Armchair Analyst: Rating and ranking the USMNT player pool – Goalkeepers & Defenders

It has been a long, long while since I did a proper assessment of the entire US men's national team roster and laid it out in traditional depth chart-style. And, well, it's going to be a while yet until I do that again.

The reasoning is simple: As I laid out in my column last week, the US remain stuck in the middle of an in-between era, one in which there's a dearth of prime-aged players available to be the core of the team, and in which a plurality (if not an outright majority) of the best talents in the pool are still a year or more from hitting their prime.

For that younger cohort, Olympic qualifying and then (hopefully) the Olympics themselves take precedence. For the older cohort, they're working to establish themselves and to rebuild a team culture that deteriorated to an almost breathtaking extent over the past decade. But they're doing so knowing full well the guys they'll be competing against for jobs once World Cup qualifying proper kicks off in autumn are likely to be very different from the group they're trying to out-compete in the first half of the year.

Thus I'm not entirely convinced a traditional, five-deep depth chart is the way to go. Let's instead take a look at who's featured in games (or at least been called into camps) in 2019 under Gregg Berhalter, as well as noting which younger players to keep an eye upon.

  • Part I: Goalkeepers and Defenders
  • Part II: Midfielders and Forwards

Goalkeepers

  1. Zack Steffen (Fortuna Dusseldorf)
  2. Brad Guzan (Atlanta United)
  3. Sean Johnson (NYCFC)
  4. Matt Turner (New England Revolution)
  5. Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)

OK, so this really is the easiest place to start. Steffen, when healthy, is the undisputed No. 1, and I think it's clear that Guzan should be regarded as the No. 2. Berhalter needed to win that game against Canada last month, and without Steffen available, Guzan got the nod over Johnson — who'd actually played more US minutes in 2019. That's good enough for me.

You might've forgotten this, but Horvath actually played once in 2019, getting the 1-1 draw against Chile back in March. But that was his last call-up, and he's lost his starting job at Brugge, having played just 270 minutes since the season kicked off back in late July. The dude's got a hill to climb, and might need to make a move to do it.

Turner seemingly has climbed that hill, and has done so based upon an utterly remarkable season-and-a-half of shot-stopping for the Revs. Like most young-ish 'keepers he still need to work on his distribution and command of the box, but I'm not going to waste my time betting against him. He won his job, he then won it again, and he kept it, and he pushed into the USMNT picture. Do you think he's going to rest on those laurels this offseason?

Neither do I.

Keep an eye on...

No one, really. The US have a bunch of pretty good prospects coming through, but none of the U-23 'keepers have locked down starting jobs and it doesn't seem super-likely that will change in 2020.

I'm of the opinion that Bill Hamid and Tyler Miller missed their respective windows (both are too error-prone), and Jesse Gonzalez's might be closing.


Left Back

  1. Tim Ream (Fulham)
  2. Daniel Lovitz (Nashville SC)

Ream's caused a lot of folks a lot of heartburn over the years when he's worn the Red, White & Blue but you can't really quibble with his performances either in the Gold Cup final or the Nations League vs. Canada. Those were the two biggest games of the year, those were two mistake-free performances from the veteran.

Lovitz was the obvious No. 2 on the depth chart at left back this year, but I'd be shocked if he held that spot past January. Lovitz is a fine player in a lot of ways, but his lack of progressive passing murdered the US against Canada in October, and there are better options coming up.

This is maybe the definitive "is a depth chart really useful right now?" spot on the roster. If the US had a must-win game tomorrow, Ream probably starts at LB. But they don't have a must-win game tomorrow, or even really this coming summer. Their next must-win game is 10 months from now, in a World Cup qualifier, and by then wouldn't you expect Sergino Dest to play on the left and either Reggie Cannon or DeAndre Yedlin to play on the right? Or a major jump from some of the younger guys in the pool?

Speaking of...

Keep an eye on...

Robinson's the most obvious one on this list because he's played and produced for the USMNT before:

He's also out there playing every single week in a good league (and yeah, Wigan are terrible, but spending a lot of time on the back foot probably isn't bad for Robinson – he needs to learn to defend), and probably has the inside track on being the starter for the US U-23s at least in qualifying.

Both Gasper and Gutman are '96es, which puts them just months too old for the U-23s, so they were both called into camp with the full national team in 2019 though neither played. Based upon their MLS form, Gasper — the far superior defensive player of the two — is much closer to getting to the requisite level.

Vines, a '99'er, is the youngest of the bunch, and was very steady on both sides of the ball (occasionally dominant defensively, as he was against Carlos Vela). His passing from the back and through midfield was reliable if never spectacular, though he struggled to overlap meaningfully into the final third.

There is an argument to put Ryan Hollingshead here, and frankly I think it's a pretty good one. But Berhalter hasn't called him in yet, so he's unlikely to expect a first camp and cap in the future.

And I suppose there's a world where Chris Gloster takes a massive step forward over the next six months with the PSV U21s (which would have to start with him actually getting back onto the field again), and then does in the summer of 2020 what Dest did in 2019. If that happens, feel free to come back here and dunk on me for not having him on the list above.

Center Back

  1. John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg)
  2. Aaron Long (RBNY)
  3. Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
  4. Matt Miazga (Reading)

As of now, it's these four and in this order. Brooks and Long started, and Zimmerman was called in ahead of Miazga, in that Canada game, right? Right.

Could any of those in spots 2–4 change in the blink of an eye? I absolutely think they could. Zimmerman was the best of them in the first half of 2019, though Long was the best of them when he got into the USMNT proper. Miazga's the youngest, and I still maintain that his upside is "starter for a good team in a Big 5 league." It's not going to be Chelsea — he's not going to be a good enough passer, and won't have enough lateral quickness — but he'd be right at home in, for example, the middle of Werder Bremen's backline, or Granada's.

But it's time for Miazga to improve. He's still basically the same player he was three years ago, and he's not a kid anymore.

The wild card with the above list is that, at this point, Ream is as likely to figure as Brooks's back-up as he is to feature as a left back. So let's consider this list to be five names long, even though it only goes to four.

Keep an eye on...

All of those five guys have been called into full USMNT camps, and two of them (Robinson and Carter-Vickers) have debuted. Robinson will someday be sold for millions upon millions of dollars:

Robinson was immense this past year for Atlanta, and was entirely comfortable in his two US caps. He's also looked the part for the U-23s, and I'll be surprised if he's not a starter at that spot in qualifying.

That leaves the other spot amongst those next four, with Erik Palmer-Brown maaaaaybe having an outside chance. I have McKenzie above the rest for one very obvious reason: he's a better passer. McKenzie sometimes struggles with his defensive reads — he can be painfully naive — but he'll then play a ball nobody else in the center back pool, save for Brooks or Ream, can hit. That keeps getting you more looks.

Carter-Vickers, meanwhile, still can't break lines with his passing, and Trusty is pretty much in that same boat. Glad has shown the ability to do it, and I thought he was excellent on both sides of the ball last year for RSL, but first Mike Petke in 2018 and then Freddy Juarez in 2019 benched him in crucial games down the stretch and into the playoffs. I didn't think it was the right move either time, but when two separate coaches have decided to sit a player in the biggest games, that's a data point worth noting. I'm not going to toss it in the trash.

Anyway, I'll bet my life that after the Olympics one or more of these guys is somewhere on the actual depth chart.

To those of you screaming for Chris Richards: he's playing in the German third division and has mostly been a right back. If and when that changes, we can have a chat.

Right Back

  1. Sergino Dest (Ajax)
  2. Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas)
  3. DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United)
  4. Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes)

Dest had the type of year young players dream of having. It really started in autumn of 2018 when he owned Diego Lainez in the Concacaf U-20 Championship, which he spun forward into a series of promising attacking performances with Ajax's U-21s from January through June. He then spun that forward into an outstanding attacking performance with the US U-20s at the U-20 World Cup, and spun that forward into a strong summer with the Ajax first team and subsequently a start in the Johann Cruyff Shield to kick off the season.

Holy crap, the kid's made the first team! Hopefully he'll get a few starts and dominate with the U-21s for most of the year, then get a real chance to be part of the rotation in 2020/21, right?

Wrong. Dest pushed in over the summer, showed well in the Shield, and has spent the five months since then as a major part — often a starter — for the Dutch giants both in the Eredivisie and in the Champions League, at both right and left back. He's already played almost 1,500 first-team minutes in the 2019/20 season.

And he's the obvious No. 1 at right back, unless the question is "are the US better with him at left back and Cannon or Yedlin at right back?" In that case, Dest becomes the obvious No. 1 at left back.

Does he need to continue to improve his defense? Absolutely. Is his decision-making sometimes reckless? Yup. Does it really matter at this point in the cycle? Not at all. Just be glad he picked the US over the Netherlands, and enjoy watching him grow.

I'm picking Cannon over Yedlin here because Yedlin has never shook his habit of ball-watching (see: Alphonso Davies' goal vs. the US in October) and letting opposing wingers sneak goalside of him. Cannon's just a more reliable player right now, even if he lacks Yedlin's game-breaking pace.

I like Lima a lot. Physically he's a menace — he doesn't lose his duels. He's a good athlete, he can cross the hell out of the ball, has the technique to come inside and play a little bit and is two-footed. I'm actually mad he didn't get any looks at left back for the US this year, because I think he could end up being more valuable there on the depth chart than at RB, where the US have a little more elbow room.

Keep an eye on...

Herrera is, like Dest and Lima, a very two-footed natural right back who can thus play on the left, which will always make him intriguing for tournament play, when positional versatility is a bonus. He's also arguably the best progressive passer in the fullback pool outside of Dest and Keegan Rosenberry (who's probably not actually in the pool anymore, but maybe still should be).

Duncan is, like Herrera, Dest and Cannon, U-23 eligible, and it seems like he's a good bet to start this coming year for the Red Bulls provided he can stay healthy — a constant question thus far in his young career. If he can and he does, then he has a chance to push rapidly up the depth chart in large part because he is such a weapon off the dribble.

It might be too early for Araujo. Or he might win the starting job for the Galaxy and the US U-23s (he's talented enough) and push his way into the picture pretty quickly. There is a world where that happens, even if it seems unlikely at this point.


Midfielders and forwards coming on Wednesday...

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