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Armchair Analyst: Rating and ranking the US men’s national team player pool – midfielders & forwards


As I said in the first half of this column, published on Tuesday, and as I laid out in my column last week, this is not the right time to release a depth chart column. The US men’s national team remains stuck in the middle of an in-between era, one in which there’s a dearth of prime-aged players available to be the core of the team, and in which a plurality (if not an outright majority) of the best talents in the pool are still a year or more from hitting their prime. Further, the next games that really, truly matter are 10 months away.

And yet… here we are.

Anyway, I’ve kept this list to players I actually think are on the pool – i.e. they’ve been called in under Gregg Berhalter – or could be based upon club situation and US youth national team participation.


Defensive Midfielders

  1. Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)
  2. Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
  3. Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)
  4. Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)

So there’s been an evolution in Berhalter’s system. As part of this evolution, he’s dropped the hybrid RB/DM position he created explicitly for Adams, and he’s also seemingly moved a bit from the 4-4-2 mid-block defensive shape to more of a 4-2-3-1 that, at least against Canada last month, seems like it’ll be more on the front foot. He’s also said outright that Adams – whenever it is that he’s finally healthy – will be played as a d-mid.

Throughout all of this, Berhalter has not wavered from this one self-evident point: His No. 6 has to be as much of a zone-mover as he is a disruptor or ball-winner. There is ample reason to think Adams can do the job, even if he’s not yet as smooth as Yueill and Bradley at playing into the half-spaces yet…

There are also, at this point, fewer reasons to think that Adams will ever be healthy again.

Ok, that’s over-dramatic, but he’s played only twice since the end of March, has had numerous start-stop moments in his rehab, and isn’t going to play before the winter break comes for the Bundesliga.

I’m absolutely fine with that, even if it means he’ll have missed damn near a year of soccer. Get healthy and fit, young man!

But I admit I’m terrified that this adductor injury – which, assuming he makes his return in February, will have kept him out for 10 months – is going to be the “Jozy’s hamstrings” of a new generation. In other words, I will believe Adams is healthy and can stay healthy only after he’s done so for a prolonged run of games.

The good news is that Yueill had a monster 2019, relative to expectations, for both club and country, and stepped up in a big way against Mark-Anthony Kaye, Samuel Piette and Scott Arfield last month. He’ll have a chance to cement himself as the No. 1 in January (at least until Adams proves his health), and while he’ll never be the game-breaking defensive weapon Adams is, he certainly didn’t look like a liability at any point in the past year.

Sadly, the same can not be said of either Bradley or Trapp, both of whom struggled to close space and win the ball in crucial moments. The 4-2-3-1 might actually be a huge boon for both, however. Slotting another deeper-lying midfielder next to them, and then adding a third central midfielder in front of them, could (in theory) cover for some of their defensive frailties.

Keep an eye on…

Servania struggled when played as a true No. 6 this past year for FC Dallas, but 1) he was awesome in that role for the U-20s, 2) it’s a hard role to play in your first year as a top-flight player and 3) I think it’ll end up being his best long-term spot. He needs to sharpen his elbows a bit and make quicker and better press/protect decisions, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he made huge progress in both areas in 2020. If he does, he rockets into the pool proper (especially if he ends up being on the Olympic team).

Dotson is a much less polished passer than Servania – I don’t know if he has the technical skill to do this job in Berhalter’s system – but he closes space fast and loves to win the ball. He’s also on the U-23s and had a strong rookie season with Minnesota.

Cappis is probably more of a No. 8, but he’s starting in a decent league and has looked reliable as a No. 6 for the U-23s.

I still don’t know how I feel about Sands’s long-term potential or positional future, but it’s impossible to deny that he was largely excellent for NYCFC last year. Right now, it’s also probably easier to break into the USMNT pool at defensive midfield than it is at center back. A lot about his immediate (and possibly more long-term) future will be determined by who NYCFC hire as a head coach and what formation they play.


Box-to-Box Midfielder

  1. Weston McKennie (Schalke)
  2. Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Dusseldorf)
  3. Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)

Can McKennie please just fricking stop getting hurt for a minute? The dislocated shoulder he suffered this past weekend – it’ll keep him out until February – was the second time in 2019 he suffered a pretty severe injury while challenging for an aerial. This one wasn’t as egregious as the first one, which he had no chance to win, but at some point he needs to better calibrate his risk/reward approach to those moments.

So yeah, I’ve just listed our $15 million, 20-year-old No. 6, and our $20 million, 21-year old No. 8, and neither can stop getting hurt. The future of the USMNT central midfield, ladies and gents! It’s like the Claudio Reyna/John O’Brien years all over again.

Morales is sturdy and has outplayed Roldan when given the chance (he also missed time with injuries), and brought a physical edge to the position that had, at times, been missing. The next penetrative pass he hits will be the first one he hits, but as the friendly loss to Mexico and the Nations League loss to Canada showed, the US will at times need to sacrifice some creativity for steel. 

Keep an eye on…

  • Keaton Parks (Benfica… for now)
  • Duane Holmes (Derby County)

I love Parks, and hope he finds playing time somewhere. It would be great for NYCFC’s sake if it was back in the Bronx, but if it’s at a lesser Portuguese club (Vitoria Setubal badly need any form of central midfield creativity), that’s great, too. What seems clear is that he’s not in Benfica’s plans, so the dude needs to get out.

Something else that seems clear: Holmes isn’t in Berhalter’s plans. While I wouldn’t go so far as to sign off on the sentiment expressed in this tweet…

…what I will say is that Holmes sure looked worth another look, and I remain surprised he hasn’t gotten it. He’s not productive enough to play in a true attacking role, but as a No. 8? I’d see that.

Here’s where it gets a little wonky, though: This is also probably Cappis’s best spot, and maybe Servania’s, and maybe even Yueill’s. And I definitely think it’s Paxton Pomykal’s best spot.

Attacking Midfield

  1. Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
  2. Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)

One of the strangest things to me in 2019 was Berhalter’s hesitance to put Lletget into the XI full-time as, nominally, the attacking central midfielder. Every time he got a chance at that spot he excelled. It seemed only at the end of the year that he’d won the job.

How long he holds it is an open question, of course. Pomykal was dominant at the U-20 World Cup, then played 1,800 mostly-excellent minutes in his first season as a regular for FC Dallas. This is a pass not many in the player pool see, let alone hit:

He also turns defense into offense better than anybody in the pool, except for Adams:

And yeah, if you go back and watch the US U-20s 3-2 Round of 16 win over France, the game-winning goal came after Pomykal made basically that exact same play (you can see it at the 1:45 mark of this video). A midfield trio of Pomykal, McKennie and Adams would be damn near impossible to play through, and the turnovers they force would lead to transition opportunity after transition opportunity after transition opportunity ad infinitum.

The problem? For one, Berhalter played Pomykal on the wing (he’s good there, so I get it) instead of centrally in the kid’s one cap. And also, like McKennie and Adams, he’s hurt.

Keep an eye on…

Aaronson had an unexpectedly wonderful year for the Union, which he rolled into a camp (not a cap) for the full USMNT after some strong performances with the U-23s. Mihailovic went in the other direction, coming into the year with some momentum after a couple of caps and a goal in January, but losing his spot mid-season – he started only three games and didn’t go 90 even once after June 1 – for Chicago.  

Both Ledezma and Mendez are U-23 prospects at this point. I absolutely love Ledezma and would be zero percent shocked if he broke into the PSV first team in the second half of the season, even if he’s had an up-and-down and sporadically-productive autumn with the reserves. If he does break into the first team, then a Sergino Dest-esque rise into the USMNT XI wouldn’t be unexpected.

I have more middling hopes for Mendez, who’s seen his playing time decline precipitously in Amsterdam:

  • Mendez’ first six games at Jong Ajax: 199′
  • Mendez’ next six games at Jong Ajax: 160′
  • Mendez’ last six games at Jong Ajax: 91′

He has just one assist in 13 appearances. That said, his left foot is magic and he’s at the best developmental club in the world, so you can’t rule out a meteoric rise.

It needs to be noted that as of now, all four of these guys are defensive liabilities. They’re not close to Lletget’s level on that side of the ball, let alone Pomykal’s.

Winger

  1. Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
  2. Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders)
  3. Paul Arriola (D.C. United)
  4. Tyler Boyd (Besiktas)
  5. Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)
  6. Corey Baird (RSL)

So maybe that move to the EPL wasn’t so disastrous after all? Pulisic has been exceptional at Stamford Bridge, worth every bit of the $73 million they paid for him. And while those returns haven’t been there for the US since 2017, I think it’s fair at this point to be excited by the prospect of Pulisic’s return to the fold in 2020. Hopefully, it will be as an inverted left winger.

Of course, Morris has also been exceptional as an inverted left winger, though I think it’s fair to expect him to get shunted over to the right once Pulisic returns. Arriola is a totally reliable, two-way winger. 

The next three guys on the list aren’t particularly reliable at all. Boyd has appeared only once in the league since September (though he got a few recent appearances in both Turkish Cup play and the Europa League), and has been unconvincing for the US.

I am, of course, the world’s biggest Lewis fan:

He solves attacking problems in ways that the other guys on this list, save Pulisic, don’t, and his goals + assists per 90 reflects that (he has 8g/8a in just shy of 1,700 career minutes). But… yeah, he’s been a pro for three years and has just shy of 1700 career minutes. Even after the Rapids traded a ton for him, and even with his production, he wasn’t a lock-down starter.

He needs to be in 2020, and it comes down to his defense. Right now he is a massive negative on that side of the ball.

Baird doesn’t have that problem. Baird’s problem is that when he gets into great attacking positions, for club and country, he often lacks the technique to deliver the final pass or to skin a defender or to put the ball into the net himself. I don’t expect this to improve massively, but then again I’d have said the exact same thing about Morris a year ago, and all he did was deliver 5g/7a in 747 USMNT minutes in 2019.

So yeah… things can change.

Keep an eye on…

  • Tim Weah (Lille)
  • Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro IK)
  • Jonathan Amon (Nordsjaelland)
  • Bofo Saucedo (UNAM Pumas)
  • Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Uly Llanez (VfL Wolfsburg)

Honestly, as soon as Weah gets healthy he probably rockets up to No. 3 on the list at the very least. Lille spent $10 million on him for a reason:

He’s a step above “keep an eye on him,” but given that he hasn’t played for the US for nearly a year-and-a-half, and has missed the past four months via injury, and might not play for the full USMNT again until after the Olympics, here he resides.

Sabbi is a U-23 mainstay at this point, and may be on the verge of a move to a bigger club in a better league if rumors are to be believed. His final ball needs to improve (a lot), as does his work in combination play, but he is a menace off the dribble.

A much more creative option would be Amon, who’s had his moments for the full USMNT but who – stop me if you’ve heard this one before, guys – has been hurt for ages. The 20-year-old has played just 36 minutes since May and at this point there doesn’t seem to be a timeframe for his return to action. Bofo, meanwhile, has good feet and a great shot, and will get himself a fresh start in Mexico City.

Llanez was a super-sub with the U-20s at the World Cup, and has been a star with Wolfsburg’s U-19s. Kid’s got 10g/3a in 800 minutes, and should be the centerpiece of the upcoming U-20 team (he’s a 2001). But there’s a legitimate chance he pushes into Wolfsburg’s first team by the end of this Bundesliga campaign, and if that happens? You know he goes on this list if that happens.

Same goes for Reyna, who hasn’t been as productive as Llanez with the U-19s, but has already been called up to the Dortmund first team to be a part of the match day 18-man roster. I’m just going to regurgitate what I wrote about him back in May after the Concacaf U-17 championship:

And then there’s the star of the U17s, Gio Reyna, the son of USMNT legend Claudio Reyna. Like his dad, Gio is off to Germany to start his professional career (he’s signed with Borussia Dortmund, and is eligible to go over before the age of 18 because he was born in the UK).

Reyna is spectacular in every eye-catching way. His feet are soft and he has the whole bag of on-the-ball tricks, both when receiving a pass with the defender on his back, and when running at a defense. He produced both goals and assists in this latest tournament, and did so from open play and set pieces. He is big and strong, quick and fast, tricky and elusive. He plays with his chest puffed out, an arrogant and dominant alpha. His upside is “Clint Dempsey, but a much better athlete.”

He is also a good, old-fashioned ball-hog who always prefers to take five touches when one would do. He wants the ball so much that I’m not sure he’d be fun to play with, and there are definitely times where he doesn’t make his teammates better. The US U-17s improved by leaps and bounds when they moved him to the wing and out of the middle, because the ball moved better when he wasn’t in the engine room.

I very much have a love/hate relationship with him. He is my favorite US prospect, and he is my least favorite US prospect. Dortmund will either break his spirit and turn him into a role player, or they will refine his instincts and turn him into a Pulisic-level star.

For the US U-17s at the World Cup itself, Reyna was selfish, awful and got himself justifiably benched. But I don’t think Dortmund cares about that – I think they care about the fact that they see him as a Pulisic-level talent.

Like Llanez, he has a lot of levels to ascend. Like Llanez, he has the talent to do so. Like Llanez, if he does so, then into the player pool he goes.

And yes, folks: The US are potentially stacked on the wings.

Center Forward

  1. Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
  2. Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)
  3. Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
  4. Christian Ramirez (Houston Dynamo)

If there was a game tomorrow, and the US had to win it, and Jozy was healthy, he still starts. Is he still on the field at the 65th minute? Probably not, and that is why everybody has been staring laser beams at Sargent’s head for the past three years.

Sargent is the best center forward prospect the US has produced since Altidore, and he has started semi-regularly and scored semi-regularly in the Bundesliga before he turned 20, and his 4g/3a in 909 career minutes for Werder Bremen is actually damn good if you extrapolate that sort of per-90 production over the course of a full season. His five goals in 694 career minutes for the full USMNT is also damn good, and while Zardes was ahead of him in this latest do-or-die match against Canada, it’s actually Sargent who’s started four of the past five US games.

Berhalter knows. Everybody knows, really, that the US need Sargent to become an Altidore-level No. 9 in order to substantially raise the floor of the program, and then probably the ceiling. He certainly has that in him, and has shown it from time to time:

The issue is that his progress hasn’t exactly been linear. Partially that’s due to fitness – it didn’t take much reading between the lines to divine that both Berhalter and Werder head coach Florian Kohfeldt were calling him out at various points this year – but partially it’s been due to a weird lack of off-the-ball hunger in his final third movement. He is not a predator in the box, and he needs to be.

Also, like just about everyone else, he’s hurt. He’s expected to be healthy in January, though.

Whatever you feel about Zardes, he had the finest year of his US career with 6g/1a in just a touch under 1000 minutes, all at center forward. You can say “yeah, but consider the competition” and you’d be right, but then again… damn if we couldn’t have used a face-goal against Trinidad & Tobago a couple of years ago. And his brace against Canada was clutch.

Putting Ramirez in here is a total audible. He only got two caps and 18 minutes all the way back in January, and he was barely called in for the rest of the year. But he scored a goal in his US debut, and then pulled himself out of a hellacious first-half-of-the-season slump to produce 5g/1a in 672 minutes down the stretch for the Dynamo. If he wins the starting job this year and keeps producing, I won’t be shocked if he pushes his way back into the conversation.

I have to admit I’d be a lot more comfortable if I could shoehorn Bobby Wood onto this list somewhere. Wood has produced for the US often and in big moments, but he’s played all of 152 minutes for Hamburg this season and seems content to ride out a lucrative contract on the bench until it runs out in the summer of 2021. I can’t see him factoring in until/unless he finds someplace where he can get playing time.

Keep an eye on…

If Ebobisse starts at center forward for the Timbers, he will link play and create chances and score a pretty decent amount of goals. But there is little reason to think Portland see him as a center forward, even if the US U-23s do.

With Toye, there’s no doubt. He worked his way into the rotation by mid-June, then stayed there thanks to a scorching two-and-a-half month stretch in which he scored spectacular and clutch goals. It seems very, very likely that Toye will get a chance to win the starting job this coming year for Adrian Heath in Minnesota, and Heath has had a hand in developing some successful center forwards in the recent past.

Do I expect Toye to be a 15-20 goal scorer next year? No, that feels like too much. Would I be shocked if it happens, though? Absolutely not. He is raw in a lot of ways – his hold-up play needs a ton of work – but he has a goal-scorer’s instincts and hunger. Does that sound at least a little bit like Cyle Larin? Yes, yes it does.

Soto’s first half of 2019 was wonderful and his second half has been miserable, as he’s been benched with the Hannover reserves seemingly out of spite (there are reports that he wanted to leave over the summer, and intends to leave next summer). Still, the talent is there, and maybe something happens in the winter break that can get him to a place where he can get onto the field.

I’m not brave enough to list Ricardo Pepi (there’s a world in which he wins and keeps the starting No. 9 job for Dallas this year, I swear it), Daryl Dike (seriously) or Nicholas Gioacchini on here, so consider this paragraph an easter egg for all of you who made it this far.

Also, congrats to Jesus Ferreira:

I still have no idea what your best position is, kid, but I’m hopeful we’ll see you in Red, White & Blue soon enough.

So there it is, the complete state of the USMNT player pool at this not-at-all crucial juncture. And just for fun, here’s the team I’d go with if we had a must-win game tomorrow, including my top three subs:

Just remember this: A lot changed over the course of 2019. A lot more can change over the course of 2020.





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