Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?
On Friday, Gregg Berhalter announced the roster for this month’s USMNT camp ahead of a Dec. 18 friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since it’s a non-FIFA window, most of the European-based players will not come back to join the team, giving a bunch of MLS guys who just finished their seasons the opportunity to impress the coaching staff and earn a cap. We’ll get to one of them next week, since the month of December means the opposite level of activity for European leagues. We’ve got midweek games all over the place! Yunus Musah is scoring against a sixth-division club, Christian Pulisic is finally back in the Chelsea starting XI, and other young players are earning some run as every team’s depth is tested.
One of these guys is Nicholas Gioacchini.
Who Does He Play For?
Gioacchini plays for Montpellier, a midsized club in Ligue 1, after they took a flier on him with a one-year loan on the final day of the September transfer window. This is Gioacchini’s third professional season in France, though it’s his first one in Ligue 1 after two seasons in Ligue 2 with his parent club Caen. Montpellier is firmly in the middle of a rather crowded rock-fight in the Ligue 1 mid-table, with the sixth- and 14th-placed teams separated by a mere four points. Montpellier hasn’t made it to European competition since they won the league a decade ago, and if Gioacchini helps them distinguish themselves from the pack, he could wind up staying with the club permanently. Caen views him as a Ligue 1–quality player they can sell for a nice profit. His first Caen manager compared him to a lottery ticket who could “contribute to the good financial health of the club” and “pay off big.”
Earning a permanent move to Montpellier would be a big deal for Gioacchini, and this season is a pretty serious test for the young forward. He burst onto the USMNT radar after excelling with Caen, and he quickly scored two goals after earning his first two caps in a pair of friendlies last November. Gioacchini built on that hot start with a few appearances and another goal in the Gold Cup, and while he’s built up some cache, he hasn’t been a part of any World Cup qualifiers thus far. Getting to Montpellier is a necessary step in getting back into the national team picture, though he has only shown in flashes that he can hack it at the Ligue 1 level. The striker position depth is such that he might still get some serious looks from Berhalter and Co. if he’s crushing it at the second level, but at some point, he’ll need to prove he’s legit if he wants to stay in the pool.
The good news: Gioacchini has played in all 12 of Montpellier’s league games since making the move. He has one assist and has won one penalty. The bad: he’s only started twice, has yet to play a full 90 minutes or score a goal, and he’s been outplayed by most of his counterparts. That’s not altogether surprising, since he is 21 and just got to Montpellier, but a forward who doesn’t score goals won’t stay in the XI. The next few months will be the most critical of Gioacchini’s career.
The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?
How Does He Play?
Gioacchini prefers to play as a forward in any setup where he doesn’t serve as the lone striker. Montpellier and Caen have used him on both wings, and he’s played up front with a partner at times as well. He’s got the back-to-goal ability to play as a center forward, the speed to play out wide, and, at least at the Ligue 2 level, the technical ability to serve in attacking midfield. That versatility has helped him get on the field so often for Montpellier. His skillset overlaps a lot with his USMNT teammate Josh Sargent. Both forwards excel at holding up the ball, linking up with their teammates, and winning fouls in tough areas.
The problem is he doesn’t score that much. He notched six goals in his season-and-a-half of Ligue 2 soccer, and has yet to put one away for Montpellier. As a French scouting report noted, he often gains “a positional and qualitative superiority due to a good reading of the available spaces,” though he also has a “great difficulty in converting chances to goals.” Scoring goals is the hardest and most important part of the game, and as critical as setting up good positions and building up attacks are, putting the ball in the net is what really separates the greats from the Álvaro Moratas.
The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.
Gioacchini is 21 and mostly out of sight of the American audience, so we have to give him a 6 out of 11.
As for his ceiling, you can see what he has to improve for everything to click into place. Because he doesn’t score, his positional versatility can look more like a weakness than a strength. Gioacchini has said he envisions himself as a Champions League player, and while the theoretical fully realized Nicholas Gioacchini combines his hold-up play with a healthy flow of goals, we haven’t seen enough from him to believe that’s really possible. It might be, and playing very well in Ligue 2 is a nice start, but it’s only a start. As I keep saying, he has to really pop at Montpellier.
Can He Play Right Back?
The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.
Like Gianluca Busio, Gioacchini is from Kansas City, has an Italian father, and his name starts with “Gi-.” As we’ve established, Busio can play right back. With Gioacchini’s positional versatility and Busio’s tutelage, he can definitely play right back.
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Gioacchini has played very well in his eight caps with the team. His three goals have all been unremarkable, which is, weirdly, a good sign. The USMNT relies heavily on wing play, and the striker tends to be asked to occupy good positions and build things up rather than receive long balls and immediately score.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Not really close at all. Ricardo Pepi is the top striker, and barring a breakout, Gioacchini is behind at least Jordan Pefok, Sargent, Jesus Ferreira, and Daryl Dike in the depth chart. He could leapfrog those guys, though everyone but Pefok was born in 2000 and there’s plenty of jockeying ahead as everyone develops from “promising young player” into whatever they become. His best bet for a starting role elsewhere is on the right wing, though even there he has a few names in front of him—most clearly Tim Weah, who provides all the same positional versatility but does so at a much higher level.
Still, Gioacchini has a chance to make a name for himself, and it’s pretty exciting that the terms are so clear. If he scores, say, four or five goals for Montpellier, this is a completely different conversation. Maybe that says more about how up-for-grabs the forward spots are than how good Gioacchini is, but still, this is his chance.