It's too early to talk about the USA playing in Russia in either
the 2017 Confederations Cup or the 2018 World Cup, but it's not too early to talk about the national team succession. In a rare coincidence, fans will get a chance to see the future of the national
team just as another era closes.
Hours before the USA kicks off against Mexico at the Rose Bowl, the U.S. U-23s will take on either Mexico or Honduras for a berth in the 2016 Olympics. And a week later, the U.S. U-17s open at the Under-17 World Cup in Chile against Nigeria.
Until now, the national team program has relied on its youth teams -- and college -- to produce a disproportionate share of the corps of the team. To add to that, Klinsmann has relied heavy on German-Americans. If he did not discover them, he certainly mentored them.
The closest thing to a German-American connection in the pipeline is Jerome Kiesewetter, though at 22 and with just two first-team appearances for VfB Stuttgart, it is hard to imagine him projecting to have the Bundesliga careers of players like Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler or John Brooks.
The best player on the U-23s is Stanford junior Jordan Morris. In a national team program with few established strikers, Morris stands out for all the qualities he's shown this year with the senior national team in the spring and in the two games with the U-23s against Canada and Cuba. Canada and Cuba are hardly a good measuring stick, but Morris showed off all his attacking instincts as finisher and setup man that make him the heir apparent to Dempsey, whom he'll line up alongside in Seattle if he turns pro with the Sounders.
To suggest Morris' success means college still will remain a stepping stone for the national team is wrong as Morris is an unusual case. It isn't every day a player comes along who is smart enough to pursue a Stanford education and play for the national team, neither on a full-time basis, like he has done the last year.
That leaves the youth teams -- the U-23s, U-20s and U-17s -- as continuing to play a vital role for the national team. The U-20s did not have a "wow" moment in New Zealand this past June but they held their own in reaching the quarterfinals, where they fell to eventual champion Serbia in a shootout.
What the tournament did tell us is that Matt Miazga, who as U-23 coach Andi Herzog pointed out in his pre-qualifying teleconference has the rare combination of size, mobility, touch and leadership skills that could make him a big star, and Cameron Carter-Vickers, captain of Tottenham's U-21s at the age of 17, could hold their own with any other center backs in the world at their age. And it's no surprise they are the starting center backs on the U-23s even though, in the case of Carter-Vickers, he is so young he'll still be eligible for the U-23s four years from now.
What will we see from the U-17s, who open against Nigeria in Santiago and then face Croatia and host Chile in Vina del Mar? They started off brightly with a string of impressive tournament victories but ended up struggling to just get through Concacaf qualifying.
If we could project Morris one day becoming the next Dempsey, the closest thing to the next Landon Donovan is Christian Pulisic with the U-17s. Pulisic might not possess Donovan's acceleration, but he has the vision, open-field instincts and, yes, swagger Donovan had at his age. And unlike Donovan, who was homesick and bolted Germany to start his pro career in MLS, Pulisic is progressing well in Germany, moving up from the U-17s to U-19s in his first full season at Borussia Dortmund.
Where does that leave MLS? In almost any major country in the world, it's the club development system that is responsible for the production of the next stars -- the Barcelona in Spain, the Lyon in France, the Ajax in the Netherlands.
It's imaginable that in the next year players like Sebastian Lletget from the LA Galaxy, Wil Trapp from Columbus and Darlington Nagbe from Portland will break into the senior national team. You could say the same thing for Kekuta Manneh from Vancouver if FIFA does not issue a yellow light to his eligibility application.
Trapp is a hybrid -- Crew academy player with a couple of years under Caleb Porter at Akron thrown in -- but MLS had little to do with the formative years of Lletget (five years at West Ham), Nagbe (the son of a former Liberian international who spent three years at Akron) or Manneh (who moved from Gambia as part of Rush Soccer's exchange program and joined the 'Caps out of high school in Texas).
More generally, there are not a lot of young Americans, or Americans for that matter, Klinsmann has to pick from in MLS. Of the 20 teams in action over the weekend, 10 started four or fewer players eligible for the U.S. national team. Miazga and Trapp are the poster boys for MLS's academy program, but the numbers coming through the system remain quite small.
It's an investment that some MLS owners might grudgingly make, but it's essential for the league's future. Likewise, Klinsmann might not accept the league's importance, but MLS's ability to produce better players in increasing numbers is essential to the success of the national team on his watch and for whoever succeeds him.