Here's Part 2 of the US men's national team depth chart. As I wrote in Part 1 (defenders and goalkeepers), this is mostly my perception of how head coach Gregg Berhalter sees things, though with a few personal preferences thrown in.
And I'll reiterate this point: It's my guess that every single player who gets on the field in World Cup qualifying over the next 16 months will come from the below list, because the time for experimentation is over. The door is not entirely shut -- nobody would've had Matthew Hoppe on any list three months ago -- because attackers are different than defenders and defensive midfielders, but it's shutting. And if you're going to burst through, it's going to take something special on the level of what Daryl Dike and Chris Mueller pulled off last year.
But even that might not be enough. The US roster is pretty stacked.
Ok, enough preamble. Let's go:
- Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)
- Jackson Yueill (San Jose Earthquakes)
- Johnny Cardoso (Internacional)
So it's already complicated. Adams has played exclusively at right back and right wingback for Leipzig in 2021 -- you'd have to be some sort of genius to have seen that coming -- and has only played in the "quarterback" midfield role sparingly. I think there are obvious reasons for this, with the biggest being that he struggles to receive, turn and play forward, especially when in traffic. That is a crucial part of being a defensive midfielder in a modern, possession-heavy system, and it's the weakest part of Adams' game.
The other parts of Adams' game are so strong that he's the clear No. 1 anyway. His ball-winning is elite, his athleticism is elite, his shielding is very good and his front-foot defending -- basically, his defensive IQ and reading of the game -- is world class. World Class. That both stops counterattacks and creates turnovers in good spots, and since the US have been more of a pressing team since the start of 2020, and since the US have gone from a 3-2-2-3 attacking shape to a 2-3-2-3, Adams is pretty clearly the choice here.
Yueill's skillset is the polar opposite. He is brilliant at receiving the ball in traffic, with his back to goal, then turning and spotting the exact pass that the situation calls for. He does, however, lack the range and bite that Adams has, and while he's improved a ton in terms of shielding the back-line, his front-foot defense is a work in progress:
Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. The improvement curve is good, though. And it's worth noting that even against a team as poor as Trinidad & Tobago last month, the US build-up kind of fell apart once he came off.
I used to joke that the US needed cloning technology so that we could start Adams at RB, DM and one of the CM positions, but I think now what we need is some sort of genetic fusing tech, because if we could combine Adams and Yueill into one player we'd have the world's best d-mid.
As it is, though, this is a very strong start to the depth chart.
It drops off a bit with Cardoso, the 19-year-old Brazilian-American who's battled injury and illness and has seen his role with Internacional reduced substantially since September. But he's still very much in the rotation and looked competent as hell in his US debut in November, so I'm not particularly worried.
THE NEXT GROUP:
- Michael Bradley (Toronto FC)Bradley looks cooked to me and he removed "US men's national team" from his social media profiles -- which is usually a tell -- but it's not out of the question that he'd play a part in qualifying given the schedule crunch. He can't really move anymore, but is still a superb distributor of the ball.
YOUNGSTERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
- James Sands (NYCFC) If he could stay healthy, I'm pretty sure he'd have a couple of caps by now. Sands might not be Berhalter's style, though, as he's an old-fashioned destroyer who shies away from hitting line-breaking passes. If he takes that step this year for NYCFC, he could jump into the top three.
- Andres Perea (Orlando City SC)Perea struggled in his full international debut last month and might not be a true No. 6, but he's young and full of upside, and Berhalter recruited him for a reason. I'm curious to see where he plays for Orlando this season.
- Owen Otasowie (Wolves) I almost included him on the center back depth chart since I think that's his long-term spot. Otasowie's reads are fairly slow and his body positioning is straight-up weird for a defensive midfielder, and while he's not old (he just turned 20) he's not precisely a kid anymore. He needs to find a spot and start getting minutes.
- Weston McKennie (Juventus)
- Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)
- Yunus Musah (Valencia)
- Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg)
- Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids)
- Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
I used to break this list up into "central midfielders" and "attacking midfielders," delineating between the responsibilities of a No. 8 and a No. 10. But that is pretty useless now, since it's clear that Berhalter prefers to play with two advanced central midfielders who both attack and defend. How they split responsibilities has more to do with their individual proclivities and strengths, as well as who's playing winger and fullback on their side of the field, than it does with anything structurally inherent to Berhalter's system. So I've been thinking of them as "free 8s" or "8.5s." Neither is a true 8, though either can be if the situation calls for it. Neither is a true 10, though both are expected to do No. 10 things when the US are on the front foot.
I do have it in my head, though, that certain guys are better as a right-sided free 8 and other guys are better on the left. Lletget, for example, does well when inverted, while Aaronson is a much more linear player who's at his best on the right side. Either one could play either position, which goes for the rest of the guys on this list as well, but when they're paired together, it's pretty clear who would function on which side.
From where I sit, that would likely mean McKennie as the right-sided, box-arriving free 8 and Lletget becomes more of a tempo-setting, inverted free 8 on the left in the current first-choice XI.
Musah was great for the US last autumn, but man has he struggled in La Liga:
He also hasn't officially committed his future to the US, but I'm pretty certain he will. That will be a good thing no matter how brutal Valencia are to watch this season.
Aaronson has hit the ground running for Jesse Marsch in Austria, though I will have questions about his ability to find and control the game until he shows an ability to find and control the game. You can't be a low-usage player as a free 8 no matter how dynamic you happen to be in other areas. Acosta's faced the same usage issues through his career, but he's worked his way back into the picture thanks to a strong 2020 with Colorado.
Roldan has looked tentative in his last few US caps and nowhere near as dynamic off the ball as he often does with the Sounders, and I suspect he'll soon be below some of the other guys I'm about to mention. But it's worth keeping him on the list here because 1) Berhalter's kept him in the frame, 2) he can play multiple positions, and 3) he's a beloved teammate. That matters a lot.
THE NEXT GROUP:
- Alfredo Morales (Fortuna Dusseldorf) I maybe should've listed Morales as a d-mid instead, but he plays a more advanced role at the club level and has usually played a more advanced role in his caps under Berhalter. Even though it seems like he's been around forever, he's still just 30 years old.
- Julian Green (Greuther Furth) Speaking of having been around forever, Green is having his finest pro season at the age of 25 playing as a shuttler in the Clovers' 4-4-2 diamond. He hasn't been called in since Berhalter's been in charge and I genuinely don't think he will be any time soon, but Berhalter name-checked him in a recent press conference as a player they're monitoring, so here he is.
YOUNGSTERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
Paxton Pomykal (FC Dallas)
If he can stay healthy, he will push into the depth chart, and eventually push into a starting role. He covers a ton of ground, wins duels at an absurd,
-esque clip, is super press-resistant and his passing vision is just...
But the "if" part of staying healthy is huge, and he's 21 now. He's got to get healthy, get out there and stay out there.
- Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)
- Jordan Morris (Swansea City)
- Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids)
- Chris Mueller (Orlando City)
You've probably noticed already that I made the executive decision to only list guys at one spot, even though the reality is they're in play for at least two (or sometimes more) different positions. Sergino Dest, for example, is my current first choice at both right and left back. But in my prior column, he was only listed at right back.
The same is true for Pulisic and Morris, who are Nos. 1 & 2 at both right and left wing. If there were a game tomorrow they would be the starters, and that's been earned over a number of years via their play for club and country. And that means even during downturns in form -- as Pulisic is now experiencing in West London -- let's not kid ourselves about whether he's written on the team sheet in pen. He is.
Morris isn't, but I still think he's got the inside track on the other starting winger job (I look forward to the avalanche of Gio Reyna stans in my mentions once this is published).
He also has pretty close to the same skillset as Morris.
Mueller is more well-rounded, and probably more comfortable and effective playing on the right (as he does for Orlando), but he made a compelling pitch as a left-winger vs. El Salvador.
THE NEXT GROUP:
- Sebastian Saucedo (UNAM Pumas) Saucedo emerged for Pumas in a big way, but has struggled with injuries over the past six months. The 24-year-old is maybe less of a pure winger than Berhalter likes, but if he plays well in Liga MX he could be a factor.
- Djordje Mihailovic, CF Montreal) Mihailovic, like Saucedo, is less of a pure winger and more of a wing playmaker. He's been in and out of US camps over the past two years, and it's entirely conceivable that he could play a role for the US this cycle. I just think it's unlikely to be a large one.
YOUNGSTERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
- Uly Llanez (Heerenveen) It seems as if Llanez, who started and scored vs. Costa Rica last year, is on his way out of an unhappy and unproductive loan at Heerenveen, and due a return to the Wolfsburg reserves. He's still just 19, but there has been zero professional progress (I think it's fair to say there's been professional regression, to be honest) over the past year.
- Richie Ledezma (PSV) One of my favorite players from that great 2019 US U-20 team, Ledezma was just breaking into the PSV first team and had just earned his first US appearance before doing his ACL. I like him better long-term as a No. 10, but given Berhalter's system and Ledezma's lack of defensive presence, it's more likely that when he returns to fitness, he does so as an inverted winger.
- Tim Weah (Lille)
- Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund)
- Paul Arriola (Swansea City)
Weah is finally approaching full health after three hamstring tears over the course of 12 months, and that means he's approaching the top of the depth chart as well. In all honesty, I think you could make a case for him as the starter at any of the spots* in the front five -- he's that smart and that talented.
(*) Including forward, which is where he's most often been deployed for Ligue 1-leading Lille. That's right, folks, there's an actual title race in France this year!
But for the sake of this exercise, I've got him at the top of the right wing depth chart. I don't think he'd start over Morris (or maybe even Reyna) if the US had a massive game tomorrow, but it wouldn't shock me and I certainly wouldn't hate it if he did. The dude is just so precise and unselfish in his movement:
One thing to understand here is that excellent off-ball movement is additive no matter the team, the scheme or the score. Weah is perhaps the best player in the entire pool off the ball, and he brings a ton of skill on it to boot.
Reyna has hit a wall, as have Dortmund. After coming out of the gates with 2g/4a in his first five games, he's registered just 2g/2a in the subsequent 24 while bouncing between central midfield and left wing, and struggled in his two US appearances in November. Growing pains happen to basically every teenager, so I don't think folks should sweat it too much. I also don't think anyone should have him atop any depth charts at the moment, though.
Placing Arriola third is rough on him given how he's performed under Berhalter, but good players get pushed down the ladder when the pool fills with more talent.
THE NEXT GROUP:
- Tyler Boyd (Sivasspor) Remember when it seemed like Boyd would be the big recruiting win of Berhalter's tenure? Things sure have changed quite a bit, and not really in a good way for Boyd. He moved to Besiktas ahead of the 2019/20 season and while it seemed like a dream move at first... nope. He just could not put the ball in the net, which eventually cost him both his starting job and his spot on the roster. He just started a loan at Sivasspor, and while it seems unlikely he'd work his way back into the US mix, it's not impossible.
YOUNGSTERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
- Konrad De La Fuente (FC Barcelona) The 19-year-old has made a trio of appearances for Barca, playing 26 minutes. He's spending most of his time with Barca B, where he's not exactly lighting it up -- just 1g/0a in about 600 minutes. He seems pretty far away from any first-team role, but kids can level up out of the blue and he is still, in fact, a kid. If that happens and he's suddenly getting regular Barca minutes, he'll get regular USMNT minutes, too.
- Benji Michel (Orlando City SC) Michel is a lot like Morris in that he's a forward who's really learning to play winger, and has done so well enough to at least earn a camp. He didn't get onto the field vs. T&T and he seems pretty far from the first-team, but he's on the radar at the very least, and stranger things have happened.
- Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC)
- Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen)
- Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC)
You know and I know that if there was a must-win game tomorrow, Gyasi would start as the No. 9. That will bother a lot of people and I have certainly been guilty of some Gyasi slander in the past, but he has evolved:
The man is never going to be Berbatov in his link-up play — hell, he'll never be Sargent or Altidore, for that matter — but he's risen to functional levels, and in terms of just knowing the dance steps and timing of Berhalter's system, no one in the pool is better. Put him out there with those wingers and those central midfielders, and he will score. And if he's not scoring it's because he's making hard runs to drag defenders away from the top of the box which opens space for other guys to score.
If Sargent did that -- if he knew the steps that well -- he'd already be No. 1 on the list. He's the most naturally talented forward the US has produced since Jozy, but like Jozy he's not particularly good off the ball. That goes a long way toward explaining his paltry finishing totals in the Bundesliga.
How much longer will Jozy have a spot on this list? It's likely down to fitness. He got the start in the most important game of the Berhalter tenure thus far (the Gold Cup final vs. Mexico) and was the best US player through 45 minutes. But by the hour mark, he was off.
That was almost two years ago. He's 31 now and spent the bulk of last season looking like a guy who's logged a lot of miles and can't go 90. Maybe that changes in 2021.
THE NEXT GROUP:
- Jesus Ferreira (FC Dallas) Is he a 9 or not? Berhalter clearly thinks so, and in two caps Ferreira's given ample evidence that Berhalter is correct. I have questions about his athleticism at the international level, but for now the bigger questions will come at the club level. They are "what position does he play?" and "will he even get on the pitch?"
- Daryl Dike (Barnsley) The big man STRUGGLED in his US debut last month, but I'm giving him a mulligan. Like Sargent and Altidore he's not particularly dynamic off the ball, which is something he'll have to work on -- be it in England, or in the US.
- Jeremy Ebobisse (Portland Timbers) Ebobisse was pretty obviously beaten out by Ferreira and Dike in the most recent camp. As with Ferreira there are questions about his best position long-term (though unlike the Ferreira situation, I think there's a pretty clear answer with Ebobisse: He's a center forward).
- Nico Gioacchini (SM Caen) Gioacchini's a true target-man who is both physical and fearless. He hasn't exactly lit up Ligue 2, but he's getting regular playing time and looked solid for the US vs. Panama.
- Aron Johannsson (Lech Poznan [reportedly]) I don't think there's any chance Johannsson actually pushes his way into the picture, but as with Green I'm including him on the list since Berhalter name-checked him last month.
YOUNGSTERS TO KEEP AN EYE ON:
- Ayo Akinola (Toronto FC) I wasn't sure where to list Ayo since "we might lose him to Canada" isn't a large group. So I'll list him here since... we might lose him to Canada. I hope we don't, as Akinola has thus far been the most clever and consistently goal-hungry in his movement of the youngsters (and almost all of these guys on the forward depth chart are really young) thus far.
- Matthew Hoppe (Schalke 04) Five goals in three games! The first American with a hat-trick in the Bundesliga! Hoppe did the damn thing, but now the challenge is to keep doing it. His goalscoring record for Schalke's developmental sides was not good, and there is a reasonable amount of concern that his outburst was a flash in the pan. That said, his off-ball movement is sharp and I think it's generally wise to trust forwards who make good runs.
- Sebastian Soto (Norwich City U-23s) Berhalter did Soto a solid and got him enough appearances to earn a work permit, which means he's got a chance to earn his way up to the Norwich first team. Until that happens, I don't really expect him to figure into Berhalter's plans again.
- Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas) Pepi, who just turned 18, might have a higher upside than any other forward in the pool. And that's why he's here -- there's a part of the multiverse where he wins the starting job for Dallas, bangs in 20 goals, and pushes his way into the picture. He's got that type of talent.