USMNT progress report: How McKennie, Pulisic and European stars measure upTheSportsWig Admin
In 1990, after the United States‘ first appearance in the FIFA World Cup in 40 years, forward John Harkes signed with Sheffield Wednesday, a second-division English club. That was a big deal. While the U.S. player pool had growing promise, Europe wasn’t really taking notice. Tab Ramos would play for Real Betis for a couple of years in the mid-1990s, Eric Wynalda for FC Saarbrucken and Bochum, and Claudio Reyna for Bayer Leverkusen and Manchester City (among others). But the signings were few and far between. It was pretty easy to keep track of all of them.
A generation later, in the “good problems to have” category, fans of American men’s soccer officially have far too many players to track in Europe. With the World Cup in Qatar less than a year away, and with the qualification process entering the home stretch — six matches remain for the USMNT, beginning with a match next Thursday against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio — let’s look at which Americans are thriving overseas, which are battling a tough stretch and who’s in form with the World Cup on the horizon.
Heat check: How’s the core doing?
Gregg Berhalter’s team has been far from perfect in qualifying to date, playing mostly exciting ball at home but showing an abundance of caution on the road, losing at Panama and drawing at El Salvador and Jamaica. The U.S. is sitting in second place and, barring a total collapse, is in good shape to either qualify with a top-three finish or, if it finishes fourth, play in June’s inter-confederation playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
That’s not terrible considering Berhalter hasn’t actually seen his core lineup on the pitch even once. Primarily because of ill-timed injuries, the quintet of attackers Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna, midfielders Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, and fullback Sergino Dest have yet to play together in qualifying. Might that change soon?
Weston McKennie, Juventus. McKennie has been maybe the most important player for the USMNT in qualifying, both because of how much he has controlled the midfield and because of how frequently he’s been out: he’s been available for only four of eight matches. The 23-year old has also been in incredible form of late for Juve, scoring four goals (two in the past week), creating 18 chances and recording 73 ball recoveries over his past 15 matches. After a rough patch in October and November, Juve has gained steam alongside him, taking 20 points from its past eight league matches and losing only to Inter in the Italian Super Cup.
Christian Pulisic, Chelsea. Good news: Pulisic is playing regularly again. Injuries and form issues rendered him a minimal part of the Chelsea rotation for a while — and limited him to 197 minutes in World Cup qualifying — but over the past two months he has played 879 minutes in 15 matches for the Blues, and with the club battling some severe injury issues, he has proved versatile, logging minutes everywhere from center-forward to right wingback.
The less good news: Perhaps in part because of the lack of a stable role, he’s not producing a ton, scoring just twice with two assists in these 879 minutes. But his underlying numbers are encouraging: after a slow start to the season, he is averaging 0.46 xG+xA (expected goals plus expected assists) per 90, nearly equal to last season’s 0.48, though still inferior to the 0.63 he produced during an ultra-promising 2019-20 campaign. Things are trending in the right direction, but he’s not in his best-ever form just yet.
Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig. It says something about how young the USMNT is that Adams, 22 years old, feels like the steady, stalwart veteran. He has logged 93% of minutes so far in qualifying and has shown a proclivity for putting out fires. At Leipzig, however, he has had a ton of fires to put out. RBL has struggled mightily in transition defense despite his steadiness in winning duels and intercepting passes.
Sergino Dest, Barcelona. The 21-year old’s second season at Barca has been an odd one. On the pitch, Dest has produced: 22 chances and 5.2 xG+xA in 1,414 minutes in all competitions from an offense-friendly right-back role. But he has battled a number of injuries and missed time with a positive COVID-19 test in early January, and Barca’s new manager, Xavi, doesn’t appear sold on the youngster. The club recently welcomed 38-year-old Dani Alves back, all while Dest has been the subject of transfer rumors. If healthy, he remains a torrid and dangerous player for the USMNT in attack, but his club future might be in doubt.
Brenden Aaronson, Red Bull Salzburg. Injuries to Pulisic and Reyna opened a door for Aaronson at the national team level, and he has taken advantage. Only Adams has played more minutes for the U.S. in World Cup qualification, and Aaronson has scored twice. He also has produced strong form for Salzburg despite a finishing funk, scoring twice in Champions League qualification, dishing the ball for four assists in league play and recording monstrous levels of pressure. The 21-year-old has found himself in the Red Bull system — a good incubator for developing talent — and his performance for the U.S. has eased the burden created by key injuries.
Antonee Robinson, Fulham. The 24-year-old left-back has recorded 521 minutes in World Cup qualification and leads the U.S. with nine chances created thus far; he also scored a key goal against Honduras. At the club level, he’s playing a key role for Fulham in buildup and in transition. He’s got two goals (including one on Tuesday) and four assists for by far the best attack in England‘s second division, and his 139 ball recoveries is by far the most of any fullback in the Championship. It appears Fulham’s stay in the second division might be a short one, and he’s a major reason why.
Zack Steffen, Manchester City. Steffen remains in a battle with Matt Turner for first-choice U.S. keeper, and he remains Pep Guardiola’s second choice at Manchester City. He has done well when given the chance: in six matches in all competitions for City, he has recorded 1.6 goals prevented (xG for shots on target conceded minus actual goals conceded) with a 76% save percentage. He has given up two goals in three World Cup qualification matches, but one was an absolute screamer from Jamaica’s (and West Ham United‘s) Michail Antonio.
Compared with other positions, center-forward is not one of great depth for the U.S., but two promising youngsters have made January moves overseas.
Ricardo Pepi, Augsburg, and Daryl Dike, West Bromwich Albion. Pepi (19) and Dike (21) are only getting started with their new clubs — they’ve combined for only three matches, 145 minutes, three shots, zero goals and two chances created thus far. The two have shown similar strengths and weaknesses: They position themselves well and finish with aplomb, but they still have work to do when it comes to link-up play and shot creation. Both now have excellent opportunities to make headway in that regard.
As Daryl Dike has taken his talents to The Championship, watch the former Orlando City striker’s best goals from the 2021 MLS season.
Pepi and Dike aren’t the only Americans getting their footing with new clubs. Defender/midfielder James Sands made his Rangers debut on Tuesday, midfielder and recent Hermann Trophy winner (given to the best college player in America) Dante Polvara signed with Scotland‘s Aberdeen, winger Chris Mueller just moved from Orlando City to Scotland’s Hibernian, and 18-year-old FC Dallas defender Justin Che is moving to the Bundesliga’s Hoffenheim on a loan-to-buy deal.
Things change quickly in the American player pool. Pepi, for instance, went from making his USMNT debut in September 2021 to becoming the first-choice forward by October and joining the Bundesliga in January — a year ago, that turn of events wouldn’t have seemed even remotely plausible. But his name isn’t the only one on the rise. Quite a few young Americans have made the most of European moves, and some now seem like much more realistic options for a Qatar trip than they did not too long ago.
Joe Scally, Borussia Monchengladbach. After making just four appearances for NYCFC, the full-back moved to Gladbach in 2021; he not only made his first-team debut this fall at age 18 but also became a regular presence in the lineup. He has made 21 appearances in all competitions, scoring once, creating 18 chances, winning 54% of his duels and proving solid on both the left and right. He has yet to appear in World Cup qualification, but he’s making himself awfully hard to ignore.
Gianluca Busio, Venezia. Listed at 5-foot-6 and 143 pounds, the 19-year-old seemed like the type who might need to bulk up and ease his way in when he was acquired by Venezia in August. Nope! The midfielder has already made 20 Serie A appearances, and although he still has some catching up to do physically — he isn’t a duels-heavy player and doesn’t draw a lot of contact — he is a safe ball-progressor who steps well into opposing passing lanes. If he can hang in Serie A, he can hang in CONCACAF and Qatar.
Chris Richards, Hoffenheim (via Bayern Munich). After making a handful of appearances with Bayern, the 21-year-old spent most of the 2021 calendar year with Hoffenheim in search of playing time. It seems to be paying off. Hoffenheim is a surprising fourth in the Bundesliga, and Richards has been a major component, showing major aerial prowess and winning 61% of his duels. His buildup play is fine, and he has recorded 181 minutes over three World Cup qualification matches as well.
The U.S. is blessed with quite a few solid center-backs, but Richards could play himself into a spot in the World Cup (assuming, of course, that the U.S. qualifies).
Mark McKenzie, Genk. A 22-year old former Philadelphia Union star, McKenzie has played 180 minutes in qualification thus far — 90 at left-back, 90 at center-back — and both his versatility and his league form could keep him in the rotation. His play for Belgian heavyweight Genk has been a bright spot; his team has disappointed a bit (it’s all the way down in eighth place), but he has proved integral from an intervention standpoint and in buildup play.
A few others are in strong form in 2021-22 as well. Among them: Luca de la Torre (13 minutes in qualifying) has recorded 143 ball recoveries and created 18 chances in midfield for the Eredivisie’s Heracles; left-back Sam Vines is establishing strong defensive bona fides for Royal Antwerp (currently third in Belgium); and although Greuther Furth is having a rough first season in the Bundesliga, midfielder Timothy Tillman has been a bright spot, scoring once and creating 14 chances.
Stock falling (or at least not rising)
Josh Sargent, Norwich City. The rise of Pepi and Dike seems to have coincided with a fall of sorts for 22-year-old Sargent, who moved from relegated Werder Bremen to potentially soon-to-be-relegated Norwich City in the Premier League. After managing just five goals and two assists in 2,518 Bundesliga minutes last season, he has yet to record either in 985 EPL minutes. (He did score twice against Bournemouth in the League Cup, at least.) He’s getting plenty of reps and could still make this move work, but it hasn’t just yet.
Julian Green, Greuther Furth. One of the major components of Furth’s promotion run last season — the 26-year old midfielder scored nine goals with 36 chances created — Green was in position to potentially force himself into the American rotation with a strong Bundesliga campaign. Instead, he has played in only 11 of Furth’s league matches and created only nine chances. (Like Sargent, he did score in cup play.)
Green’s role as a steady, possession-based ball-progressor was negated by the fact that Furth never had the ball to progress, and he has played only 27 minutes since the start of December.
Yunus Musah, Valencia. Musah’s story has been an interesting one. He has made 54 cup and league appearances for Valencia since his September 2020 debut, but although he’s thrilling to watch on the ball, he hasn’t produced a ton, and in 461 league minutes this season he has zero goals and just four chances created. But he has created eight chances with two assists in nine national team appearances over the past year. He pairs well with the physical McKennie, and one assumes he’s still high on the priority list for Berhalter. It’s just that his league form makes that a bit of a leap of faith.
Tim Weah, Lille. Like Musah, 21-year old Weah has made more of an impression with country than club this season. He was brilliant against both Mexico and Jamaica in November’s qualification window, recording a goal and an assist and seemingly playing at a different speed from everyone else on the pitch. He hasn’t scored for Lille since last February, however. He is creating a decent number of chances (12 in 966 league and Champions League minutes), so his stock isn’t really down down, but after having been given extra minutes and responsibility with the defending French champions, he hasn’t made the most of it just yet.
In France, a couple more young Americans have struggled to stand out. Forward Nicholas Gioacchini (21) has contributed a couple of assists in 295 minutes as a Montpellier sub but has yet to score in six shots, and while 20-year-old Konrad De La Fuente (72 minutes in World Cup qualification) started out well at Marseille (two assists in August), he hasn’t contributed a goal or assist since.
Midfielder Alex Mendez moved from Ajax to Portugal‘s Vizela last summer and has created 12 chances, but with zero goals or assists, in 764 minutes thus far. Meanwhile, Tanner Tessmann, teammates with Busio at Venezia, has provided a few pressures but not a ton of other contributions in 630 minutes in Serie A and the Coppa Italia.
While the USMNT is enjoying a wave of contributions from younger players, there are still some veterans who are both putting together decent seasons and holding out hope for inclusion in a theoretical World Cup squad later this year.
John Brooks, Wolfsburg. Long an assumed member of the roster, Brooks has played only 135 minutes in World Cup qualification because of iffy form. But while Wolfsburg as a whole has been terribly disappointing this season — it finished fourth in its Champions League group and pulled just one point from its past seven Bundesliga matches, falling to 14th in the table — Brooks has still been, well, Brooks. He’s still solid in the air (61% aerial success rate), good at stepping in front of progressive passes, good at being physical but avoiding fouls, and, yes, a little heavy of foot and vulnerable to quick transitions at times.
Berhalter has a ton of interesting center-backs to consider, but Brooks will likely remain a solid option throughout 2022.
DeAndre Yedlin, Galatasaray. With Dest limited by injury, Yedlin has played a larger role than many expected in World Cup qualification, recording 361 minutes in seven matches. The 28-year-old also remains a speedy option for Galatasaray. He is something of an anti-Dest — he contributes more in the defensive portions of the right-back position but is far less effective in ball progression. But Berhalter clearly still appreciates him, and he remains solid enough to play regularly for the Turkish heavyweight.
Jordan Pefok, Young Boys. After making a number of appearances for the U.S. in the spring of 2021, Pefok evidently fell down Berhalter’s pecking order. He played 109 minutes in the first two qualification matches (zero goals, three shots) but hasn’t been called up since. He’s maintaining strong club form, however, scoring twice for Young Boys in Champions League play and scoring 11 times in 17 matches in the Swiss Super League.
If Pepi and Dike both do well in their new clubs this spring, it might be difficult for Pefok to work too far up the pecking order in 2022, but he remains sturdy and sound.
There are quite a few other veterans still carving out solid roles in Europe, including defenders Matt Miazga (Deportivo Alaves via Chelsea) and Shaq Moore (Tenerife); fullbacks Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Reggie Cannon (Boavista); midfielders Duane Holmes (Huddersfield Town) and Ian Harkes (Dundee United); and forward Christian Ramirez (Aberdeen). Thus far, only Moore has seen time in World Cup qualification play.
Still waiting for a shot
It doesn’t always immediately work out for a young player at a new club. Many are waiting their turn, from PSV Eindhoven‘s Richy Ledezma to Caen-via-Manchester City’s Erik Palmer-Brown, but let’s focus on two in particular:
Matthew Hoppe, Mallorca. On Jan. 9 last year, Hoppe came out of nowhere to score a hat trick and lead Schalke 04 to the victory that ended its 30-match league winless streak. He suddenly landed on the USMNT radar and soon scored his first goal for his country, at age 20, against Jamaica in the summer’s Gold Cup. By September, he was joining a LaLiga club. It was a bit of a whirlwind, but all momentum has ground to a halt since. He has made only four appearances, for a total of 112 minutes, for Mallorca. He has created three chances and attempted two shots in those minutes, but he’s still waiting to make an impression.
Bryan Reynolds, Roma. Jose Mourinho is not known for leaning heavily on young players, so it wasn’t necessarily a good omen for Reynolds when Mourinho took over at Roma this year. Sure enough, after playing 285 minutes in the 2020-21 Serie A season, the 20-year-old has played just one in 2021-22. He’s been the subject of many potential loan deals this January, but none has come to fruition yet. He could certainly use the action, though — after debuting for the USMNT in a March 2021 friendly, he didn’t play again until he was made available for December’s friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina.