In their first competitive match since exiting Brazil 2014 in the Round of 16, the United States Men's National Team begin the process of building a pool ready to challenge for the World Cup in Russia in 2018. While the Czechs are bringing an experienced squad to the table in the hopes of winning a result against the Netherlands in Euro 16' qualifying, the Yanks bring a wildly inexperienced and almost exclusively European-based squad lacking imminent need to qualify for a major tournament and to avoid MLS call-ups as those players enter the stretch run with their clubs.
At first blush, this looks like lambs for the slaughter with six potential debutantes on the roster and a squad that averages less than 13 caps a piece. Further inspection reveals that while on the green side, the squad has nine World Cup veterans and are more experienced than advertised when discounting all of the potential new boys. Here are the three things I'll be looking for (probably on a replay, alas) tomorrow:
1. The U-23's (2016): I recently jotted down a semi-thorough and semi-scrutinized list of players who were candidates to make the World Cup 2018. Defensive players are here. Midfield and attackers are here and here. In total, there's 7 of the 21 who are strong candidates to play in Rio. Given Klinsy's lament, this is the perfect start to the next cycle. Will the boundless energy of youth be advantageous in this fixture?
2. Speaking of youth...Jordan Morris? Really? Well, Jordan Morris has been a devolpmental player for the US for a while now. Although I was quite aware of him playing in the youth ranks, I didn't even consider him on the short(er)list for the next cycle. This was exclusively because he wasn't already at least a fringe player for a professional team. This, despite the fact, that the Yanks' current captain spent a full 3 years in college, before fully breaking through.
Admittedly, that was 10 years ago, before MLS teams has more fully developed academy systems, and the internet made scouting a lot less travel (and financially) intensive in this country. Whether Dempsey would have been better suited developing in a professional academy rather than a university is moot, but it is hard to say that the college route doesn't help showcase relatively late bloomers (cough, Yedlin).
Additionally, the value of the college experience goes beyond a degree. Mr. Morris, should he decide to exhaust his eligibility while earning a degree at Stanford, would earn top class bona fides that wouldn't limit him to depending on glory on the pitch to make his way. Would 3 years at Stanford kill his international ambitions? Would it slow him from reaching his best level? Would the psychic benefits of a top notch education enhance his field talents in a way he could never attain if he went pro early? Are youth salaries in the states so meager that he'd be a fool not going full Summa Cum Laude in Palo Alto? These are all legitimate questions with no iron clad right answer in the present. For purposes of the national team, it will be interesting to see how he'll integrate into the depth chart at the top level while mentally dwarfing you and me (mainly me).
3. The Lost Generation. Hearkening back to the failed Olympic run for London 2012, there's a large cluster of the pool (Garza, Ream, Morales, Diskerud, Shea, Corona, Altidore) who were
elbowed bitten n eeding a tetanus shot after the match bested in qualifying, and thus, were robbed of some formative experience that might have otherwise seen them make the squad for Brazil 14'. All of these guys are more or less established in the senior team with their respective pro teams, but none of them have truly established themselves as a coveted pro who could start in any league in the world. Jozy Altidore, in particular, has struggled for minutes with Sunderland for almost a year now. Coming off a World Cup adventure that was cut short by a hamstring injury, Jozy's been given the armband in advance of the match with the Czech Republic.
Altidore seems like a sure fire pick to click, but it remains to be seen how the middle children of the pool will rise to the occasion. Another 1-2 of the 7 needs to make a statement in the beginning of what will be most competitive cycle in Nats' history. My picks are Shea, Diskerud, and USA 2-1.