There’s an old soccer saying about how a good team needs both piano players and piano movers.
The rapid evolution of the modern game has rendered it a tad bit simplistic, considering that a well-rounded skill set has become more or less mandatory for all 11 players on the pitch. But there’s still wisdom in the concept of contributors both at center stage and behind the scenes.
I thought of this while watching the US men’s national team take care of business vs. Jamaica in Thursday’s international friendly in Austria, a 4-1 win in which two of the most important performers were also the least hyped coming into this camp: MLS-based midfielders Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget.
There’s a segment of USMNT fandom that will simply never get excited about these two because of what time zone they play their club soccer in, amid the understandable euphoria caused by American players at rarified destinations like FC Barcelona, Chelsea and Juventus. That in itself only magnifies their importance, however, because sometimes being overlooked and underrated is actually a blessing.
Sometimes players are called upon to grab the mic and own the spotlight – to provide the so-called “end product.” This is the role that Christian Pulisic, for example, has lived since his high-school years, particularly at international level, and it appears the likes of Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest are on comparable paths. These are the “stars” in the purest sense of that word.
Acosta and Lletget are certainly capable of such roles and are often asked to be that for their clubs – and Lletget was indeed a game-breaker for the national team back in 2017, before a foot injury sidetracked his career and landed a blow to their World Cup qualifying hopes in the process. Yet they have a different tasking with the current USMNT.
Their job on Thursday was to support and amplify the talents around them. You can consider them supporting actors, stagehands or executive producers, depending on where you prefer to take the metaphor. But the point is to set the scene and make the system hum so that teammates are best positioned to shine.
Lletget’s clinical late brace – both of which I’d consider “system goals” created by collective execution of patterns of play – ensured that his efforts against Jamaica would not go unnoticed. But he spent most of the game facilitating, scurrying to and fro to circulate the ball and provide complementary movement to maximize the impact of Pulisic and Dest (in particular) as the US found, then maintained their rhythm.
“Sometimes players just have to have that feeling with each other, just that X factor that you can't really – like, it's just chemistry,” the LA Galaxy midfielder said postgame. “Playing with Serge and Christian on that side, I mean, they make my life really easy. They have so much ability, they make this game really easy for me.
“Honestly, more power to my teammates. I hope they keep getting the limelight because they deserve it."
Acosta, meanwhile, was asked to play a deeper and more defensive position than he’s used to with the Colorado Rapids and handled the task with industry, intellect and an admirable absence of ego. It bodes well for his ongoing return to top form after arriving as an eye-catching wunderkind during the previous World Cup cycle.
“I thought he had an excellent game, I really do,” coach Gregg Berhalter said of the 25-year-old. “I thought he was winning a lot of duels, positioned well, he looked like he's played there a lot before. Really, really good performance by him. And it's great to see him take that next step from being a guy that hasn't been involved in these last three years to now working his way into it and having a good performance like he did tonight.”
The USMNT can now call upon both a meticulous tactical structure and a range of elite individual talent to shine within it. There will always be a need, however, for players ready to work behind the scenes to optimize everyone and everything around them.
These two have earned Berhalter’s trust in that department, which means you’ll probably be seeing plenty more of them over the coming year. Even if you don’t really see them like you should.