By John Roche (johnrochenj@hotmail.com

For the die-hard USMNT fan, 2019 was a frustrating year, with much angst attributed to Bert’s dull and inept player selection. (Quick—who was your USMNT breakout player of the year?) 

If we can draw on one encouraging data point, though, it is this: if you are healthy and playing regularly in an elite Top Flight European league, you are getting a call-up. These pickings are very slim currently largely due to injuries, but the current injury trend will endure, as it always does. We have to consider that, in 2020, the core of our most talented, European-based contingent will likely never be on the field together because, at some point, any one of – and probably multiple of – Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Josh Sargent, John Brooks, Sergino Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Alfredo Morales, etc. will be hurt. 

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Right now, Bert’s backfill to this plague is a markedly less-talented MLS contingent. And while we have seen encouraging spurts from some of them, we largely know what we can expect from this bunch, and it’s simply not good enough. Few supporters would argue that USMNT will be successful heading into World Cup Qualifying in September with the current “Group” of Berhalter-favored MLS options like Christian Roldan, Daniel Lovitz, Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes, Jonathan Lewis, Corey Baird, etc. Even the in-form Jordan Morris is not known for dissecting hunkered-down Honduran or Jamaican defenses, a skill that is so critical to grinding-out results in a brutal Hexagonal qualifying cycle (Hex). 

So, what do we do in September 2020, when the Hex kicks-off, if Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Josh Sargent are all on the shelf? Ideally, we call on the below players, each of whose development is crucial this year because their core strengths address critical attacking gaps. 

I would go so far as to say that if these five players are not all regular contributors by the time of the Hex, USMNT senior team is doomed in 2020. A combination of Bert’s poor talent selection and awful in-game management, coupled with an inevitable rash of injuries, will cripple USMNT in the early stages of qualifying. So, no pressure guys, but you have to perform at the club level in a way that Bert simply must call you in! 

Please note a few caveats: Firstly, as always, I do not talk about goalkeepers.      

Secondly, the emergence of these players is weighted by combining a positional need with the likelihood that Bert will call them in. At CB, for example, I consider that Chris Richards or Miles Robinson emerging as a top-choice option would serve as a relatively moderate upgrade over current starters in the short-term. Hence, they are not on here. Similarly, Julian Green might garner another seven MOTM performances in 2020, but so long as he does it in Bundesliga 2, he will not be a blip. 

Lastly, we would all LOVE for there to be an as-yet-unknown player in the pool somewhere, perhaps a youth player whose stock skyrockets quickly, or a dual national who declares unexpectedly, who could jump to the front of the line. For good measure, I have included a couple of Dark Horse candidates, but – while I would love to be wrong – I think the best emerging prospects are in plain sight. 

Let’s dive in.

1. Paxton Pomykal, ACM or Winger, FC Dallas

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So, after all the buildup of the European contingent, an MLS player tops this list! Pomykal is simply the most practical candidate to inject a much-needed attacking flair into the midfield in 2020 under Bert. (Emphasis: under Bert.) He is slippery, creative, versatile, and –though not big – can play physical, as he demonstrated most capably against a group of larger, more seasoned French U-20’s. An injury slowed his progress post U-20 World Cup, but few doubt that a full-fitness Pomykal is an upgrade at ACM or winger.

Bert has already called him into a couple friendlies, so the hope is that a dominant January Camp – which is very feasible considering how he distinguished himself against his MLS peers in 2019– means he should leapfrog a thoroughly underwhelming Christian Roldan in a Starting XI. He could realistically do so by March, at which point Dallas would justifiably keep him and his $650k annual salary out of Olympic Qualifying.    

Given his new contract, he is likely to remain in MLS for this full season. However, at his current trajectory and with access to a European passport, he is almost certain to be in a Top Five European league by January 2021, ideally through a $7m-$10m transfer fee. But that is for later; USMNT needs him in 2020.   

2. Richie Ledezma, ACM, PSV Eindhoven

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Ledezma may be second on this list, but his upside as a creative midfield force – the vision, the pivots, the ball control in tight spaces, the open field sprints, GLORY BE! – is higher than anyone else in the current pool. His physicality needs to evolve, but put him next to a destroyer in the midfield, and that wart just about disappears.  

PSV’s situation is an interesting one, with a new manager at the senior team and a relegation-threatened Jong side, but the organization clearly rates Ledezma. He should see first-team opportunities in 2020, and the hope is that he seizes his chances and makes Bert bristle at the prospect of an all-European midfield. Likely the only inhibiting factor is another long-term injury.

3. Tim Weah, Winger, Lille

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More compelling than his obvious athleticism and versatility – in peak form, he is an upgrade at winger or striker – Weah brings a much-needed intangible: leadership. Did you see how, after he scored the game-tying goal against Ecuador in the U-20 Quarterfinal, he demonstrably huddled and rallied his teammates with an emphatic pep talk? Can you think of anyone in Bert’s current arrangement (maybe McKennie?) that would do something like that? 

Perhaps it’s bold to think he would be such a strong presence for the senior team right away, but his competitive fire will be needed during away games in the Hex: humid nights, hostile crowds pelting the players with debris, belligerent opposing players hacking them at every touch, the pitch coming apart under their feet, etc. At minimum, Weah needs to be a first option off the bench in these circumstances. 

4. Giovanni Reyna, Winger/ACM, Borussia Dortmund

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Stop us if you have heard this one before: a US teenage phenom ascending the first-team latter at Dortmund before his 18th birthday! Reyna, like Weah, offers positional versatility, with a significantly higher goal-scoring upside that the senior team desperately needs right now. Few who have seen him play believe he cannot transition to senior team football in 2020, and others (this guy!) would argue to include him in the Hex even if he is not yet playing senior team football every week. 

If you think calling him a “must hit” for 2020 is aggressive, you might be right, but I would argue his indoctrination into Dortmund’s first team and the senior USMNT squad at such a young age would be a continued momentum builder for the broader player pool by adding to the unprecedented number of young Yanks thriving at football’s highest levels. 

5. Chris Gloster, LB, PSV Eindhoven

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Sergino Dest’s decision to play for the US has somewhat offset the need for Gloster to emerge right away, but adding a pure LB with Gloster’s rigid defending and probing, crafty attacking thrusts would allow Dest to play his more natural RB. 

Gloster’s trajectory since the 2017 U-17 World Cup – from RBNY to Germany to commanding a premium salary as a foreign-born player at one of the top clubs in Holland – is hugely encouraging. A first-team chance at a very unsettled PSV side could well emerge in 2020, and if Gloster grabs it, Bert would have no choice but to finally stop calling in Daniel Lovitz!   

Dark Horses: 

Ulysses (Uly) Llanez, Winger, VFB Wolfsburg

Most USMNT die-hards would probably have Llanez higher on this list. His blend of audacious ball possession (both to get out of tight spaces and dart through the open field), deft give-and-go passing, and dangerous shot-taking is unparalleled in USMNT senior team player pool annals. He is dominating for Wolfsburg’s U-19 team and will almost certainly see a senior team debut in the spring for a senior team not brimming with creative options. 

He is low on this list for two (2) reasons. First, his physicality against senior competition has not yet been tested, and I worry there is a 3-to-6-month injury spell lurking just after his emergence for his senior club team. Secondly, USSF leadership is so inept they are not actively courting him, even for the U-23/Olympic qualifying tournament. (This came from his father on social media.) They will likely come around just in time, but well after most supporters would like to see him.    

Nick Tatigue, Winger, Schalke

The sample size is extremely small and has been gathered against far inferior competition, but when he is healthy, the 20-year-old winger looks and plays like Christian Pulisic. He was once rated in the Guardian’s Top 50 teenagers in the world (along with Pulisic) and it’s not outrageous to think a healthy, productive spell on the U-23’s could land him on their first team come spring. He will impress if he gets that call-up; the only question is health, which has been an even bigger problem for him than most. 

Brenden Aronson, ACM, Philadelphia Union

Aronson was something of a surprise debutant in 2019, taking MLS by storm in the spring. He tapered-off a bit, as any youngster thrust into a grueling MLS schedule would. But he followed-up a slow end to the season with an impressive performance against a Brazil U-23 team in the fall, shielding possession, taking players on, and architecting scoring chances – all against top-level competition. Like Pomykal, we hope he can dominate a January camp and supplant more tired CM options.

Jesus Ferreira, Striker, FC Dallas

Finally a US citizen, Ferreira is lower on this list because Dallas no longer employs him as a pure striker, so Bert may not be evaluating him as such. But someone will have to player striker in January Camp! Let’s hope that it is him, as striker depth is much-needed, and the 19-year-old Ferreira projects to see the pitch for FC Dallas regularly in 2020. 

Owen Otasowie, CB/DM, Wolverhampton Wanderers

He is lower on this list because he has recently transitioned to being a CB for Wolves, where he has made the bench twice in the Prem and seen time in Europa League (where he almost scored in his first touch) at the age of 18. Apparently larger clubs are beckoning with his contract due to expire in the spring of 2020, so England – where he also has citizenship – might take notice. If Bert can find a way to employ him as a destroying CM, he would be higher on this list.