By Jeff Rueter – SAINT PAUL, MN (Mar 29, 2018) US Soccer Players - Four weeks into the 2018 MLS season, and we’ve already had our first cause for debate about international window etiquette. MLS sides once again had the option to prioritize double-game weeks over playing during the international break. That makes a difference in this league. Even losing a few starters can be the difference between being competitive and being a pushover.
This plays in reverse when considering who CONCACAF nations can call up. As MLS teams work to build up momentum early in the season, they’re often hesitant to send a star man off for a friendly. Complicating that fact with a lack of a World Cup berth, the USMNT had only six MLS players make an appearance in Tuesday’s 1-0 victory over Paraguay in Cary, NC.
It shows an interesting balance for the USMNT’s bubble players heading into the 2022 cycle. As of right now, the majority of defenders and attackers are plying their trade in other leagues. It’s unclear how long-time mainstays like Matt Besler, Graham Zusi, and Jozy Altidore will factor into the next four years. As for this week, however, Dave Sarachan brought in players who may play a role in that qualifying campaign. Here’s how the choice sextet is doing in the 2018 MLS season.
Zack Steffen, GK, Columbus Crew
There’s no bigger changing of the guard in the USMNT program right now than the goalkeeper position. For two decades, it’s been the one true stable area of the field, from Tony Meola to Brad Friedel, and Kasey Keller to Tim Howard and Brad Guzan. With Howard a fresh-faced 39-year-old, there’s been no obvious apprentice coming through the ranks. Steffen was called in alongside Toronto’s Alex Bono and Midtjylland’s Bill Hamid, with the Columbus man getting the nod for this week’s friendly.
After solidifying his star in last year’s postseason stunner over Atlanta United, Steffen continues to show the polish he’s gained since coming back from Freiburg. His blend of confidence and shot-stopping ability bodes well for his future, and he impressed with what little work he had to do on Tuesday. Competing in a wide-open field with Bono, Ethan Horvath, and (dare I say it) Jonathan Klinsmann, it seems Steffen is the early frontrunner to inherit the position for the long haul. The only thing missing may be the requisite bald head.
Darlington Nagbe, MF, Atlanta United
Despite only earning his first caps around the 2016 Copa America Centenario, Nagbe will be part of the old guard for the next cycle. A record-breaking trade saw him leave Portland for Atlanta, a move that seemed impending once Caleb Porter resigned. Often shuffled around the pitch, the utilityman will continue to see minutes both centrally and on the wing.
There’s still work, as Nagbe seems to take the easy pass more often than trying a risk-reward ball. If any coach in the league can help him unlock another facet of his game, it just may be Tata Martino. In Portland, he was one of two or three central figures week-in and week-out. Now, he’ll be something of a secret weapon as teams focus on Miguel Almiron, Josef Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, and Tito Villalba. It may just be enough to help Nagbe for club and country.
Wil Trapp, MF, Columbus Crew
Like his goalkeeping teammate, Trapp is looking to work his way into a regular starting spot with the USMNT. The holding midfield roles may be the program’s deepest pool to draw from. IT’s not just the regulars from the previous cycle. It’s also Weston McKennie, a rejuvenated Perry Kitchen, Kellyn Acosta, and Huddersfield Town’s Danny Williams.
Trapp wore the captain’s armband for the Paraguay friendly. He had a stout, level-headed performance worthy of the honor. Of all the players in the litany above, Trapp may offer the least moving forward. That’s hardly a problem, and can actually be a vital piece to add to a lineup to make up for attack-first midfielders. He’s still the de facto captain of the Crew, who may be the hottest team right now in MLS.
Marky Delgado, MF, Toronto FC
Among the midfield quagmire, Delgado may be the group’s biggest underdog. Earning his first cap this week, at cub level he's overshadowed by the presence of Michael Bradley and Victor Vazquez in his own midfield. Adding former Atletico Bilbao man Ager Aketxe to the fold makes his club future even murkier.
Still, Delgado absolutely has proven himself more than capable of anchoring a midfield. His through-ball to set up Adams’s run towards an earned penalty kick was a peach, and it isn’t out of character for Delgado. With Toronto through to the CONCACAF Champions League semifinals, there will be plenty of opportunities for him to solidify his place at club level.
Tyler Adams, MF, New York Red Bulls
There’s little territory to cover with the Red Bulls Homegrown that hasn’t already been carved out. He’s usurped Acosta as the league’s crown midfield jewel, a freshly-minted 19-year-old now mentioned alongside McKennie and Christian Pulisic as key pieces for the future. Now in his second full MLS campaign as a starter, that stock should only grow.
The question now is where that stock will reach new heights. Still on a supplemental deal, Adams hasn’t renegotiated his deal yet. It’s led some to speculate that he’s running his contract out to position himself for a move abroad soon. Time will tell when (not if) he makes that jump.
Cristian Roldan, MF, Seattle Sounders
If Adams is the poster boy for the development academy structure, Roldan is his foil for the MLS SuperDraft. The former Washington Husky has made himself into one of the essential pieces of the Seattle Sounders’ set-up. The two-time Western Conference champions have found the perfect partner for Osvaldo Alonso, and now he’s proving his mettle at the international level.
No player may have benefited more from Jonathan Gonzalez’s international switch than Roldan, who plays a similar style in a double-piston setup. Roldan offers more going forward than the likes of Kitchen, Trapp, and Williams, and his team-first character bodes well for future inclusion. Truly, the sheer number of quality central midfielders is a good problem for whoever coaches the USMNT moving forward. Now, it’s up to the players to separate themselves from the pack.
Jeff Rueter is a reporter and analyst covering Major League Soccer for The Guardian, ESPN FC, The Athletic - Minnesota, and USSoccerPlayers. Follow him on Twitter: @jeffrueter.
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(Photo by Jeremy Olson - ISIPhotos.com)