The first international break of the 2019 season is here, which means there's a lot to talk about. So let's jump into the mailbag and get some of your questions answered:
First: shout out to Harrison, who is the Paxton Pomykal of MLS and US national team soccer writers/analysts. You should all go follow him on Twitter and help him take my job.
Second, I mentioned Paxton Pomykal for a reason. The 19-year-old FC Dallas playmaker has been a revelation through three games, popping up all over the field in that "free 8" or "8.5" or "hey look he's doing a Nico Lodeiro impression" role. This is the version of Pomykal so many of us had seen so often in USSDA games for the FCD academy teams (which were/are uniformly juggernauts), but which he'd never gotten a legitimate chance to show at the MLS level under previous head coach Oscar Pareja.
Now, he's showing it on a weekly basis, and inspiring highlight clips that show as well-rounded a teenaged central midfielder as the US has ever produced. MARCA – the largest daily sports magazine in Spain – last week did a feature on him, comparing him to Frenkie De Jong (which I think is a stretch, but still). When the question is "who's the next Tyler Adams or Alphonso Davies, the Homegrown Player who POPS and becomes a multi-million dollar transfer overseas," there is, at this point, only really one answer.
So from a USMNT perspective, and a "we want to see MLS as a bigger player on the global market" perspective, it's Dallas.
But from a neutral "I love the aesthetics of the game" perspective... well, I mentioned Lodeiro for a reason, didn't I? Seattle have been a joy to watch through three games (unless you're a Timbers or Whitecaps fan). I wrote a ton about why in my Sunday night column.
Yeah, and D.C. United's in the running as well. The centerpieces are still the centerpieces – Wayne Rooney and Lucho Acosta have been Best XI-caliber thus far. But both wingers are livewire, and the central midfield has been dominant, and the center backs have been mistake-free through 270 minutes, and Bill Hamid's backing up his confident talk with excellent showings.
This is the goal Adam referenced:
GOAL: Wayne Rooney flicks home his second of the game
And that's the difference between D.C. this year and D.C. in the first half of last year. They were passive and sluggish defensively through the first five months of 2018, but evolved into so much more of that by the end. Now, with the addition of right back Leonardo Jara on loan from Boca Juniors...
United can just kill you. So far, both Atlanta and RSL have found that out the hard way.
This flew under the radar a little bit, but former USMNT youth standout and Arsenal prospect Gedion Zelalem signed with Sporting KC last week, and will presumably slot into their central midfield rotation.
It's a signing that makes a lot of sense for all parties involved. Zelalem's career had stalled in Europe thanks to injuries and the never-ending cycle of loans so many young players are sent out on, so he needed a stable club situation; Arsenal, meanwhile, probably didn't want to keep paying the salary of a player who was never likely to break through into the first team; and Zelalem needed a stable club situation where he could, presumably, play.
He won't play right away, though. I'd expect to see him get at least a month or two with Swope Park Rangers in the USL Championship before moving up into meaningful MLS minutes.
Once he gets those minutes, I'm confident he'll prove his worth as a tempo-setting, zone-moving No. 8 – his ability to receive the ball in traffic and connect passes through midfield are his calling cards.
What I'm less confident about is his ability to prove his worth defensively. You need to be that guy if you're going to play for Peter Vermes. TBD.
This type of thing – a player pushes for a big move in the transfer window, then goes full emo kid when it doesn't happen – happens all the time all over the world. Kaku is just the latest and loudest here in MLS.
It is not necessarily an urgent situation for the Red Bulls, who signed Kaku a year ago. Terms of the deal weren't disclosed, but it's a fair bet it was for at least four years, and possibly five. That means they control his rights at least through 2021, and that's a lot of leverage.
It would be easier to say the solution is "they bench him until he stops tweeting" if Florian Valot hadn't suffered that brutal, probably season-ending knee injury this past week, as Valot provides a sort of creative thrust that many/most of the other RBNY attackers just don't.
But even without him, and without Kaku (for however long he needs to be on the bench), the Red Bulls should be fine. Youngster Omir Fernandez has looked up to the task of carrying some creative burden, as has RBNY2 midfielder Vincent Bezecourt – this team is the best in the league at creating talent from within. And beyond that, they're still the best in the league at creating talent via the press. Playmakers are still optional for the Red Bulls.
So yeah, not urgent, but clearly something they should spend some blood, sweat, toil and tears solving. The ideal situation is that Kaku shows out for Paraguay this summer in the Copa America and that results in an improved offer from Club America (or any other team), and money solves the problem.
It's tough to know what to make of NYCFC, but a true center forward would definitely help.
They seem to think so as well, as they've been linked to Brazilian forward Heber. He wears No. 9 but, according to Transfermarkt he plays on the left wing, and with that I've literally exhausted my knowledge of the young man.
Given City Football Group's scouting apparatus – which seems to have paid off with Alexandru Mitrita, who is electric (if not the most selective about which shots he takes) – I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt here. They've done really, really good work in recenter years combing through the European market and bringing over guys like Mitrita, Alex Ring, Anton Tinnerholm et al.
Domè has maybe passed the point where he deserves the benefit of the doubt, as they're now winless in three games this regular season and 4-8-7 across all competitions dating back to last July. That said, I don't think NYCFC are broken. Adding a center forward who has to play, and keeping Mitrita and Maxi Moralez in their natural positions can go a long way to just simplifying things.
If they do that, they're a playoff team. If they don't, based upon this 19-game sample size? Probably not.
I don't think it's fair to judge the Maxi Urruti experience en toto just yet, as it's only been three road games for him with the Impact. There is a chance everything clicks and he becomes the ideal running mate for Ignacio Piatti, because Urruti has entire months where he's damn near unplayable.
But anybody who's watched him over the course of his 11,000 career MLS minutes probably understands that those months are the exception and not the rule. The rule is that he's... an expensive but quixotic pressing option. His shoot/pass decision-making has always been suspect, his finishing comes but mostly goes, and does a team that's at its best on the break really need a center forward who's best when pressing way up the field?
It was always a weird signing to me. Urruti's talented so it could end up working out, but...
You've got to watch the LAFC documentary on ESPN+. It's all pretty apparent, from that, why he isn't any sort of a factor for this team.
The question is how long LAFC will ride his contract as dead money. My guess is we'll revisit this come the summer window when a loan back to Portugal is a possibility.
I would assume a loan is coming for Frankie Amaya after the U-20 World Cup, though they'd do well to consider loaning him before then. For what it's worth, another FC Cincinnati draft pick – 20-year-old former US U-17 and U-20 international Tommy McCabe – is off to a very good start on his loan to North Carolina FC in USL. Perhaps it would be good for Amaya to join him.
It would be amusing, given the way Cincy's braintrust got killed for their approach to the draft, if they were able to get two young, up-the-spine building blocks for the future. I have to admit I'm rooting for exactly that to happen.
Around the 20th minute of their 4-2 loss to Seattle this past weekend, Veljko Paunovic had his team swap out of the 4-2-3-1 they'd been playing into a 3-5-2 with Bastian Schweinsteiger as a center back – really almost as a classic sweeper. Given that 1) Chicago played much better soccer after that, and 2) Basti's on the record as saying he prefers being at center back at this point in his career, I would get used to this look if I were a Fire fan.
Beyond placating their best player, it also does the job of mitigating their weakness at fullback. Raheem Edwards was/is much more comfortable as a left wingback in that 3-5-2, as are the pupu platter of players they have to man the right-hand side.
So with all of that as prelude, and the understanding that Nico Gaitan is probably ready to go, here's what I'd expect the Fire to look like henceforth:
Ok and now let's move to the international break to get just a little taste of what's to come...
For the USMNT in his brief career, the answer is that he's been better as a No. 10. It's not an entirely fair way of posing the question, though, as the "systems" (those are air quotes) he's played in under Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena have been very different from what he'll be playing in under Gregg Berhalter (to the extent that they existed as "systems" at all).
Pulisic is uniquely gifted in the US player pool. He receives the ball in traffic well, and he turns well. His balance is off the charts, as is his agility. His off-the-ball movement is smart, purposeful and dangerous (though he has developed a habit of standing five yards from a teammate who has the ball and pointing at his foot; please don't do that, Christian). He has good vision and weights his passes well. He is the best we've ever produced – by miles – at eliminating defenders off the dribble. He has been a reliable finisher in Red, White & Blue, and pretty good in Black & Yellow.
If you look at the way Berhalter set his team up in January's camp, there are three different spots where Pulisic is unquestionably the best player in the pool. For now, for this camp, Berhalter has said he'll be the "left-sided No. 10," which is the actual No. 10, which is (IMO) the most important of those three spots, as well as the one Pulisic most wants to play.
I think that's a great starting point for figuring out if this thing can work.
Full disclosure: I think it will.
One of those spots where Pulisic is unquestionably the best? Right wing. The spot where Morris is tearing the world apart right now? Right wing. That's where I expect him to play in this camp, though I wouldn't be entirely shocked if he got some run at center forward as well.
Morris is the person with the most to gain from this camp – he has a clear path to the starting XI.
I make Swiss cheese of it. I think their back four will hold up for the time being, but it is the clearest area of concern for what is otherwise the most talented Canadian men's team in a generation. They'd better hope the Whitecap kids and Kamal Miller down in Orlando quickly come into their own or we'll be seeing our Canuck neighbors going out there, game after game, and trying to win by 5-3.
That'll be it for now. Big USMNT preview coming tomorrow, and a new mailbag in two weeks. Cheers!