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When my wife and I got to our car in the parking garage this morning, I realized with great sadness I had left my cell phone — which I use to stream audiobooks on my morning commute — up in the condo, and since we were already a couple minutes late I decided not to waste several minutes retrieving it.
My only natural recourse was to listen to National Public Radio, which for the most part discussed, during my 30-minute drive, the various Twitter attacks of our great nation’s politicians, but which in the end gave a little plug for a local journalism initiative in Austin. The small advertisement detailed a program that pairs college students at the University of Texas with professional journalists for a week to produce a piece.
I submit that the U.S. men’s national team must do the same thing for the upcoming Concacaf Nations League.
The U.S., in League A, just needs to top Canada and Cuba to reach the semifinals of the tournament — to be played in March 2020 — and that’s not much of a tall order. This isn’t the same accolade as the Gold Cup, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. What this should be about is letting the hungry youths loose.
Therefore, I have assembled a few mentor/mentee groups for each unit of the field, as well as one U.S. veteran who I think we should leave at home to enjoy time with his friends and family, or something.
The Concacaf Nations League will be broadcast right here on FloFC, with one viewership note: the U.S. group games will be on television and not on FloFC. Should the U.S. make the semifinals and final, however, they would be on FloFC.
Shocking: fullbacks should be actual fullbacks, not center backs
Fullback mentor: DeAndre Yedlin
Fullback mentees: Reggie Cannon, Sergino Dest, Chris Gloster
Veteran to sit this one out: Tim Ream
Ream has served extremely well for the U.S., all things considered, but he’s not a left back, and he’s not the future at center back. Gregg Berhalter needs to dip into the U20 pool to get some juice at the fullback position. Both Dest (with Ajax) and Gloster (with Hannover 96) are inching closer and closer to the first team at their respective clubs, and both played extremely well at the U20 World Cup. Gloster is a true left back, while Dest mostly plays on the right but has occasionally played on the left as an opposite-footed fullback.
We just have to face the facts — Ream can’t do stuff like this:
And stuff like that is what you need nowadays.
Reggie Cannon was a late add to the Gold Cup roster and ended up earning the starting role in the second half of the tournament; he was mostly excellent, and like the rest of the players in this fullback cadre he can blaze up and down the flank. If Berhalter is going to be overloading areas on the field, that’s the kind of player you want.
Yedlin, of course, is still just 26, but he’s got a wealth of experience the other two lads don’t have. Should Yedlin remain healthy, the job is still his. Hopefully a one-two depth chart of Yedlin and Cannon would let Berhalter feel confident enough to put Tyler Adams in the midfield.
Center backs are like Barolos: many need ample time
Center back mentor: John Brooks
Center back mentees: Matt Miazga, Chris Richards
Veteran to sit this one out: Omar Gonzalez
FloFC’s Zach Lowy recently wrote a great piece on the ascendant Richards, who’s attempting to crack the mammoth club that is Bayern Munich, but no matter what happens in his club future — immediately making the first team, getting loaned out to another Bundesliga outfit, transferring somewhere else — Richards has already proven what a talent he is in Poland. He covers a ton of ground, positions himself intelligently, attempts some ambitious balls out of the back, and has uncanny anticipation for his age.
Chris Richards 2018/19 Season Highlights— USMNT Videos (@USMNTvideos) June 17, 2019
Bayern Munich U19spic.twitter.com/3aBVVbwiN7
Brooks has played well for Wolfsburg and really needs to be healthy, but if and when he does get fully fit I think Berhalter would do well to include him in the Nations League roster. He’s still just 26 years old, playing a position that is a little kinder on older players (Diego Godin is 33; Giorgio Chiellini is about to turn 35). The same point applies to Miazga. There’s been a little frustration around the 23-year-old, but he’s just 23! Give him time. His club career is up in the air at the moment, and he’s probably sick and tired of going out on loan. But if and when he finds a club at which to settle for a while, he’s still got a bright future.
These three center backs — plus Aaron Long, as you’ll see on my full suggested 23-man roster below — could provide the U.S. stability at the position for years. Obviously Cameron Carter-Vickers is another one to watch, too.
The midfielders need to get their sh** together
Midfield mentor: Weston McKennie
Midfield mentees: Alex Mendez, Paxton Pomykal
Veteran to sit this one out: Michael Bradley
Pulisic should not be wasting his energy in the midfield.
For a U.S. side in desperate need of goal conversions as well as chances, the best player needs to be working in the final third with players around him making runs, rather than collecting the ball in the center of the pitch and being charged with orchestrating everything moving forward.
Pomykal is a name that has been justifiably buzzing lately, but Mendez was integral for the U20 side that fared so well in Poland, too. The former is probably a bit more ready for first-team action, and he’d do wonders in a midfield alongside Adams and McKennie. That trio would offer Berhalter defensive solidity, technical ability, and some classic McKennie runs forward. Pomykal as the right midfielder would see some great link-up play with Pulisic, and the two would certainly enjoy a fruitful freedom on the right side of the field.
The FC Dallas player is already doing this for his club:
That kind of creativity behind Pulisic would be gargantuan. But he also tracks aggressively on defense more than he’s given credit for; he can possess the ball without panicking, which is a needed trait and in scarce supply. But more than anything, it just feels like this is a midfield that would gel together. McKennie is only 20 years old, but like he proved in the Gold Cup, he’s probably going to take up Clint Dempsey’s mantle as the Intensity Sheriff for the squad. He’s already earned the captain’s armband, and putting a few talented guys around him would be extremely exciting.
If only the attackers were as cool as Heath-Morgan-Rapinoe
Attacker mentor: Christian Pulisic
Attacker mentees: Sebastian Soto, Konrad de la Fuente, Timothy Weah
Veteran to sit this one out: Jozy Altidore
Look, I love Altidore, and right now he’s far and away the best striker the U.S. can field. But that should freak USMNT fans the hell out with the 2022 World Cup somewhat rapidly approaching. Altidore is 29 years old, and even if he keeps finding ways to mitigate the effects of age with increased creativity, the U.S. need an option for the future at No. 9, and they need creative wingers who can provide sustained, consistent support.
What Altidore has done really well that, so far, nobody else has proven they can do, is provide quality hold-up play with enough vision and technical ability to play wingers into good attacking positions. Soto is young and completely unproven on the international or professional club level, but he showed glimpses of those two abilities in Poland with the U20s — as well as a nose for finishing chances and a penchant for quality runs.
Sebastian Soto vs Hansa Rostock— USMNT Videos (@USMNTvideos) July 13, 2019
He struggled to get quality service but with the limited touches he had, he did something positive almost every time. Showed off his good hold-up play in the 45 minutes he played.pic.twitter.com/oDsKs5wstX
Weah, of course, has just completed a move away from PSG to Lille in what could be a picture-perfect scenario. Should his new French side sell attackers Nicolas Pepe and Rafael Leao, Weah will be given the opportunity to earn first-team minutes in the Champions League. De la Fuente is less of a proven product but, like Soto, in his limited action — he literally just turned 18 years old — he’s shown some snazzy stuff on the wings:
This assist from USMNT prospect Konrad de la Fuente for Barcelona in the UEFA Youth League semi-finals, though ??? pic.twitter.com/G9i2N45KZx— B/R Football (@brfootball) April 26, 2019
The U.S. needs sauce, as I’ve said before. I understand Berhalter not giving some of these kids a run during the Gold Cup; that’s a tournament in which you want to play the absolute best team you can play without taking too many risks. Hell, it nearly worked out for the U.S. The team plowed through the group games with ease — which was not a guarantee given the poor form before the tournament — and then out-played Mexico for 45 minutes before losing 1-0 in the final.
But this is the Nations League. You’ve got two games against Cuba and Canada and then a chance to win a trophy, but rather than making the trophy the No. 1 target I would look at this as an opportunity to cultivate some really talented young players and get them acclimated to the system as well as to the USMNT’s proven mainstays.
Here’s what I’d do for a full 23-man roster:
Goalkeepers: Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath, Brady Scott
Defenders: John Brooks, Chris Richards, Matt Miazga, Aaron Long, DeAndre Yedlin, Chris Gloster, Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon
Midfielders: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Duane Holmes, Paxton Pomykal, Alex Mendez
Attackers: Christian Pulisic, Sebastian Soto, Konrad de la Fuente, Timothy Weah, Josh Sargent, Tyler Boyd, Paul Arriola
And here’s how I’d play:
Yedlin / Richards / Brooks / Gloster
Pomykal / Adams / McKennie
Pulisic / Sargent / Weah
The 4-3-3 morphs very easily into a 4-4-2 if needed, with Sargent and Weah the front two forwards; it could also slide into a 4-2-3-1 with Pomykal or Pulisic moving into the attacking midfielder position.
This starting 11 combines youth and experience to a mild degree, but it’s aggressively pointed toward the future. It also creates some really juicy competition at a few positions. Without Altidore, Sargent and Soto would be battling for striker in camp and in the tournament. Holmes, Pomykal, and Mendez (they should start a law firm) scrap for the third midfield spot. If Weah falters, Boyd, Arriola, or de la Fuente lurk for that wing. And both positions in defense are rife with battles.
I can 100 percent guarantee you these are not the players Berhalter calls upon in September, though it’ll be interesting to see how many of these players are on, and I can also 100 percent guarantee you that this is not the best team the U.S. can assemble at this point in time — but in my mind, the goal of the Nations League should be to see which of these young studs can battle with the men.
Don’t make this tournament the goal. Make the next tournament the goal.