By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 8, 2017) US Soccer Players - The USMNT’s performances in this month’s two highly stressful World Cup qualifiers have prompted plenty of consternation among fans and media. Why has this edition of the Hexagonal been such a hard slog? What’s leading this team to underperform relative to the level most of us thought it was at?
The good news is that the US still holds the keys to its own fate. Two wins in next month’s matches against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago will book 3rd-place in the Hex and automatic advancement to Russia 2018. Even another stumble and a 4th-place finish offers hope in the form of the intercontinental playoff with Syria or Australia.
Even among those that view qualification as the likeliest outcome, however, doubts linger among some fans in the wake of the Costa Rica loss and Honduras draw. Is this team too old? Too stale? Not talented enough? If the USMNT is struggling this heavily in the shallow waters of CONCACAF, what hope do they have of making waves in the far deeper and more treacherous seas of the World Cup?
Asking questions about the team after a pair of underwhelming outings is understandable. Projecting the current shortcomings and limitations almost a year into the future is a much riskier proposition.
It may seem like all the things that go into team performance – coaching staff, player pool, form and fitness – can’t change dramatically in 10 months or so. Yet history shows that the squad that would jet to Russia next summer is likely to be significantly different from the current group, and in ways that are difficult to predict.
If the Yanks manage to survive the Hexagonal, new faces will emerge. That's happened for nearly all of the program’s modern history, after all. Regular starters will fall off the radar, for a variety of reasons. Even the grizzled veterans who may seem they’ll be too old by 2018 can surprise us by hanging around and contributing. That's also a long USMNT tradition.
1990 was a fresh-faced group led by several college-age players. The oldest person on the roster, reserve midfielder John Stollmeyer, was just 27. Those players opened the program’s modern era at the World Cup in Italy.
Goalkeepers Kasey Keller and Tony Meola, the starter, were young lads of 20 and 21, respectively. Eric Wynalda played in two games at age 20 and Chris Henderson, a mere 19, tagged along for the experience.
Four years later, 38-year-old midfielder Fernando Clavijo thumbed his nose at Father Time, starting three of the Yanks’ four games and making valuable contributions at USA 94. Conversely, youngster Claudio Reyna made the trip at age 20, missing out on minutes due to injury but gaining seasoning that would serve him well in the future.
At France 98, Tom Dooley captained the squad at the ripe old age of 36 and started all three US games. The famously ageless Preki was on board too, making two substitute appearances as a 34-year-old. The youngest player was Frankie Hejduk, then 23, and he parlayed his solid performances into a move to Bayer Leverkusen.
The team got markedly younger for Japan/Korea 2002, with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley playing pivotal roles as 20-year-olds. Older, but almost as unheralded were Pablo Mastroeni and John O’Brien, who helped run central midfield despite entering the tournament with just 21 caps between them. Vets remained key, as Earnie Stewart featured in four games and reserves Tony Meola and David Regis provided a steadying influence. All three were 33 at the time.
Eddie Johnson, then 22 with 15 caps to his name, was the hotshot kid at Germany 2006. Clint Dempsey and Bobby Convey were a year older and contributed significantly. Kasey Keller, 36, played every minute in goal, part of a string of grizzled goalkeepers that continued with 37-year-old backup Marcus Hahnemann four years later in South Africa, and Tim Howard (35) and Nick Rimando (34) in Brazil in 2014.
Bob Bradley brought four players with fewer than 10 caps to South Africa in 2010: Edson Buddle, Herculez Gomez, Robbie Findley, and Jose Torres. Those first three names were part of a frantic effort to find a suitable replacement for Charlie Davies, who struck up a dynamic striker partnership with Jozy Altidore – age 20 at that tournament – before the car crash that nearly took his life near the end of the Hex.
Jurgen Klinsmann also brought many relatively new faces to Brazil three years ago. Julian Green had only previously played for the USMNT three times. John Brooks had five caps, DeAndre Yedlin seven, and Aron Johannsson nine. Then again, he also leaned on eight players aged 31 or older.
It’s easy to imagine Dempsey and his creative, cunning skillset making next year’s roster as a 35-year-old. He headlines an array of experienced vets. Chris Wondolowski will also be 35. DaMarcus Beasley – who’s been to four World Cups already – Jermaine Jones, and Kyle Beckerman, all 36, will probably still be going, as would Alan Gordon. Howard will be 39, and may well still be the starter in goal.
“Our older players are unbelievable,” Arena said after the Gold Cup championship win in July. “The passion they have for this program, from our oldest player, Tim Howard, to our captain, Michael Bradley, to Clint Dempsey. Clint Dempsey is going to do whatever’s necessary for this team to be successful, so this is encouraging stuff.”
Talented teenager Christian Pulisic is drawing most of the headlines around the USMNT and with good reason. Other young faces like Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta, and Cristian Roldan are pushing for major roles, too. If Arena turns to a few baby-faced kids like he did back in '02, it could mean a USMNT fast-track for one of Pulisic's former U-17 YNT teammates. Perhaps Tyler Adams, Josh Perez, or Haji Wright will surprise us with a late burst onto the scene.
Nobody blames supporters for questioning things after a rough stretch. However, the USMNT landscape could well be dramatically different by the time the flight to Russia boards.
Fewest caps on USMNT World Cup teams, 21st century
WC 2002: Pablo Mastroeni-8, DaMarcus Beasley-9, John O’Brien-13, Josh Wolff-16, Landon Donovan-20
WC 2006: Marcus Hahnemann-6, Oguchi Onyewu-12, Jimmy Conrad-13, Eddie Johnson-15, Tim Howard-15
WC 2010: Edson Buddle-2, Herculez Gomez-3, Robbie Findley-4, Jose Torres-9, Clarence Goodson-11
WC 2014: Julian Green-3, John Brooks-5, DeAndre Yedlin-7, Aron Johannsson-9, Timmy Chandler-13
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