Where should the USMNT players move this summer?

Juventus is favored to land Christian Pulisic

There’s going to be a lot of movement for the top end of the USMNT roster, but what would be best for them? We mean other than Ibiza or The Algarve on vacation. Though they should do that too. They’ve earned it. But after the Nations League semis and (hopefully) final, the main cogs of the USMNT will probably get to business figuring out where they’re going to ply their trade next season. There are going to be a lot of them on the move in the next month or two, given various playing situations and relegations and the general scatterbrained nature of soccer as a whole. So how should it shake out (but definitely won’t)? We got ya. Let’s kick this pig.

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The big one, the captain, still the U.S.’s most talented player (until Gio Reyna both plays regularly for Dortmund and isn’t such a pain in the ass). Pulisic has already, basically, been told to do one by new Chelsea coach Mauricio Pochettino, and quite frankly Chelsea need the money he would bring in a transfer.

The main rumor is that Juventus are very interested in Pulisic, and on the surface that sounds enticing. While Juve won’t be in the Champions League next season thanks to their points deduction, it’s still Juventus and they should still be contending for a Serie A title. Then again, a lot of what should happen in Turin rarely does lately.

It’s hard to know what kind of fit Pulisic would be at Juve because there’s so much we don’t know about them. It sure feels like Max Allegri will be booted as manager, which is probably a good thing for our Yank captain because Allegri’s latest 3-6-1 formation didn’t really fit Pulisic or would have had him playing something like a wingback, which was a major problem at Chelsea. Until we know who’s coaching, it’s hard to judge.

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If Pulisic’s best position is still on the left side of an attack, and it’s hard to know given how rarely we’ve seen him at Chelsea, there isn’t much competition he can’t stand out against at Juventus, as both Juan Cuadrado and Angel Di Maria are exiting stage left. That’s a bigger problem at Milan, another rumored destination, where Rafael Leão lives on the left and might have missed a window on a big transfer to the glitterati of Europe. Pulisic isn’t dislodging Leão.

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The problem at both is that Pulisic has never looked very comfortable with a team that has the ball a lot, and has looked much better when he can get out in space on the counter and at pace. That might be a growing problem at Newcastle, another team that’s been connected to him. That doesn’t mean he has to downgrade to a bad team, but he should be picky if he can.

Which means Pulisic should swallow his pride a bit, and opt for the move that wouldn’t even involve moving house. Brentford are going to lose a forward for half of next season in Ivan Toney, they like to play on the counter, and he can easily grab the starting berth on the left week after week. If it’s true that Chelsea will let him go for just $20 million, that puts him in Brentford’s range. While the Bees spent most of the season in a 3-5-2, towards the end Thomas Frank was using a 4-3-3 that would hit Pulisic between the eyes. He’ll never do it, but it makes a ton of sense.

Where he’ll go: Juventus

Where he should go: Brentford

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While Pulisic may be the most talented, Adams is still the U.S.’s most important. They don’t have a replacement for him anywhere, he’s the only one who can make the USMNT’s midfield go with his all-action style and endurance. And he nor the national team will be helped by him trudging around various muddy pitches of the Championship in the dark with Leeds next season. Adams turned some heads in the Premier League with his performances, but it’s still only 24 games that he played so it might be hard to convince some to take the splash.

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The obvious answer is West Ham, who will lose Declan Rice and Adams can at least run as much as Rice. What he can’t do is be three midfielders at once like Rice can, which Hammers fans would notice pretty quickly. Adams can break up play and make simple passes, but he can’t create much. He’d have to be part of a midfield overhaul at West Ham. He certainly could add to Aston Villa’s depth as a holding midfielder, which doesn’t have much behind Douglas Luiz. Some rumors have Man United circling, but again he’d be more depth there behind Casemiro and it’s unclear how Adams fits with a team that will have the ball a lot. He’s just not that good with it.

Where he should go: West Ham

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We know he’s not staying at Leeds, and Leeds fans are certainly happy about that, and one wonders if the whole experience soured him on England altogether. A stay at Juventus doesn’t seem likely. Again, McKennie is a hard player to accommodate and get the best out of. You need a set midfield behind him and allow him to sort of go off-script so he can get in the box to score, which is what he does well. Leeds had him too deep, Juve too wide.

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If he wants to try England again, Villa seem like a natural fit. Unai Emery’s 4-2-2-2 system means that McKennie could be absolved of a lot of defensive duties in the forward two of the midfield, and wouldn’t be shunted out wide as he was with Juve. Villa aren’t a possession-heavy team either, where his lack of passing skills might get exposed. There’s a foundation in the middle already there in Luis, John McGinn, and Jacob Ramsey, while they still press enough to get enough out of McKennie’s athleticism and energy (when he bothers to show it).

Where he should go: Aston Villa

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Aaronson is a different case than everyone who came before, given that it really wasn’t clear that he’s Premier League quality. Sure, he runs around a lot and is very annoying to play against, but he’s an attacker who produced one goal and three assists. Luckily for Aaronson, thanks to his relegation release clause, he should be pretty cheap.

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Still, a move to the Bundesliga seems best. Bayer Leverkusen may lose a couple forwards this summer, and that might be too tall a task for Aaronson’s limited skill. Replacing Florian Wirtz would also put him behind the eight-ball as he’s never going to be Wirtz. But they also are the most pressing team in Germany, and Aaronson needs to be in a team that presses a lot otherwise he’s wasted. Mönchengladbach are another team lower down the totem pole that press a ton and also play a 4-2-3-1 where Aaronson’s flexibility would play up. If he needs to stay in England, Bournemouth or Everton might work, especially the latter given their love of forwards who don’t score.

Where he should go: Bayer Leverkusen (it’s a pipe dream), Borussia Monchengladbach

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You might have forgotten about him, because he’s been a ghost since the World Cup. It’s likely most at AC Milan don’t even know his name, and so he’ll head back to Barcelona in the summer. Barcelona also don’t want him. He might be even harder to accommodate than McKennie, given he’s a fullback who can’t really defend.

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Union Berlin have been a rumor, and they’re now a Champions League club, and though they’re more a 3-5-2 team, Dest seems more attuned to being a wingback than a fullback. Union have gotten by this season with very adventurous players on the right at wingback in Josip Juranović and Christopher Trimmel, but the latter is 36. Maybe Union will be cannon fodder in the Champions League, but this makes too much sense for an active player with an active team.

Where he should go: Union Berlin

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Now that Valencia have almost guaranteed their safety, it’s not for sure that Musah will be going. But there have been rumors that he’d like to move to England, and even his old club Arsenal have been somewhat curious. Musah to Arsenal sounds like a dream reunion, and he could be more dynamic than the departed Granit Xhaka while maybe not being as forceful. Like a lot of his national team teammates, Musah is not a great passer, though maybe playing for Mikel Arteta would be the perfect place to work on that. There is a dream of a Partey-Musah-Ødegaard midfield–one destroyer, one dribbler, one creator, that perfectly links. And yet it seems a stretch, and Musah would likely be more of a squad player in North London. He’s also been briefly mentioned as a cheaper alternative in Liverpool’s midfield revolution, but some of the same issues there.

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If Musah could be convinced to lower his sights, playing at Brighton to fill in for their midfield departures this summer seems a great option. He’ll still get Premier League wages, a good chance at playing every week, and playing for a team and manager that doesn’t hesitate to hit the gas. One season or two there could prime him for a move to the top six as well.

Where he should go: Brighton

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This is the most fun one, because he has way more options. Being in the top five in goals in Ligue 1 will open some doors, as well as being just 20 years old. Balogun might have his sights set on the Premier League and those kinds of wages, but he can go anywhere. He’s been talked about as a replacement for the Chelsea-bound Christopher Nkunku, which would feed well into his pacey/get-behind-the-defense style. If Everton had more than a nickel he’d be the perfect guy to finally cure their scoring woes, but they don’t so that’s out. He may dream of Man United, but Marcus Rashford kind of takes their running-in-behind role and they want something more of all-rounder at the No. 9. Don’t rule this out though. Brentford need someone to take Toney’s spot while he’s suspended, but he’s probably out of their price range.

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Milan would be an interesting call, given Olivier Giroud’s age and how he’d dovetail with Leao. But Balogun hasn’t really played as a central striker on his own, more so either on the left of a three or with a partner. Which makes him the perfect replacement for Nkunku, who was the same kind of tweener between a wide and center forward.

Where he should go: RB Leipzig

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate, especially when Musah ends up at Anfield and he writes an article about how great it is.

Real Madrid and Manchester City trapped each other, or so they’d have you believe

Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (l.) and Real Madrid’s David Alaba at the end of the UEFA Champions League, semi-final, first leg match.

When you’ve been as dominant in the Champions League as Real Madrid have for the past decade, or as dominant in the Premier League as Manchester City have, you can convince everyone that whatever you do is part of the plan, part of a higher genius we can’t quite understand. It must be, otherwise, how do they both keep winning? If luck is any part of it, the universe only becomes colder and more confusing.

Sure, in yesterday’s Champions League semifinal first leg, Madrid would have expected to have to defend for long stretches. No one is going to dominate the ball against City, and Madrid’s midfield containing the AARP legs of Luka Modrić and Toni Kroos (as brilliant on the ball as they can be) was never going to try to press City high up the field. They were going to have to bunker down at times. But the first 20 minutes of yesterday’s match were pretty excessive. This momentum chart on FotMob gives you some idea of just how pinned Madrid were.

Madrid didn’t have a shot at all in the game’s first 36 minutes. They couldn’t break through City’s press at all, often turning the ball right back over and not only being pushed into their own half but just around their own penalty area. To the untrained eye, or to the un-Ancelotti-pilled eye, it looked like Madrid was getting their ass kicked up to their ears.

Ah, but this is Madrid. This is the Champions League. There’s a black magic we can’t understand, can’t quantify, right? We’ve seen this before. What it looks like isn’t what it is. It’s never not part of the plan for Madrid.

This is the soccer observer version of, “I’m not owned!” But it’s right to feel this way because…

Because for Madrid, it takes one Modrić flick that he really shouldn’t be capable of at 37, one great Camavinga run, and a finish from Vinicius Jr. that would be best described as a sound cannon. All part of the plan.

You’re lookin’ at me, I’m lookin’ at you…

And from there, the roles flipped. Madrid suddenly had most of the ball, City looked pretty jittery, and here was Madrid dusting themselves off after a rocky opening that they went through simply to up the degree of difficulty.

But this is the finished version of Guardiola’s City, right? They’re actually happy to cede control of the ball for stretches while now being convinced that doesn’t mean ceding control of the match, no? That’s how they just tore Arsenal to shreds just a couple weeks ago. It’s how they turned Bayern Munich into paste. They can do this, they want to do this, this is their new style.

Except getting outshot from the time Vinicius Jr. scored to their equalizer 7-2 probably isn’t the idea. Controlling the match without the ball means not giving up chances, doesn’t it? Isn’t this actually just being second-best?

Well, here’s City’s argument that it was all part of their plan too:

Kevin De Bruyne sees Vinicius Jr.’s sound cannon and raises an Armageddon meteor. I’m a sucker for any thunderbastard that only elevates off the ground due to the spin and velocity, not the angle it was launched. It’s simply too powerful for gravity to get a hold of.

From there, the match was sort of the immovable object and irresistible force or some variation, as both teams were either too wary of getting lured into what they were sure was another trap from the opponent that may or may have not actually been set. City also seemed to tire, with Pep making no substitutions and have had the more taxing schedule leading into yesterday.

It is a better result for City, as they’re heading home. While Madrid can rest the whole team on the weekend as La Liga is already decided, Guardiola’s refusal to use any subs probably means he’ll send out a heavily rotated team at Everton on Sunday even though they still have a title to clinch. We know which basket Pep’s eggs are really in.

But Madrid have reached this status in the Champions League where no one can be convinced that anything has ever gone against their plans or wishes. They’re Hannibal always ready to reach for his cigar until proven otherwise, and even then most of us won’t believe it. But then, City are too now. Is there a GIF of two Hannibal Smiths pointing at each other?

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he tries to convince himself that either Milan team would have a prayer against these monsters.

Pep Guardiola is about to complete his masterpiece

Manchester City has a Pep in its step

My brother had a college friend who had an overarching theory of Led Zeppelin. This isn’t much of a surprise, as I assume college students for some 40 years all had their own theory of Led Zeppelin. I remember telling a friend that I had to have a serious talk with him, made it sound really grave, the subject of which was merely that I thought I had to change my favorite Zeppelin song to “Ten Years Gone.” He understood, and we discussed it at length with nary a complaint. To at least three generations, thoughts about Zeppelin took up a lot of space.

Anywho, the theory went like this: The first four albums, the numbered ones, are the band trying out one aspect of their capabilities (including pretty much stealing songs, but that’s another discussion for another time). Zeppelin I is their blues album. II is the first step into more straight-laced hard rock. III is the acoustic album. IV is the bombastic, epic, storytelling album. Houses of The Holy was the band’s dress rehearsal to put it all together, and Physical Graffiti is when they put it all together correctly (and Presence is the underrated drug hangover). Take it for what you will, I’ve always found this thread interesting.

Pep Guardiola’s Man City title-winning teams are like Led Zeppelin albums

You can kind of view all of Pep Guardiola’s Man City title-winning teams in the same fashion, if you’re bored and weird and with far too much time on your hands like I often find myself. The 2018 and 2019 champs were basically his Barca and Bayern teams imported to the Premier League, tiki-taka come to England. The 2021 winners were the apex defensive team, thanks to the implementation of Rúben Dias and the development of Rodri. Last season’s conquerors were probably the closest soccer will ever get to positionless basketball, with no central striker and Pep encouraging everyone to be everywhere. This is where he also started to play with João Cancelo moving into midfield from a fullback position when in possession, which is now the fashion in a lot more places.

The first half of this season was about adding the final ingredients or touches. Erling Haaland up top, a fortification of the 3-2-5 formation with the ball, and the pièce de résistance, being able to play on the counter. Previous Man City teams sought to control games by having the ball and having the ball only, with Pep wary of anything else. If they had the ball, nothing bad could happen.

While Haaland certainly didn’t make Man City any worse, the first half of the season was a question if he had made them any better. Video game numbers for him to be sure, but City still played basically the same way with him just ending up on the end of everything instead of a rotating cast applying the final touch.

But we saw the final stroke come to the fore in City’s demolition of Munich in the Champions League, where much to the shock of everyone, City were more than happy to let the Germans have the ball. They were delighted to play on the counter. Backing up, sitting back a little meant that Haaland suddenly had the space he had become such a terror in with both Salzburg and Dortmund, getting to run directly at defenses. Combine that with Guardiola honing Haaland’s game so that his link-up play improved and they could take even more advantage of teams they caught upfield, and you get…well, you get this:

To go back to the basketball comparison, City festooned Arsenal’s guts around the Etihad with a two-man game, easily keeping Arsenal outside their castle walls and then springing lethal counters simply through Kevin De Bruyne and Haaland frolicking in an acre of space around the halfway line. With Thomas Partey in need of a compass and Rob Holding being completely overmatched, De Bruyne and Haaland ran wild in the space behind Arsenal’s midfield and in front of their defense. It’s exactly what they did to Munich.

What this City team is now is the team that can play it any way you want it, which is basically how Real Madrid keeps winning the Champions League. Decide you’ll park the bus and keep 10 behind the ball and they’ll play around and through you. Want to hit them on the counter and they have two holding midfielders — with John Stones pushed up and in from fullback — to stifle it. Try and press them and they’ll either play through that or they can go long to Haaland. Decide you want the ball and try to play your way into it and they can defend expertly and then do what they did to the Gunners. It is everything that Guardiola has spent the past five years creating. It feels like now there is no problem they don’t have an answer for.

All that stands between them and a treble is some Madrid Black Magic in the Champions League semifinal, or maybe United in the FA Cup final. United have beaten them this season… but they also gave up six to them. What was it Morpheus said about the agents? “They are the gatekeepers. They are guarding all the doors and they are holding all the keys.”

While Arsenal will have trouble sitting down for a week or two after Wednesday’s treatment by City, they should take solace that they’re here at all. To run with City for even a season you need a deep squad in which 10 or 11 guys are playing the best soccer of their career. Arsenal managed that for three-quarters of the season, but they’re just a little young and just a little thin to keep it up over nine months. Once William Saliba got hurt, once Bukayo Saka had a dip in form along with Partey, Arsenal didn’t have anyone behind them to step up. Look at City, where they’ve barely needed Phil Foden or can flip-flop Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva on the right of the attack or Julian Alvarez can be a bit part player or they can just toss Cancelo out of the club for being a prick halfway through and not even notice. That’s the size of the challenge.

This is Pep’s Physical Graffiti, and Haaland and De Bruyne just authored his “Ten Years Gone.” (“In My Time Of Dying” is also an acceptable analogy).

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate to watch him come to terms with the Europa League next season.

Just two breaks are all it takes

AC Milan’s Olivier Giroud celebrates after scoring a goal to give his side a 1-0 lead over Napoli

With all apologies to Dua Lipa, it takes more than one kiss (I feel like if I met Dua Lipa I’d have an overwhelming urge to apologize for a lot of things, BUT THAT’S NOT WHY YOU CALLED).

Italian soccer still has a reputation — one that’s not really true anymore — of being overly tactical and defensive. It’s perhaps one it needs to work harder to shake off if it wants to even get in the same stratosphere of international popularity that the Premier League has, and it is a league full of vibrant attacking teams. Catenaccio is not the order of the day in Italy anymore, but decades of its use are hard to erase from the memory banks.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t part of the book when needed, and AC Milan certainly referenced their and Italian football’s history when upsetting Napoli in the Champions League quarterfinals yesterday. And it was an upset, given that there are 22 points between these two teams in the league, with Napoli running away to claim the Scudetto and Milan battling just to remain in the top four. What’s even more amazing is that this was the third time in the span of 16 days that Milan had nullified Napoli’s smothering and artful attack. Napoli have scored 66 goals in 30 league games, for fuck’s sake. But they only managed one over 270 minutes against Milan, two legs of the quarterfinal, and a league defeat at home.

Aside from some spritely opening 10 minutes in both legs, Milan snuffed out pretty much every threat by having their two holding midfielders, Sandro Tonali and Rade Krunić, sit right on top of their backline, opening no space between those lines, which is where Napoli’s Piotr Zieliński or Stanislav Lobotka would run wild. This forced Napoli out to the wings to find any space.

Normally, Napoli would be OK with this, because Matteo Politano or Hirving Lozano on the right and especially Khvicha Kvaratskhelia on the left can create chances at will. But in the first leg, Napoli were without an injured Victor Osimhen and only had the freshly returning one in the second leg, and without him they really lacked a threat to get on the end of crosses.

Which might not have mattered as much, because both of Milan’s fullbacks were exemplary, especially Davide Calabria on the right side, who kept Kvaratskhelia in his pocket in a fashion that would have had Milan legend Paolo Maldini purring in the executive box, as long as we’re continuing the theme of harkening back to the good ol’ days (also it’s always a nice pick-me-up to think of Maldini and those eyes you could rediscover your childhood within).

Calabria plays lockdown defense

Kvaratskhelia has been maybe the revelation of the European season at Napoli, an inverted winger who has turned pretty much every defense he’s come up against into confetti. He was given nothing by Calabria, which blunted Napoli’s attack into not much more than a kitten’s paw.

And even when Napoli did manage to get crosses into the box, almost all of them found the defiant dome of either Fikayo Tomori or Simon Kjær. Napoli attempted 45 crosses yesterday, and only 10 of them found a teammate, such was the obstreperous nature of Tomori and Kjær (my principal once called me that in grade school and I’ve coopted the adjective for my own devices, in case you were wondering. Revenge is sweet).

The goals the Rossoneri needed

Of course, you still need to score, and Milan only required two marvelous pieces of individualism on the counter to get the goals they needed. We went over Brahim Díaz’s turn in the first leg that led to Ismaël Bennacer’s winner, but no reason we can’t enjoy it again:

Yesterday, it was Rafael Leão’s turn, as he picked up a loose ball some 85 yards from goal and thought he’d have a nice jog through half the Napoli team before setting up Olivier Giroud:

And that was that. Napoli pulled a goal back late, but it was always just a consolation. The beauty, so we’re told, of catenaccio is that it’s simple. You defend well, you take your chance when you inevitably get it on the counter, you win. A reference to the simplicity of Italian cuisine or life, really. Sometimes soccer is just that simple. When you have defenders playing this well, and players like Diaz and Leão capable of turning the field into their own personal F1 track, what more do you need?

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate as he talks himself into Xabi Alonso taking over for Jurgen Klopp in the near future.