SAO PAULO – Despite Tuesday's disappointing defeat to Belgium and round-of-16 World Cup exit, the United States found itself awash in optimism of better days ahead as it packed up for the long trip home Wednesday.
The reason to believe in a promising future came from the most unexpected source: Two youngsters who weren't expected to play much at all yet performed in the most stunning fashion on the game's biggest stage.
DeAndre Yedlin replaced injured right back Fabian Johnson and used his exceptional speed to neutralize Belgium star Eden Hazard in a memorable head-to-head duel. Julian Green came off the bench in extra time to calmly score a superbly taken side-volley goal (with his first-ever World Cup touch) to ignite a dramatic comeback that fell short in a 2-1 loss to the Belgians.
"He just puts a big smile on my face," Howard said of Yedlin on Wednesday. "He just comes into the game against Eden Hazard and he never looked back. Eden Hazard is the best player in the Premier League."
Coach Jurgen Klinsmann said of Green: "It's fun to watch that kid grow."
Both stories of unexpected success demonstrate just how difficult it is to predict a World Cup roster.
Four years ago, Yedlin was about to turn 17 and had just hit the U.S. Soccer program's radar with the Under-18 squad, while Green was beginning his youth team years at Bayern Munich. And as early as last year, neither one was in serious consideration for Klinsmann's 23-man roster for Brazil.
Perceptions and opinions can change on top prospects, too.
After the 2010 World Cup, coach Bob Bradley took a young American squad to South Africa to play a friendly in Cape Town. Juan Agudelo, six days from his 18th birthday, became the youngest U.S. player to score in the modern era in a 1-0 win that figured to be the first of many goals in a national team shirt for the then-New York Red Bulls prospect. Fast forward to last May: Agudelo wasn't even invited to Klinsmann's 30-man pre-World Cup training camp.
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So, as you can see, trying to predict the next breakout star is far from a sure thing. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent being groomed by Klinsmann, who was given the keys to the youth national teams last December when he picked up a contract extension and the additional title of technical director.
Klinsmann likely hasn't even met the kid who could be the new U.S. soccer sensation. The following players, however, have generated enough buzz to be considered candidates to become America's next big thing.
Injuries and an unsettled club situation (five teams over the past two years) has as much to do with the striker's stunted national team career. But he's only 21 and he's finally playing in Europe, which Klinsmann still believes is the place to raise one's game. Agudelo, who is reportedly looking to move from Premier League side Stoke City after a short but impressive loan spell in Holland with FC Utretcht, should work his way back into the U.S. team mix if he can just stay healthy.
The Uruguayan-born forward is one of the top talents in MLS. Problem is, the 19-year-old New England Revolution star is still awaiting his American citizenship and has yet to choose a senior national team. Fagundez has played for both the U.S. and Uruguay, most recently Uruguay's under-20s in October 2012. Son of a former Uruguayan professional goalkeeper, he is definitely one dual national that Klinsmann will not want to lose.
Midfield is where the U.S. struggled the most at this World Cup. The Americans were unable to hold the ball against elite sides like Germany and Belgium and, when they did manage to do so, they were reluctant to push forward much to Klinsmann's frustration. Don't be surprised if Klinsmann makes the position a priority when searching for new talent. Gil, who made his senior team debut against South Korea in February, could be the steady-on-the-ball performer Klinsmann is looking for.
Last summer, the then-Philadelphia Union star was called up as one of the U.S.'s five forwards for the Gold Cup, CONCACAF's championship tournament held every two years. McInerney didn't get on the field but the 21-year-old, who's now with the Montreal Impact, is your classic goal scorer and capable of creating beauties like this.
Captain of the U.S.'s Under-17 World Cup squad, Pelosi is another midfield prospect with a senior team spot in his future. The 20-year-old Pelosi signed a new contract with Liverpool last November despite being out nine months with a broken leg. He finally returned to action in April with Liverpool's Under-21s and will keep pushing for a place in the Reds' senior team. The left-footed Pelosi can also play left back and left wing.
He is the next big German-American recruiting battle for Klinsmann. The 17-year-old has risen through the youth ranks at Premier League side Arsenal and is exactly the type of electric, playmaking passer the U.S. needs. The immediate playing time and World Cup success of fellow dual nationals Green and John Brooks should help Klinsmann's case to Zelalem to commit to America.
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