When a city gets behind its club, you can feel a tangible impact on the streets. When an entire nation does the same, it is transcendent. I have followed the U.S. Men’s National Team religiously since 2002. I had just graduated high school, had no job, and decided that waking up at 2 am to watch the red, white, and blue play in Korea would be the best use of my free time.
I was captivated by the dismantling of Portugal on three first half goals by O’Brien, Costa and McBride. My loyalty was forever cemented when Brian McBride and Landon Donovan each netted to eliminate Mexico in the knockout rounds, propelling the U.S. into the quarterfinals and providing the catalyst for the curse of “Dos a Cero.” I also learned how cruel and unfair soccer can be when the U.S. was robbed of a goal by a handball on the goal line that turned the tide in favor of Germany and saw the U.S.’s dream run come to an end.
Now we stand on the precipice once again with Russia 2018 just 18 months away. The USMNT finds itself in a particularly precarious spot, dead last in the “Hex” and outside of qualifying with 8 games left to be played. To further amplify the situation, Jürgen Klinsmann was summarily dismissed as the head coach and technical director by Sunil Gulati on November 21st of last year. Something that was both expected, and yet jarring at the same time.
Let’s take a look at who we think will need to be the biggest players on the biggest stage if the U.S. is going to get out of the hexagonal and onto the plane headed for Russia.
Bruce Arena: Enter Bruce Arena, the same man that guided the USMNT to the quarterfinals in ’02 now has the hopes and dreams of a nation squarely placed on his shoulders once again. You could argue that the U.S. pool of players, as well as the pockets of the USSF have never been deeper. We have greater resources at Arena’s disposal now than he ever did in 2002. There are a record number of soccer specific stadiums, a stronger than ever domestic league, and an ever growing fan base. However, expectations have never been higher either. Our nations fans are no longer content with “grind-it-out” wins of 1-0 nor the old “park-the-bus” tactics of yesteryear. We want to win, and we want to win with panache.
Arena does not however come without a bit of controversy. In 2013 Arena told ESPN the Magazine, “Players on the national team should be – and this is my own feeling – they should be Americans…if they’re all born in other countries, I don’t think we can say we are making progress.” It is important to note that Arena now finds himself with a pool of players that contains a myriad of talent that was not in fact born on U.S. soil. Most notably: John Brooks (Germany), Fabian Johnson (Germany), Timothy Chandler (Germany), Jermaine Jones (Germany), Darlington Nagbe (Liberia), and the RSL fan favorite Benny Feilhaber (Brazil). Not to mention many of the young up and comers like Gedion Zelalem (Germany), Julian Green (Germany), Kekuta Manneh (Gambia) and another fan favorite in Dom Dwyer (United Kingdom).
Will Bruce Arena be able to embrace so many foreign born players and assimilate them all into a cohesive unit along with the domestically born players? We certainly hope so. The next round of qualifiers is coming up quickly as we play on home soil against Honduras on March 24th and away at Panama on March 28th. Lose those, and Arena and his men will have their backs against the wall with no margin for error.
Christian Pulisic: How much hype is too much hype? There are a lot of parallels between Pulisic and our own Landon Donovan (fingers crossed). Christian Pulisic is a young 18 years old and a dynamic player who is on the rise playing for Bundesliga powerhouse Borussia Dortmund. In fact, he recently signed a new deal that will see him stay with the club through 2020 after much speculation that Jürgen Klopp was courting him to play for Liverpool. Similarly, Donovan was a young 20-year-old when he first hit the international stage at the World Cup in 2002. With his speed, tenacity, and propensity to take defenders on Landon quickly became the talisman for US soccer. With it came the expectations that when the US was in trouble or needed a goal they could call on Donovan to be the difference maker a la US vs. Algeria as seen below.
Now that responsibility looks like it will be thrust on the young Pulisic. No one in US soccer history has regularly played (and scored) for as big of a club, at as young of an age, as Pulisic. Can Pulisic rise to the occasion and become the first true international star that the US has been clamoring for? Can he drive the youth movement forward as we see the likes of Dempsey, Bradley, Jones and Howard enter the twilight of their careers? Given his potential and his form, we think he can. Check the tape and you decide.
John Anthony Brooks: Known affectionately by Hertha Berlin supporters as the “Berlin Wall,” John Brooks will have to shoulder the load of tracking the craftiest CONCACAF attackers throughout the rest of the hexagonal. This is in large part due to the recent injury woes of Geoff Cameron, the inconsistency of Chandler and co. at right back, and the US’s complete lack of a world cup level left back other than the aging DaMarcus Beasley. Brooks is no stranger to the bright lights of international soccer. He literally dreamt the night before their World Cup opener that he would score a goal in the 2014 WC group stage game against Ghana, only to see that dream become a reality when he was subbed on late due to an injury. More recently, he played one man wrecking crew against the counter-attack of Paraguay in the Copa America Centenario as seen at the beginning of these highlights.
He will once again have to factor in as the pillar of our central defense if we are to get out of the basement of World Cup qualifying and back on track. Our ability to keep things close in CONCACAF’s notoriously hostile territories will be the responsibility of the young Brooks.
Josmer “Jozy” Altidore: You would think that Jozy is towards the end of his international career given the fact that he has featured on the international team since 2007 and has already played in 2 World Cups. Jozy is still only 27 years old and should be at the apex of his career given his age and his experience. For whatever reason, call it bad luck, Jozy has been either ineffective or riddled with injuries when the US has needed him most. He started all 4 of the US WC games in 2010 but had no goals and only 1 assist. He bowed out of the 2011 Gold Cup due to a hamstring injury and crashed out of the 2014 World Cup in similar fashion due to a hamstring injury that occurred only 21 minutes into their first game of the group stage. He was non-existent in Copa America as he dealt with a two-month long injury during that stretch. In all, he has missed four major tournaments for the US squad due to hamstring injuries.
Altidore is packed with power, skill, and physical presence. He currently sits third all-time on the goals scored list behind only Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, but 18 of his 37 international goals (48%) have come in meaningless friendlies. If the US is going to qualify, Jozy must stay healthy and must continue the exceptional run of form that he enjoyed with Toronto on their run up to an MLS Cup appearance last year. He is both brilliant and frustrating all at once.
Time will tell who can step up and save the US from qualification doom. We will get our first insights soon as “Camp Cupcake” comes to an end. Bruce Arena and the MLS players he has called up will square off in friendlies on January 29th against Serbia and February 3rd against Jamaica. We should get our first look into his preferred formation and tactics, as well as which domestic league players he will look to rely on. That being said, they are only friendlies, the battles that matter will pick back up in March as qualification continues onward.
What do you think? Who will be the key player(s) that can lead us through the “hex” and on to Russia? Who can turn this thing around and get us qualified? Or will we be sadly looking forward to Qatar 2022 with thoughts of what might have been? Tell us what you think in the comments below!