Imagining an MLS Starting Eleven for the USMNT

It’s November, 2015, and we’re coming to the end of what has been a nightmarish year for the United States Men’s National Team. Boundless disappointment, a startling lack of accountability, and the ensuing mental fatigue of just about everyone who cares about the National Team program are hallmarks of what has largely been a year to forget.

But it’s not over yet, and the USMNT begins its World Cup Qualifying campaign in less than two weeks. While the prospect of watching and analyzing the play of the National Team against any opponent is always an exciting prospect for me, I can’t help but approach their upcoming match against St. Vincent & the Grenadines (excellent band name, by the way) with less than my usual level of cautious optimism.

A more accurate description of my emotional state is a mixture of ironic detachment, cynical negativity, and very earnest dread.

The first two descriptors are fairly self-explanatory given what I’ve had to sit through for much of 2015; where many times, the height of what could have been an era of symphonic experimentation and expansion towards new horizons was only, in actuality, the equivalent of a homeless man playing a kazoo in the back seat of a very crowded bus.

However, that earnest dread frightens me because there is no reason I should be feeling it ahead of a match-up between the United States and such a minuscule CONCACAF minnow. No matter my levels of cynical, dismissive shoulder-shrugging and Murphy’s Law preparedness for disappointment, there should be no real place for any actual fear.

But there it is.

It’s there because a very real possibility exists that the same formula that failed to produce satisfactory results in much of 2015’s competitive fixtures will be used again by Jurgen Klinsmann in this match. It matters little that he has hinted at relatively wholesale changes to his squad, or that he’s asked Caleb Porter about Darlington Nagbe, or that he alienated and probably exiled our best player, Fabian Johnson, after playing him out of position for 108 minutes against Mexico and throwing him under the bus by suggesting to the media that he didn’t care enough.

The most likely scenario for the opening match of World Cup Qualifying is that Klinsmann relies on many of his usual faces and the USMNT stumbles their way to a completely unflattering, unsatisfying victory.

I expect that victory because we have superior athletes, a superior collective soccer IQ among players, and superior experience in this type of situation. However, that isn’t true of only the group that Jurgen Klinsmann has come to rely on. That level of superiority exists throughout at least the upper echelon of our domestic league. Effective American players are making noise in MLS and putting up head-turning numbers at an extremely high rate in a league that is stronger than it has ever been before.

What’s nice is that, no matter how much dread I’m feeling, the overwhelming likelihood is that the US can trot out a group that’s never played together before this upcoming camp and probably smoke St. Vincent & the Grenadines.

So what am I suggesting?

Blow the whole damn thing sky-high! I’m imagining an MLS starting eleven that looks something like this:

Thanks to the good people at StartingEleven, I was able to create my ideal all-MLS USMNT starting lineup.

It’s mostly young, thoroughly dynamic, and clever as hell. The best part is that everyone on the field actually gets to play the position they’re most naturally suited for, which is something we very rarely see nowadays.

Tactically, the 4-3-3 allows for the most flexibility among a group largely made up of two-way players who excel when the game is open and have the physical and technical ability to create an open game.

Let’s start from the back:

No questions on Bill Hamid, right? Great.

As for the back four, there is plenty of US National Team experience in this group. Besler and Gonzalez are World Cup vets, MLS Cup winners, and easily two of the top three center backs in the USMNT player pool. Brad Evans is more of a polarizing figure, but he understands the importance of his role incredibly well as a right fullback. Though he doesn’t offer quite as much going forward as a Fabian Johnson or a Timmy Chandler, he is a much better defender in space and offers the security of a man who understands positional discipline.

Opposite him is Brek Shea, who is about as dynamic of a left fullback as they come. Still just 25, he’s endured the consequences of a meteoric rise through MLS with FC Dallas, an unsuccessful and emotionally difficult stint in Europe, and a positional change upon his return to the States. He’s excelled in his transition to left fullback in a way few could have predicted. He’s still raw, but his defensive instincts and one-on-one work are well above what anyone could have thought, and his huge frame makes him ideal for defending set pieces.

Going forward, Brek offers a nearly unstoppable direct threat that we saw during his left winger days, but is enhanced by the benefits of working the overlap as a fullback. Like we saw against Chile in February as well as plenty of times with Orlando City, giving him the ball with a running start and space in front of him is a magical proposition. Plus, his left foot is absolutely ridiculous.

While he’s not a complete fullback just yet, giving him the opportunity to develop in a competitive fixture against a team like SV&G could be a great choice.

In the midfield:

The group of center midfielders I’ve selected contains two of our most creative, intuitive, and dangerous attacking midfielders-one of whom has transformed his game to include tireless box-to-box defensive work- and the most complete midfielder in our pool.

Not normally a No.6, I’ve placed Michael Bradley nominally in this role because his propensity to drop deep into the midfield and act as a conduit between the back four and his attackers.

While Lee Nguyen and Benny Feilhaber are both slotted into attacking midfield roles, the tactical flexibility of the 4-3-3 and the playing styles of Feilhaber and Bradley create a situation in which they rotate and interchange with one another, each positioning himself based on the actions of the other, dictating the way in which they defend in transition and who leads the attack on the break.

Lee Nguyen is the true No. 10 in this formation, providing a lethal dose of creativity around the box and offering a skill set that transforms the squad from a transition-dependent team to one capable of holding possession and breaking down a defense when the game isn’t running at a frenetic pace.

The front three:

I salivate when I think of this group as our first-choice front line. Technical, physical, creative, capable of finishing consistently, and all in their early 20s. Not only is this a group that can be effective on the international stage right now, but one than can be built around for the next two world cup cycles.

Gyasi Zardes scored sixteen goals during the 2014 MLS regular season because he was played as a center forward. He broke into the National Team pitcure in the beginning of 2015 and has performed admirably, but has been mostly played as a winger. He’s fast, but that doesn’t make him a winger. His physicality and work rate, finishing ability, and ablity to run the central channel make him very well suited for this role, and his ceiling is higher than Jozy Altidore’s, who has been inconsistent and mentally unreliable over the course of 2015.

Ethan Finlay is fast, and he’s also a natural winger. He also tallied twelve goals and thirteen assists during the 2015 MLS regular season, which are pretty ridiculous numbers. He has game-changing pace, allowing him to stretch the field against just about any defense, as well as the positional intelligence to know when to cross, when to drift central, and when to take on a defender by himself. His defensive acumen isn’t quite as developed, but his work rate and box-to-box ability means that he has the potential to be a proud two-way player.

The best mid-season acquisition made by the LA Galaxy was Sebastian Lletget. They also picked up Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos, but their impact can be argued based on empirical data to be significantly less than that of Lletget. Since coming to Los Angeles in the Spring after spending time with West Ham United, he registered seven goals and two assists in seventeen starts, showing impressive skill and amassing quite the hype train. The truth is, he’s backed up the hype with a workhorse mentality and consistent effectiveness. He’s already a proud two-way player, and his strength both on the ball and going into tackles is top class. In a league as physical as MLS, he stood out with his strength.

While not as pacey as Finlay, his technical nuance and developed two-way ability make him the ideal complement to left fullback Brek Shea. His propensity to drift and combine centrally creates space for a fullback to make overlapping runs, which was part of what made Robbie Rogers so dangerous for the LA Galaxy this season.

The bottom line:

Jurgen Klinsmann’s roster selection for November’s WCQ matches probably won’t look anything like this. Sure, it should, and sure, it would be exciting and effective, but there’s pretty much zero chance this happens.

But I can still dream, and you can too.

Bother me on Twitter, comment on this article, email your congressman, write a letter to Sunil, do whatever you want. Let’s chat about this lineup, the role of MLS in the US National Team, and what you want to see from US Soccer.


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