So we sit here on March 28, 2020, not a sporting event in sight, and the world hastily/abruptly coming to a screeching halt. I found myself thinking about the United States Men’s National Team (shocker) talent evaluation. Specifically, the way we determine whether or not a particular player has a future in the national team picture.
Now, if you spend enough time on twitter (and lord knows we all do) you start to notice certain trends about #USMNT twitter. USMNT twitter is the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Nothing bears that more honestly then the talent evaluation spouted out about the nation’s player pool. Players are revered one day by a group of people, and then those same players are berated and ridiculed the next week when they either don’t play or don’t produce up to what the previous week’s results were.
This style of rash judgement and, quite frankly, wrong judgement got me thinking that over the course of the last 15-20 years (my fan-hood dates back to 2002-2003ish. So forgive me for not being a complete nutcase about the 90s teams. The way we evaluate our talent pool is way out of whack and wildly ineffective.
For the most part, our evaluation of players relies on their club performance, which is the way it is in most countries across the world. And we absolutely should rely on that because, quite honestly, that’s a bulk of their play we get to see. However, because our nation’s talent pool is spread out across the globe, it’s hard to track progress and get an accurate feel for the pool itself across the different leagues. Then, when all the players come together for a camp, we expect certain players to rise above because they were going nuts for their club team, and when they don’t it becomes a massive debate throughout the USMNT universe.
We’re actually making this process more complicated than it needs to be/should be.
So, with all that being said, I have a few simple solutions to judge our talent pool and who should be in or out, considered or cast away, rated or not rated.
1 ) THE EYE TEST
This for me is the number one evaluator of USMNT players in our system, and it’s really quite simple…. The player should JUMP off the screen if they are to be included in the USMNT rosters.
Now, this may seem easier said than done, but hear me out. (Also, is anything ever easier DONE than SAID?)
When I watch a game, in any game, there are players that are playing and there are players that are leaping off the screen. It may not be a significant number of players, but each game has someone that you notice and say, “Huh, that’s interesting.”
Here’s a smaller scale example:
I was an NYCFC ticket holder for the first 4 seasons of the club and EVERY time my buddies and I went to watch a game there were a few guys who jumped off the field. One of those players was Jonathan Lewis, a recent call up of a couple January camps and a much criticized player across the talent pool. Everytime Lewis was subbed on, he created a spark, he created energy, and he made something happen out of nothing. Is he a polished player? No. Is he a full 90 minute player? Probably not. But the point still stands that someone who’s being evaluated on the international level should have an impact every time they step on the field.
Larger scale example:
2006 World Cup group stage game against Italy. The US had a ton of hype going into the tournament and pretty much laid an egg, but managed a draw against Italy in the group stage. There was this right midfielder for the US who kept bombing and attacking Italy’s left back. He had no fear, he had swagger, he had an attitude like he thought he belonged on the field with, arguably, the world’s best team. He LEAPT OFF THE SCREEN. Turns out that guy went on to have a pretty great career.
On that fateful night in October 2017, it wasn’t veterans Dempsey, Bradley, and Altidore the team was looking for. It was an 18 year old kid who showed no fear and supreme skill level that they were looking for to right the ship.
Immediately steps on the field at one of the biggest clubs in one of the biggest leagues on the planet and starts running at defenders, picking out needle passes, and then does things like this. Gio Reyna wondergoal vs Werder Bremen
We don’t need to complicate the evaluations of our players in the talent pool any further than this: They don’t show the way Pulisic and Reyna show. It’s really not more complicated than that. They both play in the top leagues in europe, and they both flash every time they get on the field.
We need to stop coddling our young players and “easing” them into the program if they are already the best players in the pool. And we need to stop over analyzing the trajectory of what players are going to be and start realizing what they are now.
2 ) Are they getting minutes for their team, regardless of where that team plays?
This is a simple one for me. You have to be getting minutes to be getting better. If you aren’t getting minutes you need to move to a different team/league or fight for a spot. Pulisic made the big move to Chelsea and wasn’t getting time in the beginning of his tenure there. He fought, scrapped, clawed his way into some time and then when he got the time, absolutely lit it up.
We need that type of fight and competitive drive in our players no matter if they are in MLS or if they are in the Premier League.
A perfect example of this is Matt Miazga, a player that the USMNT world appears to be obsessed with. Whenever he steps on the field for his club team he looks solid, and his few stints with the USMNT he’s been solid as well. But he’s been the subject of 3 loan moves since 2016, which tells me his home club, Chelsea, don’t have a plan for him. We can also incorporate rule 1 with Miazga as well… Does he leap off the screen? Maybe? It seems as though our fan base has penciled him in as one of our leading center backs and in my opinion, someone like Aaron Long has earned that spot much more than Miazga has.
The thought process behind this rule is: Get on the field and produce.
3 ) Gamers vs Practice Players
Now to be fair, much of the USMNT media and twitter universe doesn’t have access to practices, especially because there are so few of them. However, we can make some assumptions based on coaches lineup selections that there are some players who just show really well in practice and then step on the field and don’t produce.
Two examples: Timothy Chandler and Christian Roldan.
Jurgen Klinnsman used to ALWAYS call him into camps and constantly put him in the lineup as the first choice right back. He plays and has played well for his club team, but whenever he put on the US shirt it seemed to shrink him to a below average player. I’m willing to bet he was someone who stood out in practice and did everything the coaching and technical staff asked, but when the lights came on, he was supremely ineffective. (For what it’s worth, my least liked player of the last 10 years for the US)
Another player who’s been in nearly every one of, current coach, Gregg Berhalter’s plans. A player that produces weekly for Seattle Sounders in MLS so he checks evaluation boxes for 1 and 2. But when it comes time to step on the field for the USMNT, the international game just seems like it’s too much for him. He has been given ample opportunity and time and time again he has come up short. At some point we know what we have in players like these. They have been given their shot and didn’t do anything with it. Time for the next guy’s chance.
In turn, we have guys in our program who came in and just constantly did their job and produced on the international level.
Aaron Long & Reggie Cannon
Both Long and Cannon have been fixtures in Berhalter’s recent rosters and both started out as head scratchers and then blossomed into, arguably, two members of the USMNT starting XI. Long isn’t the fastest, strongest, best in the air, but he’s constantly in the right spot and always making great defensive plays. The same goes for Cannon. Cannon isn’t the best going forward, isn’t the best positionally on defense, but he has a quality about him that most of our players don’t have: He gives zero F’s (as the kids say).
At some point we have to stop waiting and waiting for the players we THINK are going to be good for the US, and start putting forward the guys who produce when the lights come on for our country. It’s really as simple as that. Guys like Roldan, Chandler, Lovitz, and even Wondolowski from the past have been given their chances multiple times and multiple times have failed to live up to it.
Meanwhile players like Dempsey, Bradley, Pulisic, Long, Cannon have been given their opportunities and you can tell within the first 5 minutes that they belong on the field. THAT is what we need to get back to when we evaluate our talent. Enough of the analytics and the over analyzing of what each player does in practice or for what system. Let’s get the guys with some bite, some swagger, and some attitude back on the field for the USMNT so we can return to what made us rock in the first place.