Big question: Is this United States squad the best in history?

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During the Gold Cup success early this summer, plenty of people were throwing around statements about this being ‘the biggest talent pool the U.S. has ever had’ and that this was the ‘strongest squad in USMNT history.’

Well… have they got a point? After the ease in which the U.S. qualified for the World Cup from the CONCACAF region this campaign (more on that from Mr. Davis coming up soon), it’s certainly worth considering.

Along the way there was an injury crisis or two, loss of form and plenty of new faces used as Jurgen Klinsmann revamped his entire squad to make sure they got to Brazil.

(MORE: Strongest U.S. national team in history? Check out these three starting XI’s)

But is picking the 23-man roster that will represent the United States of America at the World Cup the toughest job for any U.S. manger, ever?

That question springs up at around this time every four years once the WC qualifying cycle is coming to an end but there has been growing intrigue and debate about the topic this time out. Klinsmann has built a solid squad of top players from MLS, Liga MX and across Europe that may become the best squad U.S. soccer has ever seen.

(MORE: More than a scoreline, “Dos a Cero” signifies U.S. dominance over Mexico)

Before we get started, we have to take our hats off to the three U.S. squads who qualified for three of the first four World Cups in 1930, 1934 and 1950. But we won’t be delving that far back to Joe Gaetjens and other heroes because quite frankly it’s extremely difficult to compare the game back in the early 20th century to soccer today.

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Eric Wynalda helped lead a hard-nosed U.S. side at Italia ’90.

Let’s take this discussion back to the World Cup in Italy in 1990, then head to the USA’s 2002 World Cup campaign which saw them knocked out by Germany in the quarterfinals and finally compare it to today’s squad.

United States national team 1990 World Cup

With the likes of Tony Meola in goal, John Harkes and Eric Wynalda up front, the U.S. had a strong core of talented players who were playing across Europe. These guys weren’t necessarily playing on the biggest teams but they had experience that helped the USA qualify for their first World Cup since 1950. Paul Caligiuri’s ‘shot heard round the world’ made that possible and his play was a hallmark of how the U.S. set up. A tough defensive team with the likes of Marcelo Balboa, Tab Ramos and Peter Vermes, the USA were hard to beat in qualifying. But when they got to Italia ’90 everything went pear-shaped. A 1-0 defeat to hosts Italy wasn’t disastrous but a 5-1 loss to Czechoslovakia and a 2-1 reverse to Austria ensured the U.S. left Italy with zero points, two goals scored and their tails between their legs. An experienced squad full of fight and determination, I think today’s U.S. squad are head and shoulders above the revolutionary 1990 squad.

United States national team 2002 World Cup

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Clint Mathis was part of the exciting United States side that made the 2002 quarterfinals.

This side would take some beating, even by today’s standards. With a young Landon Donovan causing all kinds of problems for opposition defenses and with John O’Brien and Claudio Reyna breaking things up in midfield the U.S. had a solid defensive core to build from. Brad Friedel in goal was phenomenal and with a winger like DaMarcus Beasley whipping in crosses for Brian McBride, if I shut my eyes I can still recall that scintillating first-half display against Portugal in Suwon. Bruce Arena had a heck of a squad and just keeping everyone happy was tough. At the back veterans like Eddie Pope and Jeff Agoos kept everything together and it was a joy to watch them allow Donovan, Beasley and other youngsters dash forward and create havoc. Much like Klinsmann today, Arena had at least two players for every position and the 2002 World Cup side would push the current U.S. team all the way in terms of being the best squad in U.S. soccer history.

United States national team 2013 World Cup qualifying

source: Reuters
Jurgen Klinsmann has the likes of Altidore, Dempsey, Donovan and Bradley to choose from.

Ah, so here we go. This current U.S. team can boast accolades other incarnations could only dream of. Setting a record for consecutive victories with 12 straight wins, winning a Gold Cup with a ‘reserve’ squad and being able to boast players who are playing in some of Europe’s best leagues week in, week out. Without doubt Klinsmann has an incredibly hard job to whittle this squad down to just 23 for the World Cup next summer. The likes of Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard can already pack their floral swim shorts and flip-flops, they’re on the plane to Rio. But with so much strength in depth this has to be the strongest ever pool of players. The sheer numbers of players playing regularly in the top European leagues (Cameron, Johnson, Jones, Guzan, Bradley, Howard, Altidore, Shea, Diskerud, Bedoya etc.) is phenomenal and all of Major League Soccer’s star U.S. players are now being given a chance and are impressing. The fact that someone of Donovan’s class was being kept out of the team for most of 2013 is a good indication as to how good this team is. At any other time period in U.S. soccer history leaving Donovan out of a squad would be akin to Argentina sitting Lionel Messi on the bench. It just wouldn’t happen. Talent in abundance.

Verdict

Anyway after all that, my mind is made up. The 2013 USMNT squad is the best group of players the United States has ever produced that are all playing together at the same time. Enjoy watching it folks, this is historic. But one more positive to finish on. This team is full of players just establishing themselves at international level and by the time the 2018 World Cup in Russia arrives, this squad could be even better. Have a think about it. Mind-boggling.

If the 2018 World Cup started today…

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Another international break has passed, with fortunes rising and falling in most of FIFA’s confederations (Africa took a break during the break, having staged AFCON in January).

[ MORE: All World Cup qualifying news ]

Brazil joined hosts Russia as nations to have qualified for the 2018 World Cup, and 30 spots remain. Let’s take the opportunity to project the field for Russia.

In October, we took the projected qualifiers and simulated all the way down to the World Cup final. Germany beat Brazil. Let’s go again. Who will “win” it this time?


QUALIFICATION

We’ll again use actual qualification, as flawed and early as it is in some confederations, to be predict our combatants.

Asia (7 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
PLAYOFF: Uzbekistan vs. Australia

PROJECTION: While Uzbekistan has been better in terms of overall form, Australia’s experience boosts it into a match-up with the USMNT.

Africa (2 of 6 qualifiers played)
IN: DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt

CONCACAF (4 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama
PLAYOFF: United States

(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

South America (14 of 18 qualifiers played)
IN: Brazil, Colombia, Uruguay, Chile
PLAYOFF: Argentina

Oceania (4 of 6 qualifiers played)
PLAYOFF: New Zealand vs. Tahiti

UEFA (5 of 10 qualifiers played)
IN: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia
UEFA PLAYOFFS: Sweden, Portugal, Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland, Slovakia, Italy, Greece, Iceland

SIMULATED PLAYOFFS (random draw):
Sweden vs. Iceland — Sweden wins
Portugal vs. Republic of Ireland — Portugal wins
Northern Ireland vs. Slovakia — Slovakia wins
Italy vs. Greece — Italy wins

Intercontinental playoffs:

Australia vs. United States — USMNT wins
Argentina vs. New Zealand — Argentina wins


FIELD (FIFA Rankings)

  1. Russia (hosts, 60)
  2. Argentina (1)
  3. Brazil (2)
  4. Germany (3)
  5. Chile (4)
  6. Belgium (5)
  7. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

    France (6)

  8. Colombia (7)
  9. Portugal (8)
  10. Uruguay (9)
  11. Spain (10)
  12. Switzerland (11)
  13. Poland (12)
  14. England (13)
  15. Italy (15)
  16. Croatia (16)
  17. Mexico (17)
  18. Costa Rica (19)
  19. Egypt (20)
  20. Slovakia (25)
  21. USA (30)
  22. Iran (33)
  23. Burkina Faso (36)
  24.  (Photo by Richard Huggard/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

    DR Congo (38)

  25. South Korea (40)
  26. Nigeria (41)
  27. Sweden (45)
  28. Ivory Coast (47)
  29. Japan (51)
  30. Serbia (52)
  31. Panama (53)
  32. Saudi Arabia (57)

THE POTS

The 10 European qualifiers mean two will have to join Pot 2. Our random selections were… Croatia and Spain.

Pot 1 (seeds): Russia, Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Chile, Belgium, France, Colombia, Brazil

Pot 2 (CAF, CONMEBOL, UEFA): DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Uruguay, Croatia, Spain

Pot 3 (AFC & CONCACAF): Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, USMNT

Pot 4: (UEFA): Sweden, Slovakia, Italy, Switzerland, Serbia, Poland, England, Portugal


THE DRAW

Group A: Russia, DR Congo, Saudi Arabia, Sweden
Group B: Chile, Croatia, Mexico, Portugal
Group C: Brazil, Nigeria, Panama, Switzerland
Group D: Germany, Burkina Faso, Costa Rica, Poland
Group E: Argentina, Spain, Japan, Slovakia
Group F: France, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Italy
Group G: Belgium, Uruguay, USMNT, England
Group H: Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Serbia

So… should we play it out? We’ll try to throw in some upsets and not just go with the chalk.

Round of 16
Mexico (B2) def. Russia (A1)
Brazil (C1) def. Poland (D2)
Spain (E1) def. Italy (F2)
Belgium (G1) def. Egypt (H2)
Portugal (B1) def. DR Congo (A2)
Germany (D1) def. Nigeria (C2)
France (F1) def. Argentina (G2)
Colombia (H1) def. England (G2)

Quarterfinals
Brazil def. Mexico
Spain def. Belgium
Germany def. Portugal
France def. Colombia

Semifinals
Brazil def. Spain
France def. Germany

Final
Brazil def. France

Dempsey leads way for MLS players during Cup qualifying

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The latest round of World Cup qualifying saw a major increase in the number of players from MLS called in for their national teams.

A number of those decisions paid off for their countries, perhaps no one more than Clint Dempsey.

A few months ago, Dempsey wasn’t even in consideration for the U.S. after missing the latter half of last season because of a heart issue. But the Seattle Sounders forward scored four times in two matches as the U.S. gathered four critical points in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Dempsey was part of an influx of MLS players contributing during the latest round of qualifying for next year’s World Cup in Russia.

In all, MLS had 55 players called in for qualifying in CONCACAF, CONEMBOL (South America) and UEFA (Europe) competitions. Last September, the league saw 58 players called in to their national teams, but there were more countries still alive in qualification at that time. The 55 players selected this time was an increase of 16 from the last round of qualifying matches in November, and 40 of the 55 saw action during the two days of competition in the past week representing 12 countries.

In the three CONCACAF games last Friday, 29 of the 84 players to see the field were from MLS. That outpaced LigaMX, which had 17 players among the 84 used in the three matches.

Dempsey wasn’t the only MLS player coming up big for his country. Minnesota midfielder Kevin Molino had the only goal for Trinidad and Tobago in its 1-0 win over Panama. The Vancouver duo of Christian Bolanos and Kendall Waston teamed for the only goal in Costa Rica’s 1-1 draw with Honduras.

But not all went well for MLS players during qualifying.

Young Atlanta star Josef Martinez injured his left leg during the second half of Venezuela’s 2-2 draw with Peru in CONEMBOL qualifying. Martinez returned to Atlanta and an MRI revealed a left quadriceps injury that will keep the MLS leader in goals scored out for four to six weeks. Martinez had five goals in Atlanta’s first three games.

U.S. midfielder Sebastian Lletget was forced off early in the match against Honduras but not before scoring the opening goal for the Americans. Los Angeles announced Tuesday that Lletget suffered a Lisfranc injury that will require surgery and he will be sidelined for four to six months.

[ MORE: BWP a DP; Nephew called up to England U16 ]

MATCH OF THE WEEK: The club that set the bar for expansion debuts faces the newcomer looking to topple that standard.

The Seattle Sounders will host Atlanta United on Friday night. It’s the only regular-season matchup between the two sides, but there’s more than just the competition on the field.

Seattle’s expansion season of 2009 was regarded throughout the sports industry as arguably the best franchise launch ever, not just in MLS. Between ticket sales and fan engagement, Seattle’s start could not have gone better.

Atlanta might be setting a new standard. Atlanta drew more than 55,000 for its first match and more than 45,000 for its second home game, a win over Chicago. Atlanta seems to be following significant parts of Seattle’s blueprint, down to having an influential NFL owner highly involved from the start.

As for the on-field product, the validity of Atlanta’s promising start will be tested over the next month with four straight road matches.

“It’s definitely still an expansion team,” Atlanta defender Michael Parkhurst said. “We’ve got our bumps and bruises along the way. Off the field, everyone’s still trying to get sorted and situated to the new city.”

BEST OF THE REST: Toronto finally gets to come home after opening the season with three straight road games. The Reds will host Sporting KC on Friday night. The trade-off for opening the season on the road is that Toronto gets five of its next six league matches at home and was able to get five points out of those three road contests to start.

Also of note will be what kind of lineup Vancouver rolls out on Saturday night against Los Angeles. The Whitecaps play in the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals four days later.

BACK ON THE BENCH: Real Salt Lake introduced Mike Petke as its new head coach Wednesday, less than two weeks after firing Jeff Cassar. Petke was the head coach of the New York Red Bulls for two seasons, including the 2013 season when they won the Supporters’ Shield. After two years out of coaching, Petke signed on to be the head coach of the Real Monarchs, the minor-league club associated with RSL.

OFF TARGET: The other expansion debut this season by Minnesota United is on pace to set records, but not any they want to be associated with. Simply put, Minnesota can’t play defense.

Minnesota allowed at least five goals for the third time in four matches in last week’s 5-2 loss at New England. Minnesota allowed five goals to Portland and six to Atlanta and is on pace to allow more than 150 goals this season.

LAST WORD: “I’ve been very encouraged by what I’ve seen over the last 10 days. It’s going to take some time to piece that team together.” U.S. coach Bruce Arena after the latest round of World Cup qualifying.

Messi explains actions that warranted 4-match ban

AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano
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Lionel Messi is set to miss four Argentina matches for something we arguably see every week on TV.

That doesn’t make it okay, but is anyone else scratching their head at the suspension handed down to the world’s best player for verbal abuse of an official?

[ MORE: Barca defends Messi ]

Messi, 29, shouted an obscenity at the linesman in Thursday’s 1-0 win over Chile, and was both banned and served the first match of his ban on Tuesday, as Argentina was beaten 2-0 in Bolivia.

Messi explained his actions Wednesday with the following:

“My expressions were never directed to the referee, they were said to the air,” Messi told La Nacion.

That’s pretty ridiculous, yeah? But I can’t help but feel the four matches are a bit harsh. Hardly a high-level match goes by without seeing a player clearly being derisive toward an offical, and usually lipreading proves it wasn’t G-rated.

Again, I have no problem for setting a standard, as abuse of officials is unnecessary (and even those of us who are serially offenders know it).

But if confederations and leagues want to get serious about cutting it out, this can’t be a one-off suspension; End the group upbraiding of referees during games, the wild gesticulations, so on and so forth.

Bradley Wright-Phillips gets new deal; Nephew called up to England U-16

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It’s been a big 24 hours for the Wright-Phillips family.

Bradley Wright-Phillips signed a new Designated Player deal with the New York Red Bulls, while his nephew has been called up the England U-16 national team.

D’Margio Wright-Phillips is the son of Shawn Wright-Phillips, the former RBNY player currently plying his trade with Phoenix Rising of the USL.

[ WATCH: Schweinsteiger asked if Chicago can win World Cup ]

Of course that will only serve to grow the pride of Arsenal legend Ian Wright, who adopted Bradley and Shaun.

The details:

BWP has signed a new multi-year deal with the Red Bulls which brings the 70-goal man into Designated Player status.

“I’d like to thank Denis, Jesse, and everyone at the club for the opportunity to continue wearing this shirt and playing in front of the best fans in MLS,” said Wright-Phillips. “I am very proud of what has been accomplished in my time here, but my sole focus is on trying to win MLS Cup.”

As for D’Margio, he’s in Manchester City’s academy and obviously taking the right steps toward making it three generations in the Premier League. Both Shaun and Bradley spent time in City’s academy.