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Two Years of Gregg Berhalter: The Talent Pool

For the final piece in the series, we talk about how the talent pool has improved over the course of the last two years and how it’s set to keep improving.

Hertha BSC v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

We just hit the two year point for Gregg Berhalter’s term in charge of the United States Men’s National team, and to mark the occasion, I’m doing a comprehensive review of the team since he took charge. This is part four and final part of the series, and we will be talking about how the player pool has improved over the last two years. If you need to catch up, you can go back to the first, second, and third parts, where we talked about roster selection, dual nationals, and tactics, respectively. I hope all of you have enjoyed the series and found something insightful.

There’s a limit to what we can see we’ve learned about the USMNT since 2019. I mean, a pandemic DID happen. Through the entirety of 2020, the MNT played a grand total of four games spread across three camps with major restrictions on who was at each game: two games for an MLS contingent, two for those in Europe. That includes major omissions because of availability (particularly, Pulisic). As a result, we’ve been limited in our ability to evaluate Gregg Berhalter holistically. However, this series hasn’t really been interested in Berhalter specifically. It’s moreso been a series about what has happened to the USMNT over the course of the last two years. That brings us to this part, where arguably the most important thing to happen for the USMNT over these two years has precious little to do with Berhalter. The biggest stories, particularly in 2020, were those of players breaking out or elevating their game.

Something New

In a span of a single year, a slew of young American talent showed big signs of growth. Gio Reyna broke out in a big way at Borussia Dortmund at the tender age of 17. In just his second season, he’s essentially a set starter for one of the biggest clubs in the Bundesliga. Matthew Hoppe and Owen Otasowie made their debuts for Schalke 04 and Wolverhampton, respectively. Hoppe even scored a hat trick in January.

There’s a number of transfers to talk about as well. In MLS, Brendan Aaronson turned a good rookie year of 2019 into a fantastic sophomore 2020 and secured a transfer to Red Bull Salzburg. Reggie Cannon continued his good form of 2019 for FC Dallas, earning a transfer to Boavista in Portugal, where he has performed well and been the subject of yet more transfer speculation. His replacement at FC Dallas, Bryan Reynolds (who has yet to feature for the MNT), turned a good autumn in MLS into a transfer to AS Roma. In England, Antonee Robinson went from playing well with a relegation-bound (thanks, administration) Wigan Athletic side playing in the EFL Championship to playing well for Fulham in the EPL.

The big transfers were Sergiño Dest and Weston McKennie moving to Barcelona and Juventus, respectively, where they look like they belong. Dest is playing regularly on arguably the most prestigious club in the world (ow, saying that hurt). Meanwhile, McKennie is proving himself to be something of a darling in a league that is all too often happy to criticize. The young Texan has turned into one of the most offensively threatening midfielders in the entire league, while demonstrating his tactical growth with the national team.

Of course, there are other players who had good years. Pulisic had an amazing summer with Chelsea where he stepped up and became one of the most dangerous attacking players in the league, though both he and Chelsea have somewhat lost their form of late. Jordan Morris also had a great year, dominating on the wing for the Seattle Sounders on their way to the MLS Cup final. It’s a shame Morris suffered such a terrible injury with his ACL tear after moving to Swansea. I look forward to his return back to the national team. But in the meantime, the MNT has really strong options, with the likes of Tim Weah performing for Lille in France.

There’s A LOT of really good American talent out there that’s playing really well. We’ve already talked about how the player pool has gotten wider with so many players making their debuts. That talent is also getting deeper. For the first time ever, we’ve got multiple Americans playing consistent minutes at the biggest clubs in the world. Even in MLS, you still see American players on the rise and being among the league’s goals and assist leaders. There’s now a clear pattern where young American players break out and become elite talents:

2016: Pulisic
2017/18: Adams, McKennie
2019: Dest
2020: Reyna

I think most of us realize that this something very new. It is well within reason to believe that each of these talents could go on to be the best male player the United States has ever produced, and, yet, they’ve all come up at the same time. That indicates something big has changed.

Kids These Days

It would be patently unfair to give just a single reason to explain why the US is producing better talent faster than ever before in history. There is no single explanation for how and why things changed. I can think of lots of individual factors: the growing popularity of soccer in the country, the increased development of soccer fields, immigration patterns, ease of access to European soccer, MLS expansion, increased interest from European institutions, the development of grass-roots American soccer culture... I could go on, but actually talking about each of these would require their own article to do them justice, so how about we just talk (briefly) about one particular element.

Chris Wondolowski is the record holder for most goals scored in MLS history. For 10 consecutive years, Wondo scored at least 10 goals, by far the longest such consecutive streak in league history. When looking at his career in full, we find that Wondo scores a goal just under every two games. These records represent an incredible achievement, and demonstrate just how skilled an athlete Wondolowski really is, both in terms of physical and mental talent.

At his peak, Wondo truly was elite in his movement, his poaching ability, his reaction time, and his balance. You would expect a player with such distinct abilities to have a long and successful career with the national team, along with at least some record in Europe. Neither is the case for Chris Wondolowski. Wondo has a decent 35 caps for the national team, but never tried his hand at Europe. And I think the reason for both these things is that Wondo didn’t break out until he was 28 years old.

Wondo was drafted by the San Jose Earthquakes as a hometown prospect after four years in college in 2005, the 41st pick in the draft. He would then make occasional appearances over the next two years, first with the Earthquakes, and then with the Houston Dynamo when the team relocated to Texas, while performing well in the league’s Reserve League. His career picked up a bit in 2007, when he became a rotational piece. By the time he was traded to the resurrected Earthquakes in 2009, Wondo, then aged 26, had 58 appearances with the Dynamo, with a meagre eight goals to his name. It was only back in San Jose where Wondo’s skills were finally identified and put to good use.

The fact that Wondolowski’s been able to build an exemplary career playing mostly in his 30s is something to be commended. But it also highlights just how bad MLS used to be at identifying, recruiting, developing, and integrating talent. While Wondo’s achievements are an outlier, the struggles of his early career were not. There are scores of players who came into MLS in that time period with potential, but who never were given a platform to develop into full professional players. I do not at all think it is a stretch that if Wondolowski had been identified earlier in his career, he — and many others like him — would have been much more successful in their careers and substantially better players. Late identification costs players opportunities to push their careers to the highest levels and prevents them from being able to develop to their full potential.

It is with great joy that, 10 years after Wondo’s breakout, a player like him would see a completely different career arc. Talented young players are much more likely to be identified by local MLS academies as high schoolers. In Wondo’s case, that would be the San Jose Earthquakes. From the academies, high quality players are identified by the local MLS club and signed to Home Grown Player contracts, increasingly as teenagers. Or even identified by European clubs, as was the case with McKennie, Sargent, and Pulisic (though the later two were at independent academies, not directly affiliated with MLS). Once signed to a HGP contract, these young players get playing time, either in MLS or with a USL team. From there, they are integrated into the club’s full senior squad. This talent identification and integration pipeline is now generating results. What’s more, MLS has realized just how successful this talent production stream is (players are better, cheaper, and potentially bring in transfer fees) and are now increasingly trusting young players in big moments. The key lynchpin in the Columbus Crew’s MLS Cup victory over Seattle was a 19 year old named Aidan Morris! As a result, the league is now full of young players who, despite their age, are not prospects but contributing squad members. Every year, MLS publishes a list of young talent, originally called the 24 under 24. In 2010, a mere 8 of those players were under 21. By 2020, that list had shrunk to 22 under 22, and all but 3 are 20 or younger. MLS has leveraged this academy-to-club pipeline to produce players like Tyler Adams, Brendan Aaronson, Paxton Pomykal, Reggie Cannon, and Alphonso Davies (admittedly, he’s Canadian), among many others. And there’s no reason to believe that the pipeline won’t keep producing talent. I just mentioned Aidan Morris, but I could also have talked about Gianluca Busio or George Bello. The talent is set to keep coming.

The Glam Up

This deepening talent pool means that we need to change how we view our players. A few weeks back, I made a kind of off-hand post in one of our comment threads about how Duane Holmes might be outside the USMNT fold at this point. I don’t mean this to ding Holmes or something. Rather, it’s to say that the USMNT went from potentially really missing out when he was forced to miss the 2019 Gold Cup due to injury to fielding a midfield comprised of players from Juventus, RB Leipzig, and Valencia. The expectation has grown to the level where players trying to break into that starting XI need to be able to hang with players from Chelsea and Barcelona. If you aren’t playing at that Champions League level, there’s a promising young player in MLS who could take that spot from you. As a result, players who were projected to be future regulars on the international stage - not just Holmes but the likes of Emerson Hyndman and Julian Green - they are at risk of being bypassed entirely by younger talent.

The player pool quality has grown by leaps and bounds in a vary short span. And the crazy thing is, it’s perfectly within reason to expect it to continue to improve. Is Duane Holmes actually never going to play for the national team again? I don’t know. It’s important to look at the big picture, because right now, the talent pool is becoming something quite impressive. With a bit of luck, it’ll be something stunning and beautiful in just a few years.

Tying up odds and ends

Back in the second installment, I put out a quiz question asking out of a list of dual nationals and nations they could potentially present, which player and nation pair was actually incorrect. The answer was Gio Reyna and England. While Reyna was born in England (and caused a brief controversy about whether he would pick the USMNT or England), he is not and has never been eligible for England because you don’t automatically gain English citizenship merely because you are born in the country (unlike in the United States). Reyna is, however, eligible for Portugal and Argentina through his paternal grandparents. Mark McKenzie and Kellyn Acosta each have a parent who came from Jamaica and Japan, respectively. Both of Sebastian Lletget’s parents are Argentinian, while Jesus Ferreira was born in Colombia and immigrated to the United States (his dad even played for Colombia!)

If you’ve got any comments, criticisms, suggestions, thoughts, etc. about this piece or the whole series, let me know.

As always, stay safe.