A 2018 World Cup roster prediction that isn't entirely stupid / by Drew Olsen

By Drew Olsen (@DrewJOlsen)

After a few days of mourning the USA's elimination from the World Cup, we've had enough time to catch our collective breath and look forward to the next one (only 1440 days!). This tournament isn't even over yet, but as we approach Independence Day riding the high on the USMNT’s run past Ronaldo to the round of 16, writers everywhere are already looking forward to 2018 and others are telling them they’re stupid for even trying.

I definitely lean towards the latter camp, but I don't think it's a useless exercise. None of us are mind readers, but that doesn't prevent us from making an educated guess. I’m not going to try to summon the names of who will go to Russia, as such an effort seems like a fool’s errand. Instead, I want to figure out the makeup of what the roster could look like. Based on past trends, we may be able to paint a vague picture of what the next World Cup roster might be built from.

Let’s take a look at where we were at this point in 2010, and what roster we ultimately ended up with.

First some ground rules. Per the venerable Paul Carr (Paul Carr blows your mind) we can probably assume[1] that it is unlikely there will be any players on the roster over 32. This rules out[2] Beasley, Beckerman, Davis, Dempsey, Jones, Wondolowski.

If we keep riding the Paul Carr roller coaster, we can guess that there will probably be six to 13 players from the 2014 team on the 2018 roster.

Let’s take that a step further and see what that list looks like when we add in the coaches for those teams.

Coach Year Returning Players
Jurgen Klinsmann 2014 6
Bob Bradley 2010 8
Bruce Arena 2006 12
Bruce Arena 2002 11
Steve Sampson 1998 13
Bora Milutinović 1994 6
Bob Gansler 1990

After digging a little deeper, we realize six is probably a low estimate. All three years that fewer than 11 players were chosen from the previous World Cup, it came with a new coach and followed a team that was generally considered a disappointment. 1990 was the first world cup the USA had been to in decades, so we were just happy to be there. Still, losing all three games and conceding eight goals wasn't exactly something to be proud of and only six players from that team made the squad in 1994. That year the USA impressed, making the knockout stage barely losing to eventual champion Brazil. In 2006, the USA finished last in their group and Bruce Arena was fired. Bob Bradley cleaned house in 2010, bringing only eight players from the 2006 team. Still, he was unable to overcome USA nemesis Ghana and was fired shortly thereafter. Klinsmann shocked many when he took only six members of Bradley’s team, but exceeded expectations by getting out of the Group of Death and pushing Belgium to the brink.

There is a clear pattern in the roster carry-over from cycle to cycle. If the USA did well 12 or 13 players returned for the subsequent tournament. If America did poorly the number was six or eight[3]. Based on both continuity – Klinsmann will probably still be the coach – and the success of the 2014 team, there is likely to be around 10-12 players from the current roster on the 2018 one. That leaves about 10 open roster spots.

If Klinsmann sticks to his youth-oriented focus, some players are likely to come out of nowhere. Of the 2014 squad, 12[4] of the 23 earned their first USA cap after the 2010 World Cup. Indeed, in some capacity seven of those players had been called up by other countries! We love our troops, and we love them even more when they marry abroad and produce talented young players. Klinsmann did well to recruit the low-hanging-fruit abroad in 2014, but it is safe to assume other countries will better court (read: protect) their young players before 2018, and the USA will have fewer new players to steal away.

Finally, there might be some guys that have been previously capped, but didn't make this squad. These are the Camerons, Beckermans, and the Davis’ of the group.  Forty-four different players that didn't make this World Cup team have been called up only in the last year, and 34 of those players will be 32 or younger in 2018. With Klinsmann likely to bring players he’s already looked (and is looking) at, we can assume that there are a number of players in that pool that will make it in 2018.

Based on all the above factors, I've pulled together a broad look at what the USA’s 2018 roster might look like. 

10-12 Players from the 2014 squad
4-8 Who have played for the USA, but didn’t make the 2014 team
5-10 Yet to earn their first USMNT cap

So there you have it! When reading projected 23 man rosters that you recognize all the names on, take a step back and remember how little we (and US Soccer) actually know. If I had told you four years ago that Matt Besler or Fabian Johnson[5] would be integral and instrumental parts of the 2014 World Cup team, you would have given me a blank stare. Also it’s a dumb premise because I wouldn't have told you that.

I won’t fault you for reading all those fun roster projections (clearly I've been reading them, too), but take each one with a grain of salt. And in 2018 when we realize that Simon Borg successfully predicted the roster four years prior, please send me an angry email.


[1] We can assume nothing.

[2] See the above footnote. Ruling any of them out right now is totally insane. As a reference, Tim Cahill was 34 for this World Cup and Andrea Pirlo was 35. They did alright.

[3] Notice that I’ve skipped 2002, which returned 11 players from the disastrous 1998 team that finished dead last. This is another ginormous assumption, but many blamed coach Steve Sampson (he of the famous 3-6-1 formation) instead of the players. That’s my flimsy excuse for this exception to the rule.

[4] Yedlin, Gonzalez, Besler, Brooks, Chandler, Fabian Johnson, Jermaine Jones, Diskerud, Green, Zusi, Johannsson, and Wondolowski

[5] Or DeAndre Yedlin, or John Brooks, or DaMarcus Beasley, or Timmy Chandler, or Mix Diskerud, or Julian Green, or Aron Johannsson, or Chris Wondolowski…