With the CONCACAF Nations League Finals and Gold Cup this summer, there will be plenty of opportunities for players to compete for the United States Men’s National Team. This is a crucial juncture as the cycle has only recently begun, allowing for new talents to enter the fold and transition into the fabric of the squad. John Nelson of Saint Louis CITY SC has been playing a key role for the expansion side that rocketed up the Major League Soccer table. The 24-year-old fullback has impressed observers and is considered one of the surprises of the young season.
Born in Medina, Ohio, Nelson competed with Cleveland-area youth club Internationals SC in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, being named the nation’s top recruit by College Soccer News and earning NSCAA Youth Boys All-America honors in 2015 and 2016. He matriculated to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, competing over the summers with amateur sides North Carolina FC U23 and Tobacco Road FC. His performances garnered selection to the ACC All-Freshman and All-Conference teams and helped reach the 2017 College Cup.
Following two seasons in the collegiate ranks, Major League Soccer signed him to a Generation Adidas contract. Nelson was selected with the 10th overall selection in the 2019 SuperDraft by FC Dallas. During his first season in Texas, he split time between the first team and reserves, making 16 combined appearances and winning USL League One championship.
In 2020, Nelson made 11 appearances and featured twice in the MLS Cup playoffs. The next season, he began the season in the starting lineup and was gaining significant experience before a devastating back injury in August ended his ascendency. FC Dallas declined his contract option, while his recovery required the removal of a spinal disc and the insertion of a metal rod that fused two bones together, a risky procedure that could have ended his playing career.
“I was playing through it for about two years, mentally, physically, emotionally,” Nelson told the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. “I said, enough is enough. If I can’t play soccer again, it’s awful, but I just don’t want to be in pain. So, the surgery went well, and I never looked back... They were saying if you stop playing and there’s no pain, don’t get it. But I could feel that it was still gonna be in pain, and the surgeon was saying it was still probably gonna be pain. So, just got it done… There’s no point of playing through your career in pain. It’s not fair to yourself, so I wanted to keep playing soccer. It was a risky call, but at the end of the day, it was the right call.”
After selection in the Re-Entry Draft, FC Cincinnati signed him to a one-year contract with the option for an additional year. Following a full recovery from his injury, Nelson made 26 total appearances and contributed two assists for The Orange and Blue, seemingly claiming a spot in the starting lineup. However, his playing time dwindled toward the end of the season and he remained on the bench for both playoff matches.
This winter, Nelson joined newly-created side St. Louis CITY SC after being selected in the Expansion Draft. He has started every match for the Western Conference table-toppers, playing a key role during the opening five-match unbeaten run and notching an assist in a 3-0 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. Now in his fifth season, the defender appears to have found a niche under “the first coach in a while that truly believes in [him]” in a style of play conducive to his abilities. The league’s official website cited him as a player who has “taken the leap” in 2023, having fit into the club’s “aggressive defensive structure.”
“It’s not easy at all to switch cities and get used to a new team,” Nelson shared with the Medina Gazette. “I think I’ve finally found a team that I’m super comfortable with, and they fully believe in me. It shows on the field that I’m comfortable and doing really well. Hopefully, I can call St. Louis my home for a long time... I’m playing consistent game in, game out. I’m putting up a really solid performance. That goes a long way and the coach is seeing that and is happy with my performance.”
At the international level, Nelson was a frequent inclusion with various youth sides, spending time at the now-defunct residency program in Bradenton, Florida and winning the 2013 Nike Friendlies. He started in all three matches at the 2015 FIFA U-17 World Cup, a winless run that ended in the group stage. His most recent call-ups came with the U-20 team in 2017.
Nelson is primarily a left fullback who can also line up at centre-back and defensive midfielder, displaying tenacity in one-on-one battles and sure-footed tackles. As a part of St. Louis’ high press, he will occasionally venture into an advanced position in order to step to the opponent and disrupt any attempts at progress. His pass block, clearance, and dribblers-impeded statistics are among MLS’ best, although his attacking will need to improve in order to make an impact at the international level.
“He’s a brave defender,” said St. Louis manager Bradley Carnell. “He’s got good footwork despite his size. He’s got a low center of gravity, which makes his one [versus] one defending excellent. And he’s a very technical guy. He can get in on the overlaps, he can play in a back five as a wingback. He played in a back three [as a] left centre-back for Cincy at some point in the last season. So, he’s a very versatile player.”
Due to his on-field performance, Nelson could be in line for a call-up this summer, adding yet another name to the loaded fullback depth chart currently enjoyed by the USMNT. Based on the makeup of past rosters, his likely call-up would come during the Gold Cup, which has typically been a more domestic group of players. After a highly-decorated youth career, he can return to the program and make his senior debut, ideally supplying Anthony Hudson’s squad with whatever magic is being spun in Saint Louis.