Scuffed, Vol. 12

Christian Pulisic signing autographs in Hershey, Pa., as kids look on. (Samantha Madar, PennLive.com)

Hugo Perez, the former USMNT winger and uncle of Fiorentina prospect Joshua Perez, said something interesting on Twitter last week: “Watching our (national team) play against Mexico, we need players that can take people on — real wingers and midfielders that (are) creative to feed forwards.”

The comment might be self-serving. Perez’s nephew — who excelled alongside Christian Pulisic in the youth national team system and is trying to break into first team action in the Italian league — epitomizes the attack-minded winger his uncle is lobbying for. And the comment ignores Pulisic’s creativity. But Perez has a point. If Pulisic plays in the middle, which is probably his best spot, then the number of dangerous wingers in the USMNT pool is, well, zero.

Compared to Mexico, where Carlos Vela, Jesus Corona and Hirving Lozano each can shape the momentum of a match from the wing, it’s kind of embarrassing.

Darlington Nagbe is the closest thing America has to a game-changing winger, but he’s tentative by nature, inconsistent, and even at his best, as a friend of mine put it, provides the “pass behind the pass.” That’s great, and Nagbe’s calm in possession is worthy of praise, but he’s not going to make a blistering run to the end line and pull it back to the penalty marker for a striker to arrive on it. Nor is he likely to cut in from the wing and fire a shot from the top of the box.

Then comes Fabian Johnson, the former USMNT left back and now presumptive starting winger opposite Nagbe. He was mostly invisible against Venezuela and Trinidad, and then sat against Mexico. You can chalk that up to a long Bundesliga campaign and recent injury. But Johnson will be 30 in December, and his strengths have always been technical soundness, composure and tactical awareness. His most productive season was 2015–16 — eight goals in all competitions — and if you watch his highlights from that campaign, you see he’s not building a resumé by dropping his shoulder terrorizing opposing fullbacks. He doesn’t go after people.

After Nagbe and Johnson, there’s no one even close to the type of winger Hugo Perez describes.

Paul Arriola and Alejandro Bedoya are hard workers who shoulder defensive responsibility, but neither looks entirely comfortable with the ball at his feet. They don’t “try shit,” as Bruce Arena once famously put it. Nobody sticks out as a creative force from the wing until you get into prospect territory — Josh Perez or Andrew Carleton. Brooks Lennon is an exciting young player but his ability to strike curling crosses into the box isn’t matched by an ability to skip past a defender one on one. And don’t come at me with Lynden Gooch — he’s fine, but he’s not a creative winger. The pipeline for the position is running at a trickle compared to, say, central midfield, where there are a half-dozen young Americans with real potential.

I don’t have a solution, just a diagnosis: We don’t have enough creative American wingers. DeAndre Yedlin’s bombing runs forward help, but the lack of a consistent outside attacking threat makes it more difficult for our central players to find space and score goals.

Of everyone in the player pool not named Pulisic, Nagbe has the best chance to be the winger who imposes himself on a match. We need him to do that this year and in 2018, and we need Perez and Carleton to come along quickly. Carleton didn’t make the match day squad for Atlanta United on Saturday, and news about Perez is hard to come by. He scored 10 goals for Fiorentina’s U-19s, but no idea if he’s going to join the first team this fall.

Striker problems. I’ve said before that Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey (and to some extent Jozy Altidore) aren’t getting the job done up front. Neither are the strikers coming for the Gold Cup. I tallied up goals scored since May 10 by the seven American forwards called up for the pre-tournament camp. Their output has been abysmal. Agudelo, Altidore, Dempsey, Dwyer, Morris, Sapong and Wondolowski have scored six times across 45 competitions. Two of those came from Wondo, leaving four for the other six gentlemen across 39 competitions. No matter how you slice it, we’re not heading into the Gold Cup with a striker pool in scintillating form. Sure would have been nice to bring Josh Sargent into camp for a look.

— — 
Potential future USMNT midfielder Tyler Adams, fresh off the U-20 World Cup, returned to action with New York Red Bulls this past week, and matches against NYCFC and Philadelphia were fresh chances to see how the 18-year-old looks playing against grown men. My verdict? Don’t book your ticket to see him in Leipzig this fall. Adams certainly belongs on the pitch in the MLS, and his tackling and range are a pleasure to watch. But his passing and work in tight spaces can be ragged, and the defensive midfield feels a bit porous when he’s out there.

Let’s start with the good part. In a 1–0 victory over Red Bull rivals NYCFC, Adams turned in a man of the match performance. (It helped that his Venezuelan nemesis, Yangel Herrera, was not playing.) Adams bossed the midfield — was tough in the tackle, quick and decisive, calm in possession and occasionally incisive with his passing. The Red Bulls don’t ask him to venture forward much, since Sacha Kljestan occupies that space, so his job is to win the ball, keep possession and look now and then to pass forward through the lines. The Red Bulls were brutally ineffective in the final third, thanks to Kljestan’s wastefulness (that friendly at St. Vincent seems like a century ago), but Adams was a rock in the middle. At 18, he looked faster and more fluid than anyone else on the pitch, and more assured on the ball than most. And he’s a lunch pail guy. This is him running somebody down. He did stuff like that all night. After the match, NYRB assistant coach Chris Armas, a former USMNT midfielder, gave Adams high praise: “Watching him play, the way he can cover ground, at such a young age be that fearless. He can just clog up the middle, shut things down. Second half, you can see one of the recovery runs he made down the left channel. It’s incredible to watch. I think we all have to take notice and enjoy that as much as we’re going to have him here.”

The youngster isn’t perfect. He lost track of Tommy McNamara in the first half, leading to a wide open chance that should have been a goal. And on Sunday in Philadelphia, even though New York won 2–0, Adams turned in a more forgettable performance. His touch and passing were too often errant, and he didn’t dominate physically the way he did on Wednesday. Getting better at passing forward, and positioning himself to break up the attack — both mostly mental challenges — will cement Adams’ position as a future USMNT midfielder. He’s not there yet. His next step professionally is unclear, but eight months shy of his 19th birthday, he’s become an automatic starter for a playoff-caliber MLS team, and the transfer rumors are flying. Conventional wisdom is he’ll stay in New York at least through the end of this season. He needs to start dominating MLS matches, starting this weekend against NYCFC, for me to believe he’ll move to Europe this summer. He has a shot at revenge against Herrera, who plays the same position as Adams and got the better of him at the U-20 World Cup. This interview with Adams from ExtraTime Radio is worth a listen. Just went to prom, obviously sees himself on the USMNT in the future, and his favorite players are N’golo Kante and Naby Keita (both diminutive, high-powered holding midfielders). In any case, thinking about Adams, Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta competing for starting central midfield spots behind a Pulisic-led attack in the 2022 World Cup cycle makes me happy.

— — 
Speaking of Weston McKennie, it looks like he’s moved up a spot in the depth chart at Schalke. The German club is putting central midfielder Benjamin Stambouli on the transfer block. Does that mean they’re confident McKennie can slot in quickly this fall? Or will they buy another central defensive midfielder? Stay tuned! Leon Goretzka, Schalke’s best player and a more attacking midfielder, is playing well for the German national team at the Confederations Cup. Learning alongside Goretzka will be, no doubt, a huge benefit to McKennie.

Minnesota kid Jackson Yueill, a favorite of Matt Doyle, scored a very nice goal in San Jose’s 2–0 victory over San Francisco F.C. He connected with a deflected set piece and buried it in the far corner. I haven’t watched enough of him to form an educated opinion, but he’s sold as a true creative No. 10, and the knock on him is lack of speed and strength. On Saturday he made his MLS debut against Sporting KC and showed promise in the last 15 minutes, mustering a shot on goal.

Erik Palmer-Brown, the young center back in the Sporting K.C. system who starred at the U-20 World Cup, is reportedly being pursued by several clubs in Europe, Amsterdam’s Ajax chief among them. A deal could happen this month. I wasn’t as impressed by EPB as I was by Cameron Carter-Vickers. He was beaten on both goals Venezuela scored in our 2–1 quarterfinals loss, and missed a free header at the death that would have won that game. He also has a tendency to give up cheap corner kicks. It was a poor clearance by him that led to the corner kick that Saudi Arabia scored their equalizer on. He’s clearly a sought-after defender, and the Dutch Eredivisie is a good place for him to get playing time and grow. If he ends up in the Ajax first team this fall, though, I’ll be surprised.

— — 
Somebody on Reddit got the fan base to predict the lineup for the U.S. Men’s National Team five times over the past 18 months. It’s pretty meaningless (Julian Green?), but the rosters show how much things change. Jordan Morris has fallen out of favor. Christian Pulisic has become a guaranteed USMNT starter. Sacha Kljestan has been dropped from the squad. Clint Dempsey has fallen and risen, and fallen again. John Brooks and Fabian Johnson don’t look like undisputed starters any more. Jorge Villafana has emerged from nowhere to lay claim to the left back position. Nagbe has settled in as a winger rather than a central playmaker. A lot can, and probably will, shift in the next 12 months. Remember, few other than the most committed soccer fan knew who Christian Pulisic was in December 2015, but by June 2016 he was on the field against Argentina in the Copa America semifinals. Big ifs, but if Adams starts dominating in the MLS in the way people think he’s capable, and McKennie breaks into the regular rotation with Schalke, and Josh Sargent scores three or four goals for Werder Bremen (or whoever) next spring, then they will be challenging for national team roster spots heading toward the World Cup, and the current roster will look silly for omitting them.

Scuffed is a weekly soccer newsletter focused on the U.S. Men’s National Team, and the players who could one day make it better. You can sign up here.