The US U20 Men’s National Team laid an egg of epic proportion on Saturday losing to 10 man Panama 1-0. On top of a mostly impotent attack, the central midfield looked entirely out of sorts that day, failing to connect the simplest of passes. They’ll have to pull a 180 today against Haiti (4:30 pm CT on UDN and Facebook Live), or they’ll almost assuredly be eliminated.
This isn’t to say there is a lack of talent at that age group. Schalke alone held back Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague as potential call ups, and there’s a host of other starlets in MLS preseason who weren’t chosen who seem like they might have helped on Saturday. Finally, this cycle’s Julian Green could end up being Timothy Tillman, a highly-ranked Bayern Munich academy player who is eligible by birth to represent the US and Germany.
Further, there are a host of players a tick older who are or already have established themselves as first-choice pros. These 10 are all central midfielders who could break through and make the team who represents the United States at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. (For 2016 edition, go here).
Central Midfield (Top 10)
1. Emerson Hyndman Bournemouth/Rangers
2. Kellyn Acosta FC Dallas
3. Gedion Zelalem Arsenal/VVV Venlo
4. Will Trapp Columbus Crew
5. Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders
6. Caleb Stanko SC Freiburg/FC Vaduz
7. Sean Davis Red Bull New York
8. Russell Canouse- Hoffenheim/VFL Bochum
9. Duane Holmes Scunthorpe Utd.
10. Marky Delgado Toronto FC
New to the list: Kellyn Acosta FC Dallas, Cristian Roldan Seattle Sounders, Duane Holmes Scunthorpe Utd.
Hyndman finally got his free transfer (his unwillingness to re-sign cost him minutes at Fulham) to Bournemouth in the Premier League and promptly was relegated to squad depth. A winter loan to Rangers fixed his game time problem immediately, and he has disappointed with 2 goals and an assist over 5 matches across competitions. A continued hot streak could see him force his way into Arena’s plans in March.
Zelalem (yet another eligible U20 unavailable to Ramos) recently was loaned to Earnie Stewart’s old club VVV Venlo and scored in his 2nd match with the Dutch 2nd division leaders. He slides in ahead of Canouse and Stanko who have both experienced a mix bag with their respective loans this season but remain worthy prospects.
Domestically, Acosta makes the list as a central midfielder as well because of his overall quality, relative experience, versatility, and the fact that Arena has stated he sees him playing a similar position to where he plays for FC Dallas. With Jermaine Jones having recently turned 35, the question for Acosta seems to be more when than if.
Trapp is firmly established at Columbus and a periphery player at this point but will be disappointed he was released from January camp without the opportunity to play in friendlies. Roldan, who barely missed out on the 2015 U20 World Cup, zooms up the list on the strength of a strong 2016 MLS campaign that saw his defending improve as a regular for the MLS Cup champions. Davis did enough with his opportunities to make Dax McCarty expendable in New York, and Marky Delgado expanded his role in Toronto to the point that Will Johnson was considered surplus in the offseason as well.
The lack of attacking midfielders sees the return of Duane Holmes to my list, having dropped off the year before. Holmes, formerly of Huddersfield, has established himself as a regular for current League One promotion favorites, Scunthorpe Utd. While his tally of 3 goals and 3 assists so far this season is hardly torrid, this marks the first year for the 22 year old to log significant professional minutes. With a tad more production in the next 3 months, it isn’t impossible to picture the Georgia born mid as a bench option during the Gold Cup this summer.
Central midfield at the senior level has significant depth, but the level of play could improve as there’s a ton of older players in the middle of the park. While it's hard to imagine more than 1-2 of these players making it to Russia in 2018, it also seems inevitable that this cycle’s answer to 2002 Pablo Mastroeni will come from this group. Who will force their way in to the conversation?