With the growing flow of prominent outbound transfers, talk of “the next big thing” has become one of the biggest conversations around MLS. And not so long ago Kellyn Acosta was at the heart of that.
In 2017, the FC Dallas academy product was perhaps the brightest young midfield prospect in the league, having led the club to a Supporters’ Shield-U.S. Open Cup double the previous season en route to a regular place in the US men’s national team.
That summer he was named an MLS All-Star, helped the USMNT win the Gold Cup and logged a full 90 in the cauldron of Estadio Azteca as the US snatched a road point in a massive World Cup qualifier vs. Mexico. He was reportedly the subject of multi-million-dollar transfer bids from Europe, and both he and his club’s leadership publicly predicted he’d be crossing the pond within a year.
Kellyn Acosta was No. 2 on the 24 Under 24 list in 2017
But soon he vanished from the national radar, as nagging injuries hampered him and his form dipped. A 2018 trade to Colorado offered a fresh start, but the Rapids struggled mightily that year and the Acosta of old remained elusive on matchdays. He went nearly two years without another US call-up.
As the Mile High Club finally stabilized under coach Robin Fraser, Acosta slowly found his feet again. Little by little, that capacity to dominate the engine room reemerged. Those tantalizing flashes of elite skill became more common. And now he’s back in the USMNT picture.
“It was a tough couple years for me,” Acosta told reporters in a Thursday media availability from the national team’s January camp in Bradenton, Florida. “I had some injury woes that kind of sidelined me for a little bit and I've gone through a few different coaches. I’ve gone into camps not clear-minded, I wasn't sure what my future held, all these things were kind of clouding my play.”
Now 25, Acosta is no longer a kid, and it’s an open question whether he winds up overseas. He still has plenty of time to discover his best self, though. He credits the influence of not only Gregg Berhalter, but also a less prominent member of the USMNT staff: Leadership and Team Development Specialist Travis Thomas.
Watch: Kellyn Acosta scores against the Portland Timbers
“The biggest thing for me was just kind of buckling down on the now. I think what I control is the day to day,” Acosta explained. “I want to win the day. I think that's something that Gregg and Travis reiterate each and every day, is win the day … just to be the best I can each and every day, and the rest will fall into place. For me, it was just about getting healthy, going to training, trying to be the best player training, in games trying to be the best player, and in the back of my head just trying to execute everything that's asked of me.”
Acosta is capable of filling multiple roles in central midfield as well as both fullback slots, and that versatility has sometimes been a double-edged sword. He said he’s presently focused on a box-to-box role for the US, an area of vital importance and significant tactical complexity in Berhalter’s system.
“The mental aspect was, I needed to buckle down and work harder and do the things that the coach asked me to in the previous camp and just nail those things,” he explained. “I've been really trying to tackle those things and firmly grasp what Gregg asked of me and utilize those things and really take advantage. I think for the most part it's gotten me back in the fold and now that I'm back in the eyes of Gregg and the coaching staff, to really use this time to really execute everything he asked of me.
“Gregg, he's very detail-oriented. I think details at this level matter so much, and it’s being tactically aware, positionally aware where the space is, and be more patient, have the ball come to me, find times to be more aggressive. I think the biggest thing is just decision-making – be decisive in the decisions I make, and going forward and just build into the game, ease into the game.”
That psychological growth has coincided with an assertive public voice as a member of the Black Players for Change and a devoted presence in the community; in November he was named Colorado's 2020 Humanitarian of the Year. He also praises the tutelage of Fraser, who relishes nurturing individual talents and has urged Acosta to be more assertive in seizing the opportunities his skillset provides.
“What really has resonated with me, Robin has told me to play with a type of arrogance,” said Acosta. “Just be decisive and go out there and show my qualities to the best of my abilities, don't try to overthink too many things. I think the biggest thing is just go out there and show them what Kellyn Acosta is all about.
“I need to transition that game into here and show my qualities and be decisive and try to be be that player.”