July 2010

The Kids Are Alright: US Rising Midfielders for 2014

Six US Midfielders on the Radar For 2014

Alejandro Bedoya, Orebro–The Boston College product had such a promising season in Sweden, endearing himself to Orebro fans and USMNT fans alike– that he received a surprise call-up to the final USMNT World Cup camp and had a legitimate shot of making the roster for South Africa. To some, including this writer, it was curious given that all we saw of him in a national shirt was a pair of cameos in two friendlies a few months before the final camp. Yet Bedoya is not without an array of positives. Starting with a long-time relationship on the field with dynamic young striker Charlie Davies, there are plenty of reasons to think Bedoya can help the national team in the future. Bedoya has good size and is a physical presence defensively, but if he is to help the senior team in the next cycle it will be on the offensive end of the pitch. He is a crisp passer of the ball, but better he’s adept at carving out space for himself on the flanks and using his space and field vision to create open space for teammates. Like MB 90, he makes excellent runs without the ball as well, which makes the US offensively more complex by giving defenses a bit more to worry about, as he requires opposing defenses to account for his position on the pitch. Expect Bedoya to get several chances to get out ahead of the remaining players on this list at the beginning of the cycle.

Sebastian Lletget, West Ham United—The eighteen year old with Italian/Argentine roots has come back from a rare blood disease which had him back in America recovering for most of the winter and early spring and continues to make rapid progress in the famed West Ham United youth academy that produced such players as Frank Lampard, Joe Cole and Rio Ferdinand. West Ham has long been a cauldron for young talent, with other alumni such as Carlos Tevez and Craig Bellamy having plied their trade at Upton Park before moving on to world domination, and Lletget appears to be headed down a similar path. He told Justin Rodriguez of ESPN in March that he felt he had a “chance to be with the full team by the end of this year,” and that (he wants) “to play for the first team and I think I can do it. The way I’m playing, I can see it, and that would be really big for me. That’s the way I feel.” Lletget, an attacking midfielder at heart, has exceptional field vision and is a tremendous passer. His pace is sneaky as well because he is very controlled on the ball, which is a problem for many rising, young midfielders, including Jack Rodwell of Everton, a similar player in terms of size and skill set. Lletget’s Italian heritage has created a great deal of fear among supporters and coaches about what he’ll decide to when it comes time to choose a national team, but his call-ups to the US U-20 development team camps are a good sign and his US Coach, Thomas Rongen, says Americans have nothing to fear. He is excited about the coming U-20 cycle, Rongen said, and remains “committed” to the United States. If his development continues at its present rate, Lletget will legitimately threaten for a roster spot in Brazil.

Luis Gil, Real Salt Lake—The sixteen year old from San Diego has opened eyes with his remarkable technical ability and speed, and he’s drawn comparisons to none other than Cesc Fabregas and Landon Donovan at this early stage in his career. Gil, who rejected an academy offer from Arsenal to remain in the states and play for MLS, ended up in Salt Lake after an odd sequence of trades this spring, and says he is confident that his development will be best-served for the time being plying his trade domestically. Says his U-17 coach Wilmer Cabrera: “He’s a smart, technical, gifted player who always treats well the ball well. He has fun with the ball, knows how to pass, how to control it, how to make good touches on the ball, and that is something that is natural for him. He can make everyone around him play well, because he’s always going to give you a good pass. It’s easy to play with him.”The main thing to remember about the quick and flashy midfielder at this stage is that nothing is guaranteed, regardless of the talent. He’ll also have to find a role, especially if the United States gets a new coach less acquainted with who is in the developmental hopper. A roster spot, however, is not out of the question. Remember, Thomas Mueller, 20, emerged as an electrifying starlet at the World Cup this June, and Gil at this stage is a more capable player. If he continues to develop, 2018 is a certainty, and 2014 is not out of the question.

Chris Pontius, DC United—Tough call picking between Pontius and the recently relocated to MLS Sal Zizzo, who was a star for the US U-20 teams he played on. I had to pick one player a great deal older than the two above, and I choose Pontius. At twenty-three Pontius has already been called into a senior team camp this past January. A late-bloomer, Pontius emerged late in a career at UC-Santa Barbara, where he was a finalist for college soccer’s version of the Heisman Trophy as a senior. Pontius, a converted striker with a Clint Dempsey-esque eye for goal, is an extremely versatile player who can help stabilize a midfield, make sound short passes and play forward if the game so dictates. Versatility is a trait national team coaches love, because it generates layers of depth in the form of one body (rare internationally), and that would make you think Pontius will get a good look. It is a shame certainly that he suffered a stress fracture to his foot against the LA Galaxy this past weekend, because his sterling run of club form, including recent MLS player of the week honors, surely had him on the short list for the Brazil friendly next month.

Jack McInerney, Philadelphia Union—Yes, I could have chosen Alex Martinez or ball-tricks with Robbie Findley pace mid Charles Renken in this slot, but you know an Atlanta boy is going to have some love for the ATL, and East Cobb product affectionately known as Jack Mac. McInerney, a Generation Adidas product, was drafted straight out of high school to MLS and has already begun to make a mark for the newly-minted Philadelphia Union, becoming only the eighth player in MLS history to find the back of the net before his eighteenth birthday this past May. Sure, he’s been loaned out to lower-level American sides to get more playing time recently, but these growing pains are part of development.  McInerney, a US developmental academy product since a young age, is a pacy mid in the Landon Donovan mold that has tremendous control with the ball at his age and is an excellent finisher. His development will be closely monitored by the Yanks coaches and technical director Claudio Reyna as the Americans continue to look for more traditional scorers to complement the bevy of young tenacious ball-winners in the system, and playing for a newer side suffering from growing pains will only help him progress more quickly. Best of all, Jack Mac reps the A—stating that his pre-game I-Pod routine is what it should be: Atlanta-based rap music. Expect to see McInerney called into a senior team camp mid-cycle.

Andy Najar, DC United—You would be hard-pressed to find a better combination of talent and results at a young age in the American system. Najar is the best of all-worlds—pacy, a skilled dribbler, an imaginative passer and creator, a capable finisher. He’s been dubbed the new and improved Freddy Adu by ESPN’s Leander Schaerlaeckens, the type of player who vindicates the MLS Academy systems because he’s embraced the hard-work these academies require in a way it seems Adu was not able to, and that work-ethic has paid dividends given his extraordinary talent. One can only wonder sadly whether Adu would have seen a similar progression if he hadn’t been thrust into a senior team role so quickly, instead allowed to thrive in an academy setting until he was ready for the next step. Najar has excelled at DC United this season, and was unquestionably snubbed in Bruce Arena’s All-Star team that will take on Manchester United in the coming weeks. As such, Najar’s rapid progress and work-ethic make him very likely to see the field for the US Men’s National team in the near-future, and will give him a chance to board the plane and perhaps play extensively in Brazil, correct? Well—here’s the rub. Najar was born in Honduras, and his choice of national team sides is all the rage in the Honduran press. Thus far, Najar has deflected the questions, saying he’d prefer to focus on the rest of his season at DC United. But as is well-documented here and here, Najar will make a decision soon, given the Central American championship next winter provides Honduras a chance to cap and keep Najar with that country and deny the USMNT his great talents. Honduras will try. And one couldn’t fault the kid for choosing his home country. After all, at seventeen, he’s not yet eligible to apply for US citizenship or a non-immigrant temporary VISA that would open the door to the USMNT. His decision is a huge one, no question, for US Soccer. Unfortunately at this point, all we can do is wait.

The Yanks Are Coming’s WAY TOO EARLY PROJECTION OF USMNT MIDS HEADED TO BRAZIL: Keep in mind, this list operates under the assumption both Donovan and Dempsey are still technically playing midfield in 2014. To compensate for that unlikelihood, I’ve chosen ten midfielders, instead of nine: Donovan (captain), Dempsey, MB 90, Stuart Holden, Jose Francisco Torres, Benny Feilhaber, Maurice Edu, Sacha Kljestan, Luis Gil, Freddy Adu.

Neil W. Blackmon

  • Amy

    Nice list– but you forgot Anton Peterlin of Everton and Alejandro Bedoya, who probably has a jump start on the rest of these cats.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Thanks Amy ! Edited to include Bedoya. Peterlin and Dax McCarty were probably the next two on the list with Sal Zizzo. The main thing is this is the position where the US has the most depth, and talent. It’s a positive problem to have.

  • dth

    Isn’t McInerney a forward? I’ve seen glimpses of him in U-20 and with the Union–I’m pretty sure he’s a forward. Ton of ability, so I don’t disagree with you that he’s very much a factor for 2014, but I think this is the wrong section for him.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    Thanks for the comment, dth. To answer– no, McInerney is a midfielder. He’s an attacking midfielder who has been slotted forward w/the national team– but is certainly an AMF rather than a classic secondary striker or Center Forward. At seventeen, however, I suppose it is possible he could eventually play exclusively in one spot or the other. For now– he draws Donovan comparisons in part b/c of his back and forth b/w the two spots.

  • Neil W. Blackmon

    The links in the article also discuss this at length, if that’s any help !

  • Amy

    I actually believe Najar will pick the U.S. Maybe I’m drinking the kool-aid, but that’s what I think. Similar position to Torres, in that he has to know he can be a larger impact player in our pool, and the pull of having lived here a while can wear on a guy. Rossi is not even the exception b/c he went to Italy at such a young age.

  • Martin

    Actually, Örebro is in Sweden, not in Norway.

  • Daniel Seco

    thanks Martin. Corrected.

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