A deep look at the USMNT depth chart at forward
May 03, 2020
THE FORWARD POSITION on the United States national team isn’t great at the moment and right now the hopes for the position heading into 2022 World Cup qualifying are riding on too few potential options. It’s important to look at why this is and what the future options could be.
ASN has been taking deep dives into various positions on the USMNT. So far, the past looks have included:
In future editions coming in May, ASN will tackle wings, fullbacks, and the No.8/No.10 positions. But now it is time to look at perhaps the biggest concern for the U.S. team right now and that is the forward position. While solid prospects, based both domestically and abroad, are emerging at the other positions. The prospects at forward are very stagnant.
So let’s look first at why this is.
WHY IS IT SO THIN?
There are four major reasons why the USMNT forward position isn’t great right now:
- A long-term struggle of U.S. YNTs to pass on ready professionals at the forward position.
- The lack of late bloomers
- Dual national recruits failing to pan out.
- Injuries on an already too small pool of players.
The U.S. youth national team pool player pool reflects shallow depth. This chart below shows the forward pool for the U.S. youth national teams at the U-23, U-20 and U-17 levels dating back to 2007. It looks at players on qualifying rosters and World Cup rosters as well as key players not released (such as Andrija Novakovich in 2015 for the U-20 World Cup). It looks at forwards as well as wingers who occasionally played as forwards during that cycle (it omits pure wingers).
As noted, players currently in the U.S. senior team pool are in black and those with a realistic chance of emerging into the U.S. forward player pool are in italics. Players who have received non-January camp U.S. callups are denoted with a © icon.
Not including the U-23s and since 2007, the U-20s and U-17 teams have had seven core players eventually get non-January camp USMNT caps: Altidore, Agudelo, Wood, Rubin, Novakovich, Weah, Sargent. That is a total of 14 YNT cycles.
But the picture is bleaker than that number. Of those seven, Agudelo and Rubin fell off and Wood eventually did although his reemergence is still possible. Novakovich might still reemerge in Serie B. But only Altidore, Sargent, and Weah are in the picture at the moment and even then, questions remain. Altidore has a long history of missing (or being ineffective due to still being in the recovery stage of injuries) for important games. Weah might be more of a winger these days (the same for Jordan Morris who was a U-23 player) and Weah is essentially coming off a lost season for Lille due to injuries. Josh Sargent is still very unproven as a consistent professional player despite showing some promising glimpses.
What is even more alarming about the list of these U.S. youth national team forwards is how many players failed to even have solid professional careers – even if they weren’t good enough for the U.S. national team. The depth of the U.S. national team player pool at forward is never going to be too deep but having a solid core of professionals beyond those in the pool is important. It sets a professional standard and floor for the U.S. team. For example, a player like Dax McCarty may not have been good enough for a long U.S. career but he’s been an oustanding pro and is part of a benchmark of what needs to be surpassed to make the U.S. team in central midfield. In forward, there just aren’t enough professionals playing regular minutes – either domestically or abroad to set any kind of standard. That’s why it only takes a handfull of goals for players to enter the discussion (particularly if they are young players).
The lack of late bloomers at forward has also been a huge problem that has coincided with the U.S. national team’s forward pool. In the past, there have been some very good U.S. national team forwards who have broken through beyond the youth national team levels – Joe-Max Moore, Herculez Gomez, Clint Mathis, and Brian McBride weren’t part of major youth national teams. Even Charlie Davies and Josh Wolff only emerged at the U-23 levels. Needless to say, any of those players would likely be a key player for the current national team and regardless of what pace or what route the players developed, every few years a new effective forward emerged on the USMNT scene.
Gyasi Zardes and CJ Sapong were given looks at older ages despite a lack of serious youth national team experience and only Zardes has managed to hold the position for a length of time.
The dual national recruiting front has also not unearthed much. Aron Johannsson had the talent but couldn’t get past the injuries (although he is still attempting to do so in Sweden). Dom Dwyer and Andrew Wooten were given chances but couldn’t earn extended looks. There was also interest in players like Shawn and Devante Parker although when both players fell out of favor with German youth national teams, it turns out they weren’t good enough for the U.S. either. Julian Green might eventually reemerge in the 2.Bundesliga with Greuther Furth but expectations were through the roof with him in 2013 and 2014.
And finally that brings us to injuries. The pool has already been shrunk enough with a lack of development for top playeres. But a small pool only makes injuries even more catastrophic. When Charlie Davies was injured ahead of the 2010 World Cup, Bob Bradley went through a bunch of options but eventually settled on Robbie Findley as his replacement (along with Herculez Gomez and Edson Buddle). In 2014, the pool was hurt by an early injury at the World Cup to Jozy Altidore and then an ongoing injury to Aron Johannsson.
THE CURRENT DEPTH CHART
On the team
Jozy Altidore: The current layoff due to COVID-19 should only help Altidore put himself further beyond his recent offseason injury. Injuries and the timing of these injuries have been the dominant story of his career. But no one has pushed him from being the top U.S. striker in the pool just yet. Sargent is knocking on the door but Altidore probably gets the call for a big game right now.
Josh Sargent: The Werder Bremen forward surpassed 1000 minutes in the Bundesliga shortly before the shutdown and has scored five goals. But his performances since the winter break haven’t been great and Werder Bremen has been awful. How will he do once the club turns around? Does he stay with the team if it is relegated?
Gyasi Zardes: There are fans who question why Zardes is called up but he’s had a nice career, is a solid team player, and has had some important U.S. national team moments. Zardes exists on the team because of a decade of players failing to transition from the youth levels and into the top pro levels. He also exists because of the slew of injuries to guys like Johannsson, Boyd, and Altidore. Of course it’s true that his first touch can let him down too often and he doesn’t beat players enough off the dribble but he’s still had enough moments to justify being in the picture. He’s vulnerable to being overtaken by the next generation but that’s been the case for years. It will happen eventually but it’s still up to others to take his spot.
Next in line
Jesus Ferreira: The FC Dallas attacker is exciting and should also play a lot for the U.S. U-23 team. He’s 19 and is ready to enter his second season as a starter for Dallas. He’ll need to continue to improve but he has the potential to do so. The big question for Ferreira is if Luchi Gonzalez at Dallas moves him away from forward and settles him into a position as a No. 10 or on the wings.
Nicholas Gioacchini: The SM Caen forward is on the radar and was a strong possibility to have been on the U.S. roster for the March friendlies. With the French Ligue 2 season over, Gioacchini will now have to continue to play well next season to remain in the picture. Still just 19, time is on his side and he could emerge as a U-23 option as well.
Jeremy Ebobisse: The Portland Timbers forward is also likely to remain in the U.S. U-23 picture (although a competition could happen from Gioacchini depending on club releases) and he is a different type of forward who has more size and strength than players like Ferreira. But Portland is spending money on forward options so Ebobisse needs to stay on the field to remain in the picture.
Bobby Wood: Once a mainstay with the team, Wood is now more of an afterthought since he’s dealt with sore knees and a total lack of playing time (along with a hefty contract that makes him tough to move). Eventually he will be moved and will have a clean slate. Then it will be up to him to show the talent is still there.
Andrija Novakovich: A regular with Frosinone in Serie B, Novakovich was playing very well in January and February where he was helping his team in its push for promotion. While he never broke through at Reading, Novakovich was playing the best soccer of his career in recent months and has really adjusted well into the Italian game.
Aron Johannsson: Never say never. If the Icelandic-raised forward can play well for Hammarby (where Berhalter made his managerial debut), he might be a viable option if others aren’t playing well. He’s always had the talent but just hasn’t been able to stay healthy.
Current YNT/Further down the line
Charlie Kelman: The likely starting U.S. U-20 forward could be an interesting option down the road. He is starting and scoring for Southend United which is in financial trouble and is likely to get relegated out of League One. Despite a decimated transfer market at the moment, Kelman could be an affordable option by numerous clubs. If he can take advantage, he can continue his accent. He should focus on the U.S. U-20 team at the moment internationally. If he succeeds there, he could be an option sooner than later. But he’s had a nice start to his career and is certainly one to keep an eye on.
Sebastian Soto: The starting 2019 U.S. U-20 forward had a great U-20 World Cup but followed it up with a lost season at Hannover. There was a contractual dispute and his new manager was publicly critical of the California native. As a result, Soto simply has not played and as a result, has been bypassed by the U.S. U-23 team - for now. With the Olympics having been pushed back a year, he needs to get his spot back on that team. He’s also been rumored to make a move away from Hannover but everything seems to be up in the air at the moment. Soto has talent but this past year was a setback for him after he had a lot of momentum. Can he get it back?
Ricardo Pepi: Pepi is quite a bit further behind the others on this list but he’s shown an upside at the youth levels and with North Texas SC in USL League One – where he’s also made his FC Dallas debut. It will be hard to surpass players like Ferreira and Zdenek Ondrasek on the Dallas first team anytime soon, so it will be interesting how he challenges himself in the years ahead. Internationally, he could emerge as Kelman’s back-up on the U.S. U-20 team this cycle and become the U-20 starter for the 2023 cycle. As a 2003-born player, time is on his side but he has some important decisions to make sooner than later regarding his development.
Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez: In a similar boat to Pepi, Ocampo-Chavez is young although he misses the cutoff for the 2023 U-20 team. So if he wants to play, he’ll have to pass Kelman. To do that, he’ll have to make important strides in Seattle. That’s a tougher team to play for but it’s also possible the 2020 schedule (which is up in the air), might force squad rotation in an effort to be more condensed. He might end up with more opportunities than originally thought.
Mason Toye: The New Jersey native fell off last year after an impressive run midseason. He looked to be part of the U-23 team but fell off and was not part of the scheduled qualifying roster for March. It is now up to him to get back on track or else fade off and be bypassed altogether.