Without question, the United States Men’s National Team is currently in a transitional period.
The sting of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup has lessened minimally (if at all). Essentially, the gaping, bloody wound that is the USMNT has been morphed together ruthlessly by generous heaps of salt. This cruel and unadulterated pain will only go away with time — though the show must go on.
There’s been a frustrating impetus upon former managers relying solely on the old guard. This reliance on the players of yesteryear has led to the United States becoming old, static, and downright boring. Experience and favoritism often superseded talent. Yes, this means you, Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondolowski.
The United States is slated to square-off versus Paraguay on March 27th in Cary, North Carolina. Though this game doesn’t have any tangible implications, it allows for the team to integrate fresh talent into the mix. There’s no sudden urge to win these games as a lead-up to the World Cup tournament this summer. As such, the USMNT can be more experimental.
When looking at the group released for the Paraguay match, this is the roster we’ve all been pining for:
Goalkeepers: Bill Hamid/Midtjylland (Denmark), Alex Bono/Toronto FC, Zack Steffen/Columbus Crew
Defenders: DeAndre Yedlin/Newcastle United (England), Eric Lichaj/Nottingham Forest (England), Matt Miazga/Vitesse (Netherlands), Shaq Moore/Levante (Spain), Jorge Villafaña/Santos Laguna (Mexico), Erik Palmer-Brown/Kortrijk (Belgium), Cameron Carter-Vickers/Ipswich Town (England), Antonee Robinson/Bolton (England)
Midfielders: Kekuta Manneh/Pachuca (Mexico), Tyler Adams/New York Red Bulls, Kenny Saief/Anderlecht (Belgium), Tim Weah/PSG (France), Darlington Nagbe/Atlanta United, Wil Trapp/Columbus Crew, Cristian Roldan/Seattle Sounders FC, Weston McKennie/FC Schalke 04 (Germany), Marky Delgado/Toronto FC
Forwards: Andrija Novakovich/Telstar (Netherlands), Bobby Wood/Hamburg (Germany), Rubio Rubin/Tijuana (Mexico)
Here are five takeaways from the roster:
Age Of The Group
This roster has an average age of less than 24. It’s a welcomed sight for a team traditionally beset by aging personnel. Eight players have yet to accrue a cap with the senior team. The oldest player on the roster is Lichaj (29) — whereas the youngest player is Weah (18).
Though there’s not a ton of collective experience, this match versus Paraguay provides an opportunity for these younger players to get an international game under their belt.
Most importantly, every single player within this pool has a shot to contribute in the 2022 World Cup cycle. Gone are the days where the United States pin their hopes to over-the-hill superstars in Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. Duly, mainstays like Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Omar Gonzalez were left off for younger, more exciting talent.
This entire program needed an injection of fresh blood. By the looks of this roster, that goal specifically appears to have been achieved.
Based upon positional breakdown, there are three pairings in particular offering plenty of intrigue. The most notable is the outside-back duo of Yedlin and Villafaña. If the United States were in a must-win situation, the two would likely feature in the starting XI.
Yedlin is still raw as a player. His awareness both technically and tactically can be problematic — particularly against some of the top-table clubs. With that said, Yedlin’s sublime pace is unparalleled with anyone in the EPL. He’s able to adequately cover up the mistakes of both himself and teammates with elite recovery speed. Plus, very few Americans can consider themselves weekly starters in perhaps the most competitive league in the world.
Villafaña came out of nowhere to establish himself as a starter for the best side in Liga MX. Tricky with the ball at his feet, Villafaña is adept at making overlapping runs. He also isn’t afraid to whip crosses into the box with a potent left foot. With the dearth of true left-footed players within the pool, Villafaña holds even more value for the national team’s future. Considering the respective ages of both Yedlin (24) and Villafaña (27), each will be major cogs going forward with eyes towards the 2022 qualification process.
The three-pronged attack of McKennie, Adams, and Saief should be another glimpse into what a future midfield could look like.
Speaking of left-footed players, Saief (24) is unquestionably the best left-footed attacking player in the pool (and yes, that includes Fabian Johnson). Saief has been one of the better wing players in the Belgian First Division over the last few years. Now with Anderlecht, Saief should be helping his side compete routinely for position for Champions League/Europa League.
With respect to Bradley, both McKennie (19) and Adams (19) have passed the longtime staple as legitimate central midfield prospects for the senior side. Though teenagers, both are starting for their respective clubs. There are some similarities with the way each plays. McKennie and Adams have plus-athleticism. This enables them to offer versatility as box-to-box midfielders. McKennie and Adams are equally as comfortable slotted up behind the striker as they are roaming directly in front of the back four.
It’s a BIG deal for McKennie to have already carved out a starting role for a Bundesliga club. Within the same token, it’s only a matter of time before Adams also makes the leap across the pond. This pairing — health permitting — should get fans of the USMNT excited. They’ll get tested in this match by the likes of Oscar Romero, Hernan Perez, and veteran Cristian Riveros.
Lastly, we could get a chance to see a back-line pairing of Carter-Vickers and Miazga. Carter-Vickers — on loan from Tottenham — had a rough end to a loan with Sheffield United. Since then, he’s bounced back quite nicely with Ipswich Town. A burly and physical presence, Carter-Vickers appears much older than his age (20) would indicate.
Miazga is much different stylistically when compared to his teammate. The 6’4″ defender is great in the air. However, he also is technically advanced for the position. This aspect of his game has undoubtedly been polished during his stay in the Eredivisie. Though owned by Chelsea, there’s the thought that Miazga may be ready to move on from the Dutch league in favor of a higher level. One could see him thrive in Germany or Spain when factoring in Miazga’s skill-set. Assuming he can stay healthy, Miazga looks like a very nice bet to be slotted next to John Brooks in a future center-back pairing.
There are a plethora of uncapped players within this roster. Among those, six stand out as highly interesting players: Novakovich, Robinson, Moore, Palmer-Brown, Manneh and Weah.
At the moment, Novakovich is hotter than any other striker within the pool. On loan from Reading to Dutch second-division side Telsar, the 6’4″ striker has bagged 18 goals in only 28 appearances this season. As such, it’s made Novakovich the second-leading scorer in the league. Rarely does the United States possess a striker of his stature. When further factoring in his relative unknown nature to much of the fan base, Novakovich is one to watch for in this contest.
After being purchased by English giant Manchester City, Palmer-Brown has been loaned to Belgian side Kortrijk for some seasoning. His upside as a player is utterly enormous. A fixture of many youth U.S. teams, Palmer-Brown can function quite well as both a center back and as a defensive midfielder.
Moore and Robinson add loads of pace to the backline. Moore toiled around multiple Spanish teams before breaking through with La Liga side Levante. Much like Yedlin, Moore relies a tad too much on unabated speed. However, it’s quite a testament to the 21-year-old that he was able to become a match-day player in one of the best leagues in the world. Very rarely have Americans succeeded in Spain. Moore certainly should get an introduction to the senior side in this match.
Robinson has long been a player on the radar of ardent fans of the national team. A dual-citizen, Robinson had the option of playing for England — though he instead will play for the country of his father (who had featured for Duke in college). The left-footed outside-back is exceptionally quick. Robinson routinely attempts to bomb down the flanks with the idea of joining the attack. The 20-year-old has nailed down a starting spot for Bolton this past season — though he’s on loan from Everton. It’s unlikely Bolton can afford to purchase him. As a result, he could return and see minutes with Everton down the line…or be jettisoned out to another EPL side. Regardless, Robinson has squarely put himself in contention for a battle between himself and Villafaña for a starting spot.
Weah and Manneh are highly intriguing players. Everyone knows about Weah’s father George — though the younger Weah is carving out a name for himself as well. The 18-year-old has already seen first-team minutes for one of the world’s biggest clubs in PSG. Technically gifted and lethally athletic, Weah has all the ability to one day develop into a world-class striker/winger. His inclusion into the side speaks to how highly the United States thinks of him.
Manneh was a last-minute addition. Since moving from MLS to Liga MX, Manneh has worked tirelessly to improve in all facets of his game. Another blisteringly fast player, he’ll offer the United States some much-needed width on the flanks. Should he continue to see time for Pachuca, Manneh may become a concrete player for the national team in a reserve role.
This roster strays away from the domestic league (MLS) considerably. 10 countries were represented with this pool — including seven in Europe. As we continue to see, many young Americans are beginning to ply their trade abroad.
Youth national teams are chock-full of players at quality clubs. This should only continue as these clubs garner more exposure to up-and-coming American players.
A New Outlook
This match — and the immediate significance of this match — is rather subtle. From a larger scope, there is the presence of considerable importance. This program is now building for the future. As the vacant managerial spot gets filled, the task at rebuilding the national team continues to be the major item on the overarching agenda.
There’s a real need to get as many games against top competition as possible. There’s no immediate pressure to improve for the summer’s World Cup — nor is there stress in any world cup qualification games. These upcoming matches (Paraguay, Ireland, France, Bolivia) are glorified scrimmages held to allow for these younger players to grow further as potential building-blocks of the senior team.
The next major tournament involving the United States will be the 2019 Copa América (held in Brazil). With more than a year until this grand opportunity, the United States should continue to foster in this movement of youth and optimism. It’s the only way in which the team can challenge the status quo and make some relative noise on the world’s biggest stage.
Image Sources: Carlos Rodrigues/Getty Images, Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports, Rachel Holborn – CameraSport via Getty Images, FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images