Alexi Lalas: I think we're well-suited in goal with Guzan coming up. I think it was fun to see young players that Jurgen gave opportunities to and that paid him back, whether it's Brooks or Green or Yedlin. I'm interested to see what their development looks like.

And then some other players who are further along in their careers but who really I think will be that much more mature in four years... talking about Zusi, Besler and Gonzalez. Whether they will become more grizzled, if you will, and what they turn into.

Will Graham Zusi still be in the U.S. mix by 2018?
Will Graham Zusi still be in the U.S. mix by 2018?

2. What advice would you have for emerging players such as Yedlin and Green whose careers are hitting stride and building hype?

JC: It's all about finding first team experience at club level, even if it's on loan. It's great that Green is at Bayern Munich right now but he'll likely have to leave at some point to really test himself. For all the talk about Klinsmann developing players, what happens with the national team is a small part of the equation. Club experience is where that takes place. That's the only way they are going to grow.

There is a balancing act to this of course. Stay somewhere too long, and a career can stagnate. Get in a bad club situation with zero chance of playing time, and it gets even worse. These are issues that players such as Yedlin, Green and others need to think about. It may sound simple and obvious, but look at what happened to Brek Shea during the last cycle. He fell into a black hole in terms of his club situation, and it cost him a spot on the World Cup roster.

DM: The most important thing is both of them need to play, and they need to keep their heads on straight. I don't think the latter will be an issue -- Green and Yedlin seem like really grounded young guys. The former, though, is more of a concern. Green is probably going to have to decide whether to leave Bayern Munich if he's not getting first team reps. Perhaps he'll go out on loan. That decision may come as soon as this coming season. Meanwhile, rumors are circulating that Yedlin is on his way to Italian power AS Roma. That's a tough team to break into (just ask Bradley). For a kid who was playing college soccer 18 months ago, the fear is it will be too much too soon.

Yedlin's World Cup cameos have elevated his profile, making the next career move crucial.
Yedlin's World Cup cameos have elevated his profile, making the next career move crucial.

GM: In Green's case, if he doesn't get playing time in the next year or so at Bayern, then move elsewhere, whether on loan or a permanent deal. Yedlin just needs to grow and whether the place to do it is MLS or Europe is something for him to decide. My sense though is that if you go to Europe, choose the right club. Going to Stoke, for example, is NOT the right club.

MLG: Player development is such an individual thing that it's hard to offer blanket advice. Dempsey and Bradley obviously benefitted immensely from going overseas. Tim Ream and Shea obviously did not. As MLS continues to grow and improve it's certainly possible for players to develop in the U.S., though it's perhaps fair to say they cannot become superstars without playing at Europe's higher levels.

There's nothing wrong with a career path that sees development in MLS, several prime years in Europe and then a triumphant return home. But, while once it might have seemed obvious that players needed to go to Europe to develop, that's no longer the case. Yedlin may well be better served getting playing guaranteed time in Seattle than risking sitting on the bench for a mid-table club in England.

How far will the U.S. go at the 2018 World Cup?

AL: Well, I think they've burst onto the scene here in a way, and I know what the power of a World Cup can do for an individual. I've lived that, and it's wonderful, it opens up incredible doors and provides incredible opportunities. I would tell them to milk it for all it's worth. Enjoy it and respect it -- don't abuse it. When you're young, your career seems raw, and I can tell you that it goes in the blink of an eye. Don't waste these gifts and these incredible opportunities that you get.

3. How would you shape this team moving forward? What should this team aspire to play like -- style, formation, etc. -- based on players available, strengths/weaknesses, and so on?

JC: For whatever reason, the U.S. has always looked vastly more comfortable playing out of a two-striker alignment, regardless of who the coach was. When the U.S. plays with one forward, it really struggles to get sufficient numbers into the attack. One can quibble with the role that Dempsey filled when Altidore was in the lineup -- he did like to drop into midfield and play-make at times -- but it's clear that the closer he played to Altidore, the better off the U.S. team was. I think it is no accident that the late rally against Belgium occurred with two strikers on the field. I think this is the direction in which Klinsmann should go.

The question, of course, is whether a playmaker like a Diskerud can be accommodated in such a system. In 2010, the U.S. managed to get plenty of mileage out of Dempsey and Landon Donovan, so I'm of the belief that they can.

DM: There's little question that Klinsmann will continue to push his high-press, high-risk, high-reward mantra. The question has always been about American players' ability to execute, something they struggled mightily with for the most part in Brazil. The hope is that that will change as more technical, athletic players come through the ranks. It should also help that youth national team coaches, led by U20 boss (and Klinsmann assistant) Tab Ramos, will be teaching their teams the same way. Getting there is easier said than done, though, and it will probably take more than four years.

Klinsmann got the most out of his squad in Brazil, but our experts feel he needs to diversify his tactics.
Klinsmann got the most out of his squad in Brazil, but our experts feel he needs to diversify his tactics.

GM: Again, it depends on the players you have. I think there is one untapped vein for them here. In my experience, U.S. players tend to be better-educated and, generally, more capable of taking on board information. You look at sophomore college football players memorizing 200-page playbooks and doing film study and all this stuff and you wonder why that can't be applied to soccer. Coaches tell me it's because players aren't used to it or aren't capable of taking in information. Well, I think many of the U.S. players would be. And there's more of a culture of this sort of thing than elsewhere.

MLG: For a long time, the U.S. tactical setup has been one based on covering up for a lack of skilled players, regardless of whether or not that lack of skill was reality. Tactical evolution doesn't have to be predicated on playing a particular formation -- the Dutch, for example, seem to be doing well despite moving away from their nation's traditional, almost mandatory, 4-3-3 -- or even a particular style of play.

There are tactically sophisticated ways to counterattack, and tactically basic ways to keep possession. As their talent level continues to improve, the key for the U.S. is figuring out smart ways to feature that talent. That happened to mixed effect at this World Cup, with Fabian Johnson's "underlaps" being the best positive example, and Michael Bradley's more advanced role seeming to be more of a misfire.

U.S. World Cup exit reaction:

- Jeff Carlisle: Reviewing Klinsmann's World Cup
- Roger Bennett: The future is bright

- Jason Davis: A tale of two strikers
Chris Jones: Band of brothers go down fighting
- Doug McIntyre: Young players shine
- Landon Donovan: We need to keep developing
- Klinsmann Cam: Emotional ups and downs vs. Belgium
- Pablo S. Torre: Hey, America, where are you going?

AL: Well I think we saw that a lack of depth at different positions was concerning. I didn't realize that this team was so dependent on Altidore and that if an injury happened, everything would fall apart and the domino effect of players playing in uncomfortable positions within the 4-2-3-1, which I think was the best the team looked, would ensue. So finding continued challengers to Jozy is important.

I think Michael Bradley playing his preferred deep-lying midfield position as opposed to try to force him into a position I don't think he's comfortable with... he's world-class when he's deep-lying, I think he's mediocre when he's asked to try to play that creative attacking midfield position. Also, Geoff Cameron's versatility is wonderful but I think he'd be the first to tell you that he'd like to play a position consistently and sticking to it. I'd like to see him with some consistency of position.

As far as tactical stuff, I would like to see the U.S. playing with two forwards up top more often. I realize that's a formation change but I think we need to get to a point where we can do that. If we're going to press other teams and force the issue, having dynamic and potent players up there is essential.

4. What more can/should U.S. Soccer be doing to keep developing players who can one day rep the USMNT?

JC: I think U.S. Soccer is doing some good things, but I also think its reach is limited given how vast the whole youth soccer industry is in this country.

Altidore is one of the more famous USSF residency program alums, but Klinsmann has introduced players from further afield, a good thing overall.
Altidore is one of the more famous USSF residency program alums, but Klinsmann has introduced players from further afield, a good thing overall.

I think establishment of the development academy, with its emphasis on increasing the ratio between practices and games, has been an important step forward. I also think the steady elimination of pay-to-play is another. This is happening at the development academy level, but I think the USSF needs to keep fighting that battle even beyond those confines. Otherwise the net the USSF casts in terms of identifying players will never be as big as it could or should be.

One area that falls outside the confines of the USSF that I think can be important is the formation of reserve teams in USL-PRO by MLS clubs. A lot of people like to knock college soccer. In my opinion, the problem isn't college soccer per se; it's that there are few other avenues to the pros besides college soccer. I think if MLS teams continue to form their own reserve teams in USL-PRO it will provide another avenue for players during a crucial time in their development, namely the years starting at age 18 or so. The presence of non-MLS teams in USL-PRO also adds to the level of competition. College isn't for everyone, and the expansion of this route will help prevent players from falling through the cracks.

DM: It's a clear sign of progress that the burden of developing young American pros is falling more and more on MLS academies -- and not the U.S. Soccer Federation. The USSF's U-17 residency program in Bradenton, Florida, has churned out plenty of World Cup players over the last 15 years; five alums made the 2014 roster (Jozy Altidore, DaMarcus Beasley, Kyle Beckerman, Michael Bradley and Omar Gonzalez). But it now may have outlived its usefulness.

MLS will have more than 20 academy programs in place by 2018, many of them fully funded by their parent clubs, which will cast much a wider net. That's the way it should be, the way it's done everywhere else in the world. The USSF's main challenge will be to make sure youth coaches are getting the best education possible, that there is a consistent message throughout all levels of the sport in the country. Klinsmann touched on this recently, too. If he's successful at implementing real, lasting change, it could be the most significant part of his legacy.

GM: I think the academies are a good way to go. Keep players local, get them playing against better competition and in a more professional environment. I don't think moving abroad is crucial; a lot of it depends on the player. I wonder if maybe there isn't scope to get some guys facing different types of competition during the off-season, whether it's loans or tours. And I'd love for the Gold Cup and Copa America to be merged (and the Copa Libertadores and CONCACAF Champions League too).

Klinsmann's biggest legacy to U.S. soccer will likely be found off the field, away from the USMNT.
Klinsmann's biggest legacy to U.S. soccer will likely be found off the field, away from the USMNT.

MLG: The developmental system in the U.S. for youth soccer is a big impediment for growth. At a grass roots and youth level where other nations move heaven and earth to make sure their most talented kids are kicking a ball around, the U.S.'s cost-prohibitive model simply makes playing organized competitive youth soccer too expensive for many kids. Changing that, more than absolutely anything else, will help grow the U.S. talent base, and improve not only the national team but also MLS.

AL: Well, this gets into the philosophy going forward on how we approach our style and what we want to be. I've said this before: The size of our country is both our greatest asset but also one of our biggest hindrances. And while our diversity and our size works well for creating a country; it doesn't work well for creating a soccer team. I think we have to become, in a strange way, more exclusive about how we go about it. That runs counter to what our country is about, but it might be the quickest way for us to improve as a soccer team.

What I mean by that is actually being clear and being able to clarify "this is how we're going to play and this is how the positions within that system function and you have to figure out how you are going to fit into that system." In doing that, it means there will be a lot of players that don't fit in -- and that scares people -- but that's OK, because trying to be everything to everybody and trying to incorporate every different style is labor intensive and it wastes precious time we sometimes don't have.

You could make a case that if you made a national team in Southern California and give them the same backgrounds and soccer upbringing and the way that the area thinks about soccer, then that might be more conducive to making a stronger soccer team.

These are the types of things and questions that I think are important. I think one of the things Jurgen Klinsmann has done -- and he deserves a lot of credit -- is to make us ask these types of questions. And these are difficult questions that either we don't have the answers or don't like the answers. There are no quick fixes and there are no easy answers, but it will happen. I know people from the outside think that it's easy, but it's not.