It’s the fall after a World Cup which means it’s optimism season. Four years ago that meant coming off of a promising but underwhelming single victory in Brazil to see what the player pool looked like ahead of a packed schedule of Gold Cups, a Copa America, and qualifying for 2018. The October friendlies showed some new faces on the USMNT, who could forget Miguel Ibarra being called up or Joe Gyau getting a cap. Let’s not omit Joe Corona or Luis Gil either. Then of course there’s Mix Diskerud.
So we’re back in October - sort or a weird in-between time for the USMNT. A new manager might be interviewed or hired or something in November, some new players are rising to potential stardom in Europe and things seem good. That excitement though might be giving way to groans as the Stars and Stripes will be without three of their best players for the upcoming friendlies against Colombia and Peru. Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, and Christian Pulisic are all being held out of the national team. On the one hand, this is something of a let down, on the other it’s nice having players good enough that their clubs are maybe overstating their injuries so they can keep playing in competitive games.
Looking at the replacements for these players though shows something else about the US men’s player pool - it’s particularly shallow. Rather than player in, or on their way to in the case of Adams, a top five league in the world the injured stars are being replaced by players who are decidedly a step down talent-wise. Obviously this is a time for trying out new players and seeing how they fit into the future of the national team, but taking a look at the depth of the positions Adams, McKennie, and Pulisic play doesn’t paint a promising picture should the US need to replace them in a major tournament.
Weston McKennie/Tyler Adams - The pair seem to have the making of a central midfield duo that could anchor the USMNT through the next World Cup cycle. Who is next on the depth chart? Darlington Nagbe, Marky Delgado, Cristian Roldan, Kellyn Acosta, Michael Bradley, Wil Trapp, Alejandro Bedoya, Alfredo Morales, Russell Canouse, Danny Williams and Emerson Hyndman. Each player offers a somewhat different skill set and opposing strengths and weaknesses but would be able to play the same position as McKennie and Adams. But that’s about as far as it goes and frankly of that list I couldn’t say that one is a vast improvement over another and they are definitely a step down from the first pick.
Christian Pulisic - The lone world-class US player is obviously not one that can be easily replaced. He is versatile and can play as a no. 10 or as a winger and the options for a replacement are somewhat slim. Tim Weah is promising but he’s yet to earn consistent minutes with Paris Saint-Germain, Julian Green seems to have found a starting spot in 2. Bundesliga though his performances aren’t exactly showing that he can step up a level anytime soon, and Kenny Saief who is injury prone and plays in Belgium. Then there’s Jonathan Amon, Lynden Gooch and Romain Gall who do not seem to thave the potential of Weah and aren’t quite at the same level as Green and Saief.
The list of Americans in MLS that play on the wing and could be on the national team are: Fafa Picault, Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, and Jordan Morris’ dog. These players could step in for Pulisic, but he is the entire gravity of the USMNT, everything revolves around him and when he is out of the lineup there isn’t a player like him. If the US were in a must win game and had to replace Pulisic from that list I have no idea who I would pick.
In the end what the USMNT has are a trio of UEFA high-level players that it relies on through midfield and attack being backed up by guys fighting for playing time, players in secondary European leagues, or Concacaf-level MLS starters. That might be useful in regional competitions, but it will not get the US very far in a World Cup.
The injuries also show how far the US has to go in building a talent pool that is deep enough to actually compete against the best teams in the world. Germany, France, England, Argentina, Brazil, Croatia, Belgium, Senegal, Spain, Italy, and Nigeria may have ups and downs between tournament cycles, but they can reliably produce players in nearly every position three or four deep that feature in the best leagues in the world and on the top clubs globally. Until the US can do that injuries like these will be a major problem for the team and not just a minor set-back that can be addressed thanks to having decent depth.