Beyond The Groupies: The 10 Biggest USMNT Snubs In 2019
As a USMNT fan, listening to Greg Berhalter (Bert) constantly refer to his core players as “The Group” is like hearing the pompous popular kid in high school brag about his social exploits with his “bros.” Infuriating!
We need not mention the indefensible number of minutes that so many unqualified players received in the dismal first year of his tenure, as that hymn has been sung widely and loudly. In fact, rather than mock, let’s embrace this new group with an endearing moniker. Since Bert uses the term “The Group” so frequently, henceforth the core members of this inner circle will be called…..wait for it…..Groupies!
But this piece will not focus on them, but rather the snubs. Specifically, who were the 10 most slighted players under Gregg Berhalter in 2019? Let’s have a look.
1. Duane Holmes, CM, Derby County. The most shocking omission of the fall roster by a wide margin is the creative, dynamic midfielder making his trade in the English Championship. Last spring, Holmes was Derby County’s second highest-rated player on WhoScored behind only Mason Mount, who – BTW – is now starting for both Chelsea and England.
Holmes then donned the shirt in a pre-Gold Cup tryout camp and provided the only display of riveting soccer through his 20-minute cameo in the abysmal 1-0 loss to Jamaica. An injury kept him out of the Gold Cup, but his resurgence for Derby this fall should have assured his spot for what – now in hindsight – was an important match in Toronto against Canada in the Nations League. Instead, Groupie idol Christian Roldan got another call-up and almost secured his first-ever USMNT assist…..for Canada. (Since Bert is not counting, we will: that’s 19 USMNT appearances for Roldan as an attacking midfielder, with no goals or assists. Zero.)
Bert had the opportunity to redeem himself in the follow-up home Canada fixture. But another Groupie, Sebastian Lleget, was deputized instead. In his defense, Lleget played well but does not offer the attacking capabilities that Holmes does.
Most worrying about this snub is that Camp Cupcake is up next, where neither Holmes nor any European-based players will be able to compete against the MLS contingent. Since he has not yet established himself as a Groupie, come spring time Holmes’s roster spot will likely fall behind (insert the name of a mediocre MLS attacking mid who has a strong January showing against an Antiguan B Team). Depressing.
2. Antonee Robinson, LB, Wigan. Robinson’s casting-out might be the most infuriating because Berhalter Apologists plainly manufacture new reasons for boxing him out. With the unveiling of the now-abandoned “inverted right back” role in the spring, the Apologists said we simply needed a stay-at-home LB, not one with Robinson’s attacking assets and undisciplined defense. So the 27-year-old, never-capped Daniel Lovitz would suit just fine.
Next, in a pre-GC friendly against Jamaica, when he was half-heartedly thrust into a 3-5-2 formation that Bert had never – and has not since – employed, Robinson played very poorly. His detractors immediately cited this performance to keep him out of the conversation, ignoring the obvious, looming LB warning signs. They must have cringed in the GC final when Mexico changed their formation at halftime expressly to attack 31 y/o, slow-of-foot LB Tim Ream. (By this time, Lovitz had been promoted to “savior off the bench”/ “last attacking substitute” role for the GC Final. He did not play the part well, but whose fault is that?)
Most recently, the haters will point to Robinson’s subpar performance against a Canary Islands club team that was broadcast primarily on pirated cable. And that would be just silly. The match featured about two dozen disparate U-23 players from ~15 leagues that had practiced together for 2 days. (Oh, and their interim coach had already his full-time MLS tenure prior to the tournament.) Meanwhile, across the pond in Cuba, Bert’s System shifted its focus to attacking LB Lovitz, who bumbled forward and cantankerously quibbled with Cuban players as about 730 onlookers stared in bemusement.
This snub has become obnoxious. Robinson is and has been an absolute stud for Wigan and showed capably against Mexico, Colombia and Brazil in the USMNT shirt in 2018. Besides displacing Lovitz, Robinson should be looked-at for winger options, where neither Tyler Boyd or Paul Arriola has overwhelmed in 2019, and nor has Jordan Morris covered himself in glory against a non-Cuban opponent.
3. Richie Ledezma, CM, Jong PSV. Some might find his spot on this list too high, but if you watch him with any regularity, you see that his craft is unparalleled in the current (or prior!) USMNT player pool. Any argument that it’s “too soon” or that he belongs in U-23 camps is nonsensical when you watch how poorly the senior team’s midfielders take opponents on, pivot off defenders, charge with the ball into open space, and hit inch-perfect passes to attacking teammates more than 10 yards away. Kind of….all the things Ledezma does really well!
Did we mention Mexico lingers?
If USMNT faithful felt anxious by Sergino Dest’s Netherlands courtship, buckle-up for El Tri’s media blitz on Ledezma as he gets his first-team PSV appearance, which is bound to be before the Olympic qualifying window. (Read: he will not be made eligible for Olympic qualifying by PSV.) Mexican media has already dubbed him “The Mexican Pulisic,” and regularly posts about his achievement on their social media platforms. He should have been in the Toronto squad, where he might have actually provided a reasonable justification for subbing-off Christian Pulisic after 60 minutes. And we would have ended the Mexican courtship.
4. Julian Green, CM, Greuther Furth. Some USMNT fans will not allow his name to be uttered simply due to his premature hype. But a strong series of run-outs under Dave Sarachan – he scored against France, for the love of the Crest! – and a Top 15 FotMob Player Rating in Bundesliga 2 surely should have earned him a look in the 30-man Gold Cup squad. (In fact, he was not even on the preliminary 40-man roster; Andrew Guttman, Marlon Fossey & Greg Garza were.) He could have been a more creative attacking mid or wing option, both of which he played in 2018 for USMNT against better teams than Mexico.
His uneven performances mean he might never be a Groupie without a move to Bundesliga I, which he will have to earn, since it will not happen through a Furth promotion. If he does get there and earns minutes, Bert’s underperforming CM Groupies will be under enhanced pressure, as Bert has shown inclination to start guys playing in top five European leagues.
5. Ventura Alvarado, CB, Nexaca. I will confess to not having watched Alvarado much beyond compilation videos, but a lot of very talented evaluators, whose judgment I trust, have. Even those not intimate with his on-field acumen can see this much: the 27-year-old has captained Nexaca to consecutive Liga MX playoff appearances, and we have all seen how Liga MX clubs shred their MLS counterparts in CONCACAF Nations League matches.
To those that argue the CB spots on the senior team are settled, I will remind readers that Omar Gonzalez was a USMNT player on the 2019 Gold Cup team. That is pathetic; surely Alvarado deserved to be on the roster ahead of him, to say nothing of an aging, rigid Tim Ream or the technically flaccid Walker Zimmerman.
6. Cameron Carter-Vickers, CM, Stoke City. CCV is lower on this list than Alvarado, despite having higher upside, because he has not found his regular rhythm at club level; he goes in fits and starts. He does not look likely to break through at Tottenham’s first team, so the hope is that he can find a permanent transfer to another Premiership club. If he does, he has demonstrated a pattern of breaking into a new Starting XI after 3-5 games as a substitute, and then subsequently ripping off an impressive 7-10 game streak of starts.
If he can find a top table club where he can hone his trade – his passing is probably his most distinguishable attribute as a CB – at the highest-level each week, he should enjoy a long USMNT tenure. In the meantime, does he really belong behind Tim Ream? He is 11 years younger and has shown just as effectively in the same league.
7. Emmanuel Sabbi. Sabbi scores goals and can play multiple positions, but he is most suitable to supplant Everybody’s Least Favorite Groupie, Gyasi Zardes. OK, OK…not going to happen. But wouldn’t it be nice to see him compete with (say) a one-dimensional speedster and Gold Cup roster spot holder like Jonathan Lewis? After all, his scoring prowess from various spots on the field is unmatched by almost any USMNT player, regardless of league.
If you do not think he is good enough to supplant be 23-man roster Groupie, here is a revelation: the Danish SuperLiga does not play games in the month of January. Maybe Bert lets Corey Baird go surfing this year and gives Sabbi a look, along with other Scandinavians?
8. Fabian Johnson, LB/RB/Wing. Johnson is lower on this list than most would probably project because 1) I am unclear that he is even interested in returning, and 2) I am not convinced he has been that strong since Bert has been in charge. Perhaps I am too hasty to brush him under the rug with the likes of Eric Lichaj, Geoff Cameron, etc. as Ghosts of the Failed 2018 Run?
My personal biases aside, most supporters probably look-at Bert’s head-scratching inclusions like Corey Baird fume that options like Johnson are overlooked. I do not disagree, but I would be just as happy if Bert used a combination of versatile winger/FB options – Dest, Cannon, Yedlin, A. Robinson – rather than calling-in a 31-year-old who is not a starting option for his club when healthy.
9. Any Compelling Dual National Recruit, Anywhere. Bert has shown no inclination toward publicly recruiting dual nationals. The two cap-tying acquisitions that came in his first year were barely his doing: Tyler Boyd was on record publicly declining New Zealand call-ups for more than 18 months prior to his switch, while Sergino Dest’s loyalty to the US was cemented by a group of now-departed USYNT coaches.
Despite facing a pool with plenty of gaps, Bert does not seem to foster a competitive dynamic by courting “Passport Americans.” Some would justifiably argue that the available player pool of dual nationals is light, but surely there is a shocking coup somewhere in this stock. Would Efra have been able to ignore a senior team Gold Cup call-up? Could Kik Piere have been encouraged to join Sergino Dest’s presser in announcing his allegiance to the US? Could Jordan Siebatcheu have genuinely stated his intention to wait for a France call-up if US Soccer courted him on social media?
But we dream. With so many drab roster drops in Bert’s first year, the fan base’s fury can hardly extend to his lack of recruitment from outside the pool.
10. Matt Miazga, Reading FC. A player that made 90% of Bert’s rosters should hardly be on here, except that his exile came for arguably the most important games in the campaign: the last two. How could this omission be justified when Miazga’s club form was as strong as ever, and he played no part in the Toronto Debacle? Further, is there more fiery, competitive player in the pool that you would want in the lineup for a must-win game? (I will accept Weston McKennie as an answer, but not many other active players!)
Sadly, this baffling evaluation of player resources has frustrated USMNT fans all year, and there does not seem to be an end in sight with Bert at the helm. His January 2019 camp still looms too large, and with his 2020 session up shortly, we as fans are prepared for a new round of mediocre MLS talent that will become Groupies in 2020, at the expense of more deserving players that will make the team a better product.
At least we get to make another list like this next year!
Feel free to reach-out to the author on Johnrochenj@hotmail.com
Honorable Mention: Darlington Nagbe, Andrija Novakovich, Andrew Wooten (spring), Josh Sargent through the Gold Cup, Romain Gall, Bobby Wood.