Voices: Joseph Lowery

MLS players who could push onto USMNT and CanMNT Nations League rosters 

There are only a handful of games left for the United States and Canadian men's national teams before the FIFA World Cup starts in November. With relatively little time remaining between now and then, the June international window will be huge.

With two Concacaf Nations League games – and the opportunity to play a couple of friendlies, too – coming up in June, head coaches Gregg Berhalter and John Herdman will gather their groups for the first time since the end of World Cup qualifying. After Monday night’s draw, we now know the US will face off against El Salvador and Grenada in the Nations League, while Canada will take on Honduras and Curacao.

It’s likely both Berhalter and Herdman will use June to get their top players additional reps on the field together. However, the two managers will also get the chance to evaluate some players who aren’t national team mainstays, but who could still help their teams in some way.

After more than a month of the 2022 season, there are players from MLS who could push their way into the mix. Let’s take a look at them.

All stats from Second Spectrum unless otherwise noted.

  • USMNT experience: 0 caps

Brandon Vazquez just keeps doing his thing. After I included him as the striker in my Analytics Best XI last week, he went out and scored another goal and contributed to FC Cincinnati’s attack in a host of other non-goalscoring ways against CF Montréal.

So far this season, Vazquez is third among strikers in xG per 90 minutes – only behind potential USMNT starting striker Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas) and Chicharito (LA Galaxy) – and is third in the league in goals per 90 (among players with at least 200 minutes).

A big part of what makes Vazquez so goal dangerous, besides his frame, is his movement. Like pretty much every impressive goalscorer, Vazquez is aggressive with his runs. He’s fifth among strikers with at least 200 minutes in off-ball runs per 90 and is constantly moving into space to provide his teammates with a passing option.

One final note on Vazquez, who is probably the most in-form US eligible striker in the world right now: his role in Cincy’s attacking structure is pretty different from what his role would be with the United States. Pat Noonan uses Vazquez as part of a two-striker front ahead of a No. 10 (Luciano Acosta), while Berhalter uses a single-striker and instead opts for dual No. 8s. The 23-year-old has played as a lone striker before, but still, it will be interesting to see how he fits with the US if he’s called up in June.

  • USMNT experience: 1 goal in 6 caps (last in Dec. 2020 friendly vs. El Salvador)

Vazquez wasn’t the only USMNT hopeful on the field in Cincinnati for Saturday's 4-3 thriller. Montréal’s Djordje Mihailovic has been building himself a pretty strong national team case in MLS this year, too.

Playing as sort of a central midfield/winger hybrid for Wilfried Nancy, Mihailovic is in the 92nd percentile for xA per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes. He’s quick to combine and has been dominant at times this season. I mean, just watch this compilation of some of his actions from the weekend:

Mihailovic isn’t just a calming and creative on-ball presence. He’s been excellent at finding gaps to receive the ball and progress play. According to American Soccer Analysis, Mihailovic has been one of the better midfielders in MLS at increasing his team’s probability of scoring with his receiving. FBref shows this too: according to them, Mihailovic ranks in the 99th percentile in progressive passes received when you compare him to central midfielders and in the 81st percentile when you compare him to attacking midfielders and wingers.

Since the USMNT lack quality depth behind their top No. 8s, the 23-year-old Mihailovic could be a good option as the USMNT's World Cup roster comes into view.

  • USMNT experience: 1 cap (last in Sept. 2019 friendly vs. Uruguay)

Speaking of No. 8s, let’s talk about Paxton Pomykal, shall we? Pomykal has started all five of FC Dallas’ games to begin the 2022 season – and he’s played all of them as a central midfielder in Nico Estevez’s USMNT-esque 4-3-3 formation. If Pomykal gets called up in June, he will have relatively few new things to learn when shifting from club to country.

Looking through some of the 22-year-old’s numbers, Pomykal is an extremely active presser. He’s fourth among central midfielders with at least 200 minutes in both pressures and distance covered while pressing per 90 and often pops up when you least expect it:

For a US team that asks a lot from their No. 8s defensively (just like Dallas does), Pomykal’s energy could bring real value to the Yanks.

Pomykal isn’t particularly aggressive with his passing. He plays safer passes than most central midfielders in MLS and he does a lot of volume-based ball progression rather than bypassing a ton of opponents with each pass. Still, with his mobility and general comfort on the ball, Pomykal might be worth a look in June.

  • CanMNT experience: 4 caps (last in March 2018 friendly vs. New Zealand)

Raheem Edwards has been a game-changer at left back for the LA Galaxy in 2022. He’s played every single minute of the Galaxy’s season and has racked up a league-leading four assists. He’s been one of the best free agency acquisitions of the year so far, hands down.

Now, assists are a “noisy” stat – meaning I could pass the ball two feet forward to a teammate, who could then dribble through four defenders and score from 35 yards out and I would still be given credit for an assist. But even if we set assists aside (and the 26-year-old, for the record, is genuinely putting his teammates' chances on a platter), Edwards has been a genuine force in 2022.

Among left backs and left wingbacks with at least 200 minutes, Edwards is fourth in passes per 90 that have led to a shot. He’s developed a fondness for creating shooting chances for his teammates with passes from the left halfspace. You can see that in the compilation below:

It’s not just passing that makes Edwards valuable. According to ASA, Edwards has increased his team’s probability of scoring with his dribbling on a per 90-minute basis more than all but one fullback/wingback with at least 200 MLS minutes this year.

Canada already have some depth at left back/left wingback with Sam Adekugbe, Richie Laryea and Alphonso Davies (who Herdman often uses higher up the field), but Edwards’ performances in MLS make him a compelling option for Les Rouges.

  • CanMNT experience: 1 goal in 3 caps (last in Jan. 2020 friendly vs. Iceland)

Jayden Nelson is the kind of player who jumps off the screen. At just 19 years old, Nelson is a regular under Bob Bradley, starting four of Toronto FC’s five games in 2022. He’s mostly played as a winger this season, but he’s played a few minutes at wingback as well.

Regardless of where he’s playing, Nelson is uber-skilled on the ball, as shown by this gif:

The teenager is in the 90th percentile in successful dribbles per 90 among players with at least 200 minutes. Still, Nelson is very much a work in progress. He tends to take too long on the ball – among wingers with at least 200 minutes, the Canadian is 12th in the league in seconds spent on the ball per touch. If Nelson learns to release the ball a bit quicker, he will become even more dangerous out wide than he already is.

Nelson isn’t the finished product, but boy-oh-boy am I curious to see more of him on the field. Herdman, who might just have room for another wide attacker on his June roster, should be curious, too.

  • CanMNT experience: 2 caps (last in March 2022 World Cup qualifier vs. Panama)

We’re not very deep into the season, but Ismael Kone has been one of the breakout players in 2022. Between Concacaf Champions League and MLS play, the 19-year-old central midfielder has already started eight games for Montréal. Moreover, Herdman called Kone in for Canada’s final batch of World Cup qualifiers last month, where he earned his first start for the national team.

Kone is a lanky, rangy midfielder who plays next to Victor Wanyama in Nancy’s midfield and makes influential runs off the ball. Among central midfielders and central defensive midfielders with at least 200 minutes, he’s in the 86th percentile for runs per 90. Though he starts in a deeper position, Kone likes to challenge the opposing backline with his runs in the buildup and in established possession.

You can see one of those runs in this clip of his goal against Atlanta United last month:

He’s mobile, active in the press and can stride past opponents with the ball at his feet. So far in 2022, Kone is eighth in successful dribbles per 90 among central midfielders and central defensive midfielders with at least 200 minutes. Per ASA, Kone has boosted his team’s probability of scoring with his dribbling more than all but three central midfielders in MLS on a per 90-minute basis.

Kone has already leveraged his range and developing technical skills into one Canada call-up. He could be in line for even more minutes in the Nations League.