Scuffed, Vol. 20: Jonathan González! Slow start for Americans in Europe, then Pulisic

18-year-old Jonathan González, left, is having a breakout season for Mexico’s best club.

Obsessing about American soccer players abroad is a cruel hobby. The summer is full of hope, and then the leagues all start and we’re reminded that the U.S. has but a faint footprint in European soccer, and then Bruce Arena calls up a pragmatic squad for World Cup qualifiers, silencing all the speculation about promising but unproven young players in Europe.

Premier League and German Cup matches started two weekends ago with an American whimper. Right back DeAndre Yedlin was injured to start the season at Newcastle. Center back John Brooks hobbled off the pitch in a Cup match for Wolfsburg and will be out for three months. Striker Bobby Wood played for Hamburg (and scored a penalty), but his team lost and crashed out of the first round of the German Cup in horrendous fashion (imagine a 2 or 3 seed losing in the first round of March Madness). Fabian Johnson didn’t come on until stoppage time in an expected Cup win for perennial Bundesliga mid-tablers Gladbach. And Christian Pulisic stayed home for Dortmund with a minor injury as they sailed to a 4–0 victory in their first round Cup match. The best that could be said for an American was that Geoff Cameron went the full 90 as center back for Stoke City in a 1–0 loss to Everton, and looked like his commanding self.

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But the sun shone on Americans last weekend, especially in Germany. Dortmund dominated in a 3–0 away win over Wolfsburg, and in his first Bundesliga match of the season, Christian Pulisic was brimming with confidence and ideas. Check out this clip of his touches in the match. No. 22 was the most dangerous man on the pitch. He scored the opener when he ran at two defenders from just outside the box, took a touch, and blasted a right-footed shot inside the far post. He later assisted Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s first goal of the season with a quick burst down the right channel and an inch-perfect low driven ball across the face of goal, which Auba naturally stabbed home. Both moments were pure class and Pulisic sent the statement that he’s here to take everyone’s marbles.

He was again dangerous on Saturday in a 2–0 win over Hertha Berlin, but not clinical enough. Fox has a nice compilation of his highlights, and good discussion, here. Midway through the first half, he found himself in a one-on-one at the right corner of the box, stepped over the ball with his right foot, darted inside on his left and struck it low and hard right at the keeper’s knees. Saved, barely. Anywhere else on frame and that was a goal. Later he beat three defenders and drove to the top of the box before sliding a left-footed shot just wide. It was his cross that eventually fell kindly to Nuri Sahin for the wonder strike that made it 2–0, but he could have had an assist in the closing minutes when he ran on to a looping ball over the top and cut a defender on the touch line. Had he squared to Mahmoud Dahoud it would have been 3–0, but he tried to meg the goalkeeper from point blank and it didn’t get through.

The goals and assists will keep coming. Pulisic has a special quality, which frankly mystifies a layman like me. The game speeds up when he touches the ball and looks easy. It’s good television. On the evidence of the first two matches, 10 goals and 10 assists seems like a safe bet for him this Bundesliga season. He’s still only 18 and he’s arguably the key source of attacking energy for the 6th-best soccer club in the world. Good grief. He should be on the front page of Sports Illustrated every week.

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Across the river at Schalke, 18-year-old Weston McKennie made his first Bundesliga appearance of the season, coming on for the last 20 minutes to see out a surprising 2–0 Schalke win over Leipzig. He showed his strength and quality on this play, winning the ball and weaving through three defenders to play a (fairly) accurate long ball. Otherwise he got a yellow card for time-wasting and didn’t do much. He’s still a Nabil Bentaleb or Leon Goretzka injury away from a starting spot, but the fact is he’s going to get minutes. I don’t know what Bruce Arena is thinking about McKennie, if anything, but I hope he’s paying attention. McKennie fills a need at center midfield next to Michael Bradley. No one has seized the spot — not Kellyn Acosta, not Dax McCarty, not Ale Bedoya. We need someone better there, and McKennie could be that guy if he breaks through. (He got no minutes in a 1–0 loss for Schalke at Hannover on Sunday, which isn’t terribly surprising.)

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Bobby Wood scored for Hamburg in a 3–1 win over Koln. The ball bounced kindly for him, but he made good by crushing it across the goalkeeper to the left pocket (highlight here), and he put in a characteristically blue collar shift, performing the chase portion of Hamburg’s brutalist kick-and-chase strategy. And the news is all good up north in Deutschland. Hamburg has two wins in two tries and they’re top of the table with Bayern and Dortmund. Hamburg only had 10 wins all season last year, so these are heady times.

Our man in England, Geoff Cameron, again played well in a 1–0 Stoke win over Arsenal a weekend ago. The center back kept a clean sheet, and the game’s only goal came from a move started by Cameron. His little bit of cleverness, combined with his defensive prowess, are so important for the USMNT. If either he or Brooks is going to be injured, I’d prefer it be Brooks.

Emerson Hyndman is playing his way into the squad, hopefully, at Bournemouth. After a long absence with injury, he came on as a substitute in a Cup win, and scored a goal for the club’s U-21s last week. Significant minutes with the first team in the Premier League seem a ways off but the trend is running in the right direction for the creative but oft-injured attacking midfielder.

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Fans like me spend a lot of time following Americans in Europe, but something big is happening in Mexico right now. His name is Jonathan Gonzalez (pictured above, on the left). The 18-year-old American plays deep-lying central midfield for Monterrey, who are undefeated and top of the table in Liga MX. Monterrey is fun to watch. They have a good, big holding striker and fast, tricky wingers — and they just go when they get the ball. I’ve only been able to watch a little bit of Rayados, but it’s clear Gonzalez plays a role similar to the one Michael Bradley plays for the USMNT, minus the diagonal balls over the top and with quite a bit more obvious enterprise on defense. Gonzalez doesn’t get forward much, sometimes falls back between the center backs to pick up the ball, switches the point of attack, and works tirelessly to intercept passes and dispossess attackers when they receive the ball in the middle. It’s a big boy’s job, but it’s not glamorous.

He looks like a smart, hyper-aware, not flashy midfielder who’s attentive to the details, plays quickly and has enough technique to navigate tight space but not enough confidence to put the team on his shoulders and create (which he doesn’t need to do for Monterrey). Most impressive is his sense of defensive responsibility and his ability to disrupt what the other team is trying in the middle and transition into attack. He’s not big, but looks quick and gets stuck in on the tackle. Also not terrible in the air for his size. There was rumbling that he might get called by Arena for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Costa Rica and Honduras, and it wouldn’t have been undue. He’s the regular starter in the middle of the park for the best club in Mexico, where the clubs are generally better than MLS clubs.

It didn’t happen. Arena called up a few-surprises group, opting for continuity for a must-win match against Costa Rica on Friday and one where we need a draw in Honduras on Sept. 5.

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Up here in the MLS, Darlington Nagbe scored a nasty goal on Wednesday night in a 2–1 win for Portland over Colorado. Turn and chip. I can think of two other American internationals who can score a goal like that and they are named Pulisic and Dempsey. This one was a delight.

Jordan Morris did this. Not good enough, son. Could have put the match on ice, left the chance untaken and his team ended up drawing a game they could have won.

Shoutout to Tyler Adams for versatility. The 18-year-old starter for the New York Red Bulls is learning to play all over the field. Started the season as a central midfielder, moved to right wingback, now he’s playing left wingback. I still don’t think he’s ready for primetime in the middle of the park, but maybe he’d be a decent bench option at right back, a position of need.

The next qualifier is, again, Friday in New York against Costa Rica. More on that hopefully later this week.

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