Welcome back 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?
Back in 2013, the USMNT was a veteran-heavy team feeling the pain of an unfortunate talent gap. The generation that featured Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, and DaMarcus Beasley was in its prime, but the group behind them was decidedly talent-dry. The Graham Zusi-Brek Shea class was not getting it done, and as the 2014 World Cup approached, the structural ricketiness of the player pool and need for youth resolved each other when Bayern academy product Julian Green made the roster ahead of Landon Donovan. It was a controversial choice, but the diktat was clear: The team needed to get younger.
At the time, Green was the most prominent of a group of American prospects lodged within the academies of the biggest clubs in the world, prospects fans looked toward as possible future stars of the team before Christian Pulisic eventually took the mantle. Joshua Pynadath was playing in the Real Madrid setup, Gedion Zelalem had settled at Arsenal, Junior Flores had just moved to Dortmund, and Ben Lederman and Konrad de la Fuente were learning at the most highly regarded academy in the world, Barcelona’s La Masia. After the halo of Green’s wondergoal against Belgium faded, he almost immediately slipped out of the Bundesliga, and American fans learned the hard lesson that academy prestige rarely translates into top-tier excellence. Flores and Pynadath are out of the game. Lederman plays in Poland, injuries stymied Zelalem’s career (he’s in MLS, sort of), and Green has returned to the Bundesliga, but only after building his career’s foundation in Germany’s second division.
And then there is Konrad, the lone member of the bunch to deliver on his promise. After existing in the U.S. Soccer fandom mostly as an intriguing mystery, he appears to be the real deal. Konrad excelled with Barcelona B, regularly delivering enticing highlights against third-tier competition. Last season, he made three appearances with Barcelona proper, including two in the Champions League, which was impressive, though constantly shuffling between the first and second teams made it hard for him to settle into a rhythm with either. He was clearly too good to be playing with Barcelona B, which would have signaled a surefire ascension to regular playing time on most clubs, but even a diminished Barcelona is a tough roster to crack. The club needed cash this year, so he’s off to a new country and a new league. What he’s done since leaving has been even more impressive than his Barcelona run.
Who Does He Play For?
Konrad plays for Marseille, a typically good and occasionally great French club that finished fifth in Ligue 1 last year. There was some reason to be skeptical of Konrad’s fit at his new team, as Marseille manager Jorge Sampaoli does not run the world’s most winger-friendly system. But Konrad’s preseason and first two Ligue 1 games have been nothing short of sensational. The guy has been an absolute dynamo on the left wing, terrorizing fullbacks and reliably creating productive opportunities in front of goal. There is a highlight section featured later in this column, though we had to pick Konrad for this week’s WITUGD? entry because he’s started out the hottest of any American player in Europe. Consider: an assist in his team’s comeback 3–2 win against Montpellier, and a masterclass against Bordeaux.
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?
Konrad is a straight-up winger. He’s your typical right-footed left-winger, who likes to start wide and then cut inside and destroy people. As every single one of the highlights in this post show, his most dangerous trait is his speed. Konrad is quick and twitchy and loves to blow by people on the wing, and he’s got a good enough first touch that he can collect in space, then make a quick pass or drive down the line. He pairs that speed with his legitimately lethal dribbling, typically attacking in from an angle at the corner of the 18-yard box. He played on both sides of the field for Barcelona B, so it’s not like he’s a left wing one-trick.
This sort of player profile can seem at first blush like a pretty simple one. You make the field big, punish exposed fullbacks, and either smack a cross or cut in for a shot when you get to the box. Your speed mostly dictates how well you do, right? Konrad plays his role with an impressive smoothness. His control is pure, and he can’t be bullied off the ball. That’s really what stands out from his Barcelona highlight reel, the way that he converts getting pinned against the sideline to a sudden advantage for his team with both speed and a precise control.
Everything good he does originates from that speed and dribbling. He can score goals, because he is fast and tricky enough to jink his way into dangerous areas of the penalty box, but he’s not exactly a natural goalscorer. He can set teammates up for great chances, because he is so good at getting free from defenders and finding room to play an incisive pass, but he’s not a real creator. None of that is meant to be critical. Konrad’s skill at running with the ball is already elite, and especially in a set-up like Sampaoli’s at Marseille, which is built around creating one-on-one situations for him in which he is nigh unstoppable, he can absolutely carve for himself a prominent role on a Champions League–caliber team. Plus, he’s still so young that he has plenty of room to grow in the other aspects of his game.
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.
Konrad just turned 20: a demerit in the WI. The current campaign is his first true season as a first-teamer: a plus. He has the absolute coolest soccer name in the player pool with a fittingly stylish game: a big plus. He plays in France: a slight ding. He has a high ceiling as a player, but probably not quite as high as the very top American talents like Pulisic and Gio Reyna. Taken together, we are optimistic about potential quasi-wonderteenhood, thus awarding him an A- on the Wonderteen Index.
Can He Play Right Back?
Konrad’s position as a left winger puts him as far away on the field as possible from his right back. Simply put, they are the opposite positions. A rube would recognize this truth and think, “Oh, well, I guess he’s the only player in the USMNT pool that can’t play right back.” Wrong! Who knows more about the duties of a right back than their on-field matchup? Konrad can play right back, by virtue of constantly attacking them.
Show To Me A Cool Highlight
How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?
Konrad’s play over the past 12 months has him firmly entrenched in the upper tier of talented young attackers on the USMNT, and he brings an element of game-breaking speed that nobody else in the pool can quite match. That said, Gregg Berhalter tends to like wingbacks, and Konrad’s best position is also Christian Pulisic’s best position, so he’s not a lock to become a critical cog in the team. But I think an important thing to consider here is that his shiftiness and pressure is going to be more of a problem for less organized teams to deal with. While teams on the level of Italy or Argentina have the defensive structure to more effectively neutralize flankers like Konrad, CONCACAF opposition might not be able to deal with his space creation abilities, potentially making him more valuable against worse opposition. If he keeps up his hot start at Marseille, that calculus might shift, and he could force himself into the team when it plays its most important games.
How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?
Konrad is probably not quite a starter, given that Pulisic and Reyna have spots locked up, but he should at the very least be on the bench for important games. His ideal role in an important game would be to come on as a 60th-minute substitute. However, if he keeps killing it like this in France, it’s totally plausible that he’ll earn himself a starting role, probably on the right wing.