On the surface, it’s a patently ridiculous question. Of course the US can’t go without a player who regularly plays for one of the biggest clubs in the world, where his manager loves him, and comes up with goals for a national team that still struggles to find them. And to ask this question after just one or two good performances is especially weird for someone like me ,who’s become such an analytic wonk that he spends the first six to eight weeks of every MLB season screaming “SAMPLE SIZE!” to random strangers and dogs on the street (and yet still looks upon fondly the Hawks 2013 Stanley Cup in an abbreviated season. I contain multitudes).
The funny thing about international soccer is that it is the ultimate anti-sample size entity. Any team that wins a World Cup only plays seven games, not even 20 percent of a normal domestic season. Qualifying is a longer process, but even in CONCACAF’s now marathon qualifying system jammed into far too small of a window, it’s only 14 games. And within those, results in just one or two games swing feelings and positions wildly. Just one more goal in Jamaica in November and the US would be tied with Canada atop the standings and already, officially in Qatar. If Pulisic doesn’t hit the post and instead finds twine against Canada in September, they’d be alone in first. On such margins…
To begin this discussion, it has to be underlined that while McKennie is a very good player, and may be more than that in the near future, he’s also an extremely weird player. He’s a goal-scoring midfielder, who doesn’t do much else. He’s something of a poacher, except instead of lining up as a forward and waiting around the six-yard box to finish off chances, he starts in midfield and arrives late into the penalty box to do the same.
In fact, when it comes to midfielders who score, McKennie is one of the best in the world. FBRef scouting reports compare players in similar positions in a variety of categories, and when it comes to scoring and getting chances as a midfielder, McKennie’s ranks border on world class. His goals from midfield per game rank him in the 88th percentile. His expected goals per game from midfield rank him in the 95th(!). His touches in the penalty area, as a midfielder, and the amount of progressive passes he receives are in the top two percentiles in the world. It’s a measure of just how gifted McKennie is at finding space in the attacking penalty area and around it. That’s not a skill that you can just throw out the window, especially for an outfit like the USMNT that doesn’t have a natural striker that’s pouring in the goals. They have to mine all the sources.
Where things get murky is that McKennie isn’t nearly as gifted at anything else. He’s not a good passer, and he doesn’t really try it much. Which makes sense as most of his work comes at the very top of the field and is mostly focused on shooting. He’s not great defensively either, barely making any tackles and his interception rate isn’t that much better. McKennie runs around a lot for sure, and he’s active as hell. It’s just in one facet.
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That doesn’t mean that the US is so overloaded with talent that they can just discard any player who does anything at a world class level. McKennie does one thing at that level. Where the awkwardness lies is that one of his midfield partners with the US, Yunus Musah, has an extremely similar game. Similarly, Musah isn’t really a good passer either, and prefers to do his good work in dribbling around people in midfield. Unlike McKennie, Musah is a pretty good defensive player (though FBRef has him ranked against other wingers and attacking midfielders, where he mostly plays for Valencia). As we saw against Mexico, when playing a more defense-and-counter game, Musah and Tyler Adams form a pretty excellent double pivot. They pretty much bossed that midfield until fatigue took over.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t seen the Adams-Musah-McKennie troika work. We certainly have, foremost in the home match against Mexico. But that was more through sheer athleticism and energy that Mexico in their current Methuselah state can’t match. But we’ve also seen the problems, namely the away game against Canada, by far the most organized team in the region. Against a defense that needed nuanced unlocking, the US really couldn’t do it unless they forced turnovers or mistakes. Even when McKennie went “hero ball” in the second half and was all over the field, it sure looked active but didn’t do much. McKennie receiving the ball on the wing or 35 yards from goal doesn’t really do much for anyone.
The flexibility the US had in the past two games is hard to ignore. And that will be needed in Qatar, because they will likely see a variety of opponents and approaches in just the group stage. Against Mexico, Adams, Musah, and Kellyn Acosta were able to just destroy and spring counterattacks. With the insertion of Luca de la Torre ahead of Acosta for the Panama game, things were much better strung together. De la Torre might be the most gifted midfielder the US has with the ball at his feet, and was able to connect with the forwards far more effectively. Here’s an example, as he plays the clever ball for Shaq Moore to cross for Jesus Ferreira:
And if de la Torre isn’t, Gio Reyna is another candidate. Reyna wasn’t used as a No. 8 against Panama, but came on at half with Acosta, who is a better passer than either of Musah or McKennie. And though the US only scored once in the second half, they looked even more lethal.
So the question isn’t really whether or not the US is better without McKennie, but whether he and Musah consistently in the same midfield is a good idea. That will depend on the World Cup draw. Should they get an opponent in the group like Mexico with a stodgy and inert midfield, sure, you can use the Adams-Musah-McKennie midfield to overwhelm through energy and verve. But if they see a well-organized team that can match that, they probably need more intricacy and passing that either Reyna moving inside, or Acosta (I can’t believe I’m saying that but the evidence with him as a #8 is now there) or de la Torre provide. When they match up against one of the big boys of the tournament — and they almost certainly will, given that they’ll be in Pot 2 come Friday’s draw — they’ll need to defend and counter. McKennie and Musah can combine for the latter, but they could also use a third midfielder who’s a little better at springing counters than joining them.
It’s not that McKennie should be in or out of the lineup automatically. Same as Musah. But both should probably be viewed as a tool in the box with certain skills and uses that work better against some opposition but not others. Depth and choice are good things. McKennie and Musah were seen as above that before and during most of qualifying. Maybe now they should be seen as a part of it.