At 20 years old, Owen Otasowie is making inroads with the Wolverhampton Wanderers, has his first cap for the United States Men’s National Team, and is so ripped he’d put any male contingent on Love Island to shame. But let’s be honest, any positional conversation or projection for the USMNT is premature.
Make no mistake, there’s plenty of space for debate: is he a centerback, a number 6, a box-to-box central midfielder, false 9? Otasowie has played all of them in the last few years at professional and youth levels and we’ve only briefly seen him in a U.S. shirt.
Imagine how many tweets you’ve read about Christian Pulisic being on the right, center, or the left since he made his USMNT debut. Then consider Otasowie is 19 going on 20, has previously been projected as a centerback, and has now logged Premier League minutes as a false nine. That’s one heck of an evolution.
Depending on who you ask, Otasowie has been projected as a centerback or midfielder for the past few years. Each has a reason:
Centerback: Last season, the Wolves U-23 academy had Otasowie in several backline configurations. According to formation logs from Transfermarkt, he started games as a centerback in three and five-man backlines. He was never the center man of a three-man backline, but started games on both the right and left of these setups and came off the bench in these positions.
In 2018, when he was called into the USMNT U-18s, he was listed as a defender and a larger portion of USMNT Twitter have operated off of him as a defender since that point. A common thread of articles and profiles of Otasowie include his nose for defending. As a player who only started playing organized soccer at the age of 14, it’s possible this is all we’ve known about him for several years and he’s outgrowing old conceptions.
Defensive Midfield: The Wolves academy have put the American at this spot a few times in each of the last two years, and his EPL debut last month brought him on in this position. The meld of his raw athleticism and defensive nose appear to make this a solid fit, but Wolves are looking like they’ll explore moving him further up the pitch.
From a pure USMNT standpoint, more depth at this position would be welcome given the crush of matches the team will have to play in 2021. The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio put Otasowie in this conversation, but officially off the depth chart.
Central Midfield: ‘Similar traits to Pogba’ - The Wolves wonderkid exciting Nuno & the USA - Birmingham Live, Nov. 5, 2020.
Let’s call that headline optimistic and leave it at that for now.
It’s tough to say much about Otasowie’s single USMNT cap. He was subbed on for Sebastian Lletget with only a few minutes to go in the scoreless Wales friendly. Lletget was played out of position as a false nine in that game, but had been withdrawn to midfield when the substitution brought Otasowie into central midfield.
He’s played in a more central position in several games for the Wolves academy, and in his senior team appearances it often feels like he spends a good amount of time in a box-to-box role.
False Nine: This has been the latest development of Otasowie’s game. Wolves have brought him on in this position at least once in his four EPL appearances and at least once at the youth level in the past year. This position obviously requires a special player, and perhaps the Wolves see that future for Owen. If that’s the case, it feels like they’re taking the first steps toward that now.
The Weston McKennie Comparison
Before you jump to conclusions about that header. This is about development.
Two years ago, I swore that Weston McKennie was the USMNT’s number 6 of the future. I now think McKennie is a central midfielder playing in front of Tyler Adams. If you were to block out everything you know about McKennie and just reviewed his club game logs, you’d have no idea what position he plays.
Here’s a breakdown of where McKennie played by position from WhoScored.com. These numbers reflect only when he was the top rated player on his team at the position, so it does not reflect most substitute appearances:
2017 - 2018 Schalke: Bundesliga
- Central Midfield: 13 appearances
2018 - 2019 Schalke: Bundesliga & Champions League
- Right Back: 3 appearances
- Central Defender: 3 appearances
- Defensive Midfield: 1 appearance
- Central Midfield: 10 appearances
- Attacking Midfield: 3 appearances
- Forward: 3 appearances
2019 - 2020 Schalke: Bundesliga
- Central Defender: 3 appearances
- Defensive Midfield: 6 appearances
- Central Midfield: 15 appearances
2020 - 2021 Juventus: Serie A & Champions League
- Central Midfield: 11
After the fact, this looks like McKennie was receiving a test of a young player’s skills, composure, and positionality and a carousel of assignments from first team injuries. But it doesn’t look too different from what we’re seeing from Otasowie with the senior and youth Wolves squads now. Quite frankly, it makes me excited about Otasowie & Wolves finding a path for him in future seasons.
At the end of the day, it feels like Otasowie is just a friggin’ player. Outside of an obscene number of abdominal muscles, the guy also has the talent to be on the field and just needs his instructions to make that happen.
This guy’s only been playing organized soccer for six years and is now getting Premier League minutes. We can make assumptions based on his skill set, but it feels like Wolves are going to see if they can push the limits on what we have been projecting.
We can say box-to-box, defensive midfield, or central defense, but it feels very strongly like we need another season or two to learn where Owen Otasowie fits best on the pitch and how that impacts our monthly USMNT World Cup squad projections.