Americans abroad analysis
FC Dallas alumni shine, Pefok scores again, Ream wins at LB, Yanks struggle in Italy, & more
September 18, 2022
THE WEEKEND FOR Americans abroad is over and that ushers in the final international break before the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. It was a far better weekend than the previous weekend and there is a lot more to talk about – both good and bad.
We had significant news from just about every of the major European countries.
So, let’s start with breaking it all down and giving you some of my thoughts.
FC Dallas homegrown alumni shine
Players who came up through the FC Dallas system, signed homegrown deals, made it to the first team all had good weekends – with the exception of Justin Che who is trapped in the abyss at Hoffenheim.
First you had Ricardo Pepi, who was somewhat controversially selected to the national team last week despite not having scored for club or country since last October. His run at Augsburg was poor and he was shipped to the midtable Eredivisie with FC Groningen to jump start his career.
He made a strong debut last weekend when he assisted in a 1-0 win over Cambuur. On Saturday, he earned his first start with Groningen against Sparta Rotterdam and initially it went extremely well with Pepi ending his scoreless skid with a very nice header.
The magnifying glass will still be on Pepi as he remains the most unconvincing forward right now in the player pool and Jordan Pefok’s surge continues to have many fans asking “why not Pefok? He’s scoring for the Bundesliga’s top team.” It’s a fair question. While Berhalter keeps stressing the style of the team and fitting into the system, for a lot of fans that is overcomplicating things.
Mike Tyson once had a famous line: “everyone has a plan until they are punched in the face.” When you get into battle, the style and the system are great but there comes a time when that will break down. When that breaks down, becomes a matter of raw talent.
This doesn’t mean that Pepi doesn’t have the talent. But this one Eredivisie goal needs to be the start of a huge upward trend or else it’s going to only raise more questions.
One important note here is that Pepi was not having a particularly solid game until his 62nd minute goal. The goal does distract from everything but maybe it provides a spark. It has to start from somewhere.
Staying with the FC Dallas alumni, Bryan Reynolds has not had a great time since getting sold from FC Dallas to AS Roma in January 2021. He rarely played at Roma and his first loan this past January to Kortrijk wasn’t great. He didn’t standout as that team tanked.
Now at Westerlo, he is on a newly promoted team but one with a little more promise. After weeks of being glued to the bench, Reynolds is now a starter. On Saturday against Sporting Charleroi, he scored his first goal when his 4th minute strike gave Westerlo 1-0 lead. That proved to be a valuable goal in a 3-2 away win over Sporting.
Reynolds is finally in a place where he can build his game and the club should be a midtable finisher. It’s not glamours, but this is where he should have been at initially. The level of play is the same as Dallas but there he can work free of the hype and get acclimated to a different country and culture.
His national team prospects aren’t great – either now or in the future. If he’s a right back, Sergino Dest and Joe Scally are also young and are clearly ahead of him. With the emergence of other left backs after Antonee Robinson (such as Sam Vines, who is higher up the ladder in Belgium), it doesn’t seem likely Dest or Scally get switched to left back.
Reynolds might in in time find his way into a backup role with the U.S. team but that is a long way off. He should put all his focus into his club career to improve his standing once his Westerlo loan ends and then maybe push for an Olympic team spot. He’s a long term project but is finally showing the possibility of a nice ceiling if he continues to work hard.
Finally, completing the FC Dallas homegrown hat trick of good news this weekend was Reggie Cannon. While he isn’t playing as a right back, he is playing as a right sided central defender for Boavista on a weekly basis. On Saturday, he went the distance in a very good defensive outing as Boavista defeated one of Portugal’s traditional powers in Sporting CP. It was a gritty and hard-fought defensive battle and showed the value for Cannon in being able to help his team defend its way to an upset. Gregg Berhalter surely took note of that too.
Boavista are in a surprising fifth place in Portugal through seven games to start the season. It’s been a steady climb up since Cannon joined and this is their best season with him.
Pefok & Boyd: crushing it in Germany
There were some impressive displays from the forward position in Germany – one which is sure to raise the most angst among U.S. national team fans and the other, while no longer in contention for the U.S. team, is just a positive and feel-good story.
Let’s start with the angst.
Jordan Pefok scored his third goal of the Bundesliga season on Sunday for Union Berlin when he opened the scoring of what would turn out to be a 2-0 win over Wolfsburg. His 54th minute header was truly a display of individual class. On top of it all, Union Berlin sits atop the Bundesliga table with 17 points from seven games.
We all know the reason why Pefok is not in the U.S.team. He doesn’t fit the profile of how Berhalter wants his forwards to play. But this then draws links with Pepi who broke his 11+ month scoreless drought with a goal that looked like it would have been scored by Pefok. Josh Sargent struggled for years in the Bundesliga trying to do what Pepi did.
It doesn’t dismiss Berhalter’s concerns either. I remember the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. As one of the three overage picks, Peter Nowak selected Brian McBride who was coming off another season in the Premier League. Jozy Altidore was still a very young forward on the Red Bulls and Charlie Davies was still in Sweden. McBride, despite having the best resume at the time, looked completely out of step for how the team wanted to play. Altidore and Davies looked better.
That was lovely. A clever ball from Haberer found @SheraldoBecker on the right. He scorched past Paulo Otavio and crossed precisely with his left, where @Theosonsmith flashed a lovely glancing header home. Fast, precise, devastating. Union!#FCUWOB | #fcunion | 1-0 | 64' pic.twitter.com/1Uo9HuqZEv— 1. FC Union Berlin (@fcunion_en) September 18, 2022
But as I mentioned above, “everyone has a plan until they’re punched in the face,” and when the system is breaking down, where are the goals going to come from against the run of play? The 2008 U.S. Olympic team over-relied on McBride. I think the concern with leaving Pefok off is that he doesn’t have to start, but it is very easy to see a situation arise where he’d be useful. Yes, he doesn’t get a lot of touches on the ball, he doesn’t press much, he might not get behind the lines very often, and he has yet to show a good working chemistry with the U.S. wingers, but when the U.S. trailing late and looking for an equalizer, he seems like the guy you want to be in the box for crosses.
As for the club situation, he’s in a great spot. He has great chemistry with Sheraldo Becker (a chemistry which would be nearly impossible to replicate at on the U.S. team, to be honest). Holding off Bayern Munich is unlikely but they’re a team in transition with Lewandowski gone but Union Berlin looks like the team to really go for it.
In this game, Kevin Paredes came off the bench and played the final 11 minutes for Wolfsburg. Once again, he wasn’t a game changer, but he was a positive for Wolfsburg. It seems as if the U.S. U-20 winger is building towards his first ever Bundesliga start.
In the German 2.Bundesliga, Terrence Boyd scored two goals for Kaiserslautern in a 2-2 draw with FC Heidenheim. In this game, his second goal was an equalizer with his team down to 10 men. His first goal, was a very impressive header.
Boyd, 31, now has five goals on the season and is just one off the pace for the 2.Bundesliga scoring lead. That’s not easy on a newly promoted team. Boyd never scored in repeated opportunities with the U.S. team and he never scored in an ill-fated move to Toronto. But he remains one of the most likable and easy to root for American players in the game. Now he is looking to end his career with a string of successful seasons.
Also in this game, Lennard Maloney went 75 minutes for Heidenheim in the draw. It was a tough outing in what has otherwise been a nice start to the season for the German-American central defender who earned two U.S. U-20 caps in 2018. Heidenheim looks like a contender for promotion.
McKenzie & EPB impress
As everyone knows by now, Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie were added to the U.S. national team roster on Sunday to replace the injured Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards. Both are listed as out with minor injuries.
But in getting added, both players will arrive in camp on the heels of good performances.
Erik Palmer-Brown once again played the full 90 for Troyes in a 3-1 away win over Clermont Foot on Sunday. After a tough start, Troyes is playing like an upper-mid table Ligue 1 team. Palmer-Brown is in a position where he must battle week-in and week-out and things are starting to really fall into place for him. Here, he had eight clearances, two blocked shots, and won 4/6 of his duels.
Mark McKenzie, meanwhile, had his best outing for Genk since assuming the starting job after the club sold Jhon Lucumi to Bologna. In the weeks since that sale, McKenzie had been performing well against smaller Belgian clubs but in this game he faced a good Gent team and he helped preserve a very nice 1-0 cleansheet victory.
Mark McKenzie: raw # for Genk in 1-0 win over Gent— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) September 18, 2022
2 blocked shots
6/8 ground duels
- so-so passing #, but great defensive # in a quality win for Genk
Both players will like where they stand heading into the international break. Both players have a chance to sneak firmly on the inside of the World Cup bubble. Among the central defense pool, I see Walker Zimmerman as the team’s only lock. Aaron Long has had a decent season for the Red Bulls but isn’t spectacular.
Then there should also be questions about why Richards is considered a lock as well given 582 minutes of club minutes in 2022 and his last U.S. appearances were in January. Richards has a lot of talent but he’s not at the level of Pulisic where he is an automatic selection if healthy.
Carter-Vickers has done very well for Celtic but is not much further ahead of Palmer-Brown or McKenzie on talent. A good camp from McKenzie or Palmer-Brown could swing the balance. Especially for Palmer-Brown who is playing in the challenging Ligue 1.
Really tough weekend in Italy
With the sole exception of Andrija Novakovich, this weekend was a terrible stretch for the Americans in Italy.
We will start with Weston McKennie and Juventus who dropped a 1-0 decision on the road to Monza. Not long ago, this would have been an unimaginable upset (as it was Monza's first Serie A win). But in a sign about how far things have fallen for Juve, no one who has paid attention to the club is surprised by the result.
McKennie played the full 90 – which is good. While he didn’t play well, it’s fair to say no one on Juventus played well. It’s also fair to say that the biggest culprit for Juve’s losing effort was Angel Di Mario who was sent off in the 40th minute.
McKennie played on the right side of the midfield and while he worked hard defensively, wasn’t able to provide much to help his team offensively. He did have a very nice cross in the second half that could have been put away, but in terms of how he played the previous two season (when healthy) for Juventus – it is a step down.
The team was booed loudly by its own supporters and Max Allegri could be in a position where his hot seat eventually caves. The blame must also shift to the players. Allegri is a successful coach and he has a long history with Juve. If he can’t win with these players, who can?
AC Milan dropped a 2-1 decision to Napoli at home. Of all the Americans in Europe this weekend, Sergino Dest is top of the list of players who had a weekend he’d like to forget.
Dest came into the game to start the second half with the score 0-0. He was asked to provide some defense, but instead conceded a 55th minute penalty. While Milan equalized in the 69th via a goal Dest was not involved, Giovanni Simeone found a 79th minute winner for Napoli in a 2-1 victory.
Dest is getting criticism from Milan fans, which is to be expected from them, but Dest has been put in a tough situation. He was publicly forced out the door at Barcelona and he rarely played in preseason. Now he is being thrown right into the mix at Milan. The good news for the U.S. team is that he is making his mistakes now, not on international duty.
But that raises two concerns. What is his confidence level after getting forced out at Barca and now a mishap in Milan when he is pushing for regular minutes? Second, will this see his minutes reduced?
Unfortunately, we don’t know. Dest won’t arrive into U.S. camp in a confident manner. But can he compartmentalize it and separate himself when he’s with Milan or the U.S team?
In Serie B, Venezia played to a disappointing 1-1 draw with Pisa on Saturday. Andrija Novakovich and Gianluca Busio started for Venezia. Americans Patrick Leal and Jack DeVries were on the bench and did not play. Tanner Tessmann was suspended.
As mentioned earlier, Novakovich was the lone American to play well in Italy and the Wisconsin native scored Venezia’s only goal. It was his first for Venezia. But a 1-1 draw against a newly promoted team from Serie C who went down to 10 men in the 71st is a very poor result. Busio played a full 90 and played relatively well but this was a game Venezia needs to dominate if it wants to be in contention for another promotion.
Finally, in Serie B, Anthony Fontana continues to ride the bench as an unused substitute for Ascoli Calico. He didn’t play again on Saturday in a 3-1 home loss to Parma.
Italy was a horrible place for Americans this weekend.
Ream gets it done at left back
On Friday, Fulham travelled north to face Nottingham Forest in a batle of newly promoted Premier League teams. This was a huge challenge for Fulham captain Tm Ream who was forced to play left back given a wave of injuries at the club, including one to Antonee Robinson.
Ream, 34, held his own and helped Fulham to a big 3-2 win which now has them sixth in the Premier League table. While Ream won’t be pushing Robinson for the job, he was quietly competent and made no real mistakes.
His effort did not go unnoticed. Fulham head coach Marco Silva does not like to mention players by name in postgame media, but he couldn’t resist talking about his captain – who will do anything for his club.
“I don't like mentioning individual players but I have to mention Tim Ream,” Silva said. “34 years old, he's probably been our best centerback, so far. And with the problems that we had on our left side without Robinson or Kurzawa, I didn't have doubts to adapt him there."
It makes you reflect on Ream’s terrific career at the Red Bulls, Bolton, and now Fulham. He’s been part of three promotions and this is the best he’s looked in the Premier League. That much is widely talked about, but consider how many managers he has impressed over the years? Every club manager sees a ton of value in him, both on the field and off the field.
This is what Robinson told me just before the start of the season on Ream.
“Since Tom Cairney was injured a lot last season, Tim was pretty much the captain most of the season,” Robinson said. “He started every game which - for someone his age to start every game in the Championship and perform as well as he did - it's nothing short of incredible, to be honest. He has a real calmness on the ball and a warrior spirit. He was fighting, throwing his head into tackles, getting cut every week. To have that as one of your baseline players, it really does lift the team.”
“Off the pitch, he was basically taking on the duties of being co-captain almost with Tom,” he added. “When it came to speaking to the management, staff and things like that, trying to organize stuff off the field and making sure that all the lads were happy and all the coaching staff were happy, and that we were working in unison - he was huge for us.
As everyone knows, Ream is not on the U.S. roster despite two additions to central defense which saw Palmer-Brown and McKenzie added instead. Berhalter said last week that what he’s looking for in central defense doesn’t match Ream’s strengths. Few would expect Ream to start in central defense, but the concern many seem to stress is that Ream’s leadership and veteran calmness seem as if they should count more than ever with a U.S. team which should be the youngest in Qatar.
Steffen & Horvath get clean sheets
Zack Steffen retuned from injury on Saturday to start for Middlesbrough in what turned out to be a 0-0 draw with Rotherham United.
Ethan Horvath, meanwhile, was in net for Luton Town on Saturday in a 2-0 win over Blackburn.
What can be made of these wins? Not much, unfortunately. Neither goalkeeper was forced to make a single save. Horvath in particular has only made 15 saves in 10 games as Luton Town’s defense does not concede many shots.
Both goalkeepers are tough to read after mostly sitting on the bench for the past several years. Neither yet this season have been forced into a match where they’ve truly been a difference maker.
Gio & Scally impress in Germany
Gio Reyna and Joe Scally are long-time friends who grew up in the New York area and came up through the NYCFC academy. Gio bailed before he signed a homegrown deal. Scally signed the homegrown deal but left after his first season when Borussia Monchengladbach made a big offer.
Joe Scally has turned into a very consistent performer for Borussia Monchengladbach and has now appeared in 32 Bundesliga games. His effort on Saturday in a 3-0 win over RB Leipzig was one of his best so far. He was so consistently solid at right back and he was instrumental in the build-up to the first goal. On the play he beat his man to the endline with a nice move. His cross was perfect and it forced a shot which was saved, but then hit home from close range.
Scally remains a top prospect not because dynamic offensive plays but more because he rarely makes serious mistakes. He doesn’t swing wildly between excellent and bad; he just is consistently good. For a teenager, that is rather remarkable.
As for Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund continues to manage his minutes wisely. On Saturday, he was on the bench for the return of the Riverederby against Schalke. But an injury to Marco Reus in just the 32nd minute brought the American into the game earlier than expected. He played until the 84th minute, five minutes after Dortmund took a 1-0 lead. That would end up the final score.
Reyna was very sharp in his 52 minutes and his substitution reflects the need for managed minutes. After the game, it was also announced that Dortmund would continue to work with the United States national team staff to continue his minute regulation during this window.
In his 52 minutes, Reyna had 47 touches and was 26/30 in passing. He created one very dangerous chance in the second half and had two shots inside the box. On the ball he looked very smooth. His consistency might still be lacking, but that’s simply a matter of him needing more reps. Dortmund knows what he can do and the care they are showing him reflects how highly they rate him.
As for this window, I doubt he will go a full 90 for the U.S. team in either of these games but he could play a half in either one. Just seeing him on the field will be a big boost for the U.S. team.
Vines & Antwerp remain perfect
Sam Vines and Royal Antwerp defeated RFC Seraing 2-1 on Friday to keep up its perfect 27 points from nine games to start the Belgian season. Vines has been a steady starter for Antwerp but he took on a much bigger role in this one.
Over 90 minutes, Vines had 119 touches which is the most I can ever recall him having. He was also 80/91 in his passing and he won 5/6 of his ground duels. This was a big effort.
Vines will have a big opportunity to prove himself to the U.S team in this camp and a ticket to Qatar is within reach. He is the only true left back on the roster and the other options are right-footed right backs. Vines simply needs to play well.
But even beyond this World Cup, moving forward Vines is in a great position. At the club level, Royal Antwerp’s terrific start now has more scouting eyes upon them. With left backs always in demand, Vines will have opportunities sooner rather than later.
Notes around Europe
Without touching upon every single game, here are some other stories and performances that caught my eye from the weekend.
According to this Dutch report, Cole Bassett has a “minutes threshold” on his loan from Colorado to Fortuna Sittard. If he is not meeting that threshold, Colorado can recall him this January. Even if they recall him, Feyenoord (who originally had him on loan) would continue to hold his option to buy. Even if he continues to play for Colorado, Feyenoord could then buy him.
Will he return to Colorado? Whatever gets him on the field. He was an unused substitute again under the new manager on Sunday for its 1-0 win over Excelsior.
But at least there is a way out for him and a place he can go to play. Things aren’t that great for Taylor Booth who again went as an unused substitute for Utrecht in a 0-0 draw with Nijmegen.
In Portugal, John Brooks made his Benfica debut in a 5-0 win over Maritimo. He came on in the 89th minute to close out the win. That was his first game (including friendlies) since May 14. Joel Sonora, meanwhile did not get off the bench for a Maritimo team that has lost all of its games to start the season. Once Benfica’s injured centerbacks return, can Brooks be expected to play at all?
Staying in Portugal, it was a tough game for Vizela and both of its American players when they travelled to face Braga on Sunday. Alex Mendez started for Vizela and U.S U-20 midfielder Alejandro Alvarado played the final two minutes. Braga, however, scored in the 85th and then in stoppage time for a 2-0 win. Vizela is battling hard and is competitive in most games, but they have just five points from seven games.
Rangers defeated Dundee United 1-0 on Sunday and, as expected, James Sands and Malik Tillman were on the bench after lackluster performances. Tillman managed to get off the bench for the final 20 minutes and he forced a nice save. Sands was an unused substitute in the game following his red card to concede a penalty vs. Napoli. Ian Harkes went the distance in the loss and things are ugly right now for Dundee United, sitting in last place without a win.
Matthew Hoppe scored for Middlesbrough’s reserve team in a loss to Norwich’s reserve team on Sunday. He’s done well in his reserve team appearances which should open the door eventually given that the first team is also struggling. But will Chris Wilder’s job be in jeopardy? That could be good or bad for Hoppe but he seems to have moved into an uncertain environment.
Konrad de la Fuente did not make the bench for Olympiacos on Sunday for its 2-1 loss to Aris. After the game manager Carlos Corberan was fired after just 11 games in charge. Assuming that a new manager is going to open the gates to more minutes for de la Fuente doesn’t capture the complexity of the issue.
De la Fuente does not have an EU passport and Greek Super League teams are limited to eight non-EU players on its roster and only five can be on any matchday squad. So de la Fuente has a separate competition just to make the squad. On top of that James Rodriguez signed with Olympiacos last week and while Rodriguez does have a Spanish passport, it still limits the need for de la Fuente to be one of the five non-EU players to suit up.
This makes you wonder if de la Fuente is in the best place right now for his development. Now in his third team in three years, he might need to find a fourth club where he can settle.
Haji Wright has cooled off a bit after his torrid start although his game for Antalyaspor on Sunday was wild. In a 3-0 loss to Adana Demirspor, Antalyaspor was reduced to 10 men in the 40th minute. Then to start the second half, Adana Demirspor also saw a red. But minutes later, Antalyaspor picked up a second red card. Adana Demirspor then scored twice late to seal the win.