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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Malik Tillman

GLASGOW, SCOTLAND - AUGUST 09: Malik Tillman of Rangers celebrates scoring his team's third goal during the UEFA Champions League Third Qualifying Round second leg match between Glasgow Rangers and Royale Union Saint-Gilloise at Ibrox Stadium on August 09, 2022 in Glasgow, Scotland. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty Images)
Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

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?

You don’t hear so much these days about dual-nationals. While several current USMNT first-teamers were at some point eligible to play for other national teams, and while the United States’ position as global hegemon guarantees that many people born and raised in other countries will have the option to play for the team, the U.S. youth system is now finally good enough that the team doesn’t necessarily have to rely on players whose soccer education took place entirely in other countries. The late-Klinsmann, early-Arena era program hinged, to a clearly unsustainable degree, on players like Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, and once they aged out of primacy, there was a void left behind them. Not so much anymore.

In this sense, Malik Tillman is a bit of a throwback. The 20-year-old Germany-born midfielder is like Julian Green if Julian Green were good. A decade ago, Tillman’s choice between the USMNT or Germany would have been program-making or -breaking; now, he’s chosen the USMNT and is an intriguing depth piece ahead of the 2022 World Cup and 2024 Olympics.

Who Does He Play For?

Tillman is young but he’s been on U.S. fans’ radars since 2015, when he joined Bayern Munich’s academy. Malik and his brother Timothy were born to a German mother and an American serviceman father, and both moved over from the Greuther Fürth academy to the biggest club in Germany when Malik was 13 and Timothy was 16. While the older brother never quite broke into the first team and left the club in 2020, Malik distinguished himself as one of the best players in the FC Hollywood youth setup. He spent last season as one of the last players on the bench for the Bavarians, playing in seven games across three competitions and starting one Bundesliga game only after Bayern’s squad had been devastated by COVID.

As U.S. fans who watched Julian Green flame out could tell you, the gap between prized academy player and first-team starter is significant. (Green now plays with Timothy Tillman in the 2.Bundesliga.) Malik Tillman was not guaranteed to play for Bayern this year, especially since they bought Ryan Gravenberch from Ajax for €18.5 million, so he made a number of significant career choices this past summer. In May 2022, only two months after starting and scoring for Germany’s U-21s in a bunch of competitive matches, Tillman filed a one-time switch and joined the USMNT. Tillman has been part of the first-team squad for each of the last two camps, and he’s earned a pair of caps. Shortly after that transition, he hit the road and joined Rangers on loan. He’s excelled thus far through the first month of the 2022–23 campaign, the most important season yet of his short career.

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test

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?

Tillman has been deployed all over the field. When he was mostly pulling spot duty for Bayern, he played on the wing, in central midfield, and occasionally up front at striker. He is 6-foot-2 and quite athletic (see the “Show To Me A Cool Highlight” section below), and though he has an impressive goalscoring record for Bayern and Germany’s youth teams, Tillman insists that he sees his future less as a forward player and more in the center of the park. Giovanni van Bronckhorst has already toggled him between left, right, and center midfield, and on both wings. Gregg Berhalter has said he could see Tillman playing three distinct positions, while Bayern boss Julian Nagelsmann referred to him as a striker last year, maybe because he wore the No. 9 for Bayern II.

Of all the players in the U.S. pool, the guy he most resembles is Gio Reyna, who he assisted in one of his two appearances for the U.S. U-15s in 2016. Both are tall, skilled, and have an eye for goal. Both are at their best when they help progress the ball and build attacking moves. Tillman shows an impressive level of patience on the ball. He has tremendous passing instincts, the physicality to dribble past defenders (especially at the U-23 level), and a pretty sophisticated understanding of space for a 20-year-old. Tillman isn’t a world-class player in any one area, and his scant tape shows why he’s simultaneously so well-regarded and also experimented upon.

Tillman has been a revelation for Rangers already, seizing a starting spot and coming up huge in key moments. For the first time in 15 years, two Scottish teams will take part in the Champions League group stages. Rangers made the Europa League final last season and had their hearts broken in the penalty shootout. That meant they had to fight through a pair of Champions League playoff rounds rather than waltz into the group stage. Tillman starred in both ties. After scoring the winner in the first round against Union Saint-Gilloise, Tillman put in a man-of-the-match performance against PSV and created the winning goal by going Brenden Aaronson mode. Thanks to him, fellow American James Sands and Rangers will be in the UCL group stage for the first time in a decade.

Wonderteen Index

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.

Tillman is just 20 and enjoying his first season as a full-time first-teamer, so he scores high, 7 out of 8.

The bet (and most likely outcome) is that Tillman will eventually buff out one skillset or another and settle into one position. All but the very best eventually have to fit into a system rather than have a system molded around them. But there remains the possibility that Tillman gets better at everything and is able to justify playing the do-it-all, hybrid No. 8/10 role he was allowed to play for Germany and Bayern’s youth teams and clearly wants to play at the senior level. Though he’s shown he can carry the ball, score, press, and pass at a high level, he will have to do everything at an elite level if he wants the responsibility of playing his preferred role. Rangers are in one of the two most difficult groups in this season’s Champions League, with Liverpool, Ajax, and Napoli standing between them and their first Champions League knockout round appearance since 2006. That harsh path is also a tremendous opportunity for Tillman. If he shows his quality against some of the best teams in the world, he’ll prove that he can take on a bigger role, for a bigger club. He’s just getting started, but we’ll have a good chance to see him perform on the biggest stage very soon.

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.

Tillman is big, right-footed, and a gifted presser. So yeah, duh, his ass can play right back.

Show To Me A Cool Highlight

Here’s that winner against USG:

How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?

Weirdly well, given his apositionality. Tillman can theoretically cover any of the three midfielders Berhalter has relied on throughout qualifying, while also giving the team an option at any of the three forward spots. Many USMNT fans have glommed onto the idea that Tillman is perhaps the solution to the team’s striker question, which makes some sense, though there are a weirdly high number of actual strikers currently scoring goals in Europe.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

Not really close, if we can assume Reyna is healthy, though he’s not a bad bet to make the plane to Qatar. Few players in the pool can do what Tillman does on the ball, and nobody else is as versatile as he is. Given the demands of playing in Qatar’s unforgiving climate, the unpredictability of a World Cup, and the need for a deep squad that can respond to manifold challenges, Tillman would help Gregg Berhalter bolster a number of positions at once.

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