In more than one sense, the 2018 World Cup remains far in the distance. For one, there are still over nine months between the opening match and the present. There are also a few crucial qualifiers that stand in between the U.S. men’s national team and Russia.
And yet, despite that understanding, and even as the Yanks prepare for two of those qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras, there is a palpable assuredness among significant portions of the fan base that the U.S. will qualify for an eighth consecutive World Cup. Around American soccer, plans are being made as if they will.
Most recently, despite Bruce Arena selecting a 26-man squad that only has eyes for the present, his decisions were analyzed with a view toward next summer.
So while there’s still a real chance, even if a slim one, that all of this is for naught, we’re getting in on that forward-thinking analysis too. Over the next nine months – coming in and out of international breaks, and intermittently thereafter – we’ll be projecting what Arena’s 23-man World Cup squad will look like.
The projections will be based on a lot of factors. National team appearances, national team performance, club performance and injuries are a few, but that’s not a comprehensive list.
Each projection will comprise a 1-23 ranking based on how confident we are that a given player will ultimately be on the World Cup roster. We’ll fill out the rankings through 40 with those that missed the cut, and then include a positional breakdown at the end.
Here’s how things stack up before the September qualifiers:
1. Michael Bradley | Central Midfielder
He’ll be in Russia, he’ll be the captain, and he’ll almost surely start the opener in the center of midfield.
2. Christian Pulisic | Winger/Attacking midfielder
To be clear, Pulisic is the U.S.’s best player, and it’s not all that close. The only reason he’s not No. 1 on this list is that, yes, he’s still 18. The virtually non-existent chance that his performance completely falls off a cliff is ever-so-slightly greater than the chance Bradley’s play takes an unforeseen and drastic nosedive.
3. Geoff Cameron | Defender
Cameron has, perhaps rather quietly, become the USMNT’s second-most important player. He’s entrenched at Stoke City, and was one of only four players to start both qualifiers during the last international window. Oh, and by the way, if two other center backs emerge out of nowhere and pass him on the depth chart, he’d be the backup right back and arguably the U.S.’s second-best central midfielder.
4. Tim Howard | Goalkeeper
He’ll be 39 next summer, and isn’t the superstar he once was, but it’s difficult to see anybody else starting a World Cup opener in goal. Barring injury, of course.
5. Jozy Altidore | Striker
Altidore might not be as indispensable right now as he was in 2014, only because Bobby Wood is a capable alternative, but Jozy is currently enjoying the best three-year stretch of his career. He’s also overcome periodic injury issues, and is a virtual lock for Russia.
6. Clint Dempsey | Forward
There’s probably a six-player tier at the top of this list of roster certainties, and Dempsey belongs in it because of his track record. He might not start a game in Russia – heck, he might not start either of the two upcoming qualifiers – but, assuming health, he’ll be on the plane.
7. John Brooks | Center back
Brooks is the most expensive American player ever, and was the USMNT’s standout performer at the Copa America Centenario last summer. The drawbacks, though, are health and inconsistency. Brooks tore tendons in his right thigh earlier this month for Wolfsburg, and is out for three months. That injury should be fully healed by next spring, but it’s not the first Brooks has dealt with. He’s also had the occasional shocker in a U.S. shirt, most notably at Costa Rica last fall. If everything goes to plan, he should partner with Cameron at center back, but he’s less of a sure thing than other first-choice players.
8. Darlington Nagbe | Midfielder
Nagbe’s ascent might be the second-biggest development for the national team over the past year. He’s been nothing short of awesome. He was just that for the Portland Timbers for years, and his club performances have now translated to the national team. There’s an outside chance this is just a blip and Nagbe reverts to being a squad player, but his recent contributions and positional versatility make him a very good bet for Russia.
9. DeAndre Yedlin | Right back
Yedlin should be the starting right back if he’s healthy. Unfortunately, that’s been a significant “if” in recent times.
10. Jorge Villafana | Left back
Villafaña came out of nowhere, took hold of the starting left back spot, and has a surprisingly firm grip on it. He’s only had that grip for about six months, having made his national team debut earlier this year, but he’s an undisputed first-choice defender until further notice (and as long as Arena’s primary tactical system features a four-man back line).
11. Fabian Johnson | Wide midfielder/fullback
Johnson has spent significant portions of this World Cup cycle as a top-five American player, and maybe all of it as a top-10 American player. But he’s had nagging injuries throughout his career, will be 30 in December, isn’t an essential part of the U.S. midfield anymore, and isn’t an essential part of the locker room makeup. If he maintains his current level of play, he’ll be in Russia. But there are enough variables to cast a bit of doubt.
12. Bobby Wood | Forward
Wood could shoot up this list over the coming nine months with a strong season for Hamburg. He could also become a tiny question mark with an extended dry spell. He’s a fringe first-11 candidate at the moment, and it’s difficult to see him falling all the way out of the 23, but a lot can change over a full European season.
13. Brad Guzan | Goalkeeper
The backup keeper by default due to a worrying lack of challengers. He’ll be 33 in September and is far from guaranteed a spot in Russia, but there needs to be a clear competitor for the No. 2 goalkeeper position before we can consider Guzan an uncertainty.
14. Omar Gonzalez | Center back
Gonzalez is likely the third center back at the moment, and has been a national team regular for a while now, even if he hasn’t always been on Jurgen Klinsmann’s or Arena’s team sheets. He also has plenty of big-game experience, and started two of the USMNT’s four games in Brazil in 2014. A dip in form coupled with a breakout season from another right-sided center back could push him onto the roster bubble, but that’s not a particularly likely scenario.
15. Kellyn Acosta | Central midfielder/fullback
Acosta might have been as high as 10 on this list before a so-so Gold Cup that perhaps exposed some areas for improvement. But the American defensive midfield pool is not deep right now. Acosta is second in line behind Bradley. And whereas others in that pool are on the downswings of their career arcs, Acosta is only 22 and still improving. He can also deputize at fullback.
16. Paul Arriola | Winger
Arriola, who recently moved to D.C. United from Club Tijuana, doesn’t have the technical ability to be a starting winger on a World Cup team. But he does have the work rate, speed and tenaciousness to be a squad player, and a useful piece for Arena both in qualifying and in Russia.
17. Jordan Morris | Forward
Outside of his Gold Cup final winner, Morris hasn’t exactly excelled for the national team. He’s scored just three goals in competitive matches: That winner, and two earlier in the tournament against Martinique. He’s still somewhat raw technically. But his pace and directness are valuable off the bench, whether he’s playing wide or up front. And the biggest thing in Morris’ favor is that there are no other national team-caliber strikers who can replicate his skill set. (To be honest, beyond Morris and the three forwards above him on this list, there are no other national team-caliber strikers, period.)
18. Tim Ream | Defender
Ream and Matt Besler would appear to be neck-and-neck for the fourth center back spot. Ream has the edge because he’s more comfortable in secondary positions such as left back or even defensive midfield.
19. DaMarcus Beasley | Left back
Back in 2010, who would have thought that Landon Donovan would cap his career with three World Cup appearances while his fellow 2002 debutant, Beasley, would go to five? Beasley is in line to do just that. He’s a safe backup option at a thin position, and his veteran presence is a necessary piece of a World Cup squad. We’ll see how he ages from year 35 to 36, and we’ll see if any other competent options emerge, but if the World Cup were next month, Beasley would be in the traveling party.
20. Alejandro Bedoya | Midfielder
Bedoya is the least exciting outfield player in this 23, but in a way, that’s why he’s in the 23. He’s experienced and versatile. If you throw him into a game with 10 minutes remaining to hold onto a point or three, he’ll run his socks off and do his job. You know exactly what you’re going to get. In an ideal world, a more talented and more youthful player supplants him over the next nine months, but we’ve got no clues as to who that player might be. At least not yet.
21. Graham Zusi | Right back
Apparently he’s the backup right back. Heading into September, it’s either he or Eric Lichaj – Arena clearly has no time for Timmy Chandler – and Zusi started ahead of Lichaj in the Gold Cup semifinal and final. If Yedlin were to get injured 30 minutes into a World Cup opener, not many U.S. fans would feel confident seeing Zusi race down the touchline to start an accelerated warmup. But who knows, maybe Arena would.
22. Nick Rimando | Goalkeeper
A third goalkeeper has two roles: Locker room presence and possibly penalty shootout ace. Who in the U.S. keeper pool fills either of those roles better than Rimando, the most accomplished penalty stopper in MLS history?
23. Sebastian Lletget | Midfielder
Here’s our wild card selection. Lletget received his first call-up in January, and ascended all the way into the starting 11 for a World Cup qualifier by March. He scored in the fifth minute of that qualifier, his first competitive match. Less than 10 minutes later, he fractured his foot, and has been out ever since. But he’s targeting a return for the MLS playoffs, and there are certainly midfield spots in Arena’s squad there for the taking. Lletget has the versatility and the familiarity with Arena to take one. It’s just a matter of the foot healing and the L.A. Galaxy midfielder returning to his pre-injury form.
ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
24. Matt Besler | Center back — In a competition with Ream. Let’s see if either starts one of the upcoming qualifiers with Brooks out.
25. Eric Lichaj | Fullback — In the mix for backup right back or left back duties. Both he and Zusi are in the most recent squad. With Yedlin out, we’ll see who starts.
26. Dax McCarty | Defensive midfielder — As reliable as they come at a CONCACAF level. But would he be overwhelmed physically at a top international level?
27. Jermaine Jones | Central midfielder — Injuries have so far derailed his second World Cup cycle with the USMNT. And he’ll turn 36 in November. But it’s not like his talent has evaporated.
28. Timmy Chandler | Fullback/Wide midfielder — Seemingly out of favor. The disparity between his performance for club and country is alarming.
29. Ethan Horvath | Goalkeeper — If there’s a reserve goalkeeper who can do enough to merit selection over Rimando, it’s probably Horvath.
30. Bill Hamid | Goalkeeper — Hamid would be a close second on that list.
31. Weston McKennie | Central midfielder — Just turned 19, and has broken into Schalke’s first team. He likely won’t be called up until the U.S. has secured qualification, but if he continues to impress in Germany, he should at least get a look in 2018.
32. Christian Roldan | Midfielder — A surprise inclusion in the current squad, and perhaps a darkhorse for Russia as a backup central midfielder.
33. Matt Hedges | Center back — Also in the current squad, but sixth in the center back pecking order, and at 27, it’s tough to see him charging up the depth chart.
34. Gyasi Zardes | Forward/Wide midfielder — Inconsistent and frustrating, but a couple hot months to start the 2018 MLS season could put him in contention.
35. Danny Williams | Defensive midfielder — It’s tough to ignore a Premier League player at a position of need, but Williams hasn’t featured at all for Arena.
36. Tyler Adams | Fullback/Central midfielder — A big-time prospect who’s starting regularly for the New York Red Bulls at the age of 18. If he accelerates his development, he could swoop in for one of the backup fullback spots.
37. Jesse Gonzalez | Goalkeeper — Filed for a one-time switch of his international allegiance from Mexico to the U.S., and was called up to the Gold Cup roster mid-tournament. At 22, he’s one of the best young keepers in the pool, but hasn’t yet appeared for the USMNT.
38. Lynden Gooch | Midfielder — Started last season strong at Sunderland and was called up by Klinsmann, but hasn’t been heard from much since. He’s only 21, though, and could get semi-regular minute for Sunderland in the Championship.
39. Matt Miazga | Center back — Development has seemingly stalled since moving to Europe.
40. Chris Wondolowski | Striker — ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
GOALKEEPERS: Tim Howard (4), Brad Guzan (13), Nick Rimando (22), Ethan Horvath (29), Bill Hamid (30), Jesse Gonzalez (37)
DEFENDERS: Geoff Cameron (3), John Brooks (7), DeAndre Yedlin (9), Jorge Villafaña (10), Omar Gonzalez (14), Tim Ream (18), DeMarcus Beasley (19), Graham Zusi (21), Matt Besler (24), Eric Lichaj (25), Timmy Chandler (28), Matt Hedges (33), Tyler Adams (36), Matt Miazga (39)
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (1), Christian Pulisic (2), Darlington Nagbe (8), Fabian Johnson (11), Kellyn Acosta (15), Paul Arriola (16), Alejandro Bedoya (20), Sebastian Lletget (23), Dax McCarty (26), Jermaine Jones (27), Weston McKennie (31), Christian Roldan (32), Danny Williams (35), Lynden Gooch (38)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (5), Clint Dempsey (6), Bobby Wood (12), Jordan Morris (17), Gyasi Zardes (34), Chris Wondolowski (40)
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.