Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Best XI of MLS players who would help the USMNT's 2021 Gold Cup team

Gregg Berhalter’s Great Summer Experiment has rolled on into the semifinals of the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup. It has, by almost any reasonable measure, been a successful summer (thus far) for the US men’s national team: Berhalter has identified a number of contributors, the largely young and almost uniformly inexperienced group has repeatedly found a way to meet the intensity of each match, and they’ve conceded just one goal in the process.

All of the above is to serve the larger goal of constructing a deep and trustworthy player pool. It’s going well.

But this team is far from perfect, and there are still some glaring needs within the player pool. Ball-carrying central midfielders come to mind, as do fullbacks who can come inside and distribute rather than always stay wide. Goal-dangerous wingers are always welcome, as are linking center forwards.

With that in mind, I’ve come up with a Best XI of MLS-based players* who could help this Gold Cup team and who could, in the months ahead, help the World Cup qualifying effort.

(*) I am omitting players who turned down a US call-up this summer (Julian Araujo) or in the recent past (Darlington Nagbe). Both would be on this list otherwise, but it’s been their choice not to be.

The first part of this is purely a thought exercise -- Gold Cup rosters are locked. The second part of it is very obviously not.

And so in we go:

I’m actually a bit disappointed that Melia (Sporting Kansas City) is not in this squad as the third-choice ‘keeper, given how good he is in penalty kick shootouts. Matt Turner (New England Revolution) has been superb throughout his career on PKs, but Melia is a savant.

Likelihood that he’d help: Not very high. I don’t think Berhalter would sub Turner out for the shootout no matter how historically great Melia’s been.

Likelihood we’ll see him in WCQs: Basically zero percent. Melia is sixth, at best, on the depth chart.

Also considered: No one really, but shout out to Bill Hamid (D.C. United) for being superb since his return from injury.

This guy’s been the best left back in the league for a few years running now. He's so adept at getting into and then being comfortable at working from high-leverage spots where you just don’t see fullbacks all that often. Hollingshead (FC Dallas) looks like a No. 10 at times:

There are zero other fullbacks in MLS who make plays like that. There is only one other fullback in the US pool who makes plays like that, and he cost $20 million and goes to work at the Camp Nou.

Likelihood that he’d help: Really high, I think! I like both Sam Vines (Colorado Rapids) and George Bello (Atlanta United) and think they both have good national team futures -- but Bello struggled with the pace of the game and general uncertainty in the attacking third during his lone appearance, while Vines has almost exclusively operated with chalk on the boots. There are times in possession where he’s needed to turn play inside and just hasn’t been able to.

On top of all that, Hollingshead is an international-caliber athlete. He’d help a lot, and do so immediately.

Likelihood we’ll see him in WCQs: Zero percent. He wasn’t on the 60-man Gold Cup preliminary roster, and has never been invited to a national team camp under Berhalter or any previous head coach.

Also considered: 18-year-old Kevin Paredes (D.C. United) might not be better than the 22-year-old Vines or the 19-year-old Bello yet… but then again, he might be! He’s played primarily as a wingback in Hernan Losada’s 3-4-2-1 this year, and the responsibilities he has at that spot strongly align with how Berhalter uses his overlapping fullbacks in his 4-3-3. Berhalter also often plays with wingbacks, so there is basically zero doubt about Paredes’ game translating.

He has been so, so good this year. I will not be shocked at all if he pushes his way into the mix by the end of qualifying, or if he’s able to punch his ticket to Qatar 14 months from now.

I really like Farrell (New England) -- he’s rangy, plays hard, and is not afraid of getting on the ball in tough spots or making tough passes. That said, his exclusion from the roster isn’t a big deal in and of itself. He is not someone who’s going to figure into Berhalter’s WCQ plans (nor should he).

The real loss is that by not having a solid choice like Farrell for this roster, it’s deprived us of the chance to see James Sands (New York City FC) as the No. 6. Sands basically has to play center back now, and while he’s been very good and I’m pleased with that, my biggest frustration coming out of the Gold Cup will be that we’re not going to have any real data on Sands at d-mid. And I’m pretty sure that Sands at d-mid is a big part of the “what do we do when we’re without Tyler Adams?” answer for qualifiers.

Of course, the fact that Farrell didn’t even make the 60-man preliminary roster means that I’m tilting at windmills here.

Atencio (Seattle Sounders) has primarily been a deep-lying midfielder this year and he's been very, very good. I’m not sure the 19-year-old has national team-level potential there, but it wouldn’t shock me if he pushed into Berhalter’s plans for the 2026 cycle.

Still, I think his ceiling might be a little bit higher as a ball-playing center back. He has the size for it (he’s 6-foot-1) and has done well there in limited minutes this season. His defensive instincts aren’t great and he’s not exactly dominant in the air, but the raw materials are there for him to develop into a guy who plays DM and CB just like Sands. And just like Sands, his distribution from the backline could be a game-changer.

God, I wish there’d been a U-20 World Cup this year. It would’ve been an ideal testing ground for Atencio.

Likelihood that they’d help: I gave my spiel on how Farrell would’ve helped us get a clearer read on Sands above.

Likelihood we’ll see them in WCQs: Zero percent.

Also considered: Auston Trusty (Colorado Rapids) is 6-foot-4, left-footed and has adapted fairly well this year as Robin Fraser’s moved him around the backline and changed the team’s shape. I could see him playing his way in for the next cycle.

Justen Glad (Real Salt Lake) is basically Farrell, but five years younger.

We all think of fullbacks these days as guys who push all the way to the endline and hit those pullbacks across the six for attackers to run onto. That is the primary function of most modern fullbacks.

There are other types of fullbacks, though: interior distributors. We saw Berhalter use several players (Tyler Adams, most notably) like this at the start of his tenure, asking the right back to come inside instead of overlapping and adding another number to midfield.

Rosenberry is very, very comfortable doing exactly that. He takes on a significant workload for Colorado and is key to getting the ball onto the feet of their attackers in good spots. At the same time, his comfort sliding inside lets Colorado essentially go to three at the back for long stretches, with Vines pushing way up and more or less becoming a wide attacker.

It’s a lot of fun to watch Rosenberry play.

Likelihood that he’d help: As good as Rosenberry is at this type of role, and as much of a struggle as it’s been for the US to be penetrative in attack, I don’t think deep-lying distribution has been the problem. And so I don’t think that Rosenberry sliding inside as a distributor would’ve fundamentally altered the US for the better, while at the same time doing that would’ve robbed the US of the width provided by Shaq Moore and Reggie Cannon on the overlap.

With the way the US has been set up, that’s not a good trade-off.

Likelihood we’ll see him in WCQs: Zero percent. Rosenberry, like Hollingshead, seems destined to go into the books as a damn good MLS fullback who never really cracks the US pool in any real way.

Also considered: Kyle Duncan (New York Red Bulls) eliminates defenders off the dribble in a way that Moore and Cannon do not, and that bit of 1-v-1 flair definitely makes him someone worth keeping in mind -- even if right back is, by far, the deepest part of the pool.

Polster (New England) has been the best American defensive midfielder in the league this year, a backline screener who’s got more skill and athleticism than most people realize. But what makes him special is how he’s always in tune with what the next play is going to be:

Polster does the two most important jobs of a d-mid -- protect the backline and win the ball back -- exceptionally well. There’s a reason he starts every game for the team atop the Supporters’ Shield standings.

Likelihood that he’d help: I don’t think he’d change the way the US played and I don’t think he’s as multi-faceted as Kellyn Acosta (Colorado), who was very good as a No. 6 in the win over Jamaica.

Likelihood we’ll see him in WCQs: Very, very low. Berhalter’s erred on the side of giving high-upside kids a shot rather than solid (or better) veterans, so I just don’t see a pathway to a spot in the pool for Polster.

But if injuries hit and Berhalter has to start going down the list of potential d-mids, he should keep Polster in mind.

Also considered: I am the guy who loves duels, so I am duty-bound to mention 20-year-old Leon Flach (Philadelphia Union), who has been both flexible (he’s played as a d-mid and a shuttler this year) and indispensable (he’s played a lot!).

I haven’t seen Flach complete enough meaningful passes to say whether he could ever work in Berhalter’s system, but the biggest part of that comes down to how the Union play, i.e. “frenetic.”

Caden Clark
Central midfielder · New York Red Bulls
Paxton Pomykal
Central midfielder · FC Dallas

The No. 1 thing that’s been missing from this US team has been dynamism from the free 8s. Neither Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy) nor Gianluca Busio (Sporting Kansas City) were comfortable on the half-turn, driving the game forward against Jamaica -- though Busio did improve some in the second half. And while Eryk Williamson (Portland Timbers) did exactly that against Martinique, 1) it was against Martinique and 2) we haven’t seen him since, which, to be clear, I’m bummed about.

Pomykal (FC Dallas) fixes that. He brings a blend of ball-winning, ball-retention and relentless vertical pressure by both carrying and passing the ball. And he is starting to look like his old self:

You’ll notice from that comp that Pomykal is playing out wide right now instead of centrally. I’m fine with that as he works back to 100% fitness, but I have zero doubt that his best long-term fit is as a dynamic, do-everything central midfielder.

The 18-year-old Clark (RBNY) is not yet as well-rounded as Pomykal and likely never will be, but he's devastating in and around the penalty area, which is a clear need for this US group. And while the Red Bull system doesn’t ask Clark to hit the type of tempo-setting progressive passes that are central to Berhalter’s system, it seems pretty likely that Clark’s got that club in the bag.

Likelihood that they’d help: I’d drop Pomykal into the USMNT's current midfield tomorrow and expect he’d elevate the entire squad. Just talk to any Dallas fan about what that team’s like with him vs. without him, and they will spare you none of the gory details.

I’m less sure that Clark would help, as he really is too turnover-prone right now. Yet another victim of the lack of a U-20 World Cup this year, in truth.

Likelihood we’ll see them in WCQs: Berhalter name-checked both of these guys when the roster was announced, intimating that he needed to see Pomykal stay healthy for more than 35 minutes before he’d work him into the roster (an entirely reasonable stance) and that Clark was under strong consideration for the final roster before an untimely bout of appendicitis.

Which is to say I think there’s a very good chance we’ll see both of these guys in qualifying. And both have the talent to carve out significant roles, even if the odds are somewhat stacked against that.

Also considered: Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids) has significantly improved as a defensive presence in the heart of Fraser’s midfield, and like Clark, he's dangerous in and around the 18. Also like Clark, he has ball security issues that would maybe make him a less-than-ideal fit in Berhalter’s system.

Keaton Parks (NYCFC) has no ball-security issues and seems like an ideal fit for what Berhalter asks of those free 8s, both given his passing range and comfort on the half-turn. It's a mystery that he hasn’t gotten any kind of look.

In retrospect, Cowell (San Jose Earthquakes) probably should’ve been there. The 17-year-old is not a wizard of a dribbler -- he’s not going to unlock a packed-in defense going 1-v-3 -- but he’s really smart about how to weaponize his athleticism, collect the attention of multiple defenders and then get his teammates clear looks. He is very much like Jordan Morris (Seattle) in all of the above, and Morris has been consistently superb for Berhalter.

Another aspect of Cowell’s game that is reminiscent of Morris is how decisive he is both on and off the ball. When there is space to exploit, he exploits it. When there is a pass to hit, he hits it. And when there is a shot to take, he takes the shot.

Mueller (Orlando City SC) is similar across the board, though he’s a little more comfortable playing in the half-spaces than Cowell (or Morris). The US could use some of that this month.

Likelihood that they’d help: Either of these guys would help. Jonathan Lewis (Colorado) basically played himself out of Berhalter’s plans in that showing vs. Haiti, and so the rest of the winger rotation has been the injured Paul Arriola (D.C. United), two out-of-position center forwards in Matthew Hoppe (Schalke 04) and Nico Gioacchini (Caen), and good old Cristian Roldan (Seattle) moonlighting at his old spot.

Likelihood we’ll see them in WCQs: Fairly likely for Cowell, who’s a high-upside 17-year-old. Fairly unlikely for Mueller, who’s about to turn 25 and seems to have slipped well down the depth chart in the past eight months or so.

Also considered: I think if Djordje Mihailovic (CF Montréal) were to fit back into Berhalter’s plans, it would be as a playmaking winger. It would be a different -- and useful -- look to have him wide on the left with a box-attacking No. 8 like Clark or Bassett crashing out of midfield with delayed runs.

Pepi, Ricardo-480.png
Ricardo Pepi
Center forward · FC Dallas

Pepi (FC Dallas) is vastly overperforming his xG right now, but I don’t really care. It’s been apparent since 2018 that the 18-year-old was the next truly A-Tier center forward prospect coming through the US youth ranks, and, well, here he is: the youngest player in MLS history to score a hat-trick.

His hold-up play isn’t great (though it’s improving), and he’s not as good in the air as you’d like to see of a kid his size. He doesn’t eliminate defenders off the dribble much at all, and he’s not a set-up man of any sort.

But he scores goals and always has. He did it at the youth ranks, he did it in USL, and now he’s doing it in MLS. Nobody should be surprised.

Likelihood that he’d help: I’m still a big believer in Daryl Dike (Orlando City), but it’s hard to imagine Pepi wouldn’t have done more with the minutes that Dike’s gotten the past two games.

Likelihood we’ll see him in WCQs: Very high. The question is whether it’ll be in Red, White & Blue, or in Green. Pepi is one of the myriad Mexican-Americans being heavily recruited by Tata Martino et al, and really is the best center forward prospect for two different countries who happen to be among the fiercest rivals in world soccer.

Big decision ahead. Soon.

Also considered: I’m going to straight-face an argument that Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC) would help this team a ton. The US center forwards have been something close to invisible in build-up play. You know exactly who excels in that phase of the game.

Is it worth bringing a guy who’s probably not going to be 90-minutes fit for the international game ever again? Not in this tournament, no. This tournament was about collecting data on the next generation.

But if Jozy plays well for TFC over the next month, I won’t be super shocked if we see him on a few qualifying rosters as a potential super-sub. If he’s willing to accept that role, he’s an asset because, as of now, nobody else in the pool has shown the ability to do what he does.

Shouts to Mason Toye (CF Montréal). He’s having a breakout year, matching productivity to his considerable potential -- though as with Pepi, that's almost exclusively as a finisher rather than a link-man. I also want to mention Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers). His hold-up and link play has always been superb, and his aerial dominance both from open play and on restarts is a weapon.

Best XI of MLS for the Gold Cup