By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON DC (Oct 3, 2018) US Soccer Players - Among the collection of fresh faces in the USMNT roster is a pair of MLS fullbacks getting their first looks with the senior squad. One is a homegrown product of one of Major League Soccer’s more renowned academy setups barely into his 20s. The other is former college soccer player who built his career over several stops in American soccer’s minor leagues and is peaking in his late 20s.
There is no guarantee that either will see the field when the Americans face two South American teams this month. Still, just by getting to this point Reggie Cannon and Ben Sweat show the range of paths now present in American soccer.
20-year old FC Dallas right back Cannon is young by any measure, soccer or otherwise. Since arriving in Texas as a teenager, Cannon has risen quickly in the US Soccer and FC Dallas systems. 2018 has proved to be his breakout year as a professional, hence the call-up. Dallas coach Oscar Pareja installed Cannon as the club’s regular right back this season. It speaks to Cannon’s talent and growth that he is starting for a team currently contending for the top seed in the Western Conference.
To get to that starting spot with a leading MLS club, Cannon progressed through the FC Dallas academy system. In 2015 and 2016, Cannon was part of FC Dallas academy sides that lifted national championship trophies for US Soccer’s Development Academy program. He played for the youth national teams at both the U-17 and U-19 levels.
A year at UCLA wasn't inconsequential to his improvement, but not the main platform for his move into the professional ranks. He returned to Dallas and a homegrown contract with the club in late 2016. For the 2017 season, Cannon sat behind Hernan Grana, appearing for just one minute in the league after making his debut in a US Open Cup match in June. Despite Pareja’s well-earned reputation as a coach willing to put trust in the young and inexperienced, FC Dallas’s approach with Cannon was to build him more slowly into the starting lineup.
Cannon is just one of the many players FC Dallas has signed to homegrown contracts. His arrival as a top MLS fullback serves to reinforce the belief that a well-tended academy can properly prepare talented young players to become professionals at an earlier age.
In 2018, Cannon has started all 30 of FC Dallas’s league games, playing less than a full 90 minute just three times. After a win in June over LAFC, just a week ahead of his 20th birthday, Pareja took the opportunity in his post-game comments to express his confidence Cannon had a national team spot in his future.
“The national team in America has a young player that is asking for an opportunity,” Pareja said. “I am pleased to see him grow that fast. He shows a lot of maturity. I’m very pleased to see that this country has a right back that can take off.”
Cannon’s youth is hardly an obstacle in this new era of the USMNT team. With players like Tyler Adams (19), Weston McKennie (20), and Christian Pulisic (20) already tapped as major parts of the present makeup of the squad, Cannon’s inexperience shouldn’t prevent him from having a chance to prove himself worthy of regular inclusion.
For now, Cannon sits behind established national team right back DeAndre Yedlin. The depth chart beyond Yedlin is murky, with names like Shaq Moore, Timmy Chandler, and Eric Lichaj somewhere in the list. That means a good camp and hopefully a bit of playing time could set the FC Dallas man up for the future.
NYCFC left back Ben Sweat earned his way to the USMNT through a much more circuitous route, as evidenced by his 27 years of age. Cannon joined an MLS academy, took a quick sojourn to college, and returned in short order for his pro move. Sweat followed a traditional American soccer path, heading into the college game from a Florida DA academy club unconnected to an MLS franchise and spending four years at the University of South Florida.
Sweat played PDL soccer in two summers ahead of his entry into the MLS SuperDraft in 2014. The Columbus Crew picked Sweat in the first round that year, though he did not make an appearance for the first team in the league. Instead, he spent time on loan with the Dayton Dutch Lions of the USL Pro division.
When the club waived him following the season, Sweat moved down a division to the NASL where he joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies. The second division gave Sweat a chance to play significant minutes for the first time since his college days and restarted his career. Following the 2016 season, Sweat got a chance at a trial with NYCFC, then in their third year in MLS.
Despite initially serving as a depth option for Patrick Vieira, Sweat appeared in 26 matches in the 2017 season. With Costa Rican left back Ronald Matarrita sidelined due to injury, Sweat took the opportunity to claim the spot for himself. Proving himself indispensable to the club earned Sweat a new multi-year contract heading into 2018. Nine months later, he's got his shot with the USMNT.
The man who took over for Patrick Vieira at NYCFC midseason, former Manchester City assistant Domenec Torrent, has pointed to Sweat as an example of a player who sells himself short despite strong talent. Christian Araos of The Athletic tweeted on June 24 that Torrent said: “there are American players on this team like Ben Sweat who don't know just how good they are and his job is to convince them that they are capable of getting there.” Considering Torrent’s pedigree and the caliber of player he coached before arriving in New York, that’s is not light praise.
Whether it’s Torrent who deserves the credit or not, Sweat is certainly “getting there” with his national team call-up. Like with Cannon, it’s difficult to know if the left back will play. Included in USMNT coach Dave Sarachan’s roster is Antonee Robinson, the England-based 21-year old left back who has four caps in 2018.
Even if Sweat doesn’t appear against Colombia and/or Peru, his appearance in this camp is a reminder that American soccer still has room for the late bloomer. Sweat didn’t join an MLS club at 18 or star in youth national sides. He played four years of NCAA soccer. Sweat's first pro team cut him loose without so much as a chance to prove himself against MLS competition. Through the opportunity provided by second division soccer and because NYCFC was smart enough to spot his talent in that 2017 trial, he’s now a regular MLS starter good enough to get a call-up to a strong USMNT.
More From Jason Davis:
- An MLS playoff reality check
- Vancouver makes an unexpected move
- Streaks, VAR, and pressure in MLS
- Where do coaches want to be in MLS?
Photo by Michel Janosz - ISIPhotos.com