USMNT: The Way Forward

by Sam Hazelwood 7 months ago in mls

A look at possible solutions to the lack of depth the USMNT currently face.

USMNT: The Way Forward
(Credit starsandstripes.com)

Where to start? As I’m sure my readers know I have ranted and raved for years about the quality (and sometimes lack there of) of the United States National Soccer team. The far more glaring issue and the baseline of our woes is the lack of international caliber depth at our disposal. But that is only the tip of the iceberg of our present national teams ineffectiveness issues when competing against top ranked teams. The real issue has been replacing the old guard of the 2010 World Cup.

In this article I will put forward possible options at all 11 positions on the field. And I will make a case for certain players (often obscure to most) inclusion into the national teams general composition. So without further delay let’s jump in starting at the back.

Goalkeepers

Zack Steffen is the clear first choice option between the posts despite his recent shaky performances. However anyone taking the place of the legend that is Tim Howard would find it a hard time live up to the high standards Tim performed at for so long. Howard set an impossible bar for any incumbent showstopper to try and meet. Yet, Zack has proven early on that he has the skillset to be a worthy replacement for Howard. And might even prove to be in the discussion later on as one of the Top Ten Goalkeepers in USMNT history.

Second in command is more of a question. Ethan Horvath and Bill Hamid seem to be likely candidates to fill the role but Hamid has not shown himself capable of rising to the occasion. He is jittery in the box on crosses and lacks the distribution skills needed to be regular call up to the national team. This all the more frustrating because he is capable of making incredible saves with his hands and feet but I question the consistency of his positioning within the box. If Hamid improves his command of the box and positioning he has a chance to even become our number one. As of right now he is on the outside looking in. That’s why Horvath leapfrogs Hamid in the peeking order.

The main thing going for Horvath is the fact that he is a starting goalkeeper for Club Brugge. Yet, he has not had any playing time for the national team. So it is tough to say if he is the caliber or quality player needed at the international level. But at 23 it is too early to pass harsh judgment on him. And he has had strong outings with Club Brugge in the Champions League so I have to give the nod to Horvath for the number two goalkeeper position. Which in turn bumps Hamid to the fringe of goalkeeping options only because of his inconsistency.

The only other goalkeeper in the US pool of players I can realistic see a possibility of making the jump is Tyler Miller of LAFC. He is one of the few players to continue to improve and play consistently for their clubs and was instrumental in LAFC’S push throughout the playoffs and regular season. It was hard not to select Robles for the third spot but this list is for the long term and Robles is well into his thirties. So any inclusion in the next World Cup would be miraculous for him to say the least.

Missed the Cut: Steve Clark (Portland Timbers FC), Luis Robles (Inter Miami), Bill Hamid (DC United), J.T. Marcinkowski (San Jose Earthquakes), Alex Bono (Toronto FC), David Ochoa (Real Salt Lake)

Center Backs

At the forfront of the center back list should be the often injured but by far the most experienced CB: John Brooks. In the past he has been often criticized for the occasional lapse in concentration but he still is our strongest and most complete CB. However The second center back to pair with him is more of an enigma.

The first name that comes to mind is Matt Miazga. He is raw but has shown on multiple occasions he plays with a firey passion. Prime example being the game against Mexico where he almost punched Diego Lainez. More important than his fiery play is the fact Miazga is getting regular minutes at Reading (on loan from Chelsea). Featuring in eighteen games and scoring twice.

Next on the list is Cameron Carter-Vickers. He is a strong presence in the box and is making strides in his development at his new club Luton (on loan from Tottenham). Along with Miazga they are easily two of the best options to fill the second CB role. Both have experience playing against high quality opponents and this could prove invaluable in the national team setup.

Now I know up until this point I haven’t shown any love to the MLS players so far but don’t worry I have a few players who I could see realistically contributing to the team.

Aaron Long tops said list. Long just might be the most capable MLS product to make a jump to any of the Big Five leagues. Recently Ling has been targeted by West Ham who have been on a mission to rebuild their squad and image. In addition, Aaron Long is a shining example of the progress MLS has made as a league in developing young players. And lately Long doesn’t seem to be able to have a bad game in domestic competition. But whether he can consistently replicate the same form internationally is another thing all together. A stint overseas against some of the best players in the world can only increase his level of play and further his development to become a top CB in the world game.

Rounding out the center back list is Miles Robinson. He needs to be mentioned and his name thrown into the hat. He had an outstanding 2019 until his season was cut short by injury. Up until that point he was making a very good case for Defender of the Year. He may have started out 2020 on the bench but here’s no doubt that once healthy he can, and will be called on to contribute to the USMNT setup. Miles is an excellent marker of oppression attackers and his tackling has improved considerably since making his debut in MLS. The future is very bright for his young career and I look forward to watching him grow in the years to come.

Missed the Cut: Michael Edwards (Wolfsburg), Erik Palmer-Brown (Austrian Wien), Auston Trusty (Colorado Rapids), Owen Otasowie (Wolves), Steve Birnbaum (DC United), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich)

Fullbacks

Now we move on to the vital and rather thin fullback group of players. Sergiño Dest and DeAndre Yedlin top this list without much argument. Simply because they are easily the best options we have at this position. But the major drawback of Yedlin is he is often injured. So let’s take a look at posible back up options to fill in at Right Back and Left Back.

Reggie Cannon is top of my list because of his versatility. Cannon also happens to be a favorite of Berhalter’s whenever he decides to call on Reggie for national team duty. He is good passer of the ball and less of a liability in defense than the other available players. I’m referring specifically to Timmy Chandler. However, there are a few drawbacks to his game. The one that first comes to mind is how he can be susceptible to the errant pass which is a big deterrent from his inclusion in more meaningful international games against stronger opponents than Cuba (featured in the link above). The other draw back is that he was occasionally caught out of position. Fortunately he has the speed to be able to recover from his errors. Yet, all this said he is still only 21 years old so it’s a little leniency is in order.

The next up...Drum roll please! Jake Nerwinski! Many of you are probably scratching your heads at this point but be assured this is no error. Jake had a quiet 2019 in regards to national media attention but that doesn’t mean his contributions to the Vancouver Whitecaps were anything less than exemplary. In fact, Nerwinski was one of the few bright spots for an otherwise dismal Whitecaps team. Nerwinski style of play also lends itself to the international game and he is defensively adept. Something lacking from DeAndre Yedlin’s game.

The other player I had in mind is someone from the not so distant past but he is one of the most versatile players at our disposal. Fabian Johnson. He may be getting up in age but the man is still playing regularly for Borussia Monchengladbach. His addition to the USMNT fold would provide experience, veteran leadership and versatility. Johnson can still play a solid left back and could still fill in as a left midfielder which is something the USMNT currently lacks. On top of this Greg Berhalter himself has recently reached out to the former USMNT team player extending the proverbial olive branch for his return.

The last player I wish to include in the discussion is Antonee Robinson. Although he has been out on medical leave due to a heart condition signs are good that he will make a full return to playing. Before this setback he was playing for Wigan(on loan from Everton) and was making a name for himself at the club. Which led to a permanent deal being made by Wigan to secure him for the future.

Missed the cut: Keegan Rosenberry (Colorado Rapids), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Shaq Moore (CD Tenerife), Kyle Duncan, (New York Red Bulls)

Center Midfielders

It goes without saying that Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are a lock for the center midfield pairing. Both of them are testing themselves at the highest level for their club teams in the German Bundesliga. Weston is a regular feature in Schalke’ first team. And when healthy (a common theme for USMNT player) Tyler Adams is getting considerable minutes at RB Leipzig. But who else can be called on to fill the void should one or both of these players go down.

The answer. Sean Davis. The NY Red Bull academy product is the often overlooked and under appreciated center midfielder for both his club and country. Yet, Davis possesses many of the same qualities as the above mentioned players but with slightly less pace. But his redeeming qualities far out weigh any bad. Davis is well known for his high work rate and poise on the ball. Which makes him a perfect fit and his lack of inclusion a hard one to fathom. Going forward I see him being a hard one to leave out in future national team camps.

Now the next one on my list is one of my favorite defensemen but I think it’s time to view him outside of his normal box of being a CB. Tim Ream is my pick for alternate CM. Now before you lose your minds let me make my case. And I’ll start with this kernel of knowledge. Ream while on national team duty has one of the highest pass completion rates of any players on the national team. I base this on his average pass completion rate for his club team. During the whole of last season he averaged “ 75 passes per match with a pass completion rate of 90%” and that’s from his normal center back position.

Now I by no means think his pass ratio will be that high moving into a CM position but I highly doubt his pass completion will drop off a cliff. His defensive pedigree can only help when filling in at CM and he also brings with him a veteran leadership to an otherwise young team. But for arguments sake let’s say he produces a somewhat subdued completion rate of let’s say 75% he would still be one of the best options to fill in at center mid. And on top of this he is still fast enough to be serviceable as a LB. Now how can you not see his value? I’ll wait.

Missed the Cut: Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Marky Delgado (Toronto FC), Diane Holmes (Derby County), Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes), Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Düsseldorf), Cristian Roldán (Seattle Sounders)

Center Attacking Midfielders

Ahh the famous number 10 role! Known by many academics as the center attacking mid. Throughout the years many famous players have called this position their own but it has not always been a strong point for the USMNT. That is until now.

For the longest time I have debated with my friends on which USMNT should occupy this position. Each time going back and forth with them if Cristian Pulisic, Julien Green or Gio Reyna should be the main man to pulling the strings for the Red, White and Blue. But after many months this moment of indecision was temporary oversight and there can only be one choice. Christian Pulisic.

Gio Reyna came in at a close second but he does not have the same amount of minutes or experience. I will need to see if he is able to continue his current form for an extended period. Otherwise, Julien Green is the only other player that I can think of who would be considered a guaranteed inclusion considering how thin this position currently is depthwise.

The lack of depth is an issue but I believe it’s more based in truth on the fact that the other available players do not possess the same level of experience or regular game time the ones listed above get. So the next in line is a bit of surprise but having watched him play I have to say he checks all the boxes for a breakout player who can rise to the nessesary level needed to be a regular feature. Ulysses Llanez is a nessesary inclusion solely based on his creativity. In the brief minutes he has played for the USMNT his talents were on full display. Most importantly the vision he posses and ability to read and breakdown defenses. His uncanny ability to see the pass that needs to be made before the space is ther is why he is tied as my third choice for CAM.

Emerson Hyndman is another player to remember. For what little I saw of him while watching the Premier League during his short stint with Bournemouth he impressed. I felt he got little chance to succeed at the club but with such a competitive league I understand why Eddie Howe was reluctant to play him more. Too much was on the line for Bournemouth back in those days. They were fighting just to make sure they stayed away from the relegation fight. And when he made his loan move to Rangers. It was clear what a breath of fresh air the move was for him. Once in Scotland he put on a show. Over the course of his stint in Scotland he played in 17 games, scoring 4 goals and contributing 4 assists.

Lastly, and against my better judgment I have decided to include Will Trapp. And I say that because I’m not sold on him having the speed to thrive at this level. However, what he does have is an excellent eye for the pass and I think that moving him higher up the pitch might actually increase his value since he won’t be as susceptible to getting caught out on a counterattack. Which is something he has been prone to when playing the CM or CDM role on the national team. With less defensive responsibility he can then focus on being the release valve in our attack. Making his passing skills all he would need to rely on when prowling the open pastures of the Americas and beyond.

Missed the Cut: Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy), Kelyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids),

Wingers (LM/RM)

The staple wide men need no introductions. Paul Arriola, Tyler Boyd, Jordan Morris, and Gyasi Zardes (not sold on him but he is a Berhalter regular) at this point are all locks for being included on a regular basis. However, the gap between these players mentioned and the ones on the fringes is minimal.

Fafa Picault (FC Dallas) is one such fringe player but just barely. Since returning to the states he has shown that he is more than what was billed. His speed was never a question but his ball control and ability to finish have surprised everyone. On top of this he is a solid crosser of the ball and an improved passer. The one draw back is that he looked a little over matched in his last outing against Colombia. But here’s to hoping that was a blip and he continues to prove me and others wrong at the international level.

If you haven’t caught on by now the general trend in this whole article is youth and that is where I pluck my next player for inclusion into the national team setup. Lyden Gooch (Sunderland AFC) is a player I rate highly. He may play in League One but let’s not forget a short time ago he was logging considerable minutes within the Premier League. Gooch provides quality going forward and is improving his finishing abilities in front of goal, so far notching 10 goals in 30 games. Many might contend that League One might not be at the same level as MLS but Sunderland was in the line for promotion playoff spot this year till the recent COVID-19 outbreak and it would stand to reason they would still get promoted to the English Championship. A league on par of not marginally better than MLS now which says something about the growth of our countries domestic league. If promotion does occur look to see Lynden playing an integral part in Sunderland’s push to once again fight in the Premier League.

Lastly, Brooks Lennon of Real Salt Lake needs to have a run of playing time out at right mid. I know in MLS he has been deployed as a Right Back but he began his professional life as wide man and possess some of the better crossing capabilities of those in our young talent pool. He is not refined yet but including him in the national team as a winger will let players like Pulisic, Reyna and Julien Green to plug in at CAM instead of pushing them outside to play wide. The three of them posses passing skills that are vital in the attacking third and would be better utilized in the CAM role.

Missed the Cut: Joe Gyau (FC Cincinnati), Sebastian Saucedo (Real Salt Lake), Konrad de la Fuente (FC Barcelona U19), Alex Muyl (NY Red Bull’s), Emmanuel Sabbi (Hobro IK),

Strikers

Heading the line is a difficult one with the lack of a clear favorite at this position. Jozy Altidore is the obvious choice but he is often injured. Tim Weah looked primed to take the starting spot but he too has run into is susceptible to the injury bug. The fact is this is the thinnest position the men’s team has in regards to depth. As it stands Josh Sargent is the only other player consistently being called in for the striker role. Yet, I there is more depth than Berhalter or the federation realize or at least call in to international camps.

The most glaring omission from call ups recently has been Bobby Wood. While he may not be bagging goals this season (no one is right now). He has a solid record of scoring for the USMNT, scoring 13 goals in 45 appearances. On top of this he posesess great hold up play using his strong body to hold up the ball in attack. Wood also when healthy has the speed to stretch defenses. But Wood has not been healthy which is primarily why he has lacked playing time recently at the club and international level. But it’s time to bring him back and see what he can do. A return to the setup might reignite his goal scoring ways.

Guillermo "Memo" Rodriguez of the Houston Dynamo is another interesting candidate. Memo had a break out season for Houston and looks like he might be rounding the corner into becoming a star player within the league. Rodriguez’s endearing qualities are his exceptional first touch and improved goal scoring. With so many players frequently out injured from the national team setup it begs the question why we shouldn’t give Memo a chance to prove himself.

Now I’m about go way out on a limb with my next choice. Brace yourself die hard American Outlaws. Patrick Mullins!! Yes ladies and gentlemen you are reading that correctly. And no quarantine life is not affecting my brain (maybe it is...I did eat half a loaf of banana bread. But that counts as one serving right??). Brian Ching was exactly the same type of player. In 2004 against Jamaica he took the field and when the end of the game was near and we desperately need a goal. Low and behold who score but Ching in the 88th minute. Rescuing a draw for the USA. And oh might I add he goes on to be an integral part of the USMNT for the next 10 years.

In short, if given the chance Mullins could be our eras Brian Ching. Both are goal poaching goal scorers. And neither are known for their blinding speed but when in teams set up with speedy outside wingers they seem to thrive. To be honest we could do far worse and he just might be the diamond in the rough we have been waiting on.

The final player I want to present is Chris Mueller of Orlando City SC. Mueller is a bit of an unknown to many. He is young and quick. But more importantly he has one of the best scoring records in all of MLS and is only 23 years old. In the past three years alone Mueller has scored 40 goals in 63 games. That is an impressive scoring rate of 63%. Not something to balk at by any means. Especially considering the team he plays for which isn’t exactly cream of the crop. By including Mueller Berhalter would also be senda message to other young strikers that inclusion into the national team I s not a pipe dream. And if you are performing well and bagging goals there’s no reason you can’t expect to get a call up.

Well that wraps this up. I hope you all have enjoyed this article. And please tune in to my podcast which should be released later this summer called Total World Football (dependent upon the return of football/soccer).

Twitter: @TotalWorldFoot1

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Sam Hazelwood
Sam Hazelwood
Read next: The Spanish Connection
Sam Hazelwood

Avid traveler. Father. Weekend hiker. I enjoy almost every sport there is football being #1. My other passion is to write historical fiction. So be on the lookout for my book. Thanks for reading!

See all posts by Sam Hazelwood