When the 2018 FIFA World Cup kicks off on June 14, it will be the first tournament since 1986 without the United States national team. That's the bad news: an unmitigated failure at the top of the American men's program. Soccer, however, goes on.
There will be life after the 32 squads leave Russia and another World Cup just four years away. The big question is how good can the U.S. be, assuming the squad qualifies for Qatar? The answer is that there are signs of life and in some ways, missing out on the 2018 event might -- I stress might -- speed the process along.
"You have to qualify for the World Cup. There's no way to go around it," said Tab Ramos, U.S. youth technical director. "But I do believe from where I'm sitting at the youth levels, this is going to open opportunities that should have been given already ... The fact is that this has opened the door and sped up the process to take advantage."
There's always a generational switch and a re-evaluation of talent after a World Cup, but the act of not reaching the tournament in Russia forces those decisions to come sooner. It's given some younger players a chance to play for the national team before they would have otherwise while also prioritizing a look into the current pool, especially after such an epic failure.
Two players who fall into the latter category are Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, leaders on the 2018 qualifying campaign that came up short. Determining what (if any) role they will play going forward is one of the first questions the new coach needs to answer.
To get a sense of where they might stand, I called up a couple of scouts who work domestically and abroad. (They were offered anonymity in exchange for their unvarnished opinions.)
"Realistically in four years, Michael's 34 and Jozy's 32," one scout said. "I think we are going to need them especially through qualifying. But are we going to be able to rely on them like we would have this year? It's tough to say."
Another took a more hard-line approach.
"Let's give Michael all his due for what he's done in the past, but if we're going to be moving forward and doing what's best for the future, I think from day one the new coach is bringing in the young players, and players like Bradley and [Jozy] Altidore should not be involved," he said. "They had their opportunity."
The truth naturally lies somewhere in the middle. Altidore and Bradley -- along with others like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, Jorge Villafana, Graham Zusi, Eric Lichaj, Alejandro Bedoya, Geoff Cameron and Brad Guzan -- have small roles to play in the future, especially in the short term, but they shouldn't be key cogs by the time the U.S. is closing in on Qatar. (The older generation like Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones, and DaMarcus Beasley should have played their last meaningful games.)
So, then: Where should the U.S. start building?
That process begins with one person: Christian Pulisic. It might seem obvious but the Borussia Dortmund star is the best and most dynamic player on the American team; he's the key to the future. He'll initiate the attack, provide the spark and potentially be the first true American superstar.
"The team has to revolve around him and what he does," Ramos said. That's a lot to ask of a 19-year-old, and he's going to need help. Look no further than another teenager, Schalke's Weston McKennie, to provide some of that support.
"A healthy Weston definitely will be involved," one scout said. "He can be a top-of-the-line starter right now."
Other players with more national team experience who should be a major part of the mix going forward are John Brooks -- "I don't think we are going to turn away a healthy John Brooks," one scout said -- and DeAndre Yedlin, who became just the fourth American field player to start 30 Premier League games in a season. Kellyn Acosta boasts a versatile skill set and a deadly free kick. Matt Miazga has the inside track on a center-back role, but he will face challenges from emerging talents like Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown, both of whom will compete for roles in the middle.
"There are a lot of guys who did well with us that have not taken a huge step yet, but I think will," Ramos said. "For me, Palmer-Brown is a center-back and yet goes to CONCACAF U-20 Championship and gets the Golden Ball playing as a defensive mid. I think that's pretty significant. He's been to the last two World Cups. He was a great captain of the last run when we ended in sixth place. I think down the road he's one that challenges for a spot in two or three years down the road. He has to."
Ramos also cited Keaton Parks, the 20-year-old Benfica midfielder who recently got his first cap, as someone who could make an impact.
Nineteen-year-old New York Red Bull dynamo Tyler Adams continues to improve dramatically as well, covering a ridiculous amount of ground in midfield and could form a wrecking crew with McKennie alongside him. Scouts do question his ability to pass in tight situations, noting his struggles against a physical and technical Venezuela team in the U-20 World Cup, and wonder if right-back is ultimately Adams' best spot. But as another scout said, "It's very easy to throw him out as a right-back whenever. What separates Adams from a lot of top youth national team players is he has that attitude. He wants to be the best. He wants to be better."
Further down the pecking order, but pushing for spots and certainly in the mix for the future, are players like Josh Sargent -- "One of the purest strikers that we have coming up in the system right now," one scout said -- and Tim Weah, who is working with David Hernandez at PSG. They've gotten tastes of the highest level but need to keep improving. Andrew Carleton, the bright young thing with Atlanta United, is another player in that category, although he's further behind.
"I like [Carleton], but he's more show than substance, ultimately, at the high level," a scout said. "I don't think over time he will really make it stick."
This year is a big one for all three as they attempt to build some momentum.
"Sometimes because you're a young player, you get put on the first team and your only job on the first team is not to screw up," Ramos said. "Now you need to step it up. If you're a player like Carleton, Weah or Sargent, if you're going to go to the first team, you need to make plays. You need to win the game. You play in positions that require you winning games. Not just passing the ball to the next guy who's open. So that's the next step."
"The advantage that they are getting now is not going to make a difference if they don't take advantage at their clubs."
A final factor in the success of the American squad going forward is going to be finding a capable leader, as the group that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup lacked such a figure.
"You had guys like Clint [Dempsey] and Tim [Howard] who are exceptional at what they do, but they are not natural leaders and they aren't really looking to be that," one of the scouts I talked to said. "You're looking to take ownership of that, but they don't, so who are you left with? Bradley, who certainly wants to be that guy, but within the dynamic might not be that guy, and then Jozy, who people know isn't that guy."
Going forward, Pulisic would be a natural choice because of his impressive talent, but it's an open question whether he wants to wear the armband. Ramos does believe he has the personality to be a leader.
While someone like Wil Trapp might fit the bill -- a "23-year old who acts like he's 30" with a natural disposition to lead -- he likely won't be a sure-thing starter. Elsewhere "there are quite a few guys who don't need to wear the captain's band to be a leader: Weston [McKennie], Tyler [Adams], Kellyn [Acosta]," said Ramos. "They all have great leadership qualities, as do Carter-Vickers and Miazga."
The point is that the players and the capabilities are there. It's just time to realize the potential. The American team can be good, but for that to happen, the younger generation needs their time to come fast.
A few other names to watch
Four years is an eternity in international soccer. (In June 2014, Christian Pulisic was still playing for the PA Classics, eight months removed from joining Borussia Dortmund.) With that in mind, here's an additional Starting XI of players with a chance to contend for a spot on the 2022 World Cup squad. Some of these players have earned national team calls, while others are barely playing for their club teams, but all got at least one mention from the experts who talked for this story.
Goalkeeper: Alex Bono (Toronto FC)
Defenders: Antonee Robinson (Everton), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Tim Parker (New York Red Bulls), Danilo Acosta (Real Salt Lake)
Midfielders: Lynden Gooch (Sunderland), Emerson Hyndman (AFC Bournemouth), Chris Durkin (D.C. United), Luca de la Torre (Fulham)
Forwards: Brandon Vazquez (Atlanta United), Nick Taitague (FC Schalke)