Rising American stars Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe are young, talented, and inexperienced. That may be just what the United States Men’s National Team needs. How young is too young? How early is too early? These are but a few of the questions USMNT’s supporters are asking, especially despite a decent run of games that have led the USA to a Copa America semifinal, most likely for a showdown with Argentina. The rapid rise of Hershey, Pennsylvania teenager Christian Pulisic, coupled with the slower but equally exciting growth of Darlington Nagbe, a Liberian-born midfielder who recently acquired American citizenship, is a tantalizing prospect for American soccer fans. However, a number of recent cautionary tales have created a culture of skeptical optimism instead of outright fervor.
The clearest and most-referenced of these tales is the sad story of Freddy Adu, the former DC United wunderkind who has gone from future American star to ignominious afterthought in the span of a decade. (For those who wonder where he is now, Freddy is currently on his thirteenth team in his eighth country, plying his trade with Tampa Bay Rowdies in the second tier of the American Soccer Pyramid). Another less talked about cautionary story is that of Juan Agudelo, who was once hailed as the striker we finally needed to take the next step forward. After securing a move to Stoke City in the EPL, only to be derailed twice by work permit issues and an uninspiring loan in the Dutch Eredivisie, he returned to MLS and the New England Revolution. Despite some flashes of brilliance with the Revs, his national team career looks over at just 23 years of age.
Because of these setbacks, fans and pundits have become increasingly wary of anointing the title of “The Next Great American Hope” and instead prefer to hope that mainstays like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore continue to improve and stay healthy. I, for one, have my doubts about the future of the USMNT if those two are the star players. So, why not give the fresh blood their chance? Pulisic has shown that he isn’t afraid of the big stage, given that he has broken into one Europe’s best teams in Borussia Dortmund and become the youngest foreign player to ever score in the Bundesliga, before becoming the youngest player to ever score two goals in the league. Nagbe, no longer quite a young buck aged 25, has proven consistently in his 8 caps that he not only deserves more playing time, but he deserves to start. Right now.
Given that we have most likely run our course in the Copa America, as it will take a Herculean effort to defeat Argentina (again, assuming they beat Venezuela in their quarterfinal, which is a virtual certainty), it looks highly unlikely that neither Pulisic or Nagbe will feature in any meaningful capacity in this tournament. This is despite the fact that two of the three starting midfielders in Jermaine Jones and Alejandro Bedoya, and forward Bobby Wood, will be suspended for the semifinal. Because Klinsmann is conservative by nature, no matter what he effuses publicly about wanting crowd-pleasing attacking soccer, he will most likely move in Kyle Beckerman and Graham Zusi into the lineup. DeAndre Yedlin will return to right back, and Matt Besler will most likely stay at left back to allow Fabian Johnson to move into his preferred role of left midfielder.
If these are the changes, and I must note that I am not in contact with Klinsmann or omnipotent and could therefore be proven wrong, the USA will in all likelihood be torn apart by Argentina and their unbelievable attack. Matt Besler trying to hold down the left side against the world’s best player in Lionel Messi will be a cringe-worthy viewing experience, even with the Argentinian talisman at less than 100 percent. It is a game that cries out for the midfield dynamism and ball-retention that Darlington Nagbe offers, and for the fearless, youthful exuberance that Christian Pulisic has already shown he offers in spades. The addition of Pulisic on the left side of the midfield would allow for Johnson to slot in at left back, with his pace and guile on the ball at least giving Lionel Messi more to deal with.
The questions surrounding the readiness of both Nagbe and Pulisic will continue to be asked until both players get quality time in meaningful games. They have proved at club level that they belong in the 23 man roster, and both have proven in what little game time they have received for the national team that they possess unique qualities in comparison to their current teammates. As the United States moves into World Cup Qualifying and the 2018 tournament in Russia, both should feature heavily. But if they aren’t given a chance to prove themselves in a competitive atmosphere against quality opposition–and you can’t ask for more quality than Argentina–their growth will continue to stall. The learning curve is steep at the top level and the only way to move forward is to get game time. Knowing that this Copa America semifinal is the closest relative they will get to a World Cup game, there is no time like the present.