Who will stand beside Michael Bradley in Russia?
Jermaine Jones is 35, injured, and deteriorating. Kyle Beckerman is just as old and has looked two steps slow at the international level for a few years. Wil Trapp is not ready. Geoff Cameron is entrenched at center back, as well he should be. The USMNT has long relied on strong center midfield play, but after the 2014 World Cup, the pipeline held no obvious successors to the strong Jones-Bradley-Beckerman triumvirate that Jurgen Klinsmann’s USMNT leaned upon so heavily. That looks to have all changed, though, with the emergence of Kellyn Acosta.
Acosta is 21 years old and plays for FC Dallas. He got his first USMNT cap under Klinsmann back in January 2016, and has accrued seven more appearances since. He signed with Dallas as a homegrown player in 2012 and has climbed his way up the Dallas and USMNT ladders by playing a variety of positions. Acosta has a tremendous motor and is a solid passer, but as he’s developed, there hasn’t been much of a consensus on where he fits best. On the international level, he’s been deployed strictly as a fullback until the most recent group of World Cup qualifiers, where Bruce Arena has used him as a second-half midfield substitute (usually for Jermaine Jones) tasked with locking down a lead or holding onto a draw.
Last night, Acosta made his first start in defensive midfield alongside Michael Bradley and went the full 90 minutes in the U.S.’s 1-1 draw with Mexico. It was his first international start in midfield, and it came in perhaps the most inhospitable environment possible. Few 21-year-olds would be prepared to jump into action at the Azteca Stadium in a World Cup qualifier, yet Acosta was steady and impressive throughout. He looks like a great fit next to Bradley, and while Jones is still in the picture and the diamond formation that only calls for a single defensive midfielder is useful for games where the team wants to play more aggressively, Acosta finally looks like a worthy successor at defensive midfield.
Acosta played all across the field and got into both boxes, which is a testament to his limitless energy—a trait he shares with the aforementioned Jones. Unlike Jones, however, Acosta knows when to stay home and help provide cover for the defense. The USMNT weathered Mexico’s pressure all night aside from one breakaway and didn’t give up anything during Mexico’s spells of concerted pressure, and Acosta was a huge factor in that defensive solidity. As Big D Soccer noted, Acosta exhibited tremendous positional discipline in front of the backline, which helped his defenders pick off any potentially incisive passes. He formed a triangle with Bradley and Cameron, serving as both outlet and shield.
Bradley is still one of the U.S.’s most talented players, but he’s been rather inconsistent since coming back to MLS. He has played in many roles with many partners to mixed results, but last night, baldy was tremendous on both sides of the pitch. He scored that instantly famous banger and nearly added another one late on. Though Bradley’s best position is deep in midfield, where he can use his passing range and game-reading abilities to serve as the team’s maestro, he’s also too valuable of an attacking asset with the odd late run into the box or charging push from deep to not be given the freedom to get forward from time to time. Acosta’s discipline and stellar recovery ability not only helps the team’s defense, it allows Michael Bradley that freedom to run up and try to dunk on people.
Acosta has an enviable passing range and he’s good under pressure, although he could stand to tighten up his clearances. He made a great recovery run on the break that led to Mexico’s goal, but he couldn’t dispossess Chicharito in midfield. The goal wasn’t his fault, and the fact that he was able to harry Mexico’s star was encouraging in its own way. Acosta is not the dribbling wizard that fellow young buck Christian Pulisic is, but he’s already one of the top free kick technicians on the national team. He sent in a few good balls against Mexico and nearly put one in against Trinidad & Tobago. The USMNT would love a couple goals like this rocket he scored against Pachuca in the CONCACAF Champions League.
The U.S. is comfortably on track to qualify for the World Cup (let’s be honest, qualifying from CONCACAF is a cakewalk), although a home date with Costa Rica in September looms. If they win, they can pretty much book their tickets to Russia, while a loss would be devastating for a team riding so much momentum. Jones might be healthy by then, but it doesn’t matter: Acosta should start. His partnership with Bradley is seamless and he’s only going to get better. If the USMNT is to do anything of note in qualifying and beyond, Christian Pulisic will be the star and Bradley probably the second lead, but Acosta has earned one of those all important supporting roles that allow the headliners to look their best.