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USMNT player evaluation in the March friendlies

What’s your framework for analyzing a player’s performance?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

As the USMNT prepares for its March friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland, there will be near-endless conversations about who performed well, who missed their opportunity to impress, and who solidified their place in the national team discussion. How do we come to those conclusions? What kind of framework can be used to evaluate player performances? I was interested in hearing from the community on this, so I want to share my own thought process and hopefully hear yours in the comments.

Confirmation bias

Obviously, the simplest way to rate players is to open up FiveThirtyEight’s Global Club Soccer Rankings, find their club’s ranking, and plug in the number. Looks like Zack Steffen is coming in at #1, followed by Sergiño Dest at #2, and Christian Pulisic at #4. Maybe Chris Richards sneaks in at #3, since he’s a Bayern Munich player, even though he’s on loan at Hoffenheim? Not looking so good for Christian Cappis, whose Hobro side doesn’t even make the 639-club list.

All kidding aside, it is extremely hard to eliminate biases and preconceived notions when it comes to watching games. For myself, Aaron Long, Tim Ream, Kellyn Acosta, and Sebastian Lletget would probably have to score a bicycle kick from midfield to change my assessment of them. But even though I have made an assessment of the player already, and given it thought, I try my best to erase it when it comes to evaluating them game-by-game.

Just because a player has a bad game doesn’t mean he’ll be terrible forever. Likewise, just because a player scores a brace doesn’t mean he’s going to lead us to World Cup glory. So it doesn’t shatter my player rankings or evaluations if my favorite guy had a terrible game, or one I don’t rate did quite well - it’s fair to acknowledge those things. There are lots of factors to take into account, especially the opposition’s strength and the teammates alongside.

First touch

There’s more to first touch than just whether or not a player can control the ball when it comes to him — although that ability alone is one of if not the most important skill in the game. One of the things that impressed me most about Yunus Musah in the November friendlies was how he used his body to shield the defender and allow the ball to continue its forward movement before he controlled it, which gave him a tiny head start every time.

Progressing the ball forward

Every field player is going to pass the ball backward sometimes, but it shouldn’t be every time. The best players have the vision to find tiny pockets of space to play the ball into, and the skill to make the pass. I often watch to see how willing a player seems to find a forward pass, something that has a chance of creating a problem for the defense, as opposed to players who play the “safe” ball every time.

The cage match

Even though it’s a team sport, it sometimes takes 1v1 battles to turn a game. Which players are willing to enter the fray and win those 50-50s against their opponent? One way I look at this is asking “how big is a player’s bubble?” If a player turns and passes the ball as soon as a defender gets within 10 yards of him, that’s not a good sign.

One way Christian Pulisic and Sergiño Dest set themselves apart from the rest of the player pool is that they almost seem more comfortable with defenders right on top of them - it allows them to use their skill to eliminate defenders and keep progressing forward. Likewise, Gio Reyna and Yunus Musah excel at taking players on, and don’t shy away from defenders. This is more than just dribbling ability, though, it comes down to comfort with the ball at your feet.

Time on the ball

How long does it take a player to receive the ball, assess their options, and get rid of it? Players like Pulisic, Reyna, and Dest are prone to holding onto the ball longer than others because they can make magic happen on the dribble, so I give them a bit of a free pass - but only if their dribbling helps improve our chance of scoring.

This is one of the areas where I have major problems with Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman. They are prone to receiving the ball, stopping, standing in place, looking around, and taking several touches before finally playing a slow-rolling pass with no “zip” on it. By the time the ball reaches the next player, the opposing defense has already adjusted, and any advantage is completely gone.

If a player is checking his shoulder before he receives the ball, he may already know what he’s going to do with it before it arrives. Good players help keep the tempo up by always being ready, and forcing the defense to react to their quick movement and passing. This is one of Brenden Aaronson’s strengths.

What’s your criteria?

What say you? For instance, I didn’t list off-ball movement (which I know is extremely important). I don’t think I’ve watched enough of the game to truly grade players’ off-ball movement, at least not while watching live.

There’s also communication and interplay within teammates, which is a two-edged sword because while very important, it takes time to develop, both training time and game time. For instance, I would expect Aaron Long and Reggie Cannon to work extremely well together, because they’ve had tons of minutes together in camps (including extended January camp) as well as game minutes together during the Gold Cup, etc. If they don’t have chemistry now, they probably never will.

Of course, the opposite is true for newcomers like Bryan Reynolds, Erik Palmer-Brown, Christian Cappis, Luca de la Torre, and Jordan Siebatcheu. It will take time for them to get integrated and develop a rhythm with their teammates. The quicker they can do so, the better their chances of sticking around in the national team picture.

What framework do you use for player evaluation? How do you tell who had a good game from who embarrassed himself? Let us know in the comments.