by Roderick MacNeil
It’s been just over nine short weeks since the USMNT stepped exhaustedly off the Arena Fonte Nova pitch in Salvador, concluding its long four-year journey to Brazil.
But ready or not, fifty-four hundred miles away in Prague, the 2018 World Cup cycle begins in earnest on Wednesday.
The Czech Republic is a long way from Brazil. However, if one measures by the FIFA calendar, its even further away from Russia, no matter how close it may appear on a map. It’s here at Prague’s Generali Arena that USMNT’s Road to Russia 2018 begins.
Roster choices for Jurgen Klinsmann always come with a selection dilemma. Major League Soccer, with rare exception and unlike every other league on the planet, still does not observe FIFA International Dates. This means when MLS players get called in for international duty, they miss games. It’s an endless source of frustration for both USMNT and MLS head coaches alike. A rapidly increasing number of national team players (both U.S. and otherwise) are now calling MLS home, so it’s a problem that needs solving. But that’s a topic to delve into further on another day.
So normally, MLS clubs push onward without their various National Team stars. This time, Klinsmann has shown mercy on the league by not selecting MLS players (except one, Real Salt Lake GK Nick Rimando, but he won’t miss a league game.) With clubs heading down their playoff stretch runs, it’s a welcome relief around the league.
With just one friendly in Europe on the USMNT schedule this week, maybe it was more luck and timing than mercy. U.S. Soccer had a tentative deal to face Colombia in San Antonio on September 9. That arrangement fell through when the Colombian association failed to sign the contract in time to seal the deal. Otherwise, Klinsmann may have felt more inclined to delve into his domestic player pool with a stateside match.
As it is, Klinsmann limited his call-ups to players based in Europe and Mexico. While he’d no doubt prefer a complete first choice roster, instead he took the opportunity to broaden the player pool with younger talent. Six uncapped players are in camp, and a total of eight players age 21 and under. Nine holdovers from the 2014 Brazil roster provide an intriguing mix of youth and experience.
Emerson Hyndman (Fulham, Midfielder, age 18) – The grandson of former FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman doesn’t have a long history with the U.S. program, having only three U-17 appearances to his name. He’s been part of Fulham’s academy system since 2011. Fulham’s unfortunate relegation from the Premier League may have actually been good fortune for Hyndman. A lower wage budget in The Championship has equaled more playing time and greater responsibility for the young central midfielder. He earned a starting role straight out of training camp and has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal start (0-4-1) to Fulham’s 2014-15 campaign. Hyndman also holds a Portuguese passport, so Klinsmann may be keen to get him cap-tied.
Greg Garza (Club Tijuana, Defender, age 23) – Entering his fourth season with the Xolos, Garza has pushed his way into a regular starting role at left back. He spent the last two years primarily as a backup to fellow USMNT mate Edgar Castillo. Castillo has moved on to Liga MX’s Atlas, but it’s the emergence of Garza that ultimately made Castillo expendable in Tijuana. Incumbent USMNT starter DaMarcus Beasley will be 36 in 2018, so Garza enters the fray of a wide open competition. He’s another dual national with Mexican eligibility, despite being born and raised in Texas.
Jordan Morris (Stanford University, Forward, age 19) – Unquestionably the most surprising name on this roster, Morris is the first active U.S. college player to earn a senior national team call-up in nearly 20 years. Like DeAndre Yedlin, Morris is a native of Washington state and a product of the Seattle Sounders FC academy system. He was named to the All-Pac12 Team as a freshman last season with 6 goals and 7 assists, and he excelled with the U.S. U20 Team at the 2013 Toulon Tournament in France. He’s no stranger to Klinsmann and staff, as Morris was named 2013 U.S. Developmental Academy National Player of the Year. He’s a dynamic forward whose time appears to be coming sooner than most projections.
Joe Gyau (Borussia Dortmund II, Forward, age 21) – While Gyau is still seeking his first senior team cap, he’s been capped by the U.S. at nearly every level back to U15. Born in Texas, raised in Maryland, and the son of form U.S. international Phillip Gyau, he’s well entrenched in the American system. However, he’s also a dual national via his grandfather, a former Ghanaian international. Perhaps it’s best to get this kid capped before the Black Stars come calling. Gyau begins his fourth professional year in Germany with a move to a big club in Borussia Dortmund. Granted, he’s been signed to the reserve side, but a foot in the door presents opportunities… even more so if he shows well on the International level.
Rubio Rubin (FC Utrecht, Forward, age 18) – Surprise, another uncapped dual national! Rubin is also eligible to represent Mexico, though he’s on record with his preference for the U.S. team. With 14 goals in 37 appearances for the U.S. U17s, American fans will be pleased to hear that. Portland Timbers supporters lament Rubin signing with Dutch club FC Utrecht, rather than with the hometown club where he spent two years in the academy system. On the other hand, Rubin found himself in the starting lineup for an Eredivisie side on opening day last month, then one-upped himself by tallying an assist. He earned his second start last weekend, which isn’t bad for a player who was expected to join Utrecht’s reserves.
Cody Cropper (Southampton, Goalkeeper, age 21) – Cropper won’t get his first cap against the Czechs; Klinsmann has already announced that Brad Guzan and Nick Rimando will each play one half in goal. Nevertheless, Cropper is already becoming a familiar name around the USMNT camp. He trained with the World Cup roster during the Send-Off Series to serve as a fourth keeper in practice and has been called up for European-based friendlies before. At this point, he seems firmly behind both Bill Hamid and Sean Johnson in the pecking order, but with his name on a Premier League roster, he’s bound to stick around the conversation for many years to come. Given his age, Cropper is a prime candidate to start at the 2016 Olympics, which is ostensibly a U23 tournament.
Two other players on the roster only have one (1) senior cap, so let’s reacquaint ourselves with:
Bobby Wood (1860 Munich, Forward, age 21) – Wood made his USMNT debut a year ago around this time in Sarajevo during a 4-3 win over Bosnia-Herzegovina (The Altidore hat trick game). He subbed on in the 87th minute for Brad Evans, a mere cameo that got him capped; hardly enough time to make an impression. A substitute for much of the 2013-14 season at 1860 Munich, Wood has started each of the club’s first 5 matches this season after scoring twice in preseason friendlies.
Alfredo Morales (Ingolstadt 04, Midfielder, age 24) – Morales’ lone prior USMNT appearance was also a brief one, entering in the 75th minute against Canada in January 2013. Rumors have been floated of continued interest from the Peru National Team (he’d be eligible via his Peruvian-born father), which would require a one-time switch, but these rumors seem to have little substance. He’s been called in by Klinsmann numerous times, and has been in the U.S. system since the U16 level. Morales has been a regular starter at left midfield for 2.Bundesliga side Ingolstadt since early last season, and scored in his team’s opening game of 2014.
Julian Green (3 caps) and John Brooks (5 caps) seem like relative veterans compared to the group above. When you’ve scored a goal in the World Cup, you’re no longer a newcomer.
The other Brazil 2014 returnees include: Brad Guzan, Nick Rimando, Fabian Johnson, Timothy Chandler, Mix Diskerud, Alejandro Bedoya and Jozy Altidore. Geoff Cameron was initially named to the squad, but withdrew due to injury.
Filling out the rest of the roster are defenders Michael Orozco and Tim Ream, and midfielders Brek Shea and Joe Corona. All four were part of the USMNT mix to various extents during 2014 Qualifying. Corona made the preliminary 30-man roster for Brazil, but was among the final cuts.
An educated guess at a projected Starting XI vs. the Czech Republic — I’m not expecting any newcomers in the starting lineup, but we’ll see many of the them in the second half:
DF: Johnson, Brooks, Ream, Chandler
MF: Bedoya, Corona, Diskerud, Shea
FW: Green; Altidore
Corona/Diskerud in a double-pivot central midfield; Green playing more wide than central, tucking in behind Altidore’s hold-up play.
United States 2:1 Czech Republic
Altidore 11′ (Diskerud)
Morris 74′ (Hyndman)
The United States faces the Czech Republic on Wednesday, September 3, 2014 at Generali Arena, Prague – 2:15 PM EST, (NBCSN, UniMas).