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?
The USMNT is gathered right now for a training camp ahead of a one-off friendly next weekend. Because said friendly takes place outside of FIFA’s sanctioned windows, very few Europe-based players are with the team. Instead, Gregg Berhalter has cobbled together an interesting miniature USMNT.
On the roster you’ll see familiar names like Kellyn Acosta and Gyasi Zardes, but 12 of the 26 players in camp do not yet have a senior cap, nine of them are teenagers, and three of them are highly fought-over dual nationals. The U.S. has thankfully been fully taken over by a youth movement, and it’s encouraging that Berhalter is using this odd window to blood a bunch of neophytes and get them some time training with grizzled first-teamers. Few of the most intriguing invitees will likely feature for the A-team anytime soon, though if the actual leveling-up of the program is to continue, the pipeline of up-and-comers will have to continue flowing. Sitting astride this past-present divide is George Bello.
Who Does He Play For?
Bello is only 19, but he’s already played four professional seasons in the Atlanta United system as a left back. He signed as a homegrown player in the summer of 2017, made his professional debut for the reserves the following March, and followed with his first-team debut in September. Bello scored his first MLS goal before his 17th birthday, and almost immediately after cracking the rotation, his name was linked to some of the biggest clubs in the world. (He was rumored to go to Chelsea before Christian Pulisic, which does not feel right.) Bello came up right as Alphonso Davies moved to Bayern Munich, and it seemed like he would follow a similar path: debut as a teenager, ball out for a couple of seasons, then teleport from MLS to the heights of the sport.
But Bello is not Davies, and instead of vaulting into the Champions League, he was waylaid by injuries. He missed almost the entire 2019 season, a critical year that could have guaranteed him a big-money move had he shown out. Atlanta then followed up stellar 2018 and 2019 seasons by completely self-immolating in 2020. They cycled through three different managers and finished 23rd in the league, and even though Bello started 21 games and looked like he belonged at the MLS level as an 18-year-old, it seemed his progression had stalled. Many MLS teens get attached in rumors to huge clubs, but there’s only been one Alphonso Davies. Maybe two out of every 10 hotshot youngsters rumored to complete a big move and take the proverbial Next Step actually follow that sort of clean, linear developmental trajectory. Highly regarded players don’t always hit their ceilings. If, say, Pulisic is the exception, then Erik Palmer-Brown is the rule.
Now, though, one year after Atlanta’s disastrous 2020 season, Bello has truly broken out. He established himself as one of the most dangerous attacking fullbacks in the league and made subtle improvements as a defender. He also earned his first five USMNT caps, including a start in the Gold Cup final, in which a USMNT B-team held Mexico scoreless for 120 minutes. Bello lined up across from Tecatito Corona and held his own, which immediately brought the dormant transfer rumor mill back to life. Reports linked him to lower Champions League clubs like Galatasaray and Olympiacos, and the rumor now is that unnamed Champions League and Europa League clubs are making calls for his services. Atlanta has brought in another left back, so it seems increasingly likely that Bello really has played his last MLS game. It seems improbable that a 19-year-old would have gone through two full hype cycles before leaving the league, though I suppose the lesson here is that George Bello was always really good. His market value has fluctuated mostly as a function of luck, and at 19, it’s not like he’s a worse player or even prospect than he was when Chelsea was looking at him at 16.
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?
Bello is a modern left-sided fullback who’s spent most of his time in a back four but projects ever better as a wing back. The Nigerian-born left-footer started his career as a striker, then steadily moved back into the midfield and then the back line as he moved up through the U.S. youth system. That attacking DNA shows, as he’s consistently one of the most aggressive fullbacks in MLS. Bello, one of the fastest players in the league, is an ever-present threat to spring forward and punish overreaching defenses. His best skill as an attacker is his dribbling ability, but he also loves to tuck inside on attacking moves and bust through the center to set up goals (he had three assists this year). He hasn’t shown much as a scorer or creative passer, though he’s very good at the sorts of tricky interplays the best fullbacks need in their bag.
Atlanta have fallen off their peak at the same time as Bello has developed into a first-teamer, and like his USMNT teammate Sergiño Dest, he seems like the sort of player whose usefulness scales with his team’s ambitions. Bello is solid, maybe even capital-g Good, as an MLS defender, with nifty tackling skills and the recovery speed to win 1-v-1s, though he needs to improve his positional awareness. He can get outfoxed by smarter attackers, the likes of which he’ll definitely face in La Liga or wherever he ends up, and he tends to drift a bit too far away from his center back, leaving a concerning gap. Bello was on the field for USMNT’s dismal loss to Panama, and he looked indecisive and shaky both in attack and defense. The entire team did, but the horrid game showed how far Bello is from a finished product. Is he the guy who stood up against Mexico or the guy who crumbled against Panama? The answer is he is 19 and still putting his game together.
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.
Bello turns 20 in a month, but he’s cool and fun and fast, so we must attribute a score of 87 out of 94 to him.
I think Bello can hit his ceiling if he gets to play as a wing back. Allowed to glue himself to the touchline and patrol the length of his flank, his speed and attacking verve would be maximized, while the amount of defensive space under his responsibility would shrink. Not every team in Europe plays with a back three, and not many big teams have the luxury of letting a 19-year-old develop his defensive skills against other big teams, so the extent to which Bello fulfills his potential will likely be a function of his defensive improvement. He’s shown more sophistication and intelligence with every MLS season, so there’s plenty of reason for optimism. That said, the physicality and competitiveness of a Big Five league is at another level, and he’ll be seriously tested.
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.
Do you see a significant difference between left back and right back? Me neither.
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How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Gregg Berhalter loves a fullback in the attack, and Bello fits right in with how the USMNT likes to play. If the U.S. plays their usual 4-3-3, Bello would be allowed to sprint forward, link up with the winger, and take people on with the ball. He would also be allowed to tuck inside, which he loves to do. In other formations, which the USMNT will probably have to rearrange itself into against better teams or in the event of Terminator-ass Tyler Adams’s absence, Bello also makes sense. His speed and ball-carrying abilities are at their deadliest on the counterattack. My point, I suppose, is that he fits well.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
At the Gold Cup, Bello won his positional battle with Antwerp left back Sam Vines (who, by the way, is also good, especially at passing), which earned him the starting spot in that tournament and the backup role to Antonee Robinson in the full team. Vines took the backup spot back during the most recent qualification cycle, and it seems one of those two will be going to Qatar. My money is on Bello. He’s got more potential than Vines, fits in a little cleaner to this version of the team, and is more versatile. That’s a critical aspect of Bello’s game. He’s talked about how his favorite players are David Alaba, a famously versatile player, and Marcelo, a freak and a madman with the ball. Bello sees his left back role as inherently expansionary, which aligns with Berhalter’s strategic vision. The coming year will be a big one for Bello but he’s been having Big Years for half a decade now, so I’m feeling good about his future.