Like many young soccer players across the country, Benji Joya watched the World Cup and imagined himself in a United States uniform, playing next to stars Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley.
Unlike all but a handful, Joya has a chance to make his dream come true. The San Jose product is one of the top young prospects in the country, a rookie in Major League Soccer who scored two goals for the Under-21 national team in a recent exhibition match.
"I've focused on perfecting my game, and hopefully in 2018, I'll have the opportunity to represent my country," said Joya, 20, who attended Overfelt High. "Dempsey is one of my favorites. Hopefully, that's me one day."
Joya isn't the only local player who could give the U.S. roster a Bay Area flavor at the World Cup in 2018 or 2022. Sunnyvale's Marc Pelosi, who plays for famed English club Liverpool's U-21 team, is considered as good a prospect as Joya, if not better.
The pool of up-and-coming Northern California talent also includes Lynden Gooch of Soquel High, Christian Dean of East Palo Alto, Alamo's JT Marcinkowski and several others.
"They all have legitimate shots" to make the U.S. roster in either four or eight years, according to Fred Wilson, who manages the San Jose Earthquakes' development academy and coaches the Mustang Soccer club in the East Bay.
"The World Cup team right now has enough young players that some will be around for the next go-round. But there is so much growth and change in players. I coached Wondo, and I never thought he would be on a World Cup team."
Earthquakes star Chris Wondolowski, who grew up in Danville, is a source of inspiration for Bay Area prospects and a testament to the unpredictable nature of roster selection. Few experts gave the 31-year-old much chance to make the World Cup team as recently as last summer, much less four years ago. Yet he was on the 23-man roster, while Landon Donovan, the greatest player in U.S. history, was cut.
At the other end of the spectrum is DeAndre Yedlin, a 20-year-old defender for the U.S. team who, like Pelosi and Joya, played for the junior national team at various age levels.
"Yedlin has been the carrot for a lot of those homegrown players, a lot of these academy systems within Major League Soccer, and any American club team," said ESPN analyst Taylor Twellman, a former member of the senior national team.
"You get a young kid that comes through and now makes a World Cup roster at a very young age. There are plenty of kids (for whom) that didn't happen when I was growing up."
But Twellman declined to predict which members of the next generation might make the World Cup roster in 2018, when the tournament is held in Russia, or 2022 (Qatar).
"It's such a long, tedious process," he said. "I'd be naive if I gave you a couple names now that are on the bubble."
Joya and Pelosi took similar paths to their current perch atop the wave of Bay Area prospects. Both played for the DeAnza Force, one of the top club teams in the country, and opted to skip college.
Pelosi, a 20-year-old midfielder, caught Liverpool's eye with an impressive performance in the U-17 World Cup. He recently returned to Liverpool's youth program after missing more than a year because of a broken leg. Joya, the son of a custodial worker, went to play for Mexico's Santos Laguna after high school and was loaned to the Chicago Fire of the MLS before this season.
"There are a lot of players coming out of the Bay Area," said Joya, who played for the United States in the U-20 World Cup last year. "We're not the last ones."
Joya and Pelosi benefitted from a cultural transformation in Bay Area club soccer that has seen former professionals take over the coaching and management roles from volunteer parents.
As former pros, they have the knowledge to instruct players on the essential technical aspects of the game, the best training methods and proper nutrition.
They also have the clout to put results-oriented parents in their place.
"The hardest thing in youth soccer is to break culture of winning and success," said Jeff Baicher, who runs the DeAnza program. "Those adjectives do not equal great soccer players. It creates competitors, but not well-rounded players."
Baicher retired from Major League Soccer in 2000 and began coaching U-16 teams. Earthquakes general manager John Doyle coached for Mustang Soccer in Danville -- he remains the club's director of coaching -- after his decorated playing career for the team ended. Ben Ziemer played in the German fourth division, then began coaching various clubs in Marin County. Earthquakes assistant Ian Russell doubles as the director of coaching for the San Jose Football Club.
"What you're seeing is the guys who played at a high level, after they retired, got involved in youth soccer and got parents and the clubs' directors to believe in what they were doing," said Wilson, who has coached in the Bay Area for decades.
"They know how to train, they know how to practice, they know how to talk to the kids. And what they put in place is now taking hold."
Its grip should only get tighter in coming years.
Contact Jon Wilner at email@example.com or 408-920-5716.
Klinsmann says "a lot of work still ahead" for Americans. PAGE 3