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October USMNT Stock Up/Stock Down

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Some things to build on; some to never ever do again.

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The United States Men’s National Team picked up 6 points out of 9 in the October World Cup qualifying window, with wins at home over Jamaica and Costa Rica, and a dreadful loss away to Panama.

Which players impressed? Whose stock with the team rose, and whose fell? In order to evaluate this, I decided to include the SSFC player ratings. Not because the ratings are perfect, but just to add some type of data to the conversation, flawed as it may be. I did some quick math to make sure that the player ratings were evened out based on minutes played per game.

Obviously, I as a writer have huge biases when it comes to national team players. It’s impossible to completely keep biases out of pieces like this, but I am doing the most I can by recognizing my biases exist, and refusing to base this article on them - another way that the data, even flawed, helps me check myself.

One other difficulty in player evaluation is separating player performances from team performances. The performance in Panama City was so poor that nearly no one comes out unscathed. Similarly, the results at home were positive, but it is easier to identify players who didn’t excel in those games. Let’s get into it!

Striker

Holding steady: Ricardo Pepi

Stock down: Zardes

I was tempted to list Pepi as “stock up”, but it’s awfully hard to raise your stock any higher than it was at the end of the September window, when Pepi was flying high on a 1-goal, 2-assist performance that brought the USMNT back from the brink of a 1-point qualifying window. While it’s not stock up for Pepi, he at least solidified his spot as the #1 striker, scoring 2 goals to key the win over Jamaica, and making several one-touch layoffs in the Costa Rica win.

On the flip-side, Gyasi Zardes disappointed this window. He missed the September window due to injury, and was recalled this time around, with Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent missing out.

It’s hard to blame the attackers too much in the Panama loss; they rarely received the ball in good positions, due to the disastrous midfield. However, Zardes missed a good scoring opportunity in the Jamaica game, when Tim Weah rocketed the ball across the 6-yard box. Gyasi also managed to head home into our own net away in Panama.

Whether or not you think the 3.23 overall score for the window is harsh on Gyasi, he failed to overtake Pefok and Sargent.

Winger

Stock Up: Tim Weah

Slight increase: Brenden Aaronson

Holding steady: Matthew Hoppe

Slight decrease: Paul Arriola, Cristian Roldan

The breakout performer on the wing from this window was Timothy Weah, who was forced to withdraw from the September window after being named to the initial roster. Weah has never truly locked down a starting spot under Gregg Berhalter, but with Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna both out injured this window, it was his time to shine.

Weah was electric off the bench vs Jamaica, bursting past defenders and creating what could have been a tap-in goal for Zardes. He started in Panama City, and put in a much weaker performance. It’s easy to blame his struggles on the midfield, but we should expect a player of Weah’s level to take on more responsibility when surrounded by lower-caliber teammates.

Paul Arriola’s injury in warmups gave Weah another opportunity vs Costa Rica, and Tim showed his skill again, as the USMNT played more attractive soccer than we’ve seen in a long time, and Weah created the winning goal in the second half. Weah still needs to be more clinical in the final third, and more consistent in general, but this was a window to build on for him.

Brenden Aaronson had already established himself in the first window, scoring 2 goals, and he continued to play well in October, getting the assist for Pepi’s second goal vs Jamaica. Aaronson’s spot in the team is secure, the only question is whether he is a starter when players like Pulisic and Reyna are back healthy.

Matthew Hoppe had a couple good moments in his sub appearance vs Costa Rica, but didn’t get enough opportunity to show his skill, which is frustrating on its own given the team’s lack of attacking edge in Panama.

Paul Arriola started the first two games, and was slated to start the third before being injured in warmups. Arriola made some good runs and put in good off-ball movement vs Jamaica, and could’ve drawn a red card in the first minute when he was dragged down. However, when the ball did reach his feet, the result was all too familiar, with momentum slowing down and failure to combine with teammates in the attacking third.

While Arriola deserves some credit for the team’s success vs Jamaica, he also deserves blame for some of the attacking problems in Panama City. Most illuminating of all, though, is the fact that the team was able to combine and create so well without him on the field in the Costa Rica win. Players like Aaronson and Weah are much more conducive to the attack, leaving Paul’s role uncertain, although whether Berhalter sees it that way is very much an open question.

There’s not much to say about Cristian Roldan, other than that Gregg Berhalter hasn’t seen a reason to give him more minutes, even with a struggling attack, and that when he has gotten on the field, he hasn’t produced much. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Roldan left off the team with players like Pulisic and Reyna back fit, and Konrad included once more.

Center midfield

Stock up: Yunus Musah

Slight increase: Weston McKennie, Gianluca Busio, Luca de la Torre

Stock down: Sebastian Lletget

Yunus Musah was a revelation in the October window, as his skillset is exactly what this team has needed in the center of the park. Musah’s combination of on-ball ability and defensive range give the team real selection problems when Reyna returns to health.

Weston McKennie was already one of the team’s key players, but was sent home in the September window due to a disciplinary issue. If there was any doubt about his role moving forward, he answered those questions, as his performances were key to the two wins at home, and he was sorely missed in the loss to Panama.

Luca de la Torre played just 14 minutes in one substitute appearance vs Jamaica, but even in that limited time he showcased the skills that make him so useful to this USMNT midfield. Luca isn’t threatening players like Reyna, Adams, McKennie, or Musah for playing time, but his ability to turn on the ball and drive forward is crucial - and could have been game-changing in Panama.

Gianluca Busio played one minute less than Luca, subbing on for 13 minutes against Costa Rica. Like LDLT, Busio showed flashes of what he’s capable of in his short opportunity, and reinforced fans’ frustration with his limited opportunities, given the woeful display in Panama.

And then there was Sebastian Lletget. Lletget was the worst player on the field in Panama. His struggles perfectly exemplified the team’s struggles. Lletget has put in good performances for the USMNT in the past, but has struggled mightily in 2021, playing negative almost every single time he gets on the ball.

The USMNT had 43 attacking-third touches in the first half vs Panama, compared to 126 vs Jamaica. Likewise, the US midfield completed just 11 passes to each other in the first half in Panama, compared to 36 vs Jamaica. Things didn’t get much better in the second half, either.

In a midfield with Musah and Acosta, Lletget’s role was to drive the game forward, and he simply failed to do that. As a result, he was left out of the squad for the final game vs Costa Rica, and shouldn’t be expected in the November roster.

Defensive midfield

Slight increase: Tyler Adams

Stock down: Kellyn Acosta

Tyler Adams’ stock was already high coming into the October window, but if anything, he raised it even more. Perhaps most noticeable was his absence in the first half in Panama, as opposed to the September window, when he played all 270 minutes. He was a key part of the defensive solidity, midfield combinations, and passing out of the back every time he was on the field.

On the flip-side, Kellyn Acosta took a step backward this window. Acosta took hold of the backup 6 role with steady performances in the Gold Cup, doing good defensive work in general, and excelling in the final vs Mexico. However, he struggled in October. Many of his issues went hand-in-hand with Lletget’s, as the two of them were unable to progress the ball through midfield.

While there are several options who could compete with Acosta for that backup spot, including Christian Cappis, Tanner Tessmann, Johnny Cardoso, and James Sands, it seems unlikely Acosta will be dropped from the squad, unless he continues to put in performances similar to Panama.

Left back

Slight increase: Antonee Robinson

Stock down: George Bello

If this is starting to sound like a broken record, that means you’re hearing it correctly. Antonee Robinson solidified his place in the starting lineup with good performances, while George Bello struggled away in the Panama match. Bello’s spot was already in jeopardy after being at fault for the goal in Honduras. One wonders if Joe Scally, Jonathan Gomez, or Kevin Paredes could be gunning for that backup LB spot soon.

Right back

Stock up: Sergiño Dest

Holding steady: DeAndre Yedlin

Stock down: Shaq Moore

Sergiño Dest might be the biggest individual winner from this window. After struggling in September, and picking up an injury, he came blazing back, with an assist vs Jamaica, an absolute screamer of a goal vs Costa Rica, and generally fabulous attacking work throughout. There’s no question he will be a starting fullback for this team moving forward.

The other right backs on the roster were less impressive. DeAndre Yedlin was fine in his limited minutes, doing little to raise our lower his stock from the previous window. Shaq Moore was the disappointment here, and you guessed it, he was the starter in Panama. Shaq worked his way up the national team depth chart with good performances at the Gold Cup this summer, but he contributed little to the team in Panama City. One wonders if Joe Scally, Reggie Cannon, or Bryan Reynolds could force their way into the pecking order soon.

Center back

Stock up: Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman

Holding steady: Miles Robinson

Stock down: Mark McKenzie

With two games gone and zero minutes played, it looked like Chris Richards was going to have a disappointing window. But when Berhalter gave Richards the starting nod against Costa Rica, he answered the call. Richards looked a little nervy early, but grew into the game as things opened up, snuffing out attacks and showing his composure on the ball. He made a vital tackle in the box that could’ve been called for a penalty, but he didn’t go in wildly, instead carefully wrapping his foot around the ball to prevent the attacker from reaching it. Richards looks like a promising youngster who is ready to contribute to this team now.

There wasn’t anything incredibly notable about Walker Zimmerman’s performances this window. The main item of note is simply that he played two full games, and wore the captain’s armband for over 90 minutes, after being glued to the bench in September and not even being included in the initial October roster. Zimmerman is stout defensively, especially in the air, but has lack of incisiveness on the ball was part of the problem in Panama. It will be interesting to see where he fits into the team with Brooks, Richards, and Miles all healthy.

Speaking of Miles Robinson, he continued his generally stellar play, marred only by a brutal giveaway that Costa Rica failed to punish. However, that play also exhibited what makes Miles (and Chris Richards) such special defenders - the blazing foot speed that allows them to cover ground, destroy chances before they open up, and gives fullbacks freedom to maraud forward.

Mark McKenzie gets the short end of the stick, having logged all 90 of his minutes in the dreadful Panama performance. McKenzie was fine defensively, but didn’t do enough to build possession from the back, which is a skill he is counted on bringing to the table. Zimmerman was also culpable in the possession shortcomings, but unlike Walker, McKenzie didn’t get a chance to play in either of the other games, so his struggles are more obvious. That’s especially the case given his relatively low ratings in the September window, which followed his brutal giveaway to Mexico that led to the opening goal in the Nations League final. McKenzie is a promising player, but he will need to perform better if he’s going to be a national team regular.

Goalkeeper

Slight increase: Matt Turner

Holding steady: Zack Steffen, Sean Johnson

Matt Turner continued his good work in net, keeping a clean sheet vs Jamaica, and only beaten by a close-range Gyasi Zardes header in Panama City. However, Gregg changed things up in the final match vs Costa Rica, bringing Zack Steffen out of exile and into the limelight.

It’s tempting to say Steffen’s stock is up simply because he got a starting nod, something he didn’t manage in September, but there are questions of whether Zack could have done more to prevent Costa Rica’s early goal. While Zack’s foot skills were helpful in avoiding pressure and building out of the back, Turner’s better shot-stopping may be the key to holding onto the #1 keeper spot moving forward.

Summary

Solidified their position: Turner, Miles Robinson, Richards, Dest, Antonee Robinson, Adams, Musah, McKennie, Luca, Busio, Aaronson, Weah, Pepi

Basically the same standing: Steffen, Zimmerman, Yedlin, Hoppe

At risk of losing their spots: McKenzie, Shaq, Bello, Acosta, Lletget, Arriola, Roldan, Zardes

What are your takeaways? Who raised or lowered their stock this window? Let us know in the comments.