It’s been a while since we did a mailbag of any sort, and a very long while since we did a US men’s national team mailbag. With the Nations League coming up, seems like now’s a good time, right?

For context: The USMNT have two friendlies in the first week of June (they’re hosting Morocco and Uruguay), then two Nations League matches in the month’s second week (hosting Grenada, then at El Salvador). Gregg Berhalter has called up a 27-man roster composed of most of his healthy first-teamers, along with an assortment of new faces who are getting a late chance to squeeze into the group.

Let’s dive in:

Doyle column 1 starters or fringe players

It’s got to be both. The point of calling in guys like Haji Wright, Djordje Mihailovic, Cameron Carter-Vickers and even young Malik Tillman isn’t just to see how good they are; it’s to see how good they are in partnership with the wingers, or the other center back, or the other central midfielders; it’s to see if they understand how to leverage their own tools within the context of the overall system that Berhalter’s built, and are able to use that to make the team better.

You don’t get to see that if you don’t play these guys with the starters for a good chunk of the time, and you don’t get to see that if you don’t play them significant minutes. They should do both in this camp, and they should do both within the structure of what the USMNT have built over the past three years.

Otherwise, what's the point? Tinkering just to throw new faces out there into new spots in order to see how they react when they’re uncomfortable is Jurgen Klinsmann-style stuff – remember Gyasi Zardes as a shuttler, or Daniel Williams at right wingback, or Alejandro Bedoya at d-mid? – that ultimately teaches you nothing and leads to wasted minutes and wasted camps. Right now, there are literally zero teams in the world that can afford to waste a camp.

Luckily, Berhalter is super thoughtful and introspective about how he builds rosters and uses players. I don’t always agree with his talent assessments (we’ll get into that in a minute here), but I don’t think we’ll see Carter-Vickers at left back or Wright as a winger. I think we’ll see them in the spots where they’ve played so well for their clubs, and I think we’ll see them within the context of playing alongside a fair selection of regulars.

Understand that might not mean Wright plays every second (Jesus Ferreira needs reps, too, and I wouldn’t hate seeing Tim Weah at center forward in this camp). Understand, too, that it won’t be Pulisic – No. 9 – Weah up top across the front line in every match; there will be some serious rotation.

But the US have an identity and have most of the foundational pieces of that identity locked into place. The job now is to see how the newcomers play with those guys as complementary pieces, and the best way to figure that out is to aim this camp specifically toward that goal.

Doyle column 2 Roldan's position

They still list Roldan as a midfielder, and Berhalter didn’t call in either of the next two No. 8s I’m most intrigued by (and that I think most of the fanbase is intrigued by) in Paxton Pomykal and Eryk Williamson. So my best bet is that if Roldan plays in this camp, it will be as a No. 8.

I do not think, however, that that’s his best spot. I wrote, back in the winter, that he’s actually better as a pressing winger who consistently gets the edge and delivers an awesome final ball. Since then he’s been moved to the wing basically full-time and rewarded Brian Schmetzer for that by leading the Concacaf Champions League in assists and fouls drawn. That first number is because he’s brilliant at finding space and delivers, as mentioned, an awesome final ball from the optimal assist zone; the second is because he recognizes space so early and is so quick that he constantly puts opposing defenses under serious pressure.

It’s just Roldan’s bad luck that his best spot also happens to be the USMNT’s best/deepest spot. I want to see him get a look at right wing this camp, but given the presence of guys like Weah, Paul Arriola and Brenden Aaronson, it’s pretty crowded.

So that leaves the No. 8. Roldan has struggled there for the US at times because he’s not great on the half-turn and is not a dynamic ball carrier, and we’ve all seen him struggle with those jobs for the US in meaningful games. The fix to that is to tinker with the system, as Schmetzer did last year in Seattle by making Roldan a No. 10 who constantly made inside-out runs in order to create overloads out wide. In other words, he lined up as a central midfielder but played more like a central winger whose job was to create off-ball attacking depth rather than on-ball pitch control.

I think he could be really good at that for the US, provided the other two central midfielders and the strong-side fullback are all elite ball progressors. But I don’t think it’s worth tinkering – especially at this stage of the cycle – in order to find a better fit for a utility guy.

Doyle column 3 Pomykal USMNT future

I think Berhalter didn’t list him because he doesn’t really rate him, or perhaps only (incorrectly) sees him as a winger. Remember that in Pomykal’s one cap, a September 2019 friendly vs. Uruguay, he came off the bench for five late minutes on the wing. Remember, too, that one of Berhalter’s assistants, former FC Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez, was Pomykal’s coach for nearly three years in Frisco, and played him almost exclusively on the wing last season. I think that was a mistake.

Under Nico Estevez, Luchi’s successor in Dallas and predecessor as Berhalter’s assistant, Pomykal has played exclusively as a central midfielder this year and he has developed into the Best XI-caliber player pretty much everyone thought he could be if he ever stayed healthy. Extratime’s Producent Anders just happened to be playing around with Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and the data points he pulled are pretty stunning.

Among all MLS central midfielders this year (minimum 200 pass attempts), Pomykal leads the league in pretty much all the basic numbers (passes attempted, completed, passes leading to a shot, pass-before-the-pass, etc.), but it’s the underlying numbers where he really stands out. Among central midfielders he leads the league in:

  • Defenders bypassed (i.e., the number of defenders his passing takes out of the play)
  • Defenders bypassed per 90 minutes (he’s almost 20% higher than the No. 2 guy on the list)
  • xG generated from possessions in which he’s involved (FORTY PERCENT higher than the No. 2 guy)
  • Passes that break the opposing backline (i.e., passes in behind)
  • Passes hit under pressure (he’s at 281; the No. 2 guy on the list is at 199)
  • Progressive passes per game
  • Progressive passes that end in the final third

In other words, Dallas give Pomykal the ball in the toughest spots on the field, spots that naturally invite opposing pressure. They do that because not only does he not turn the ball over there, but he actually uses that pressure against the opponents by drawing them upfield, then cutting them out of the play with his precise passing and, occasionally, dribbling. And that subsequently forces the opposing defense to scramble, which in turn opens up attacking avenues for guys like Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira.

Then there is the defensive stuff. Pomykal is in the 97th percentile or better in…

  • Interceptions per game
  • xG resulting from his interceptions
  • Total pressures
  • Pressures per game
  • Ball pressures per game
  • Counter presses
  • Number of times his pressure led to a turnover in 10 seconds or less
  • Number of times his pressure led to a turnover in 5 seconds or less
  • Total distance covered while pressing
  • Tackles won per game

He’s not putting up many goals or assists (despite the fact that he leads all central midfielders in primary and secondary shot assists), but he’s basically the living embodiment of this meme:

central midfielder meme

For those of you who don’t speak meme, this is satirizing the skin-deep analysis of central midfielders – the propensity to boil their contributions down to just goals and assists while underrating virtually all the difficult-to-quantify stuff that happens in, you know, midfield.

So the short version is he progresses the ball at an elite rate, has elite security on the ball once it's his, wins the ball at an elite rate, and his team subsequently generates chances at a God Tier-rate once he’s won it. As American Soccer Analysis’s lead club consultant Sean Steffen pointed out in a recent Twitter thread, Dallas have been able to change a ton about how they play this year and are orders of magnitude more efficient in the attacking third because of it. Pomykal’s all-around ability in central midfield is, I think, the biggest player-based reason for that.

If he keeps playing like this, I think he might be able to change Berhalter’s mind and punch a ticket for Qatar. At the very least he should be in the discussion, though I don’t particularly blame Berhalter for his wait-and-see attitude about it given Pomykal’s injury history.

Doyle column 4 zimmerman's CB partner

For this camp, I’m hoping we get to see a selection of partnerships, with Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown and CCV all getting a chance to run out with Zimmerman. Force me to put my money on one of those three being a starter in Qatar and it’d be Long – he was a written-in-pen starter for Berhalter before last year’s injury, and while he’s not quite back to 100% I don’t think he’s far off of that level.

But overall I think the favorite is Chris Richards (who's injured and thus not at this camp), and I think that’s appropriate. He’s maybe not quite as athletic as Long, and certainly isn’t nearly as good in the air, but it's not a huge gap and he's a much better passer of the ball than virtually any of the other CBs who seem to be in the mix. While that has become less of a trump card as Berhalter has moved away from his original system and toward a more pressing-and-transition approach, it’s not nothing.

Of course, Richards has to get and stay healthy, and then he has to play. None of that is a given based on what we’ve seen since the new year.

Doyle column 5 USMNT kits

I’d take ugly over boring any day. Truth is I find the Waldos to be kind of ugly, and those absolutely should be the USMNT/WNT/YNT primaries, with 2006-style vertical sashes being secondaries. And then use the ugly-as-sin 1994 denims as special third kits.

I just want something that is iconic, something that screams “you’re watching the US” as soon as the game comes on. It’s wildly frustrating that we’ve had that several times, but that we’ve constantly gone so far away from that, and then gone in more generic and boring directions.

Doyle column  6 No. 9 competition

Nobody’s sewed up anything at center forward, so yes, Wright absolutely has a chance to get his name solidly in the mix. I don’t believe either he or Ferreira can win the job outright at this camp as there’s still a lot of club soccer yet to be played, but a few goals next month and some assured all-around play certainly wouldn’t hurt either’s case.

As for Pepi, I’m pretty sure he’s already lost it, which is appropriate given he hasn’t scored a goal for anyone since last October. You can’t go 7-8 months without putting the ball in the back of the net and still be the starting center forward. That’s just not how the position works, and I’m pretty certain that if Berhalter still saw him as the starter, he’d be at this camp.

Of course, none of that means Pepi can’t bounce back and win the job once again by November. He’s at a club in Augsburg that invested a record-breaking amount in him, and the Bundesliga is a great league. If he figures out how to put the ball in the back of the net regularly – something he’s managed at every jump in his young career – back into the pool he goes.

The same is true for Daryl Dike or Josh Sargent (the ship might’ve sailed on Jordan Pefok, for what it’s worth), and I’m sure that Cincy’s Brandon Vazquez is being monitored as well.

Berhalter doesn’t have the luxury of being dogmatic here. He’s got to play the hot hand and then hope they 1) fit and 2) stay hot. Right now that means Ferreira and Wright, and that’s a totally understandable decision.

Doyle column 7 Slonina form

Form. Slonina has not been good for about six weeks now in Chicago – maybe even longer. He’s been stranding himself on crosses (a persistent issue), has been very poor/occasionally disastrous with his feet, and has even seen his shot-stopping prowess somewhat desert him. It’s been a real and prolonged slump, and Berhalter said straight-up that Slonina’s absence from this camp is down to form.

Does that mean Sean Johnson’s got a gripe? I think so! I also think it’s clear that Berhalter sees Zack Steffen as basically undroppable even though Steffen routinely does things that would get most ‘keepers dropped.

Doyle column 8 pulisic's next six months

It seems likely, if not precisely certain, that Pulisic will be leaving Chelsea. A few months back there were rumors of Bayern Munich showing interest, and I’d be all for that since Bayern traditionally do really, really well at bringing more out of talented attackers that have been somewhat mistreated by their EPL clubs. In that sense, it’s pretty close to an ideal landing spot.

But in terms of a given league’s style, Serie A has low-key become my favorite league to watch over the past few years. It’s still tactical as hell (Italian soccer always will be), but it’s more open, more technical and just less attritional/physically brutal than the other top leagues. So if, say, AC Milan sell Rafael Leao and then want to reinvest in an in-his-prime left winger who would bring a lot of the same attributes… I mean, I don’t think it’ll happen. But that’s where I’d like to see it go.

Where it ends up? Six months from today Christian Pulisic will be taking the field against England in the second game of the group stage. Six months from tomorrow every newspaper in the country’s got his hat trick above the fold on A1.