Danny Karbassiyoon was definitely on the list at some point. Gedion Zelalem, too. Freddy Adu, obviously. Brian Ching was exactly what we needed. We're old enough that guys such as Jesse Marsch and Taylor Twellman were almost certainly on the list at one point. Oh, what could have been, Charlie Davies. I'm still holding out hope, Joe Corona. You broke my heart, Bobby Convey.
For years, some nerd friends of mine and I had the same habit. As soon as the United States men's national team were eliminated from a World Cup -- starting in 2002, as far as I can tell, and extending through 2006, 2010 and 2014 -- we would immediately project forward four years. We would make spreadsheets of player names (shocking behavior coming from me, I realize), convincing ourselves that not only were the young players on each given World Cup team going to take massive steps forward, but that the up-and-coming generation of American teenagers was going to transform the player pool and turn the US into a genuine contender.
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What's funny is we didn't do it after 2018 for obvious reasons -- namely, that the US didn't even qualify for the World Cup, so what the heck was the point -- and then... it actually sort of happened. The youths took over the US player pool in the five years between the team's failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup (we won't mention Couva!) and their advancement to the 2022 World Cup's round of 16. In total, 16 Americans played at least 45 minutes at the World Cup in Qatar, and 12 of them were 24 years old or younger, meaning they were teenagers when the US lost at Trinidad and Tobago to clinch failure in October 2017.
This group of breakthrough youngsters -- Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah dominating the midfield, Sergino Dest at full-back, and pretty much everyone who played upfront, led by Tim Weah and Christian Pulisic -- are going to face overwhelming expectations heading toward the 2026 World Cup, which they will be playing on home soil. And the key to living up to that hype will be another group of youngsters attempting to make the exact same impact that this generation just did.
It will be much more difficult for a new generation to break through because the same opportunities for playing time will be harder to come by. But they must try. Especially if they can score goals. Let's look at how the US player pool will take shape for 2026.
First things first: Four years is a long time
It's almost jarring, in retrospect, to look back at who played for the US during 2018 qualification. Tim Howard, 38 at the time, was still in goal. Midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, each 35 years young, were still important. DaMarcus Beasley, also 35, played two matches at left-back. On a per-minute basis, Clint Dempsey (34) and Sacha Kljestan (32 and a midfielder) were the team's most prolific scorers.
Only two players -- Pulisic and right-back DeAndre Yedlin -- recorded starter-level minutes in this 2018 cycle and then also played in 2022. Only three other players -- Tim Ream, Kellyn Acosta and Jordan Morris -- were involved in both 2017 and 2022. Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena played 38 different guys in the hopes of finding a lineup that would save their World Cup hopes, and only five of them actually landed on the next World Cup roster. That is a dramatic amount of turnover.
Whoever is in charge of the national team during this next four-year cycle, be it Gregg Berhalter or someone new -- we'll find out the plans soon, as Berhalter's contract is expiring -- will not be forced to undergo the same amount of transition. But let's take a position-by-position walk-through to see where big decisions need to be made, and/or where breakthroughs would be particularly beneficial.
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Matt Turner (will be 31 when the 2026 World Cup begins), Zack Steffen (31)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Ethan Horvath (30)
How long ago was the failed 2018 qualification? Well, Turner had made his professional debut only months earlier, and the Fairfield graduate wouldn't make his MLS debut until the following spring. Then he started for the US at the next World Cup.
It feels like this position is on solid footing. At 28, Turner just joined Arsenal in time to approach what sometimes ends up being a goalkeeper's peak years. He's a backup there and we'll see how things take shape for him, but he was one of the better pure shot-stoppers in Qatar. Steffen still has a little time to get his career back on track after an injury-laden period of late, too, and while players such as Sean Johnson (37 at the time of the next World Cup) are likely aging out of the pool, it doesn't appear that the US lacks in exciting young options.
Five names to get excited about
1. Gabriel Slonina (22 in 2026). Needless to say, if you sign with Chelsea at age 18, you're going to end up pretty high on any prospects list. The 6-foot-4 Slonina held his own in MLS and now takes on the risky life of becoming part of Chelsea's loan army.
2. Chituru Odunze (23). He moved from the Vancouver Whitecaps to Leicester City without playing a senior-level match, and he hasn't done so for the Foxes either. But he's 6-7, and he remains one of the highest-potential players in the pool.
3. Diego Kochen (20). The lanky 16-year-old has spent the past year-and-a-half in the Barcelona pipeline. He's a long way from the first team, but that club alone gets you put on a list like this.
4. John Pulskamp (25). The 5-10 Sporting KC keeper is more of an athlete than a towering presence, but he had Berhalter's attention enough to get a call-up to camp last December.
5. Chris Brady (22). The 18-year-old has already shined at the USL League One level and made his Chicago Fire debut this past season.
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Walker Zimmerman (will be 33 when the 2026 World Cup begins), Miles Robinson (29), Tim Ream (38), Chris Richards (26), John Brooks (33), Cameron Carter-Vickers (28), Erik Palmer-Brown (29), Mark McKenzie (27)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Aaron Long (33), Matt Miazga (30), Henry Kessler (27), Donovan Pines (28)
Berhalter leaned on the center back duo of Zimmerman and Robinson for much of World Cup qualification, but he was thrown for a loop when Robinson ruptured his Achilles in May. Assuming he eventually returns to full form, Robinson will be 29 and well-positioned to make the 2026 team, but there could still be quite a bit of turnover at this position in the coming years. Zimmerman and Ream played the most minutes at the World Cup, but Zimmerman is aging and Ream is ancient. (I'm even older, so I'm allowed to say that.)
It's true that plenty of center backs age gracefully, but even if Zimmerman remains viable, he and Robinson could both get pushed by up-and-comers such as Carter-Vickers, the Celtic defender who played well against Iran, and the oft-injured Richards, who might have been the first-choice guy in 2022 if he could have stayed healthy.
If no high-upside names emerge in the coming years, this position still could be well taken care of by veterans, but there are still some intriguing prospects to watch.
Five names to get excited about
1. Justin Che (23 in 2026). The FC Dallas product got a solid run in MLS in 2021 (his ball progression numbers were lovely), then went out on loan to Hoffenheim. He has yet to break into heavy rotation there, but he's big, active and physical. His future could end up at either center back or right-back.
2. Grayson Dettoni (20). He's already 6-foot-4 and has been in the Bayern Munich pipeline for a while. What else do you need to know?
3. Kobi Henry (22). The Lakeland, Florida, product debuted for the USL's Orange County SC at 16 and signed with France's Stade de Reims this past summer.
4. Brandan Craig (22). He could end up at either center back or defensive midfield, he made his debut for Philadelphia Union at 18, and he's a steady presence in the US U20 pool.
5. Tyler Hall (20). A product of Inter Miami, the 16-year-old is already in the US U17 and MLS Next Pro rotations. Major potential here.
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Antonee Robinson (will be 28 when the 2026 World Cup begins), Sergino Dest (25), Deandre Yedlin (32), Shaq Moore (29), George Bello (24), Reggie Cannon (27)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Sam Vines (27), Joe Scally (23), Bryan Reynolds (24)
The speed and pressing abilities of Fulham's Robinson and AC Milan's Dest made a massive difference for the US in Qatar, even though both battled fatigue issues as the tournament wore on. Meanwhile, though Scally has not been given much of a run under Berhalter for some reason, he has started for the Bundesliga's Borussia Monchengladbach for much of the past season and a half and won't turn 20 until New Year's Eve.
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One could wonder about the potential of the US full-back corps outside of these three players; Moore struggled in the World Cup, Bello's development appears to have stunted since his move to Germany's Arminia Bielefeld, and we'll see if either McKenzie or Cannon have another gear to find in the coming years. A couple more names need to emerge so that the US aren't completely dependent on three guys for two positions. Luckily, there's plenty of upside in the pipeline to the extent that I struggled to keep the following list at five names.
Five names to get excited about
1. Kevin Paredes (23 in 2026). After a solid age-18 season with D.C. United in 2021 -- he scored three goals with one assist, and he was a pressures machine -- Paredes moved to the Bundesliga's Wolfsburg this past January. He has made 10 appearances thus far, and he remains a pressures machine. It appears he could be a major weapon on the right or left, too.
2. Jonathan Gomez (22). The Real Sociedad B left-back could still play for either the US or Mexico (he has played in friendlies for both and appeared for the US U20 team as recently as September) and has the makings of a steady ball progressor.
3. John Tolkin (23). Already a New York Red Bulls stalwart and a reliable defender, Tolkin was linked to Anderlecht over the summer and will likely be on his way to Europe at some point in the coming years.
4. Christian McFarlane (19). New York City FC signed the England-born, New York-raised McFarlane to a first-team contract when he was 14, making him the youngest player in MLS history to sign such a contract. Potential: off the charts.
5. Caleb Wiley (21). The Atlanta-born Wiley already has a full season of MLS play under his belt, and he was one of Atlanta United's steadier defenders.
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Tyler Adams (will be 27 when the 2026 World Cup begins), Yunus Musah (23), Weston McKennie (27), Kellyn Acosta (30), Luca de la Torre (28), Sebastian Lletget (33), Gianluca Busio (24), Cristian Roldan (31), James Sands (25), Aaron Long (33)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Jackson Yueill (29), Eryk Williamson (28), Johnny Cardoso (24)
At 23, Adams is already the US captain and after how he performed in that role in Qatar, it could be his for a long, long time. Adams, McKennie and Musah were so good at the World Cup that they already earned a unit nickname -- "MMA," get it? -- and they will all be at or near their respective peaks in four years. If there's a single standout reason for 2026 optimism, it comes from this.
The depth, however, could still stand to improve. Acosta has been a solid backup and fill-in for years, but Busio, another high-upside youngster, clearly struggled to earn Berhalter's trust and with players like Acosta, Roldan and Lletget crossing age 30 soon, there could be room for youngsters in the rotation. That's good because there are lots of youngsters who could command attention soon.
Five names to get excited about
1. Reed Baker-Whiting (21 in 2026). The Guardian named the 17-year-old part of its Next Generation 2022 crop in September. He dominated the MLS' Generation Adidas Cup, and in 305 minutes with the Seattle Sounders, he has created five chances and attempted six shots worth 1.4 xG. Of all the teenagers we're discussing, Baker-Whiting might be the most likely player to force his way into the US manager's plans.
Or he might not. Who knows? We're talking about 17-year-olds here.
2. Adrian Gill (20). The Denver-born, Catalonia-bred, La Masia product is the closest thing the US has to a Pedri-style prospect. He has already made appearances with Barcelona's B team, and he doesn't turn 17 until January.
3. Obed Vargas (20). Another 17-year-old Sounder, Vargas has already logged more than 1,300 minutes in MLS and the CONCACAF Champions League. He has major potential in a pivot midfield role, and he has proven that he can both pass the ball and draw contact at high levels.
4. Taylor Booth (25). We might have to wait a bit longer on Baker-Whiting and Vargas, but Booth is just about ready. The onetime Bayern prospect landed with the Eredivisie's Utrecht this season and is playing well in countless positions, from both wings to defensive midfield.
5. Paxton Pomykal (26). I'll admit it: I expected Pomykal to be more involved with the US national team over the past year. One of the more creative and physical deep-lying midfielders in MLS, the 22-year-old is two years removed from a season-long groin injury, and he's generally good in the pressures department. If there is indeed a coaching change for the US, perhaps the next manager will see better things from the FC Dallas stalwart.
OK, I can't help it. There are too many intriguing prospects in midfield, so here's a sixth name.
6. Quinn Sullivan (22). A steady sub for the Union, who topped Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference leader in 2022, Sullivan can play almost anywhere from full-back to forward, and despite getting used just about everywhere, he still ended up creating 2.0 shots and 2.0 chances per 90 minutes this season.
Wingers and attacking midfielders
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Christian Pulisic (will be 27 when the 2026 World Cup begins), Tim Weah (26), Brenden Aaronson (25), Gio Reyna (23), Paul Arriola (31), Jordan Morris (31), Konrad De la Fuente (24)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Jonathan Lewis (29), Chris Mueller (29), Malik Tillman (24)
It is jarring to think of just how long Christian Pulisic has already been doing this. He made his Bundesliga debut in January 2016, nearly seven years ago, and he scored his first goal for the US in May 2016. And he only just turned 24 this fall. Tim Weah has already been an up-and-comer, a disappointing, injury-prone prospect and a World Cup scorer, and he's 22.
Gio Reyna has lost most of a season to injury, but still has 12 career goals for Borussia Dortmund and four for the US, only turning 20 a few weeks ago. Brenden Aaronson went from interesting MLS prospect to Premier League stalwart in basically two years and is only 22. Even Djordje Mihailovic, another creative player who hasn't seen much time under Berhalter, is only 24 and moving to the Eredivisie this season.
This group has already accomplished more than most US players have in European club play, and they're just getting started. While players like Arriola and Morris could begin to age out of the plans in the coming years, these four won't for quite a while. And if a player like Tillman, Mihailovic or one of the names below can raise their respective games in the coming seasons, this could be the deepest area of talent in the player pool.
Five names to get excited about
1. Paxten Aaronson (23 in 2026). A bit more prolific with the Philadelphia Union than his brother, Aaronson could play any number of central or attacking roles and will now ply his trade with Eintracht Frankfurt in the Bundesliga. (He signed in November.) He does a little bit of everything, and he's better than most midfielders about creating decent shots for himself.
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2. Caden Clark (23). Aaronson and Clark might soon get to face off in the Bundesliga. The 19-year-old Clark signed with RB Leipzig in 2021 before getting loaned back to New York Red Bulls. He's a safe ball-progressor and might already be one of the better crossers in the player pool.
3. Esmir Bajraktarevic (21). Already dominant in MLS Next Pro, the 17-year-old from Wisconsin made a trio of appearances for the New England Revolution in 2022. He could end up in midfield or even center forward, but his crossing ability makes him particularly dangerous on both wings.
4. Kristian Fletcher (21). A product of Bethesda, Maryland, Fletcher was linked to Borussia Dortmund a year ago, and he was a hit for the USL Championship's Loudoun United this season. He only recently turned 18, but has already made a couple of U20 appearances.
5. Axel Perez (19). A name to bank for later.
WHAT A GOAL FROM AXEL PEREZ FOR THE US U17's AGAINST BELGIUM!— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) May 7, 2022
The 2007 born talent is now at Olympique Lyon, previously at Inter Miami academy.
(h/t @amcalabrese12) pic.twitter.com/dWuI2U6sYi
Players involved in 2022 World Cup and qualification (listed in order of minutes): Ricardo Pepi (23), Josh Sargent (26), Jesus Ferreira (25), Gyasi Zardes (34), Jordan Pefok (30), Haji Wright (28), Matthew Hoppe (25)
Other players who played in at least two US matches in the past two years: Daryl Dike (26), Nicholas Gioacchini (25)
While I hope you have gone through this entire piece, line for line, I realize there are decent odds that knowing how much the US has lacked in the center forward department in recent years, you immediately went to this section in search of hope. I advise you to scroll back up and at least read the last couple of sections, too: while the US should be loaded in the midfield and on the wings for years to come, there's no guaranteed savior in the forward ranks.
The most reassuring thing you can say about the poor showing from US center forwards in Qatar is that this was a particularly young unit. Josh Sargent, Haji Wright and Jesus Ferreira didn't exactly set the world on fire: In 338 total minutes, they combined for just 128 touches and 10 shots worth 0.9 xG. Their passing created two chances for others, but the lone goal that came from this group -- Wright's in the 76th minute against the Netherlands -- was an awkward touch and, frankly, a happy accident off his heel.
Of the three, only the 24-year-old Wright was even born before 2000. Whatever Sargent, Ferreira and even Ricardo Pepi, Daryl Dike or Nicholas Gioacchini become, they're not there yet. Sargent is enjoying a strong season with Norwich City in the English Championship, Ferreira is a hit with FC Dallas, and Pepi seems to have found his footing with Groningen in the Eredivisie (six goals in nine matches). And if or when Dike can get healthy, he's still in position to potentially make noise with West Brom.
Even if it turns out to be too late for a World Cup bid for a player like Pefok -- who's still only 26, mind you -- there are still plenty of players here who should improve, perhaps significantly. One can still hope for a new name or two to emerge -- and it's always conceivable that someone such as Reyna or Weah could end up playing more of a role through the middle at both club and country level in the future -- but it probably stands to reason that the United States' greatest position of need also boasts the fewest ready-made prospects.
This isn't the only country in the world struggling to produce sturdy front-end scorers (hello, Germany, Spain and England the next time Harry Kane gets hurt), but it is struggling all the same, and the pipeline isn't nearly as loaded.
There are still some names to follow, of course...
Five names to get excited about
1. Malick Sanogo (21). Like Baker-Whiting in 2022, Sanogo was named to the Guardian's Next Generation list for 2021 after scoring 38 goals in 46 matches over two seasons with Union Berlin's U17 team. The New York-born 18-year-old has played for the US U20 squad but is eligible to play for Germany and Ivory Coast as well. Whoever is leading the national team moving forward will have a recruitment job to do here, but the payoff for winning his services could be extensive.
2. Cade Cowell (23). We're putting Cowell on the forwards list out of a sense of hope. After a solid 2021 campaign upfront -- he scored 11 goals with five assists and didn't turn 18 until late in the season -- Cowell played primarily on the left wing in 2022 to accommodate addition Jeremy Ebobisse, and while his productivity was still solid (eight goals, three assists), well... the US has a lot of wingers. Cowell is a strong passer and dribbler, but there are minutes to be found for anyone who can command a presence in the middle of the attack.
3. Ezekiel Soto (19). It speaks to the lack of depth up front that I'm putting a 15-year-old in the No. 3 spot, but Soto is unique and active. In 480 minutes over two stints in the MLS Generation Adidas Cup, the Houston Dynamo prospect recorded seven shots worth 1.1 xG and created four chances for teammates. He appears solid in the pressing department, and the ball jumps off of his foot when struck.
4. Folarin Balogun (24). While the next (or current) manager is making recruiting pitches, here's another player to visit. The New York-born Arsenal forward has erupted while on loan with Stade de Reims this season, scoring eight goals with one assist from 11 chances created in just 15 matches. He is eligible to represent England (for whom he's made 13 U21 appearances), the US (four U18 appearances) and Nigeria. One would think there's playing time available here, especially if his development continues to skyrocket.
5. Brandon Vazquez (28). The San Diego-born 24-year-old was a bit of a late-bloomer, but he's bloomed, and he therefore makes this list despite advanced age (by prospect standards). He scored 19 goals for FC Cincinnati during the 2022 MLS season, but while he played for the US at the U17, U19 and U20 levels, he hasn't earned a call-up yet, and he's also eligible to play for Mexico. The sooner the US attempts to work him into the fold, the better.