Armchair Analyst: On Adams' role at the Gold Cup, and more | Mailbag

No intro this week, let's just dive into the questions:

The thing I love about Jimmy Conrad is that when he asks a simple question it is not a simple question. It is a complex question sheathed in both subtext and layers. And many of those layers are statements, and embedded in the statements comprising the layers of this question are critiques of the USSF hierarchy, the two USMNT head coaches during the 2018 World Cup cycle, that player pool (particularly, one would assume, the veteran centerpieces) and this current player pool.

Jimmy contains multitudes. He is a national treasure, as is DaMarcus Beasley. The USMNT legend announced on Monday that he will retire following the season.

What neither of them are is on the provisional, 40-man Gold Cup roster, which makes Jimmy's question moot. To be honest I wouldn't have been against the idea of bringing DMB this summer – for one, "spent time around DaMarcus Beasley in a USMNT camp" is a good box for young players to check, and for two, I'm not sure any of the left backs who were actually called up are as good as him, let alone better than him.

But we all know that Beas would've been a band-aid on a long-term, festering wound for this team, and we're well past the point where we should be indulging in band-aids. The US need a solution at left back, and so far I think Gregg Berhalter's done a smart job of looking for one.

The good news is that, long-term, a number of the best US prospects (George Bello, Jonathan Gomez and Kobe Hernandez-Foster) are left backs, and while I don't think Chris Gloster's ceiling is quite so high, 1) you'll get to see him play a ton for the US U-20s in the next few weeks, and 2) he's likely to get a lot of minutes with Hannover 96 in the 2. Bundesliga next season.

And then there are other potential up-and-comers like Philadelphia's Matt Real, who will be competing for minutes with Gloster on the U-20s; Chicago's Andre Reynolds, who hasn't played in 2019 yet due to injury but is regarded as a better prospect than Gloster by a good chunk of folks who spend too much time watching youth soccer; and Andrew Gutman, another Fire academy product who signed with Celtic (currently on loan in the USL Championship, and tearing it up) and actually is on the Gold Cup provisional roster.

Jimmy will probably look at all of that and say "yeah, but I'd still rather have Beas," and if this was the World Cup instead of the Gold Cup, I'd agree with him. But it's not. The Gold Cup is to win, for sure, but just as important (arguably more) is to get the US team closer to its potential in 2022.

Bringing DMB wouldn't have done that.

Damn I just spent a lot of time on a counterfactual.

Moving on...

I mean, I pick Canada to win every Gold Cup, so you're maybe asking the wrong guy here. But I love this young core of Canucks, and am super bullish on this group (provided Doneil Henry isn't hurt – he came off last week with what looked like a hamstring injury and the backline is the weakest part of their squad).

What they have in duplicate or triplicate that Costa Rica don't and Jamaica have only with Bailey is high-end, match-winning attacking talent. We know what Alphonso Davies can do and actually did in the previous Gold Cup, but did you know that Jonathan David might be even better in the attacking third? We know what Cyle Larin can do and has done for club and country in the past, but did you know that Lucas Cavallini is probably the better center forward right now? We know that Barcelona paid seven figures for Ballou Tabla, but Ballou Tabla probably isn't even a top 10 attacker on this team right now.

Their attack, based on raw talent, is potentially the best in the region, and miles better than either Costa Rica or Jamaica. (You may think I'm underselling Costa Rica here, but I'm not; they were awful at the World Cup last year and have been mostly pretty bad since then. Bryan Ruiz is about to turn 34, and Joel Campbell has never developed into that kind of player, and none of their best young players are actual attackers).

Their midfield is super solid as well, and while they lack a traditional playmaker, I'm not sure they'll need one if they play a low-block, counterattacking 4-3-3 that's designed to just release those three attackers and a trailing No. 8 into space. They can ride that counter at least to the semifinals if things break right.

One issue that troubles me, though: John Herdman has decided he needs Mark-Anthony Kaye at left back, which deprives his team of Kaye's ball-winning ability in central midfield, and his through-the-lines passing ability from deep that nobody else in that squad can replicate:

That is filth. They need that in central midfield, and can cope with a placeholder at left back.

This guy gets me.

I don't know if Alexa Spaanstra counts as a "prodigy" – I'm not sure her ceiling is that high – but I have a soft spot for smart and productive two-footed wingers who don't need a ton of the ball to influence the game. She did a lot of that through her youth national team years (and will hopefully do so next year at the U-20 Women's World Cup), and from the little I saw of her freshman season she did the same at Virginia.

On the men's side I'll go younger, and point to the U-17s. In terms of pure soccer IQ, it's hard to ignore Seattle's Danny Leyva. He was unquestionably the best player at the tournament as the Sounders U-17s won the GA Cup, and then was (IMO) the best player at the tournament as the US finished runners-up in the Concacaf U-17 Championship, which just concluded.

Leyva just turned 16 and is probably at least a year from playing meaningful MLS minutes, but you can watch him pretty much every week with Tacoma Defiance in USL. "Wise beyond his years" is the best way to describe him, which is exactly what you want out of a zone-moving, game-controlling No. 6.

Hernandez-Foster is another option from that team, as is Ricardo Pepi, an FC Dallas academy product who has signed with their USL side and does stuff like this:

And then there's the star of the U17s, Gio Reyna, the son of USMNT legend Claudio Reyna. Like his dad, Gio is off to Germany to start his professional career (he's signed with Borussia Dortmund, and is eligible to go over before the age of 18 because he was born in Scotland).

Reyna is spectacular in every eye-catching way. His feet are soft and he has the whole bag of on-the-ball tricks, both when receiving a pass with the defender on his back, and when running at a defense. He produced both goals and assists in this latest tournament, and did so from open play and set pieces. He is big and strong, quick and fast, tricky and elusive. He plays with his chest puffed out, an arrogant and dominant alpha. His upside is "Clint Dempsey, but a much better athlete."

He is also a good, old-fashioned ball-hog who always prefers to take five touches when one would do. He wants the ball so much that I'm not sure he'd be fun to play with, and there are definitely times where he doesn't make his teammates better. The US U-17s improved by leaps and bounds when they moved him to the wing and out of the middle, because the ball moved better when he wasn't in the engine room.

I very much have a love/hate relationship with him. He is my favorite US prospect, and he is my least favorite US prospect. Dortmund will either break his spirit and turn him into a role player, or they will refine his instincts and turn him into a Pulisic-level star.

The Athletic's Matt Pyzdrowski had a little thread on Hamid the other day, and I agree with his analysis: Hamid is a bad fit for Berhalter's system because his feet are unreliable, as is his command of the box.

He is a very good shot-stopper, though he can be error prone on long-range shots. In the end, his strengths relative to the rest of the pool do not outweigh his weaknesses.

The teenagers in any league would get slaughtered. In MLS... Zlatan, Wayne RooneyIgnacio Piatti, Diegos Valeri and Chara, Haris Medunjanin, Beasley, Bacary Sagna, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Ozzie AlonsoStefan Frei... This game would get mercy rule'd before the half-hour mark.

Bump it up to 22-and-under and it gets interesting but my money is still on the olds.

Probably Seattle, who will secretly be rooting for Peru and Uruguay to crash out of the Copa America in the group stage.

The good news for the Sounders is that nobody has more institutional knowhow than they do when it comes to thundering out of mid-season slumps and into the playoffs. The other good news is that even if they slump badly over the next seven or eight games, they've built up enough of a cushion in the standings where they'll still have a good chance at a top two seed in the West – and potentially higher if LAFC crater without Kaye, Walker Zimmerman and potentially Diego Rossi.

The other teams that pop up on the radar for this are Houston and Dallas. We're seeing it already with FCD, who are missing two starters to the U-20s, and potentially more for the Gold Cup and Copa America. With Houston it's not so much about quantity as it is about the quality of the guys who will be departing, as they simply have no replacement for the game-breaking, week-to-week excellence of Alberth Elis (and Romell Quioto is a significant loss as well).

The West is going to be weird until the second week of July.

Brazil by a mile – I'll take them against the field given the stakes and the setting.

No, I'm not an Atlanta voting bot.

No. My words were that he'd been good this year with Sporting CP, and that he'd probably be good this year for Orlando City, but his age, injury history and previous three years pointed to a worrying downward trend, and thus that made him the type of signing I'd avoid.

He is now closing in on 3,000 total minutes since the European season started last August, which is a huge number in any setting but is especially large considering it's more than he played the previous two seasons combined.

This from Transfermarkt, is terrifying:

Has he been excellent so far? Yes. Is it smart to spike the football after 800 minutes? No. Is it a risk to sign an injury-prone 32-year-old to a three-year, guaranteed DP deal? Yes. Is it something I'd have done if I was the Orlando City front office? No. Do I understand why they did it? Yes. Could it work out, consistently, over the course of the deal? Of course. Am I betting on it? No.

My stance on signing Nani hasn't changed a bit. I never thought he'd be bad, just that it was too risky and that the third year of his deal is a potential season-killing anchor.

I've tried to explain this a million times, so what's one more log on the fire?

I think Adams is an excellent d-mid, and he will almost definitely make that position his own before the cycle is through. He has improved by leaps and bounds in terms of his ability to positively affect the game with the ball, and when he gets on the run he can absolutely damage teams in transition with his passing. We saw it in MLS, we've seen it with the USMNT, and we've seen it in the Bundesliga. Next year we will see it in the Champions League.

Berhalter's teams play in transition when they can, as Christian Pulisic's goal against Chile showed. But more often he wants his teams to control and impose tempo, and to turn the possession they generate from that into penetration, goals and assists.

Arguably the key possession player in the whole set-up, when playing in this style, is the No. 6 – the true d-mid, rather than the d-mid/right back hybrid role that Adams played against Ecuador. This is because that player's passing ability is used not only to set and maintain the tempo of the game, but also to pick those moments on the ball when:

  1. The metronomic passing of Berhalter's system has created a gap in the pocket, and to play in between the lines to an attacking midfielder who can then turn and go, or...
  2. The metronomic passing of Berhalter's system has sucked the opposing fullbacks and wide midfielders inside, which allows for a long diagonal to one of the wingers in a ton of space

This is the same reason N'Golo Kante played further upfield than Jorginho for Chelsea this season. Jorginho hits those passes and Kante does not.

Adams has literally never played in a system where he's been asked to do that, to play that Jorginho role. We do not know if he can be a quarterback. With the Red Bulls in 2017 he was an endline-to-endline wingback, and in 2018 he was the d-mid in their almost comedically overpowered, game-breaking high press. He's continued that in Germany.

So he's played the position, but not the role.

Another way of thinking about this: There are two ways to disorganize your opponent. You can do it without the ball (gegenpressing, counterattacking), or you can do it with the ball. Berhalter's system is designed to do it with the ball. Adams has never played in a system like that.

I hope he gets a chance to show he can, and suspect that he will – for both club and country – sooner or later. I don't absolutely, positively need for that to happen in the next month, and in part that's because I'm pretty confident Berhalter will scrap his system if it's not working. He's not only said he would do that; he actually did it against Chile. We have a strong data point that he's not married to an idea strictly for the idea's sake.

But at the same time, I want to see this system given a chance to actually work. It's fun to watch teams pass and move well, and play with the ball rather than against it! It's fun to see teams use possession with a purpose! It's fun to watch an actual gameplan unfold! We, as a fanbase, have been deprived of that for too long.

That's what you're missing.

What you, or other people, or whoever presumes Berhalter to be missing – and to be clear, I don't believe he's missing this, I just believe he's chosen differently – is one or two or all of three things:

  1. The trade-off of superior passing and tempo out of central midfield in exchange for superior defensive presence out of central midfield might not be worth it for any team in the international game
  2. That Adams can do the same job Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp do even though he's never had to actually do it
  3. That, on a macro level, the cultural and Concacaf'ical benefit of being a team that turns possession into attack (we face a lot of bunkers in this confederation) isn't worth pursuing given that our player pool seems, at the moment, best suited in both the short-and-long term to being a team that plays against the ball, not with it

I am fine with any of these arguments even if I find No. 2 to be way premature and fanboy-y. I find No. 3 to be most persuasive, given that any time we play a top 15 team in the world we're probably turning into a group that counterattacks a lot.

But for now, I really do see things from Berhalter's point of view. I love that he's putting together a system that dares our young players to be brilliant with the ball, and if you've ever heard a word from any of them – including Tyler Adams – you'd know they love it, too.

They're on the same page, they understand the system, and they understand their roles. Let's see if this whole thing works before we consign it to the ash heap of history.


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