Americans Abroad: Aaronson shines, Steffen struggles & more

Quick Hits
  • A handful of Europe’s biggest leagues, including the Premier League and the Bundesliga, started over the weekend. That means it’s time for a new season for a group of Americans
  • Let’s dive into five performances from Americans abroad that stood out from this past weekend
Americans Abroad Analysis
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It’s go time, people. 

A handful of Europe’s biggest leagues, including the Premier League and the Bundesliga, started over the weekend. That means it’s time for a new season for a group of Americans. Here are five performances from Americans abroad that stood out from this past weekend.

Brenden Aaronson, Leeds United

If you scoured Leeds fan pages on Twitter prior to their game this weekend (like I may or may not have done), you would have seen post after post predicting that Brenden Aaronson would be Leeds’ Player of the Year.

After a strong preseason, including a three-assist display in Leeds’ last warm-up game, the pressure was on for Aaronson going into the Premier League’s opening weekend. The fan base is clearly relying on the 21-year-old to help bring hope to a club that just survived relegation last year and lost their two best players in the offseason.

On Saturday, the Yorkshire pressure made American diamonds.

Aaronson was Leeds’ most impactful player in their 2-1 win at home to Wolves on Saturday. He was everywhere, buzzing around on and off the ball and starting countless counter attacks. Early on, Aaronson’s counter pressing inside Wolves’ 18-yard-box set up his team’s first goal of the match.

Aaronson’s work on the ball wasn’t too shabby, either. The American always had his eyes upfield and used his pace to glide past defenders on the dribble. It was a complete performance that deserved a goal.

In the second half, Aaronson seemed to have tapped in a Patrick Bamford cross for a debut goal. Upon review, however, Wolves defender Rayan Ait Nouri got the last touch of the ball before it went in the back of the net, so Aaronson’s goal was chalked off as an own goal.

It will always be an Aaronson goal in our hearts, though. 

He didn’t officially get the goal, but Aaronson’s hard run reminds us how useful he can be in the attack. For stretches of his time with RB Salzburg, Aaronson functioned as a creator. He’ll have some creative responsibility at Leeds, too, but those aggressive, box-crashing runs make him even more valuable. It’s worth keeping an eye on how Aaronson develops his end product at Leeds. 

Tyler Adams, Leeds United

We don’t have to move far to highlight our second American. Tyler Adams didn’t receive the same praise Aaronson did on social media on Saturday, but he filled a necessary role in Marsch’s midfield.

Playing in a double pivot, Adams was tasked with breaking up play and covering every blade of grass on the pitch. He pressed high into Wolves’ defensive third and stopped counter attacks from turning into chances on goal. Here’s a good example of him pressing into Wolves’ box and recovering to win the ball after an opposition counter attack. 

Adams tallied eight recoveries on the day and was only dribbled past twice. Overall, he did a good job of picking his moments to step forward and engage opposing attackers. When he wasn’t pressing, Adams dropped back as a left back to cover for teammate Pascal Struijk, who doesn’t have much recovery speed. 

In certain moments, Adams and Struijk couldn’t quite nail their communication and positioning on the left flank. 

Here, Adams drops into the left back spot and covers Pedro Neto because Struijk is further forward. When Neto makes a run in behind, Adams initially attempts to follow him, but stops when he realizes Struijk has recovered. Struijk, thinking Adams was going to follow his man, also doesn’t pursue the run. Neto ends up unmarked and receives the ball in behind Leeds’ defense.

Communication and defensive positioning are usually Adams’ strong suits, but his lack of familiarity with his teammates showed at times on Saturday. Still, moments like the one above should be ironed out over time.

Before we leave Adams, I have to shout out his progressive passing. Adams’ line-breaking pass into Mateusz Klich led to Aaronson’s forced own goal. If the U.S. men’s national team’s No. 6 develops on the ball, his ceiling will shoot way up.

Jordan Pefok, Union Berlin

Going into the Bundesliga season, I worried about how Jordan Pefok would fit into Union Berlin’s pressing and counter attacking style after seeing him play with the USMNT and Young Boys. 

His performance against Hertha Berlin over the weekend largely eliminated my concerns. 

Playing as the primary striker in a 5-3-2, Pefok pressed and contributed to Union Berlin’s defensive effort. He led the press from the front and looked at home when he dropped into space. The best part of Pefok’s performance, outside of his goal, was his link-up play. This is some pretty poor defending from Hertha, but Pefok’s pass certainly isn’t easy. He knows as soon as he receives the ball that he’s going to send his teammate through on goal.

But Pefok holds the ball just long enough to let the opposing fullback step forward to make sure his pass rolls into open space.

He could’ve had an assist, but the sequence shows that Pefok can be more than a fox-in-the-box striker at a high level. And pulling off that skill in his Bundesliga? Even more impressive.

And let’s not forget about his goal, either.

This type of goal is Pefok’s bread and butter, but that doesn’t make the run or finish any less impressive. In case you need any statistical validation that this goal is from an acute angle, the shot had an xG value of 0.18, according to FotMob.

Pefok has enjoyed a near perfect start to his life in Germany. If he keeps it up, and maybe adds some goals from runs in behind, he could force Berhalter’s hand in November.

Zack Steffen, Middlesbrough

We’re moving from one USMNT positional question mark to another. But this one doesn’t have nearly as positive of an outlook. 

Zack Steffen made his loan move to Middlesbrough to get more game time and shake off the rust he’s shown in his recent appearances for the United States. However, shaking off that rust appears to be a work in progress.

Of all the three goals Steffen conceded in goal for Middlesbrough this weekend, the second was easily the worst on the eyes. It also continues a troubling trend in Steffen’s game: he struggles to command his box.

Like the goal up above against Queens Park Rangers, Steffen has a tendency to whiff when he comes out to claim a ball. No matter what his shot-stopping looks like or how passable his distribution is (it wasn’t bad in this game), it’s difficult to stomach goals like some of the ones Steffen has allowed over the last year.

Aerial balls are a big weakness in Steffen’s game and it’s something he needs to clean up at Middlesbrough if he wants a chance to start for the U.S. at the World Cup.

Antonee Robinson, Fulham

Facing off against Liverpool in your first game back in the Premier League is quite the baptism by fire, especially when you have to stand opposite Mo Salah. That’s exactly what happened to Antonee Robinson this weekend. But as was the case for many of Fulham’s players on Saturday, Robinson held his own against one of the world’s best in a 2-2 draw.

In the first half especially, Robinson gave Salah very little space on the ball and almost marked him out of the game. Whenever Salah touched the ball, Robinson was there breathing down his neck.

Jurgen Klopp adapted in the second half, making some attack-minded adjustments to put more pressure on Fulham’s backline. Salah then had more freedom to pinch inside instead of having to drop back to receive the ball like he did the first half. Although Salah grew into the game and got his goal, it wasn’t at Robinson’s expense. The left back held steady and was positionally savvy for the full 90 minutes. 

Robinson had 57 touches in the match to go along with 10 recoveries and five clearances.

It feels weird to say this when talking about Antonee Robinson, but he was a rock in the back for Fulham and didn’t add much going forward. His pressing did launch counter attacks, but Robinson sent in a few crosses into the box that left a little to be desired.

Crossing is definitely something Robinson can improve, but Craven Cottage wasn’t built in a day.