US U-20 World Cup Grades (Part 2): Excellent Prospects, But With Reservations
It all ended in heartbreak, with the US U-20 national team falling to Serbia in the World Cup Quarterfinals. But there's a lot we can take away from this tournament, and if you're a US fan, a lot to be excited about.
The Stars and Stripes opened up with a shaky performance against minnows Myanmar, pulling it together later in the match to win it 2-1. Then they cruised by host New Zealand, thoroughly out-classing them en route to a 4-0 victory. Having already qualified for the knockout stage, they stumbled badly in the second half against Ukraine, shipping three goals in the loss without scoring any of their own. In the round of 16, they struggled a bit with a talented Colombia midfield, but survived a red card and a penalty to advance 1-0. Finally, a rugged battle with Serbia (pun only slightly intended) ground to a 0-0 draw after 120 minutes, after which the US lost in the 9th frame of penalties.
In this five-part series, I'll be publishing my grades of their performances, grouped into four buckets of descending quality and capped with a fifth piece for overall thoughts and a few "incompletes." Today, we'll start with the boys I deem to be "Excellent prospects, with reservations;" in other words, players with clear senior-team potential but with some roadblocks to getting there.
Some guys in this group got the grade because they were always decent but never spectacular. Others got it because their performances were erratic, but with flashes of brilliance. Matt Miazga is in the latter category.
For example, Miazga started out the tournament miserably by looking completely out of his depth and lost at sea...against Myanmar. He eventually appeared to settle his nerves and grow into the tournament (aided by his partnership with Carter-Vickers), and all of a sudden he looked the part of the elite prospect many believe him to be. After the lone goal from Myanmar, he and Carter-Vickers would not be scored upon again, racking up an incredible 381 consecutive minutes without conceding. He eliminated essentially any aerial attack, was an enforcer on the ground, and his positioning was more than adequate. The competition for the latter 210 minutes, Colombia and Serbia, were no slouches, either.
In terms of a scouting report, he has the prototype size that coaches drool over (around 6'4"), isn't an elite athlete but with quick enough feet to make do, and is a rugged tackler. Obviously, he's a handful in the air. While the potential is easy to see, he also has the ability to develop it as regular at the professional level with the NY Red Bulls. Right now, I'd say he's a big step behind in terms of refinement to Cameron Carter-Vickers (two years his junior), and he'll need to learn quite a lot about how to read the game and play the ball out with his feet. Defenders tend to develop later than other position players, however, so I wouldn't be surprised if we saw him grow a lot over the next few years. While that development may be just in time for the 2016 Olympic team, I would tenatively guess that it'll take a bit longer than that before he really finds his stride. Down the road, he has genuine senior-team potential if he keeps developing like this.
Zelalem, for his part, is sortof an inverse Emerson Hyndman: his contributions at this level still leave quite a bit to be desired, but his potential is through the roof if he irons out what are clearly-identifiable flaws in his game.
It's as if every extraordinary yin in his game has an equal and opposite yang. He's got plenty of height and quickness, but his build is so thin that he gets outmuscled at the U20 level, let alone amongst the first team squads in the Premier League. He has unheard of (in American circles) technical ability to play the ball at medium and long range, but not necessarily the best close control in tight spaces. He can hit the most insane passes of anyone in this group, but he can't always see them as well as, say, Hyndman.
My first remedy for him is to hit the weight room, which may or may not exist at Arsenal, knowing the philosophies of their coach. Second, he needs to figure out whether or not he's an attacking midfielder or a deeper central player, and add to his game to reflect that. If he's going to play as an attacker, he needs to add a goalscoring wrinkle to his game and/or a winger's moves, because right now, the opposition knows he's going to try to pass it off to someone else and stick to the middle, making him too predictable. If he's going to play deeper, he needs to work on his fitness, work harder during the 90 minutes, and get serious about his tackling and intercepting technique.
Third, he needs serious game time against serious professionals. His talent is so tremendous that I imagine what he can do will still stand out at the highest European level, and it'll give him the experience he needs to figure out how to negotiate what he currently can't do. Because right now, he looks a bit like he doesn't know what to do on the field, or how to use his prodigious talents. He just knows he's talented. The humility, strength, and experience that comes with playing a full professional season could change all that. If it does? US soccer has a once-in-a-generation American talent. If he doesn't? He's Freddy Adu.
Payne a dual national Dutch-American who came out of nowhere to solve the ugly, intractable full-back problem that once plagued all levels of the US system and still haunts the youth teams. He recently signed a fully professional contract with FC Gronigen, a decent Eredivisie team. He's actually made a few appearances for them already despite being just 19. As far as I can tell, he probably considered himself predominantly Dutch and was therefore off the US radar until quite recently, when US Soccer swooped in with a call-up that KNVB wasn't willing to give him. He sat behind Shaq Moore at the very beginning of the tournament, but once Payne replaced him, he completely took over the right-back position as his own.
As a prospect, he's got a lot of the raw traits you want from a fullback. Almost six feet tall (well above average for the position), quick up the flank, right-footed, miles ahead of his American peers with the ball at his feet, and a solid marker in defense. Like a lot of teenagers, his defending isn't particularly rugged and he could use a lot of body mass. However, his general profile fits the fullback position well, and the issues are emminently fixable. While his technique is very, very good compared to the other options the US has, that isn't a particularly compelling group, and his pace isn't world-class. All in all, I think he's a strong contender to make the Olympic team since no one at the U23 or U20 level has truly stood out, and he'll probably get a sniff in the senior side too since he's a European-based player at a position of need. However, I'd need to see a bit more than solid fundamentals from him to believe he'll be a difference-maker at the senior team level.
Paul Arriola might be the most fun to watch on the team, and not just because he's insanely handsome. He's quick, really quick, and much better built than a lot of his peers since he's already got two full professional seasons under his belt in Liga MX with Tijuana. He's a bit short, but that doesn't matter for wide players, and if anything, is a factor in his excellent balance and how difficult it is to knock him off the ball. He's got a knack for distance scoring, solid moves on the ball, and also a style that other forwards love playing with, since he can help create space and chances for his teammates. His interplay isn't super sophisitcated, and the "knack" that I've described is right now more like a baseball pitchers "out" pitch than the main event, so there's plenty to work on.
The thing that bears the most emphasis, however, is his attitude. He's fierce, proactive, and direct in his play, willing to take defenders on. He seems to have the heart of a warrior, running himself into the ground against Serbia and sobbing when the US was finally overcome. To me, there was no player who more clearly loved playing in the US kit, nor willing to do more to bring him glory than Arriola. That doesn't just count for fan affection, it's also an indicator that he'll work insanely hard to get better, and has the right mentality for top-level international soccer.
In this tournament, he never put in any one performance that blew the doors off, hence not getting the top grade, but he was a consistent difference-maker and looked like a breakout waiting to happen. He hasn't fully established himself at his club after a young debut, so it's possible that his ceiling isn't much higher than his floor, but I really like the way the kid plays and can guarantee he plays in Olympic qualifying. Making the final Olympic squad (which has a shorter roster) is more of a 50-50 proposition. I also feel confident he'll at least get a cap or two at the senior level, but I'm not sure of what his upside is. In that regard, I'd compare him to Luis Gil. I'll be rooting for him to make it, however, because of that selfless attitude and willingness to do whatever it takes for his team.
This is the second part of a five-part series. You can find part 1 here. Running summary of grades:
Sure-Fire: Emerson Hyndman, Zack Steffen, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Rubio Rubin
Excellent With Reservations: Matt Miazga, Gedion Zelalem, Paul Arriola, Desevio Payne