In its past three World Cup matches, the United States national team has had an average of 4.3 players per team with Champions League experience. Jonathan Spector and Julian Green put together the numbers on those teams, and they ran for 23 minutes in competition by the time they joined the US squad.
In the last international window you can count seven players bragging about minutes on the coolest stage in European football, and that was without Juventus midfielder Weston McKinney, Barcelona right-back Sergino Dest and Salzburg striker Brenden Aronson. There may not be consensus on American coach Greg Berhalter’s best squad yet, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that nine of the 11 players on the field in the Americans’ opening game in Qatar 2022 will be from Europe.
The two exceptions? It will be in the center of the defense, with Nashville captain Walker Zimmerman and Atlanta United prodigy Myles Robinson establishing themselves as key defenders in the lineup, with New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long looking like the best one to take down one.
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With American players increasingly heading abroad and at younger ages, how did three players aged 25, 28 and 29, based in Major League Soccer, clinch the top three places in the center back depth chart ahead of Wolfsburg veteran John Brooks or promising Chris Richards from TSG Hoffenheim on loan from Bayern Munich?
“Major League football is open to giving young players the opportunity to be on the field,” Berhalter told ESPN. “Anytime you have young players on the field, there’s a huge development curve, and you see that with a lot of our young players.”
Since he was 23, Zimmerman has averaged 2,130 minutes of league play each season. Robinson has played an average of 2,131 minutes in the league in the past three years, when he was 22, 23 and 24 years old. Long has averaged 1,818 minutes a year since his 24-year season in 2017, despite only playing five times in 2021 after suffering a torn achilles in May. Take that wasted season out of the equation and his average climbs to 2,227 MLS minutes per year.
This consistency opportunity is not offered to players crossing the Atlantic. Mark McKenzie left the Philadelphia Union in January 2021 as a 21-year-old central defender. In the nearly one-and-a-half seasons since joining Genk, he has amassed 1,729 minutes in the Belgian Pro League – although it should be noted that those would count as his 21- and 22-year-old’s.
“It’s all about getting to the right place,” Michael Parkhurst, USMNT center back and veteran MLS defender, told ESPN. “You can go to England and be in a great team in a great place, or you can go to England in a terrible team where you fight relegation and the coach doesn’t like you.
“That’s the risky part. Not, ‘Are they good enough?'” “It is, do they land in the right place that qualifies them for success?”
But there’s more than just an opportunity that explains the growth that Zimmerman, Robinson and Long have had within MLS. Chosen before his international teammates earning minutes in LaLiga and Bundesliga, this trio has not only grown in America; They have thrived.
“The MLS is the league that prioritizes spending money on attacking players,” Parkhurst said. “All the best players in the league, for the most part, are the wings, No. 10 and No. 9. As a centre-back, you’re up against the best players in the league.”
It is a sentiment echoed by Berhalter.
“Miles Walker and Aaron, they have to play against some good players, and that really helps them advance their game,” Berhalter said.
Of the 65 players named to the roster before the start of the 2022 season, only nine have played in non-offensive positions. Say what you will about the league’s level and salary structure, it has focused heavily on recruiting influential offensive talent, and its defenders are the best for it.
Battle-tested and with the World Cup looming at the end of the year, providing the biggest stage for displaying one’s talents, could Zimmermann, Robinson and Long rejoin their overseas teammates in 2023? For Zimmermann and Long, on the 28th and 29th, respectively, that ship may have set sail.
“I was in that moment … where you are now or not at all,” Parkhurst said. “I think I was twenty-four or twenty-five, and I was about to sign another four-year contract [in MLS]so at this point, it would be like, ‘I’m going to be too old [to go to Europe]“.So there is definitely a time limit where you are no longer attractive and the opportunity no longer exists.”
He recently turned 25 and is said to have one year left on his contract after the 2022 season, Robinson now has a decision to make. Has he stayed in Atlanta, following in the footsteps of his defense partners at USMNT and MLS, or is he trying his luck in Europe?
“I really think Miles could play in any league in the world,” Parkhurst said. “I don’t think it’s the end product, there are little things he needs to work on and improve on, but I’ve never played with anyone who is better than a defender, I’ve never seen a better player against a defender.
“It’s usually the physical gear that prevents you from playing in certain leagues, but these guys are three of the most athletic defenders I’ve ever seen.”