Voices: Joseph Lowery

Six USMNT MLSers to watch at the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup

If the 3-2 win over Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final back in June wasn’t enough to satisfy your US men’s national team itch, you’re in luck: their Concacaf Gold Cup campaign starts July 11 with a Group B opener at Children's Mercy Park (8:30 pm ET | FS1, Univision, TUDN).

While head coach Gregg Berhalter’s roster doesn’t include top European-based players, the tournament provides an important opportunity to examine young talent and experienced players alike who could supplement his “A Group” when the Octagonal and World Cup qualifying begins Sept. 2 against El Salvador.

The vast majority (19) of the USMNT’s 23-man roster competes in MLS, with many enjoying key roles for their respective teams during the 2021 season. Using Second Spectrum’s data, let’s take a deeper look at several noteworthy players who are poised to feature at the Gold Cup.

While Atlanta United have struggled during their first 11 games under Gabriel Heinze, Miles Robinson is having an extremely productive offensive year. Because Heinze often has defensive midfielder Santiago Sosa drop between his two starting center backs in possession, Robinson strides forward from his center-back perch and hits driven passes into his attacking teammates.

Robinson has 10 shot assists this year, which puts him in the 93rd percentile among center backs in MLS and is more than double his shot assists from non-MLS is Back games in 2020. Robinson is also sixth among center backs in terms of his average forward distance per touch (2.8 meters) and second in terms of defenders bypassed per touch (0.22). Berhalter, who told media members that the ATLUTD defender was “brought in to be a starter on this team,” is certainly expecting big things from the Massachusetts native – and the numbers show why.

James Sands
Defender/Midfielder · New York City FC

James Sands put in some work this past offseason. Defensively, Sands has always been an effective component for NYCFC. But in the past, many people (myself included) have noted that his lack of forward passing in possession limited his ceiling as a player. After the first segment of this season, that criticism is becoming more and more outdated. So far in 2021, Sands is completing more passes, passing the ball further and bypassing more defenders with his passing than last year.

Now, his passing numbers aren’t exceptional relative to other center backs in MLS. But if Sands can continue to elevate his offensive game while providing real defensive value (he’s in the 90th percentile in terms of pressing efficiency in the league), he could grow into a role with the USMNT’s first-choice squad at either center back or the No. 6 spot.

Few central midfielders in MLS are as dangerous on the ball as Portland’s Eryk Williamson, though he isn’t an elite passer. He’s in the 42nd percentile among midfielders in MLS in terms of passes completed per 90 minutes (42), the 55th percentile in terms of passing completion percentage (82%) and is 79th in MLS in xA (1.14).

Williamson’s best on-ball skill is his dribbling. In 2021, Williamson has registered the second-most attempted dribbles in the league (29) and the fourth-most successful dribbles in the league (24). With his strong right foot and spatial awareness, the Timbers’ central midfielder can feel pressure from opposing defenders and drive the ball forward quickly.

This clip from Portland’s loss to Minnesota United at the end of June is a perfect example of how Williamson’s dribbling can break through an opposing defense. He receives the ball wide on the left, draws three defenders and then moves into open space (that was at least partially created by his presence on the ball).

Williamson was left off the US Olympic Qualifying roster earlier this year, but could be an impactful player at the Gold Cup. He’s seeking his first senior-team cap.

To really nobody's surprise, Sebastian Lletget is thriving under Greg Vanney this year. In contrast to former LA Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Vanney’s tactical approach typically includes keeping possession and using the ball to break through defensive blocks. Because Lletget is comfortable in possession and can use the ball to connect play in central midfield, he's been a key player for this year’s LA Galaxy.

Compared to 2020, Lletget is averaging more than double the amount of passes per 90 minutes and nearly three times the number of key passes per 90 minutes. He’s also bypassing more defenders per pass, passing the ball further and completing passes at a higher rate.

Lletget may not push the ball forward like Williamson, but he’s shown an ability to play as one of the No. 8’s in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 (or somewhere on the field in a 3-4-3 shape) and help the USMNT win games.

I’ve looped Paul Arriola and Cristian Roldan together here because they have a couple of things in common. First, they’ve both played under Berhalter for the USMNT in the past – and could again after the Gold Cup. Arriola is probably more likely to factor into future World Cup qualifiers than Roldan due to lack of depth out wide, though both players have international experience (35 caps for Arriola, 20 for Roldan).

The second thing that Arriola and Roldan have in common is that they’re both persistent runners: Arriola averages the ninth-most runs per game in MLS with 27.6 and Roldan averages the 23rd-most runs per game with 23.7. Both players use their movement to manipulate opposing defenses and create space for the players around them.

Roldan has found a lot of success this season playing in a hybrid central midfield/right winger role under Brian Schmetzer, while Arriola has been a more direct right winger in Hernan Losada’s 3-4-3 since coming back from injury. It’s entirely possible that Roldan and Arriola start together on the right side of the USMNT’s possession shape as the right-sided No. 8 and the right winger, respectively, at some point during the Gold Cup. That Roldan/Arriola pairing would lack creative passing, but it could help unbalance opposing defenses with some aggressive off-ball movements.