Is the USMNT midfield better without Weston McKennie?
On the surface, it’s a ridiculous question. Of course the United States could not be without a player who regularly plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world, where manager loves himand give goals to a national team that is still having trouble finding them. And asking this question after just a good show or two is especially strange for someone like me,who became such a winning analyst that he spends the first six to eight weeks of every MLB season shouting “SAMPLE SIZE!” to strangers and random dogs on the street (but still staring at the 2013 Stanley Cup Hawks in an abbreviated season. I contained a lot of stuff).
The funny thing about international football is that it is the entity that opposes the final sample size. Any team that wins the World Cup plays only seven games, not even 20% of what a typical domestic season would be. Qualifying is a longer process, but even in CONCACAF’s current marathon qualifying system is stuck in a window so small, it’s only 14 games. And of those, the result is just a game or two that frantically rotate emotions and positions. Just one more goal needed in Jamaica in November and the US will draw with Canada at the top of the table and officially Qatar. If Pulisic fail to hit the post and instead play against Canada in September, they will be alone first. On such margins…
To begin this discussion, it should be emphasized that while McKennie is a very good player, and possibly more in the near future, he is also an extremely strange player. He’s a goal-scoring midfielder who doesn’t do much else. He’s a poacher, except instead of lining up as a striker and waiting around six yards for a shot, he starts in midfield and comes late into the box to do the same thing.
In fact, when it comes to scoring midfielders, McKennie is one of the best in the world. FBRef scouting reports compare players in similar positions in a variety of categories, and when it comes to scoring goals and getting opportunities in midfield, McKennie ranks frontier above world-class. gender. His goals from midfield per game place him in the 88th percentile. His expected goals per game from midfield places him in 95th (!). His touches in the box, as a midfielder, and the number of passes he receives are in the top two percent in the world. It is a measure of how talented McKennie is at finding space in the attacking box and around it. It’s not a skill you can throw out the window, especially for an outfit like USMNT that doesn’t have a natural-born striker devoted to goals. They have to exploit all the sources.
When things get murky, McKennie has almost no gift for anything else. He’s not a very good passer, and he doesn’t really try much. This makes sense since most of his work is at the top of the field and is primarily focused on filming. He also doesn’t have a good defence, barely making any tackles and his interception rate isn’t much better either. McKennie sure has to run around a lot of places and he acts like a hell. It’s only one aspect.
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That’s not to say the US is so overwhelmed with talent that they can’t rule out any player who does anything world-class. McKennie does one thing on that level. The dilemma is that one of his midfield partners with the US, Yunus Musah, has a very similar game. Similarly, Musah isn’t really a good passer either, and likes to do his job well in dribbling around those in midfield. Unlike McKennie, Musah is a pretty good defensive player (although FBRef has ranked him against other attacking wingers and midfielders where he mainly plays for Valencia). As we saw in the match against Mexico, when playing a more counter-attacking style of play, Musah and Tyler Adams made a pretty excellent pair. They controlled quite a bit of midfield until fatigue hit.
That’s not to say we haven’t seen the Adams-Musah-McKennie troika in action. We certainly have, most importantly in the home game against Mexico. But it’s more than just sheer stamina and energy that Mexico in their current state of Methuselah can’t match. But we have also seen problems, specifically the away game against Canada, by far the most organized team in the region. For a defense that needs to unlock nuance, the US can’t really do that unless they force a reversal or make a mistake. Even when McKennie went “hero ball” in the second half and was all over the field, it certainly looked positive but didn’t do much. McKennie receiving the ball from the wing or 35m from goal didn’t really work for anyone.
The flexibility of the United States in the past two games is hard to ignore. And that will be necessary in Qatar, because they will likely face many opponents and approaches in just the group stage. Against Mexico, Adams, Musah and Kellyn Acosta were able to destroy and counterattack the spring. With Luca de la Torre in front of Acosta against Panama, things have come together much better. De la Torre may be the most talented midfielder the United States has with the ball at his feet, and can connect with strikers a lot more effectively. Here’s an example, when he played smart ball for Shaq Moore to cross for Jesus Ferreira:
And if not de la Torre, then Gio Reyna is another contender. Reyna was not used in the No. 8 game against Panama, but was brought on with Acosta, who was a better passer than Musah or McKennie. And although the US only scored once in the second half, they looked even more deadly.
So the question isn’t really whether America is better off without McKennie, but whether he and Musah are consistent in the same midfield is a good idea. That will depend on the World Cup draw. If they face a teammate like Mexico with a tough and bare midfield, sure, you can use the Adams-Musah-McKennie midfield to dominate in energy and mobility. But if they see a well-organized team that might be a good fit for that, they might need to get more complicated and pass Reyna moving inside, or Acosta (I can’t believe I’m saying that but by the way. testify to him that the number 8 is now there) or de la Torre offers. When they take on one of the major leagues – and they almost certainly will, given that they’re in Group 2 in Friday’s draw – they’ll need to defend and counter-attack. McKennie and Musah could combine for second, but they could also use a third midfielder who is a bit better at counter-attacking rather than pairing with them.
Not that McKennie should automatically be in and out of the squad. Like Musah. But the two should probably be seen as a tool in the box with certain skills and uses that work better against some oppositions and not others. Depth and choice are good things. McKennie and Musah were seen above before and during much of the qualifiers. Maybe they should be seen as part of it now.