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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Yunus Musah

SANDY, UTAH - JUNE 09: Yunus Musah #18 of the United States in action during a game against Costa Rica at Rio Tinto Stadium on June 09, 2021 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/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?

Four games into its World Cup qualification campaign, the United States men’s national team sits atop the standings. The team’s path to Qatar began with two-and-a-half tense games against teams they should have beaten before Ricardo Pepi turned things around, and yesterday against Jamaica, the USMNT unambiguously rolled an overmatched opponent for the first time in the cycle. Positive takeaways abound: Pepi continues to look like the striker this team’s been missing for years; Sergiño Dest is finally being used to his full potential; and, most reassuring of all, the extremely young team seems to have calmed the nerves that clearly plagued them through the first trio of games and is starting to look as good as fans have hoped.

The USMNT did earn an acceptable five points from those shaky first three qualifiers, but the process was not all that clean, and the team seemed nervous. As a fan and hype-train coal-shoveler, I was nervous. The group’s talent level is undeniable, but getting a bushel of young prospects to coalesce into a killer team is a tricky task. The evidence after the first 225 minutes of qualifying pointed to a strained congealing process. Was the team just too young to dominate?

Thankfully, the current international break offered the USMNT a better chance to shine. This break’s three opponents looked easier than the prior three, and two of those matches were set to be on home soil. Still, the team needed wins, and they’d have to earn them without two of their best players, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. In light of all that uncertainty coming into the break, the team’s crushing win over Jamaica was all the more reassuring, and it showed that there’s enough depth to the squad not to freak out when Pulisic and Reyna aren’t able to hop the pond.

The Jamaica win was also the first competitive game Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah all played together in the midfield. Gregg Berhalter has, rightly, relied on Adams and McKennie throughout his tenure, but he’s almost always filled out the midfield with one of the MLS veterans, usually Kellyn Acosta or Sebastian Lletget. That’s good and fine and makes sense, given that those two guys are responsible caretakers who don’t screw up very often. But Musah offers ground-covering possibilities and line-breaking speed that neither vet can, and his solid first competitive game for the USMNT showed how he can raise this team’s ceiling.

Who Does He Play For?

Musah famously plays for Valencia and the USA, not Arsenal and England. That this is where he ended up is quite surprising! The 18-year-old spent seven years in the Arsenal academy, emerging as one of the top prospects in his class while captaining a series of England youth teams. He even played against and beat U.S. youth teams twice. His path seemed preordained: The Gunners would integrate him into the first team gradually in the coming years, and, if he was able to make good on his evident potential, he would then earn an England call-up.

But instead of waiting around to see if his trajectory would indeed follow that script, Musah bolted for Spain. Valencia offered him a clearer path to first-team soccer, which Musah presumably felt would help him develop as a player more quickly. He spent a year with the B team, then moved up to the senior squad once Javi Gracia took over as manager in 2020. In a real stroke of luck, longtime former Valencia assistant Nico Estévez is now a member of Berhalter’s staff, and shortly after Musah joined Valencia, the club notified Estévez that the player had a U.S. passport. Thus began the USMNT’s long recruitment effort, which was sealed pretty quickly once Musah got to hang out with the team’s cohort of young European-based guys.

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?

That depends on whether he’s playing for club or for country. Musah is deployed almost exclusively as a right-winger for Valencia, where he can make game-breaking runs while not being as responsible for maintaining possession and progressing his team’s attack. The following highlight captures some of what’s so special about Musah. Though he is only 18, he’s strong, fast, and controlled enough on the ball that he can pop off these sorts of long runs at any given moment. At the youth level, his speed made him close to unstoppable, and even against full-grown men, he’s still dominant physically.

But while Valencia generally uses him out wide, Musah’s natural home is in the middle of the park. He played in central midfield for much of his youth career, and that’s where Berhalter uses him for the USMNT. His physicality and comfort on the ball make him the ideal player to break pressure or fly up the field in counterattacks. As a forward-minded accelerator who is still responsible defensively, he’s a great fit alongside Adams (responsible, chill) and McKennie (everywhere all the time). Musah set up the U.S.’s first goal against Jamaica by doing what he’s best at, running with the ball from the middle of the field to the edge of the box.

Musah is a decent passer, though he’s remarkably raw in a few critical areas of his game, and he hasn’t been quite as sharp for Valencia this season after missing a chunk of the preseason with an injury. While he can run with the best of them, he’s still growing into his own tactically. Valencia puts him out on the flank because he doesn’t position himself well enough off the ball to consistently help his team. When he gets the rock in tight spaces, he can’t be dislodged easily, but he doesn’t always make the right decisions to keep things moving.

As you might expect, Musah is a great counter-presser. His technical ability as a defender is still developing, though he’s pretty consistent at winning balls back. Still, he doesn’t have the tempo-controlling ability or deep passing range of someone like Adams, nor the creativity of a Luca de la Torre–type player, so at this point he’s more of a link-up piece than a straight up creative or defensive midfielder. His goalscoring record is remarkably weak, and he hasn’t shown much finishing ability at the professional level.

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.

Musah’s floor is very high, and his physicality and skills on the ball are already enough to earn him minutes as a relatively unpolished 18-year-old. His ceiling will be determined by how well he develops as an all-rounder. There are certainly reasons to be optimistic, as it won’t take a serious step up in technical ability for him to be even more imposing in the midfield. He faces a different version of the Gianluca Busio conundrum: Will he develop his creativity and move further up the field, or will he mature as a tactical midfield player and scoot down the pitch? The best version of Musah is an extremely good player, one who can make a difference in a Champions League-level midfield and produce great individual highlights. Something of a Paul Pogba type, though obviously not as good. There are no players in the USMNT pool—and really, few 18-year-olds at any level—who can charge down the field like Musah, and that gives him a serious leg up on the competition. Who wouldn’t want to try and unlock the rest of his game, given how good he is right now?

Score: 17 out of 19.

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.

Easily! He’s always playing on that right side for Valencia, and you know no winger is going to be able to outgun him on the flank. He already plays right-back-but-a-little-higher-up-the-pitch, which if you think about is, is basically right back.

Show To Me A Cool Highlight

This is one of the cooler highlights we’ll get to feature in this series. Musah became the youngest non-Spanish goalscorer in La Liga history with this bad-boy.

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

Seamlessly. Berhalter’s preferred 4-3-3 relies on two of his central midfielders doing a lot of running and gunning, and Musah loves that shit. He has plenty of freedom to do what he does best, and when the team wants to attack the goal more directly, as they did last night, he’s great at pressing the gas. The first three USMNT games were defined by a nervousness with the ball, but the Jamaica game was a different story. The change is not all attributable to Musah—the fullbacks were invited to dart up the field, and Brenden Aaronson got to make magic—but he helped put tons of pressure on the Jamaica defense.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

He should be in it. If Berhalter is going to keep playing this 4-3-3, there’s really no case to take Musah out of the lineup, so long as he’s playing like he did on Thursday. He’ll thrive against CONCACAF bruisers, help punish inferior teams by going fast, and release pressure and build counters against better possession teams. He only has seven caps with the U.S., but I don’t see any reason to swap him out for Kellyn Acosta or whoever.

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