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Projecting the U.S. Lineup for the 2014 World Cup

The U.S. won’t play in the 2013 Confederations Cup, meaning the next opportunity for top-flight, competitive opposition is 2014 in Brazil. The tournament is three years away, there’s much soccer to be played and we aren’t even entirely sure who will be coaching the team, but what’s wrong with a little speculation? Here is our projection, today of what the lineup will look like when the U.S. takes the field at the next World Cup.

Tim Howard [GK] He had a poor game against Mexico, but so would most against that barrage for 90 minutes. He’s the best American keeper. With Hahnemann and Friedel retired by 2014, the talent pool to challenge him gets depleted.

Timmy Chandler [RB] Chandler missed the Gold Cup due to exhaustion. Right now that’s a positive. He’s young, he’s quick and he adds a dimension going forward. This makes him an upgrade over Spector or a 35-year-old Cherundolo.

Tim Ream [CB] Ream had a shocker and Bradley gave him the quick hook. Looking long-term though, he has the highest ceiling. He distributes the ball well. He should get some seasoning with an impending move to Europe.

Omar Gonzalez [CB] Omar did not make the Gold Cup squad. He should get his chance after the subsequent turnover. He’s 6’5” and good in the air. He’s one of the best defenders in MLS (not that that’s saying much). He’s not a speed demon, but he won’t compete with any. Agbossoumonde may have a higher ceiling, but I’m not sure he’ll reach it by 2014.

Eric Lichaj [LB] Lichaj is a U.S. left back who has a pulse. He’s not flawless, but he has room to grow and doesn’t immediately evoke a profanity-laced tirade. The job is his.

Michael Bradley [M] Bradley the Younger is neither a smart nor skillful passer. He’s not an especially sound defender. His value comes through his aggression, actively breaking up play and making marauding runs forward. To do this effectively, he needs to play with a more stable defensive presence.

Maurice Edu [M] He’s the more stable defensive presence. He also has the skill to go box to box if needed. Edu worked well with Bradley in South Africa. I think he’s the better pairing now. I also have no faith in Jones staying healthy and not suffering a dip in form.

Landon Donovan [AM] Lando loses a step before 2014, but he gets a couple months off every year. MLS 32 isn’t Europe 32. He might not be his 2010-self, but on ability and experience he should still be in the squad.

Stuart Holden [AM] He has had injury struggles, but injuries inflicted on him. Assuming he’s healthy, he has developed into a brilliant creative player at Bolton. He can play as a central attacking or mid or be the more ambitious of a central pairing in a 4-4-2.

Clint Dempsey [AM] He’s a leader with an incredible work-ethic. He has improved his game every year since he moved to the EPL. He’s a more gifted Brian McBride. Deuce should be captain for 2014 and first name on the team sheet.

Juan Agudelo [F] He has a ton of skill and innate sense of the game. His performances have been erratic. He has also been thrust into an international role three months into the first season of his professional career. The team plays better with him than Altidore now. Assuming a reasonable level of progression the next three years, he is the first choice.

That’s the squad. Here are a couple broader thoughts ahead of Brazil.

Transition: With the immediate competitive impetus of the Gold Cup gone, it’s time for old hands such as Bocanegra and Cherundolo, who would be emergency options at best in Brazil, to be phased out of the starting lineup and potentially out of the squad altogether.

Players develop where they spend the most time, at club level. Several U.S. players must find stable environments where they can play regularly and focus on their games. Adu and Altidore have been itinerant, playing for nine clubs combined since 2008. Bradley, Jones, Spector, Onyewu and Lichaj all have unsettled situations. You can’t have key players relying on the national team for continuity and match fitness.

U.S. Soccer must transition fully from an amateur to a professional organization. This starts at the top. Sunil Gulati is the most powerful figure in U.S. Soccer, when he’s not lecturing full-time in the Economics Dept. at Columbia and not also working for Robert Kraft. Gulati has no professional soccer background. He isn’t managing day to day operations. Yet, he’s calling shots? Explain how that’s an ideal situation.

The U.S. needs an experienced technical director with a head coach. Seventeen of the 23-man Gold Cup squad play outside the U.S. in eleven different leagues. Some play on different calendars. Some simply aren’t playing. How do you adequately scout those players, let alone compare them or project how they will work together? It’s not surprising Bradley has to figure out his best XI, match to match and mid-tournament. That’s not even including the fact U.S. Soccer has to run its own academies without strong professional ones.

The primary attributes for both positions can’t be cheap and available (see Bradley hiring in 2006, rehiring 2010). It’s not hard to sell someone on living and working in the United States. You just need to pay them and guarantee them autonomy.

[Photo via Getty]

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