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Five Americans to Watch Leading Up to World Cup Qualifying

 

Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams have been making their mark in Europe, but who else is U.S. boss Gregg Berhalter looking to as World Cup qualifying nears? After a scoreless draw with Wales, we look at the club seasons so far for Giovanni Reyna, Yunus Musah, Sergiño Dest, Josh Sargent and Nicholas Gioacchini.

By: Paul Carr, Kevin Chroust

21.8 – the first number in this piece has less to do with anything on the pitch than it does being born around the time Giovanni Reyna’s dad was approaching his prime with the U.S. men’s national team. It’s now Claudio’s son’s turn along with a group of players this international break who on average aren’t yet a year removed from their 21st birthday.

Coach Gregg Berhalter’s group played to a scoreless draw in Wales Thursday, and you’ve probably seen plenty of simple and subjective 6/10 or 8/10 player ratings since. Let’s go a bit deeper and see what the data has to say about five of those players in their recent club play around Europe.

Giovanni Reyna

There are eventful birthday weeks, and then there are eventful birthday weeks that include a start against Bayern Munich and making your senior national team debut on your last day as a 17-year-old.

Giovanni Reyna turns 18 today, and he does so as the latest U.S. teen to come to prominence in the Bundesliga. He also reaches 18 with the highest direct goal involvement among teenagers in the big five European leagues, regardless of country of origin.

Big 5 Leagues Top Teen Goal Involvement

PlayerAgeClubGoalsAssistsGoals+Assists
Ansu Fati18Barcelona404
Giovanni Reyna18Borussia Dortmund134
Adil Aouchiche18Saint-Etienne213
Rodrygo19Real Madrid033
Lee Kang-In19Valencia033
Florian Wirtz17Bayer Leverkusen033

He and Ansu Fati are the only two players 19 or younger with four combined goals and assists, and there’s plenty more pointing toward Reyna being the kind of attacking midfielder the U.S. national team hopes he can evolve into. He’s played more on the left drifting centrally for Dortmund and found himself there more as the first half went on against Wales after starting on the right, where he didn’t look overly comfortable on the ball early on.

Reyna played 69 minutes in Dortmund’s 3-2 loss to Bayern on Saturday, and it can be argued that goal involvement total should have jumped one higher in that match. He didn’t have a hand in either of Dortmund’s goals, but his 0.34 expected assist mark is his second-highest single-game total of the season behind his three-assist match (0.68 xA) in a 4-0 win over Freiburg on Oct. 3. In Der Klassiker, that came on a 21st-minute opportunity in which he sent Erling Haaland behind two Bayern defenders to a clear chance on goal that would have opened the scoring had Haaland not slipped it wide of the far post. For what it’s worth, measured by xG, that shot was the best scoring opportunity of the game (0.51):

It’s an attacking position where Reyna, No. 32 above, has grown particularly comfortable, producing nearly identical setups of Haaland on near-post runs for Reyna’s two open-play assists this season. Look closely below – there are two goals from virtually the same spot:

His third actual assist came on a right-side outswinging corner. Reyna ranks first in expected assists (1.36) among teens in the big five leagues, just ahead of Ansu Fati (1.32), but his involvement goes deeper for possession-minded Dortmund. Reyna’s been involved in more sequences ending in a goal (7) than any teen in the big five, and he’s also started more sequences that have ended in a goal (4).

But now he’s 18, an adult and we should treat him like one: Among players of any age in the big five, only James Rodriguez and Matheus Cunha have started more sequences ending in a goal with five each. And Reyna’s done so with the highest passing percentage (85.4) in the Bundesliga among attacking midfielders of any age (minimum 200 minutes) just ahead of Bayern’s Kingsley Coman and Serge Gnabry.

Yunus Musah

At 17 years old, Yunus Musah is the youngest player on this U.S. roster. He was among the least known before this week, but if his strong performance against Wales is any indication, that will change rapidly. Born in New York City and raised in Italy and England, Musah is attending his first U.S. camp, having already played for England at four youth levels since 2016.

He left Arsenal’s academy for Valencia in the summer of 2019, and he made his senior debut when he started Valencia’s La Liga opener in September. Since then, he’s started seven of nine league games and come off the bench in another. On Nov. 1, his goal on a breathtaking run from beyond midfield made him the youngest non-Spanish scorer in Valencia’s 102-year history.

Musah’s touches with Valencia.

What might the youngster bring to the U.S.? Musah has played primarily at right midfield in a 4-4-2 with Valencia, and he played a central midfield role with England’s U-17 and U-18 squads. Gregg Berhalter has compared him to Weston McKennie in terms of his ability to both attack and defend box-to-box, and Musah himself has modeled his game after Paul Pogba.

Musah’s touches with England’s U-17s and 18s.

The numbers support that promise both ways. Musah leads Valencia with 25 take-ons this season, good for 13th in La Liga and 10th in the league on a per-90 basis (min. 500 minutes). He tends to cut into the box and let right back Thierry Correia send in crosses on the overlap. Musah shares the team lead with 17 touches in the penalty area, and his six crosses rank eighth for Valencia this season.

He also puts in the defensive work, as evidenced by his 10 interceptions (tied for third on Valencia) and 31 recoveries (fifth on the team). From a central position with England’s U-18 side, he led the team with 45 recoveries across six games last year, while also contributing seven chances created for second-most on the team.

Yunus Musah 2020/21 La Liga

 Take-OnsPenalty Area TouchesCrossesInterceptionsRecoveries
Musah251761031
Rank in Team1stT-1st8thT-3rd5th

Musah turns 18 on Nov. 29, and he already has the third-most La Liga minutes (614) before turning 18 for any player since 2010. The two names ahead of him: Barcelona’s now-injured star Ansu Fati and Athletic Bilbao stalwart Iker Muniain.

Musah has a sky-high ceiling, and even though he played for the U.S. on Thursday, he remains eligible for England, Italy and Ghana at the senior level. As he continues to build on his potential, all four countries may make a push for his services.

Sergiño Dest

Reyna’s had a milestone-heavy week, but Dest, who turned 20 on Nov. 3, has had a big few months. The former Ajax right back was courted by European champions Bayern Munich before deciding on Barcelona. A difficult decision? Perhaps. A vexing decision? Perhaps not.

Since joining Messi and Co., manager Ronald Koeman wasted little time involving Dest. He’s played on the left and the right at Barca – he working to find his identity at the club as the club attempts to reinvent or reclaim its own.

His right may be his preferred foot, and he played on the right against Wales, a match in which he was arguably the best player on the pitch. We saw him and left back Antonee Robinson consistently move into advanced positions on the wing with Dest clearly the better of the two in balancing his responsibilities and contributing to the attack.

With Barcelona, what we can gather from the data is he’s been more involved when he’s played on the left in the context of touches, passes and open-play crosses attempted. But that changes if we start to think of this in terms of contributing offensively through crossing efficiency and take-ons:

With Barcelona

PositionMinPasses/90Pass%Attacking Third Pass%xA/90Chances
Created
Take-onsTake-on%Open Play
Crosses/90
Cross%
Left Back26166.388.789.10.061.251.775.03.80.0
Right Back18051.592.289.50.131.55.581.8225.0
(2020/21 season – La Liga and Champions League combined)

He didn’t play much on the left at Ajax and is still green at Barca. However, what we’re seeing at Barcelona in two matches playing on the right is a massive increase in his take-ons compared to his time at Ajax, and his success rate has been impressive. Maybe it’s that everyone just expects him to pass to Messi when he’s on that side.

Instead of immediately looking to pass, when we look at his La Liga numbers regardless of which side he’s on, his 4.6 take-ons per 90 are second in the division among right and left backs only to Real Madrid counterpart Ferland Mendy (5.2). That’s a considerable increase from the 2.5 he had with Ajax from the start of 2019/20 up until his transfer, and it comes with a jump from a 61.9% success rate to 81.8. Again, small samples sizes abound, so let’s understand some of these numbers will level out, but there are sprouts of tendencies to consider.

Some of this conflicts with what we saw at Ajax, so it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in larger sample sizes if he continues to get time on both sides in Spain. If we split him out by side dating to the start of last season in both domestic and European play with Ajax, similar crossing trends hold, but we see that his take-ons are entirely different:

With Ajax

PositionMinPasses/90Pass%Attacking Third Pass%xA/90Chances
Created
Take-onsTake-on%Open Play
Crosses/90
Cross%
Left Back8034.990.383.30.211.137.866.75.60.0
Right Back2,08546.587.383.40.130.952.461.82.222.0
(2019/20 Eredivisie, Champions League & Europa League and 2020/21 Eredivisie)

Both Ajax and Barcelona tend to be ball-dominant sides in their domestic leagues, so it’s also interesting to look at his passing in the attack. His 2019/20 Eredivisie pass completion percentage in the attacking third (83.3%) was third among right backs (minimum 900 minutes played). Playing with Barcelona, he’s seen that increase to 89.6 in four La Liga matches, which has resulted in 1.67 chances created per 90 minutes. That ranks third among left and right backs to play at least 200 minutes in the division.

He’s also stated in an interview with ESPN this week that his main priority is his defensive responsibilities at the club. There’s not enough data there to start drawing conclusions of how he’s progressing, but we’ll dive into that the next time we check in with this group.

Josh Sargent

Josh Sargent has been the U.S. starting-striker-in-waiting since his Bundesliga debut almost two years ago, and he’ll remain in that role through this international window. Werder Bremen did not release Sargent for these two matches, because of health regulations in the city of Bremen, which would require Sargent to quarantine for five days upon his return to the club.

For the U.S., there seemed to be a Josh Sargent-sized hole in the No. 9 position Thursday evening. Viewing Sargent’s absence in a positive light, the 20-year-old seems to be considered essential by his club, and his usage this season backs that up. Sargent has started all seven of Werder Bremen’s Bundesliga matches, playing at least 80 minutes in each game.

Sargent now needs to deliver on that trust. His raw numbers have not popped the last two league seasons, as his five Bundesliga goals in 2,037 minutes are tied for 42nd among the 57 forwards with at least 1,000 minutes in that span, and Sargent’s scoring rate of a goal every 407 minutes ranks 48th out of 57. His rate stats don’t paint a much better picture. While on the field the past two league seasons, he’s accumulated 15% of his team’s goals and shots, putting him in the bottom fifth of Bundesliga forwards.

Josh Sargent Last Two Bundesliga Seasons

(Ranked among 57 forwards with 1,000+ minutes)
Minutes2,03724th
Goals542nd
Minutes/goal40748th

Part of the reason for this is of course his team. Werder Bremen finished 16th last season and survived a playoff to remain in the Bundesliga, in part because of a struggling attack. Bremen was flattered by a ranking of 14th in the league with 42 goals, compared to 16th in expected goals (40.8) and 17th in non-penalty expected goals (36.0).

Perhaps Sargent could be a more clinical finisher. He’s scored 12.2% of his shots the past two league seasons, below the Bundesliga average of 16.6%. On the other hand, he’s only slightly underachieved expected goals (five goals on 5.4 xG) in this small sample size of 41 shots.

Since Sargent fills a U.S. position of need at center forward, one promising sign for his international future is where he’s playing on the field this season. Bremen has taken advantage of his versatility across the front line, deploying him from wing-to-wing. This season, he’s drifted centrally, with 42% of his attacking-half touches in the center third of the field, compared to 37% last season.

For a U.S. team that could feature wingers including Pulisic, Reyna, Jordan Morris and Timothy Weah, finding that center forward to hold the attack together will be a crucial mission prior to World Cup qualifying.

Nicholas Gioacchini

Gioacchini’s touches for the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons.

Kansas City-born Nicholas Gioacchini made his international debut on Thursday, and though he didn’t make much of an impact in his 11 minutes against Wales, his hot start for French club Caen has drawn attention. Used most often on the right, Gioacchini can play on either wing or at the center forward spot.

Despite missing two games after testing positive for COVID-19, Gioacchini is tied for the team lead with three Ligue 2 goals this season. He’s probably running a little hot, as those three goals on seven shots with a total of 1.5 expected goals. His ability to make quality runs is promising, with six of his seven shots coming in the heart of the box between the penalty spot and the net, including this stoppage-time winner last week.

His shots in the 2019-20 Ligue 2 season were from similarly close proximity, and his average shot distance of 10.4 yards was second-shortest in the league, among 104 players with at least 20 shots last season.

Gioacchini’s passing may need some work, since he has completed 64% of his attacking-third passes over the past two seasons, ranking 95th out of 102 players with 150 such passes. His creative ability may be developing though, as evidenced by his eight chances created (tied for second on the team) and nine take-ons this season, compared to a total of four chances created and 12 take-ons in more than twice as many minutes last season.


Paul Carr is Director of Content at TruMedia, which partners with Stats Perform on the ProVision research platform for clubs and media.

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