US U-20 World Cup Grades (Part 3): The Jury Is Still Out
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. Serbia, for its part, would go on to defeat heavy-favorites Brazil in the final to win the U-20 World Cup.
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 take a look the boys for whom I deem the jury to be still out, in other words, players with senior-team potential but real question marks to answer before they get there.
Marco Delgado (Toronto FC)
Marky Delgado was a suitable fill-in at defensive midfield, a position the U-20 group simply doesn't have much of. However, he was not up to "final four at the youth World Cup" level, getting overwhelmed against Ukraine and Colombia in particular. Serbia was cagier than those two, but still managed to get around him on a few occasions. He has good fundamentals for a defensive midfielder, but lacks prototype size, strength, or ruggedness.
However, he played admirably for being left on an island at the pivot, and was a much more refined passer than your average defensive midfielder at this level. He's pretty good, he never looked out of his depth, and will probably project better in a double-pivot or some other role that tasks him with more than just being a defensive destroyer.
I can easily imagine him being a centerpiece of an MLS team in the future, but I don't know if I can imagine him as a Designated Player or national team selectee. This team really hurt from the loss of Russell Canouse, who would've manned this position, and served as Captain in the earlier part of this cycle.
Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas)
Kellyn Acosta was actually quite good at times, but it was a rockier road than with most of these players. He gets points off in my grade for the indiscipline he showed getting sent off and conceding a penalty against Colombia, as much as I disagreed with the referee's decision at the time.
He definitely knows how to play the ball with his feet and he definitely knows how to mark someone, but there were fits and starts in terms of his consistency. That seems totally reasonable to me, since he hasn't found a permanent positional home yet, playing variously as a fullback (on either side), wide midfielder (on either side), or even defensive mid. He has the athleticism to play any of those five positions, but unless he grows, the wide positions will be the only ones in which he meets the minimum size requirements. He's not a rugged defender but I don't think that'll limit him if he's wide. I don't think his offensive skills are elite, so I think he may be limited as a midfielder.
For me, that all adds up to an excellent fullback prospect with most of the prototype profile, but a player who needs to specialize in the position and get regular time at the professional level at it. That'll help him mature a bit and iron out the erratic decision-making we saw at the U-20 World Cup, and I think it's a realistic hope, considering one of FC Dallas's fullbacks is currently Atiba Harris.
My bet is that Acosta does indeed figure it out and become a valuable rotation fullback in the senior side, but probably not a star, nor a Europe-based player.
Maki Tall (LOSC Lille/Red Star)
Tall, if anything, may deserve an incomplete given that he only played one half before coming off with a tournament-ending injury. Oh but what a half that was. He was electric, and seemed to have that one-track-mind for goals that all strikers require but all too few aspirants really have.
He's also an interesting story, eligible to represent at least three different nations, and having done so at the youth level. Both his appearances for France and loan to the French third-tier were a bit less convincing than the 45 minutes he delvered against Myanmmar, but he's young and has been developing rapidly. So much so, in fact, that Ramos had him figured as a primary option up top in a crowded field of forwards going into the U-20 World Cup. Of course, that makes the potential loyalty battle even more tricky, and worth keeping an eye on.
Despite the name, he isn't a big, imposing striker. He is, however, a finisher and fierce competitor, perhaps Rubio Rubin's equal in those departments, perhaps with fewer of the other tools. He also appears to have the requisite athleticism for the position, but I wouldn't go so far as to say he's a burner. As such, his mixed grade is really a reflection of the fact that he whet our appetite in his 45 minutes of play and left me, for one, wanting to see if there's more where that came from.
Tommy Thompson (San Jose Earthquakes)
Some people are versatile and others are positionless. Some are even better as substitutes and some need to get a full 90 for their presence to be fully appreciated. These are all things Tommy Thompson is going to have to negotiate in the early phases of his MLS career before he finds a permanent role in a team. Fundamentally, he's a player who looks better at volume than in a bit part. That may indicate his personal ceiling is higher than the ceiling of how good a team he can be on.
Predictably, then, Tommy looked pretty average in his three substitute appearances, but looked excellent in his 103 minutes as a starter against Serbia. In that start, he was consistently influential, made good chances out of bad ones with his technique, and was an unusually reliably target up top for his size. He's got fabulous close control, good passing and shooting technique, and is fairly two-footed. He's also just adequately athletic, undersized, and was repeatedly put into roles in which he looked lost (defending, for what it's worth, will likely never be an asset in his game). The blame for that falls somewhere between coach Tab Ramos and the player himself, but I think both could've done better in this regard.
As such, he's a bit of a curious case. He may grow into an elite CAM in MLS, a metronome in the middle of the Quakes midfield, something not dissimilar to what they already have in Matias Perez-Garcia. I actually think that career path, or maybe something closer to Harry Shipp's, is somewhat probable. I just have a hard time imagining him as a major senior-team guy or stepping up a level to a major European league, where I think his technique will be less uncommon and it'll be easier to erase him from a gameplan.
If he does make it to the top, it'll be a similar development path to Emerson Hyndman, but with a longer way to go to get there. The end result would be someone like Francesco Totti, who peaked late, was never physically overwhelming, and remains to this day a bit positionless.
Bradford Jamieson IV (LA Galaxy)
When the US needed a striker in the absence of Maki Tall, Jamieson stepped in, and looked every bit as good. He even brought some exciting traits to the table beyond Tall, such as the fact he's actually much taller, at around 6'3". As such, on the hoof he looks a lot more like a genuine striker, although he was asked to play from wide areas a bunch this tournament. That was no problem, however, since Jamieson has plenty of pace and enough trickery to be effective from out there. Like many young players, he could probably use more seasoning in front of goal to find the right runs and know how to make the right finish, but he showed enough of a knack for it to believe this will come in time.
Like Tall, his tournament was limited by injury, so a bit less can be drawn about his future as with others. He also seemed fairly raw, which makes sense from a more physically gifted player who is just beginning to find some regular time with his professional club, which just happens to be an LA Galaxy side that is stacked with talented forwards. He cuts the figure of a player who coud be a dominant striker in MLS one day, perhaps even abroad, not unlike say an Eddie Johnson. It's easy to see the potential written all over him. Next step will be getting regular game time and being consistently influential. I don't think that's a lock, but the raw tools could add up to a senior-team mainstay down the road.
Sure-Fire: Emerson Hyndman, Zack Steffen, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Rubio Rubin
Excellent, With Reservations: Matt Miazga, Gedion Zelalem, Paul Arriola, Desevio Payne
Jury Still Out: Maki Tall, Bradford Jamieson IV, Tommy Thompson, Marky Delgado, Kellyn Acosta