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updated: 7/5/2014 10:02 PM

Attention shifts to 2018 U.S. soccer team

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  • Will Julian Green could be one of the many new players to lead the United States to the World Cup in 2018.

      Will Julian Green could be one of the many new players to lead the United States to the World Cup in 2018.
    Associated Press

  • Julian Green, left, celebrates after scoring his first goal in World Cup action last week. Green, who plays in Germany, is one of the many young players expected to help the United States qualify for the World Cup in 2018 in Russia.

      Julian Green, left, celebrates after scoring his first goal in World Cup action last week. Green, who plays in Germany, is one of the many young players expected to help the United States qualify for the World Cup in 2018 in Russia.
    Associated Press

  • Harry Shipp of the Chicago Fire during a game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.

       Harry Shipp of the Chicago Fire during a game against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds at Toyota Park in Bridgeview.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Hank Steinbrecher has been to many World Cups and enjoyed every one of them, but he doesn't regret skipping this one.

In fact, the former U.S. Soccer secretary-general from Glen Ellyn sent his successor, Dan Flynn, and U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati a message in June. "I miss being there," Steinbrecher wrote, "but I'm really glad I'm in the United States, and I wish you could be here to see what's going on also."

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It turns out that American soccer's sudden growth spurt off the field this World Cup might be more important than the team escaping the Group of Death and advancing to the Round of 16.

Americans aren't accustomed to scenes like 28,000 people meeting at Soldier Field in the middle of a weekday afternoon to watch a soccer game.

In the blink of an eye, American soccer became the new big thing, its slow, steady growth suddenly recognized. Which leaves one big question: What next?

Now the soccer ball bounces back to Major League Soccer's field as the league ends its World Cup break.

MLS -- which along with U.S. Soccer in May signed an eight-year television deal with ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision, reportedly for $720 million -- must create enough of a buzz to get U.S. soccer fans from Soldier Field to MLS stadiums such as Toyota Park in southwest suburban Bridgeview.

Though the Chicago Fire hasn't splurged for a big-name player since Nery Castillo in 2010, other clubs have shown that investing in the right player can pay off on the field and in the stands.

Even Orlando City SC, which won't join the league until 2015, created a buzz this week when former Brazil international Kaka flew in to sign a contract to play for the expansion team. More than 100 fans greeted Kaka at Orlando International Airport, along with a drum line, baton twirlers and plenty of media, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

"We know that this is the beginning of something big," Andres Garcia Jr. told the newspaper. "It's awesome."

U.S. Soccer also has work to do.

At Soccer House, the U.S. Soccer headquarters not far from Soldier Field, Gulati and Flynn will try to make sure the enigmatic Jurgen Klinsmann sticks around to prepare for the next World Cup, in Russia in 2018. Many of his players will not be there, however.

Goalkeepers Tim Howard and Nick Rimando, forwards Clint Dempsey and Chris Wondolowski, midfielders Jermaine Jones, Brad Davis and Kyle Beckerman and defender DaMarcus Beasley are all older than 30 and could retire from international soccer.

Who will be on the team is much harder to predict.

Four years ago Graham Zusi was considered a solid Major League Soccer player but hardly a candidate to start in a World Cup. Until a few months ago, 19-year-old Julian Green was an unknown even to many die-hard American fans. Green, the son of an American soldier living in Germany, was playing in German soccer's lower levels.

Surely, there will be other surprises to make the U.S. team that, hopefully, qualifies to go to Russia in four years.

Meanwhile, young players such as Chicago Fire rookie Harry Shipp are showing signs that, with a little luck and a lot of hard work along the way, they could be the next Omar Gonzalez or Matt Besler to go from top MLS prospect to soccer's showcase event.

Many will follow Shipp's route, going through a MLS team's youth academy before going pro, possibly with a stop in college soccer along the way.

If MLS can develop a couple of truly special talents in the next four years, it might be hard to keep Steinbrecher from going to Russia no matter how exciting the watch parties here are.

• Follow Orrin's soccer reports on Twitter@Orrin_Schwarz.

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