The US national team aren’t in the 2018 World Cup and it hurts, but in six weeks this year's tournament will be over and it’ll be a moot. The 2022 cycle will have begun. It’s OK to look forward even now.
It's tough, if not impossible, to anticipate the future. Four years is a long time. Players who seem promising will falter; names we never thought we’d consider will rise. It’s dangerous to assume anything.
That acknowledged, I brought my colleague Matt Doyle along to help ponder the possibilities, starting with a seemingly obvious hypothesis: Midfielders Weston McKennie (Schalke via FC Dallas academy) and Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls) will play a key role in the short- and long-term future of the U.S.
McKennie played 24 games for the second-best team in the Bundesliga, and the Texas native should feature in next year’s UEFA Champions League. Adams is a key component to one of the top teams in MLS and has incredible raw tools; rumors suggest he’s on his way to the Bundesliga, as well. In two years, when Concacaf World Cup Qualifying begins, they will each be 21 years old.
Their shared future represents an exciting prospect, though a question-laden one: Who has the higher ceiling? Will each slot alongside the other? Or is one destined for a shift? And if so, where? How does this all impact the rest of the roster?
BOBBY WARSHAW: People hate when I do this – and I kinda hate myself for it – but I’m still not sold on McKennie. He’s athletic and hard and disciplined, especially for a teenager, but he still misplaces too many passes in tight spaces. He doesn’t look comfortable with a ball coming into or at his feet with opponents around him (compared to Darlington Nagbe, Michael Bradley, or Wil Trapp). I realize he’s still young and he will develop, but I’m not sure you can teach that natural comfort in chaos. I’m always wary of center midfielders who don’t have an innate comfort with a soccer ball in tight spaces.
Do his other traits outweigh the lack of tidiness? A center midfielder can certainly influence a game in more ways than simple possession. And McKennie always seems to impact a game, even when he isn’t connecting passes. Nagbe, conversely, for all his wonderful skill on the ball, drifts out of games. McKennie has an incredible sense of finding the ball and winning tackles and loose balls. And teams around the world have shown that pressing and pace can be as effective as possession.
McKennie’s inclusion will probably depend on the preference and style of the new head coach. I’d say a Peter Vermes or Marcelo Bielsa would pick a McKennie, while Gregg Berhalter might not.
I’m actually more confident in Adams’s future than McKennie’s. Perhaps it’s silly to call Adams a better bet than McKennie when McKennie has already proven it in the Bundesliga – and I hold similar concerns about Adams’ ability to deal with the ball in tough spots – but Adams has something few players have: uncomparable athleticism. Adams has the quickness, pace, and endurance to match almost anyone in the world. Those qualities makes the game easier and covers for other faults. McKennie is athletic, but Adams is one-in-a-generation athletic.
I wouldn’t bet against either McKennie or Adams staring at the 2019 Gold Cup, but I’d place a larger wage on Adams being a mainstay.
MATT DOYLE: Wow, you and I have very different reads on McKennie’s comfort with – and especially comfort with receiving – the ball. The first thing that jumped out at me about his game was exactly that: You can give him the ball in tight spots and know that he’ll be able to make it work. I’ve repeatedly compared him to former US playmaker Claudio Reyna and it’s specifically because of that skill.
Here's a quick clips I found online. You can see he uses his first touch and balance as a weapon, drawing defenders in and shielding them before hitting a killer pass:
The very first thing I look for in any young player is that balance. The second thing is first touch. McKennie’s got both, so I think we have fundamentally different positions.
What he also has is that ability to split a defense open without much time – he sees passing lanes quickly and knows how to properly weight a ball. He’s also already the best in the pool at one-timed passes (I can find more clips if you’d like!) directly to feet, which makes him exceptionally useful as a No. 8.
What McKennie is not? An exceptionally quick 1-v-1 defender, which did cause him problems this past season. That, plus his determination to always hunt the ball, makes me think he’s more of a box-to-box guy than he is a pure defensive midfielder/backline shield. He might develop into that second thing, but he’s not there yet.
That said, I almost entirely agree with your read on Adams. He checks pretty much every box you’d want, except he’s not great receiving the ball in traffic (or as you call it, “on the half-turn”). That’s why I always say his ceiling is limited as a central player, but probably limitless if he were to return to right wingback or right back, which is where he played in 2017.
Let’s not forget that Adams is an exceptional passer as well:
You can play Adams centrally, absolutely, and the kid wants to be there. His improvement curve over the last few years suggests that he’s not done getting better, either.
But I just wouldn’t be shocked if he does head to Germany and whoever the coach is says, “Yeah, actually you’re gonna stay wide.” And in that situation, you do it.
Bear in mind, by the way, that central midfield is probably the deepest part of the upcoming USMNT pool, while right back is relatively thin as it stands. Adams being forced back outside might be a good thing.
BOBBY WARSHAW: I’d be fine with Adams moving to outside back. I wouldn’t do it just yet because I’m interested to see how much of a competitive advantage his personality provides in the middle of the field. He appears to be an alpha and I like having those guys in the middle. I think there’s an instinct to dominating a game and all signs point to Adams having it. At the same time, I also think outside back might be as important a position as center mid at this point, so if the team’s playing style emphasizes outside backs, I’m okay with moving an elite talent there.
I’m OK with your assessment of McKennie. I like having these conversations because it provides perspective on the tough decisions that coaches need to make; they can never be sure but they have to trust their judgement and make the call.
You mentioned he might be best an 8-type center mid because of his passing ability, which I interpret differently than you do, seeing a player with excellent ability, but one who doesn’t move after he passes. He’s not a pass-and-move passer; he’s a break-the-lines passer, as you pointed out and the videos show. That’s a main distinction I make when considering a midfielder as a 6 versus an 8. To provide the MLS comparison – and a reference to Berhalter (my front-runner for next US coach with the reported Earnie Stewart GM hire) - the aforementioned Trapp is a break-the-lines passer while Artur is the pass-and-move passer. Trapp is the deepest midfielder and Artur is the 8. When I watch McKennie, I see a 6.
Yet I wouldn’t feel confident playing McKennie as the deepest midfielder at this point. Here’s something I’d like to see in the near future: Adams and McKennie as shuttling midfielders, with a deep-lying playmaker behind them. I’m concerned a good opponent would pin us back with a press, but I want their talent and energy on the field; I’d drop the passer - Bradley or Trapp, most likely - to the bottom of the midfield triangle to provide the guile, and then I’d let Adams and McKennie just run everywhere and harass the opponent and use their youthful exuberance to their advantage. It’d be a hell of a press to have Adams, McKennie, and Christian Pulisic closing down players. I know you, Matt, like having an attacking playmaker on the field, but I’d love to see what kind of opportunities Adams and McKennie could create through their defensive energy.
MATT DOYLE: I had the same thought as you with regard to putting a pure distributor behind McKennie and Adams in some version of a 4-3-3. Bradley – who will play a role in this upcoming cycle – and Trapp are good shouts.
Same, probably, with Keaton Parks. He’s yet another youngster (20 years old) at a big club (Benfica) with what looks like a great future. And his passing range is probably greater even than Adams or McKennie:
If we don’t make the Olympics in 2020, I will just die.
Anyway, the nice thing is that we have these three guys, plus Bradley and Trapp, plus Kellyn Acosta (DAL) and Cristian Roldan (SEA) and Marky Delgado (TOR), plus Joe Corona and Nagbe and maybe D.C. United young'uns Russell Canouse (once he gets healthy) and Chris Durkin and probably a couple of other guys we’re not even thinking of who can handle the Nos. 6 and 8 roles over the next four years. There is quality and there is quantity, and quantity has a quality all its own.
The real key, of course, is that the next coach doesn’t screw it up. There will have to be some hard decisions about who gets on the field – which is a damn good thing, because it means nobody’s gonna get complacent.