Even the best of national team management tenures usually end poorly, and Jurgen Klinsmann’s was no different. After a somewhat self-inflicted loss against Mexico and capitulation against Costa Rica, the US found itself in last place in the Hex. Enter a manager change: the USSF hired Bruce Arena to ensure the US’ qualification for the 2018 World Cup. Even with the two game deficit, odds are that the US should still qualify. What’s unknown is what Arena’s team might look like at the World Cup itself.
Unlike the always amusing World Cup roster projections at the start of a 4-year cycle, there are fewer unknowns a year and a half from the tournament. What’s more, the US is firmly in win-now mode, with Arena mentioning that it is “highly unlikely” that there will be many new players joining the program.
Given that the players should remain mostly the same, we can analyze the age distribution of the current pool, and see who Arena could build around for 2018. For core players, I’ll look at those who will be between 25 and 30 years old for June 2018 thanks in part to the GoalImpact aging curve. These ages are typically when field players are at peak performance. Any younger than this, and there’s speculation in the rate of improvement. Any older, and there’s risk for sudden declining performance. Of course there will be individual exceptions, but focusing on 25 to 30 year-olds helps minimize the variability.
It’s also helpful to look back at previous World Cup rosters, especially because Arena selected two of them. I’ve grouped all field players from the past four World Cup rosters into three groups:
- 24 and younger
- 25 to 30
- 31 and older
First, a look at the roster distribution from each squad.
Bob Bradley’s 2010 squad had the largest number of players in their prime, and included just 2 players 31 or older. Klinsmann’s 2014 team had the fewest players in their prime, but the 31 and older group looks similar to Arena’s 2002 and 2006 teams.
However, when accounting for the number of minutes each of those groups played, things look different. Here is the side-by-side comparison of the roster with minutes played.
The lack of contribution from the 25-30 group in Arena’s 2006 team – just 27% of minutes played – is in stark contrast to that group playing at least 50% of minutes in the other three tournaments. Klinsmann showed little faith in the youngest group at the 2014 World Cup, with those 24 and younger playing just 7% of the US’ minutes in the tournament.
Here are the percentage of minutes played at each tournament, with the blue dots those in the prime 25-30 age group.
The player-level data is like an abridged history of each World Cup. Prime-age players Tony Sanneh, Eddie Pope, Brian McBride, Claudio Reyna, and Frankie Hejduk all featured prominently in 2002, with John O’Brien (the technically gifted apparition) and Landon Donovan contributing from the younger group. More experienced players like Earnie Stewart and Cobi Jones may not have played often, but still made key contributions to the US’ success in that tournament. 2006 featured many of the same names, but an underdeveloped core group of players and an O’Brien injury meant relying on Donovan and Clint Dempsey before they had reached their peaks, and asking too much of McBride, Reyna, and Pope at that stage in their careers.
The 2010 team closely mirrored the 2002 team, with Donovan, Dempsey, and Carlos Bocanegra playing every minute. Others who played substantially: a younger Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley; an older Steve Cherundolo and Jay Demerit. This gave the US a platonic ideal of youth and experience. The 2014 team gameplan diverged from reality immediately after the Altidore injury against Ghana. Even with that upheaval, prime-age players like Bradley, Matt Besler, Fabian Johnson, Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya, and Graham Zusi contributed. Like the veteran players in 2002, the younger players in 2014 maximized their playing time, with John Brooks and Julian Green each scoring a goal.
With these age groups in mind, we can look ahead to 2018 to speculate on who will likely be at their peak. Here is that cohort of players from the most recent World Cup qualifiers.
25 to 30 year-olds at World Cup 2018
- Jozy Altidore (29…yes, really)
- Bobby Wood (25)
- Aron Johannsson (27)
- Michael Bradley (30)
- Steve Birnbaum (27)
- John Brooks (25)
- Timmy Chandler (28)
- Omar Gonzalez (29)
- Fabian Johnson (30)
Let’s focus on the positives first. The defense is set-up very nicely, particularly when you consider DeAndre Yedlin is younger than this core group but already has 43 caps. This gives Arena stability in the back, particularly as Tim Howard’s recent injury necessitates a re-evaluation of the keeper depth chart. In Altidore and Wood, Arena has a complementary striker tandem for any two-striker formation.
On to the midfield. Five years on, a feeling of untapped potential persists with the Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones midfield partnership. Whether they are the ego and id of the US team or the American version of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, one gets the sense that Klinsmann rarely maximized the potential of both players on the field. Arena inherits a situation where Jones and Bradley – two of the most frequently used players under Klinsmann – would be 36 and 30, respectively, at the 2018 World Cup.
Bradley and Jones often performed best with additional players in midfield, whether that be Kyle Beckerman in 2014 or Alejandro Bedoya at Copa America 2016 (Clint Dempsey as a second forward also helped with numbers in a central location.) If Arena determines Jones and Bradley are starters – and he sounds optimistic that both still have a role – he could add a third player in central midfield. Looking at the broader player pool among those capped in the past year, here are the additional 25 to 30 year old midfielders in 2018:
- Danny Williams – 29
- Alfredo Morales – 28
- Darlington Nagbe – 27
- Mix Diskerud – 27
- Perry Kitchen – 26
- Wil Trapp – 25
Among these players, Williams, Kitchen, and Trapp have potential to fulfill the holding midfield role in a 3-man central midfield. Arena prefers to utilize a dedicated defensive midfielder, but whether that is Bradley or a different player remains to be seen.
However, other central midfield configurations should be in play; despite his remarkable stamina, the odds of Jones being a 90 minute player for three World Cup group games at age 36 are slim, particularly with his injuries over the past two seasons. As such, players like Morales, Nagbe, and Diskerud have time to force themselves into the midfield conversation the same way Christian Pulisic did with his play at Borussia Dortmund. After the unusual scuffle over friendly call-ups in October, Nagbe could reemerge under Arena and bring a high-volume, ball circulation skillset to the midfield. Though uncapped at the senior level, Sebastian Lletget is another midfield option who Arena’s viewed first-hand with LA the past two seasons.
There are other options outside of this prime-age group of players. Sacha Kljestan had a fantastic season with New York, and played his way back on to the national team. Arena mentioned Benny Feilhaber by name in his introductory press conference as another option. Both would be 33 by the World Cup, though, and might be better options during qualifying than at the tournament itself. Bedoya and Zusi have played in central midfield at times, but both seem better suited for a wider role with the US. There are also younger players like Caleb Stanko, Emerson Hyndman, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, and Lynden Gooch who received caps in the past year and could improve rapidly next season.
Ultimately, the US and Arena are in a position of having many good options, but few that have clearly differentiated themselves from the rest of the player pool. If someone is going to breakout and force himself into the national team conversation, it has to happen this next club season. Based on the managerial change and player aging, there will not be a better opportunity to do so.