What will the USMNT look like in 2014?
Every time a nation is sent home from World Cup, the thought is always the same: Now comes four long years of waiting for another chance.
It might make an observer feel a little better for just a moment to get in the time machine and see what their country could bring to the table next time out.
One cycle "dies" and the natural process begins anew with the seed-planting of promise. The player pool can move in many ways, with some set for impressive growth over four years' time.
Of course, this exercise is a fool's game - which makes me the right guy to take a stab at projecting the 2014 U.S. squad that will travel to Brazil with hope in full bloom.
I'm not ashamed to admit that I had Chad Barrett and Cory Gibbs on my forward-looking list in 2006, just after watching the U.S. bow out in Germany.
There will be surprises and letdowns, so no such list can be gospel. It can only get us looking ahead to that next chance at a World Cup.
Now that I've properly lowered the expectations for my projected squad, let's get to it. I'll go with the standard form of three goalies, eight defenders, eight midfielders and four forwards, just to keep it simple.
With netminders often not at their best until the mid-30's, Tim Howard could be better than he is now at age 35 in 2014. Even so, he faces a battle with Brad Guzan, who one would gather will have been Aston Villa's starter for a good while by then.
Beyond that it gets tricky. There are no obvious choices. I could go the solid veteran route and pick a guy like the Crew's Will Hesmer or Colorado's Matt Pickens. I could hope a younger keeper develops impressively—someone like Celtic hopeful Dominic Cervi or Philly's Chris Seitz.
This unit won't be so easy to call. Let's start in the middle, which should see plenty of changes.
AC Milan's Oguchi Onyewu will be 32 and full of motivation, so we like him to marshal the group. I can see Jonathan Spector used centrally by then and I can see him back in the squad.
Los Angeles youngster Omar Gonzalez seems on track for a place, which leaves me one center back to complete the depth chart.
Clarence Goodson could return, while Gale Agbossoumonde, Chad Marshall, Tim Ream and Zak Whitbread will be in the mix. My choice at this moment, however, is San Jose rookie Ike Opara.
Looking to right back, I like the cut of Aston Villa up-and-comer Eric Lichaj. Competition should come from Hunter Freeman and perhaps half-German Daniel Williams, but I'm counting on Marvell Wynne to raise his game to World Cup roster level over the cycle.
That takes us to left back, the position of constant hand wringing for USMNT fans. Due to his position, Heath Pearce has essentially been the final cut twice in a row now. At age 30, I say he goes next time.
Freeman can also compete here with potential returnee Jonathan Bornstein and Michael Orozco, but I'll go for Club América talent Edgar Castillo. He can bring that bit of daring to this position.
This is the group that needs the most growth, and thus is the most wide open. Getting even five right would be a high accomplishment.
The 2010 star duo of Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan will be a shade over 30, but seem fairly safe bets to go to Brazil. Central players Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu seem locks, so half the job is done lickety-split.
I should have enjoyed it more while it lasted because now things get tough. There are easily 20 solid candidates for four spots and new ones will emerge.
I'll start chipping away by taking a flyer on a pair of attackers. I've not given up hope for Freddy Adu, and Alejandro Bedoya has a promising future.
Jermaine Jones will be 33, so it's hard to seriously consider him at this time. We do need another two-way midfielder, and I like for Stuart Holden to be a central player for this team. He edges out old Houston teammate Geoff Cameron.
After much deliberation, the final slot goes to Anderlecht's Sacha Kljestan for choosing a great path to Europe. He should finally get to focus on attack and solidify his game.
The midfield is so deep with potential, I've had to leave out the likes of Mikkel Diskerud, Benny Feilhaber, Blair Gavin, Jared Jeffrey, Sebastian Lletget, Zach Loyd, Dax McCarty, Charles Renken, Robbie Rogers, Michael Stephens and José Francisco Torres. I do not envy the 2014 boss' job to sort out this tangle.
The front line is usually the biggest four-year crapshoot. Look at this year's team. Who would have tabbed Edson Buddle or Robbie Findley back in 2006?
Nevertheless, half the U.S. strike stable should be the same two names we all had at the top of the 2010 depth chart last summer: Jozy Altidore and Charlie Davies.
With them offering the speed/strength combo, the other picks are flexible.
Target man Marcus Tracy's injury woes make him a risky choice, so my eye turns to FC Dallas youngster Brek Shea. He's versatile enough to play late knockdown artist or work the wing, and he should have some European experience by 2014.
Robbie Findley will be 29 and Eddie Johnson 30, so their games could get smarter or just slower. The likes of Kenny Cooper, Mike Grella, Stefan Jerome and Chris Pontius could get looks, and there will be new flavors during the cycle.
I'm going to give this nod to hard-working prospect Tony Taylor. His work rate, style and versatility should come in handy.