In his last three World Cup appearances, the United States’ men’s national team averaged 4.3 players per game. teams with Champions League experience. The numbers on these teams were Jonathan Spector and Julian Green, who had combined in a total of 23 minutes in the competition at the time of their inclusion in the American squad.
In the latest international window, one could count seven players boasting minutes on European football’s biggest stage, and that was without Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie, Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest and FC Salzburg striker Brenden Aaronson. There may not be consensus on US manager Gregg Berhalter’s best XI yet, but it is not unreasonable to assume that nine of the 11 players on the field in the Americans’ opening match in Qatar 2022 will be Europe-based.
The two exceptions? It would be in central defense where Nashville SC captain Walker Zimmerman and Atlanta United prodigy Miles Robinson have established themselves as the player pool’s leading defenders, with the New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long apparently best positioned to expel one of them.
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With American players increasingly heading abroad and at younger ages, how have three players aged 25, 28 and 29, based in Major League Soccer, sewn the first three spots on the midfielder’s depth chart ahead of VfL Wolfsburg veteran John Brooks or promising Chris Richards from TSG Hoffenheim, who are on loan from Bayern Munich?
“Major League Soccer is open to giving young players the opportunity to be on the field,” Berhalter told ESPN. “Every time you get young players on the field, there is a huge development curve, and you see that in many of our younger players.”
Since his age of 23, Zimmerman has played an average of 2,130 minutes of league play per game. season. Robinson has played an average of 2,131 league minutes in the last three years when he was 22, 23 and 24. Long has accumulated an average of 1,818 minutes a year since his 24-year season in 2017, despite playing only five times in 2021 after suffering a torn Achilles in May. Take the lost season out of the equation and his average rises to 2,227 MLS minutes a year.
That opportunity for consistency is not given to players crossing the Atlantic. Mark McKenzie left the Philadelphia Union in January 2021 as a much-proclaimed 21-year-old center-back. In the almost one and a half season since joining Genk, he has accumulated 1,729 Belgian Pro League minutes – although it should be noted that these would be considered his seasons of 21 and 22 years.
“It’s about getting to the right place,” former USMNT center-back and veteran MLS defender Michael Parkhurst told ESPN. “You can go to England and be on a great team in a great place, or you can go to England on a terrible team where you fight for relegation and the coach does not like you.
“That’s the risky part. It’s not, ‘are they good enough?’ It is, ‘Are they landing in the right place that sets them up for success?’ “
But there are more than just opportunities that explain the growth Zimmerman, Robinson and Long have achieved in MLS. Since this trio has been selected ahead of international teammates who earn minutes in the LaLiga and Bundesliga, this trio has not only grown in America; they thrive.
“MLS is a league that prioritizes spending money on attacking players,” Parkhurst said. “All the best players in the league are mostly wingers and No. 10s and No. 9s. As a central defender, you have to face the best players in the league.”
It’s a feeling that Berhalter repeated.
“Miles, Walker and Aaron,” Berhalter said, “they’re going to play against some very good players, and that’s really helping their game develop.”
Of the 65 designated players listed before the 2022 season began, only nine played on non-offensive positions. Say what you will about the level of the league and its salary structure, it has placed great emphasis on recruiting powerful attacking talents and its defenders are better at it.
Battle-tested and with a World Cup at the end of the year providing the biggest stage to showcase one’s talents, could Zimmerman, Robinson and Long join their counterparts abroad in 2023? For Zimmerman and Long, at 28 and 29, respectively, that ship may have sailed.
“I was in that moment … where it is now or never,” Parkhurst said. “I think I was 24 or 25 and I was about to sign another four-year deal [in MLS]so at that point it’s like, ‘I’m getting too old [to go to Europe]. ‘ So there’s definitely a time limit where you’re not attractive anymore and the opportunity is not there. “
Recently turned 25 and reportedly with a year left on his contract after the 2022 season, Robinson now has a decision to make. Does he stay in Atlanta and follow in the footsteps of his USMNT defensive partners and MLS survivors, or is he trying his luck in Europe?
“I really think Miles could play in any league in the world,” Parkhurst said. “I do not think he is the final product, there are small things he needs to work on and improve on, but I have never played with anyone who is a better defender, I have never seen a better one-on-one. defender.
“Normally it’s the physical tools that would prevent you from playing in certain leagues, but these guys are three of the most athletic defenders I’ve ever seen.”