Q&A: Imagining the USMNT’s World Cup roster, Luchi Gonzalez to the Quakes, and more

Quick Hits
  • We asked for your American soccer questions on Twitter earlier this week – and you delivered!
  • How is Luchi Gonzalez’s San Jose Earthquakes team going to play? Can anyone unseat the United States’ MMA midfield? Does MLS need more meaningful games? Let’s talk about all of that and more.
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Earlier this week, I asked for your American soccer questions on Twitter – and you delivered.

Before I answer your questions, though, I want to let you know about the new Americans Abroad page that we have up on Backheeled.com. If you want to learn more about some of the biggest names in American soccer, our bit-sized player guides have you covered. There are descriptions, videos, updates, and more. Oh, and there’s even a place for you to share your thoughts. If you’re interested in the U.S. men’s national team and Americans Abroad, go check it out.

Alright, it’s time to get to some questions.

@HinterSports

Do you expect Luchi Gonzalez to have a similar game model in San Jose as former Berhalter assistants Nico Estevez and Josh Wolff? And how does the current roster fit that style? Because Jebo and Yueill seem like great fits.

On Wednesday, the San Jose Earthquakes announced the hiring of former FC Dallas head coach and current USMNT assistant coach Luchi Gonazlez as their next manager. Gonzalez, who will take over after the 2022 World Cup, had been linked with the Quakes for months and in some ways, I think this move makes a lot of sense.

The most important part of this hire for San Jose isn’t the tactical side of things – although that is important. No, the most important part is the potential for Gonzalez to help San Jose become a top talent developer in the United States. San Jose is a talent-rich area and we’re starting to see some promising young players (like U.S. youth national teamer Cruz Medina) work their way up through the ranks.

But there’s so much room for the Earthquakes to grow when it comes to developing, exporting, and monetizing talent. Gonzalez, who spent time as FC Dallas’ academy director before taking over the first team, has plenty of experience developing young players into high-level professionals.

The development scene is where Gonzalez will define his legacy as the Quakes manager.

Now, for the tactical side of things.

I’d be shocked if we don’t see San Jose continue their possession and buildup-focused approach under Gonzalez (who possessed plenty with Dallas). Jackson Yueill can be a useful player in that kind of system, as can a number of the Quakes’ other pieces. Jeremy Ebobisse has been awesome this year in a dysfunctional team, so there’s no doubt in my mind that he can score goals for at least a semi-functional team next year. I’m also curious to see how much Gonzalez presses with San Jose. And is it a 4-3-3? Or is it a 4-2-3-1? Or does he play around with other shapes? We’ll learn all of that in due time.

Still, I keep coming back to how big this move could be for the youth development scene in San Jose. After a wasted year on the field in 2022, the Earthquakes need direction. Now, they might actually have one.

@Cschmiedsoccer

Who do you see as most likely to take up one of the last spots on the U.S.’s World Cup roster that didn’t play in any of the qualifiers? Tillman?

Malik Tillman has a shot. As do Brandon Vazquez, Djordje Mihailovic, Matt Miazga, and Pick A Left Back Out Of A Hat. Before I go any further, I want to loop in this question, too…

@TheyCallMeNels

I'm hoping to see both Eryk Williamson and Brandon Vazquez called into U.S. camp in September. Does either have a realistic shot to be on the plane to Qatar?

You’ll notice, I didn’t include Eryk Williamson on my list of potential World Cup players who didn’t feature in qualifying. I’m a big fan of Williamson’s game. He’s phenomenal on the dribble, progresses play, and regularly destabilizes the opposition’s defensive shape. Still, because we haven’t seen much of him for the Portland Timbers this year after recovering from an injury, I don’t think we’re going to see him in September. And if we don’t see him in September, I don’t think we’ll see him in November.

Setting Williamson aside, the answer to this question is Vazquez or Mihailovic. Or maybe both.

Vazquez benefits from the United States’ lack of clarity at the No. 9 spot and Mihailovic benefits from Gregg Berhalter’s new midfield alignment. Remember the hybrid central midfielder/attacker role that Brenden Aaronson played against Morocco in June? Berhalter said Mihailovic was supposed to play in that spot, but then he suffered an injury and didn’t feature for the United States.

Now that Mihailovic is healthy again, he could get a look in September and parlay that into a seat on the USMNT’s plane to Qatar.

@dcunitedfan123

People mention Gio Reyna as a false nine, are there other things you would like (or would’ve liked) Berhalter to try? Target striker Jordan Pefok? More fluid rotations from the wingers? Stay at home fullbacks?

I’ve been intrigued by the possibility of seeing Gio Reyna play as central midfielder for the United States for a while now. With the introduction of the hybrid role that I just mentioned in the last section, there’s a non-zero chance we see Reyna in that spot at some point over the next three months. It would’ve been nice if we could have seen Reyna play more centrally earlier in his U.S. career, though.

As far as other tactical/positional things go, I’m still tempted by the thought of using Tim Weah as a striker. But at this point, taking him off the wing feels like a bad idea after he was the USMNT’s most consistent wide attacking threat during World Cup qualifying.

I wish we would’ve seen Christian Pulisic play a few more minutes on the right wing instead of the left over the last few years. Changing his side of the field could cut down on his aimless dribbles that start on the left wing and end in a turnover in midfield. Maybe we’ll see Pulisic on the right in the World Cup, but I doubt it.

Honestly, I don’t have a ton of macro tactical or player usage gripes with this U.S. team at the moment. Revisiting that 3-2 buildup shape in June to give Tyler Adams help in possession and to get an extra attacker on the field was a good thing. And leaning into the press fits the current player pool.

The USMNT is far from perfect, but in a general sense, a lot of how this team plays makes sense to me.

@soloyosh

My whole household of casual fans watched A LOT of U.S. Open Cup this year. It got me thinking: with MLS struggling to bring the TV numbers, would an Apertura/Clausura type setup with two tournaments, and more games with consequences bring more eyes to MLS on TV?

MLS needs more games with consequences. They need stakes. Far too many teams are irrelevant in any given season before we even hit September.

Finding different ways to increase the number of meaningful games MLS teams play isn’t the only thing standing between the league and better TV ratings. MLS needs better players and more investment. But playing around with more tournaments and trying various formats for both the league season and for inter-league competition could be a good thing for MLS.

That said, I doubt MLS will have the time to split the season Liga MX style, take a break, and play an extra tournament all while adding in the month-long Leagues Cup competition that starts next year. Leagues Cup won’t totally scratch the more meaningful games itch, but it will provide a bigger and more diverse set of matches.

I wrote this last month about the USL and it applies to MLS, too: for MLS to truly make its mark on American soccer, there has to be something more. The soccer has to improve – and so do the stories. Manufacturing competition by playing entertaining games against big teams won’t fix all of MLS’s problems, but it will help create stories and capture attention.

And that’s what this is all about, right?

@talpostal

Back in June, we saw Berhalter experiment with some different midfield configurations. Barring injury, how hard will it be to unseat the MMA midfield as the default configuration?

I don’t think there’s another pure central midfielder in the USMNT’s depth chart who can break up the first-choice Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams trio. If the U.S. is going to play with three pure central midfielders, it doesn’t get any better than the MMA midfield.

No, if there’s anything that’s pulling MMA apart, it’s Berhalter’s understandable desire to get an extra attacker on the field. It’s Aaronson playing the hybrid role that we saw back in June. It’s Reyna or Mihailovic getting a shot in that role. It’s Weah, Pulisic, Aaronson, and Reyna all playing so well that leaving more than one of them on the bench would be borderline criminal.

It’s the attackers who can – and probably will, at least for a game or two at the World Cup – unseat the Musah, McKennie, Adams trio.