U.S. men's rising generation faces vital seasons in time of transition
- Despite claims of a "lost generation" after another Olympic qualifying failure, USA's rising stars can still state cases for the present and future with showings at the club level.
Transition is in the air.
Transitions for players from club to club during the transfer window. Transitions for clubs from last season's winners and losers to the new hopes for the seasons ahead. More locally, transitions for MLS clubs from long-standing managers and transitions from the All-Star Game to the playoff push. And most prominently in the U.S., transitions from one set of national team players to the next (and, of course, the transition from one site design to another here at SI!).
The U.S. men won't be going to the Olympics, prompting another "lost generation" conversation sparked by U.S. manager and technical director Jurgen Klinsmann. And while there's truth to the fact that not going to Rio is another setback, headway can still be made for rising teenagers and young 20-somethings on the club level. The problem is, some of the most prominent players for the future are set to start vital, turning-point seasons abroad, during which meaningful playing time and fast-tracked development are anything but givens.
The list of intriguing prospects on the horizon for the near and distant future is one that inspires hope, but that list, as of now, primarily remains on paper and that hope remains hypothetical.
Given the typical turnover in national team rosters during the final half of a World Cup cycle, plenty of change should be expected between the end of the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying, the hexagonal that begins in November and the ensuing march to Russia that should, despite CONCACAF's trickier landscape, result in an eighth straight trip to the world's showcase event. (For reference: 10 players on the gameday roster for the hex-opening match in 2013 did not go to Brazil the following summer. Change is natural). But the players who should be part of that turnover have to comply and take matters into their own hands (and feet), which makes 2016-17 as important as a campaign can be for many of them.
Take 17-year-old Christian Pulisic, who is the most U.S.-ready of the bunch, but now has a new fight for time on his hands.
With Borussia Dortmund luring German internationals Andre Schurrle and Mario Gotze and rising French and Turkish attackers Ousmane Dembele and Emre Mor to his club this summer, he'll have to earn his place under manager Thomas Tuchel all over again. He certainly helped his case Thursday with a late equalizer (and converted penalty) against Manchester City in their International Champions Cup friendly, but one preseason goal does not guarantee anything going forward.
All that said, Pulisic, even in his brief opportunities with the U.S., has proven he belongs and offers more tangible value to the U.S. than any prospect in recent memory. The worry sits more with those behind him in the pecking order of so-called rising stars based abroad.
Gedion Zelalem and Julian Green are presently in the U.S., getting their chances in preseason with Arsenal and Bayern Munich, respectively (and giving U.S. fans a rare chance to actually see them play instead of blindly pontificating about their abilities). It's wonderful that both have been and continue to be with such storied clubs, and it's a testament to their potential and skill level. Does either have a realistic chance of first-team minutes this season at those clubs, though?
Zelalem spent last season on loan at Rangers, and another loan is his likeliest path to real time and, more importantly, a chance to secure the first of what could be many senior caps. He was supposedly senior-team ready 16 months ago, according to Klinsmann, but has yet to earn the chance to show it.
Green, after his controversial inclusion on the 2014 World Cup roster and goal vs. Belgium, has his annual fight against Bayern's cavalcade of stars. If "Bayern first team or bust" is really his mindset, as SI's Grant Wahl reported Wednesday, it's an admirable outlook and one Klinsmann is sure to appreciate, but who, exactly, is he unseating for the Champions League title contender? Another season in Germany's fourth tier playing for Bayern's reserves won't cut it, and a loan out could do wonders.
Further down the the youth spectrum, there's Emerson Hyndman and Jerome Kiesewetter, who have both received brief looks with the senior team and were part of the U-23s' failed Olympic qualifying effort. Hyndman's leap from Fulham to the Premier League with Bournemouth oozes potential (although he's battling a preseason ankle knock), while Kiesewetter, for all of his athletic prowess and attacking tools, was barely able to crack Stuttgart's first team. His signing with Fortuna Dusseldorf could put him on the Bobby Wood path to a second-tier launching pad.
The names beyond them have their own battles. Matt Miazga was a New York Red Bulls stalwart, but he must prove he belongs at Chelsea to defensive maestro and new manager Antonio Conte. Shane O'Neill continues his odd Eurotrip after departing MLS. And on down the line of U.S. prospects with eyes on senior roles.
For a lot of young stars, the battle of club prestige vs. playing time is a tough one. The bigger club looks great on the resume, but the lesser landing spot might prove to be the better destination for the short and long term. That's what the "lost generation," one that Klinsmann says he wants to turn to but can't just yet, is facing, and that's what makes this year, above all others, so important for the supposed next crop of national team stars poised to displace the aging veterans.
Transition can't happen solely for transition sake, but as many a national team coach has said, the international game is a young man's one. Just look at the roles played by Renato Sanches (18), Raphael Guerreiro (22) and Joao Mario (23) on Portugal's run to the Euro 2016 title. The U.S. has talent waiting in the wings, but in order for it to be a part of the road to Russia, it needs the chance to flourish on a regular basis.
If all goes well, it'll be a smooth transition to the next generation, but as recent years and international youth tournaments have proven, that is one iffy "if" until shown otherwise.