Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, and Christian Pulisic are among the nominees for Men’s Player of the Year. Philadelphia Union’s Jamaican backstop, Andre Blake, is also on the list along with Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and others.
The Female Player of the Year is predictably American-heavy, with Alex Morgan, Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Sam Mewis, and Tobin Heath competing with a trio of international players.
Tim Howard is the only American up for Male Goalkeeper of the Year, though Blake is again in the running. The female side has American backstops Adrianna Franch, Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris, Jane Campbell, and Nicole Barnhart.
The finals begin Tuesday with a doubleheader of sorts, scheduled 90 minutes apart in Columbus and Houston.
Toronto FC vs. Columbus Crew First leg — 8 p.m. ET Tuesday in Ohio Second leg — 7:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Ontario
The Trillium Cup rivals meet with a lot more on the line, and the subplots are many. Toronto FC is aiming to win its first MLS Cup title after a record-breaking season lifting the Supporters’ Shield. The Crew is being held hostage by its owner who’s done his level best to engineer a move to Austin come 2019, and the players are giving their fans on-field thrills to go with #SaveTheCrew protests.
There’s a terrific chance for Columbus to pull ahead in leg one as it did against New York City FC, as the Reds will be without suspended stars Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore.
The Crew are led by the wizardry of Justin Meram (Iraq) and the finishing of Norwegian striker Ola Kamara. Then there’s rejuvenated and/or ageless playmaker Federico Higuain, and young USMNT backstop Zack Steffen.
Managers Greg Vanney and Gregg Berhalter are both capable of sublime tactics, and how Tuesday looks may go beyond the missing stars if Vanney is able to trump his Columbus counterpart.
Seattle Sounders vs. Houston Dynamo First leg — 9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday in Texas Second leg — 10:30 p.m. ET Nov. 29 in Washington
Clint Dempsey’s defiant comeback tour rolls on. One year after he was relegated to street clothes champagne celebrator in Canada, Dempsey is rollicking through MLS with his heart surgery a poignant but distant memory.
Dempsey scored twice in the conference semifinal defeat of Vancouver, the lone two goals, and has been no worse for the wear despite an injury to key attack partner Jordan Morris. On the season, he’s nabbed 14 goals and 4 assists.
“Deuce” joins Nicolas Lodeiro and Cristian Roldan as key pieces in trying to deconstruct Wilmer Cabrera’s Dynamo, who are trying to add a second title to the city’s trophy haul following a difficult summer for Houston.
Houston has its band together for this critical time of year, with no Gold Cup or CONCACAF World Cup qualifying to deprive them of Alberth Elis or Erick Torres. Can it knock off the No. 2 seed after handing top-seeded Portland its demise?
“We’ll see what happens,” Dempsey said.” I mean, in terms of what I’ve been able to accomplish with the national team, I’m at peace with it. It’s not really about me. It’s about a group of guys that want to be moving forward.
“If there’s an opportunity that comes where you get to play a role and try to help and I’m feeling good and I’m playing well, then yeah, you’ll never say no. But you know, if the call never comes I’m still happy, still at peace, and focused on being here and trying to make the most of the time I have left.”
There are a number of players whose national team futures should be in question, but Dempsey is in a different class. No one has debated his motor or fuel, and his engine is still there (to complete the Springsteen-esque car comparisons, he remains one of the only things that qualifiers as chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected, and steppin’ out over the line).
If anything, he plays too close to the edge. That’s not something I see as one of the Yanks’ problems right now, so perhaps Dempsey needs to be viewed like Cuauhtemoc Blanco or Carlos Ruiz as a CONCACAF guy who’s around as long as he wants to be a part of it.
I mean, shoot, if Dempsey wants to keep passing the fire to Christian Pulisic and now Weston McKennie, there are far worse ambassadors for the program. He’s the most accomplished field player in recent history, and will be able to share so much when it comes to balancing club and country.
Heck, maybe he needs to be the late era Ryan Giggs of the 2018-2022 USMNT.
Aside from Clint Dempsey‘s five-year run between Fulham and Spurs in the Premier League, there is no American attacking player with a Top Five European league resume as strong as Pulisic who, again, is 19.
But what about beyond him? Tim Howard and Dempsey are deep into their 30s and back in MLS, while Michael Bradley’s play is not at the same level as when he left Roma for Toronto FC. The latter two, along with Jozy Altidore and perhaps sooner Paul Arriola and later Tyler Adams, are the top MLS-based Yanks (assuming they say domestic).
The European crowd have different arguments. Geoff Cameron is one of the most important players on Stoke City, while DeAndre Yedlin is a regular starter for Rafa Benitez at Newcastle United. John Brooks and Bobby Wood matter deeply to their Bundesliga outfits, while 19-year-old Schalke midfielder and Pulisic FIFA rival Weston McKennie is raising eyebrows here and abroad.
So where did you rank ’em?
It’s worth noting that we gave six options to go with a write-in box: Altidore, Bradley, Brooks, Cameron, Dempsey, and Yedlin. Wood and Fabian Johnson received enough write-in votes to prove they should’ve been among the options.
7) Jozy Altidore — 3 percent — A CONCACAF and MLS killer, Altidore unfortunately often needed to drop into the midfield to hold the ball up for Bruce Arena’s feeble midfield. His reputation has dropped amongst USMNT supporters since his failed move to Sunderland, but ask Eredivisie and MLS defenses whether he’s got international quality. The 28-year-old may have not been Premier League quality — many weren’t at Sunderland — but he remains a top American forward. Once an unquestioned favorite to chase down Landon Donovan and Dempsey amongst the all-time leading U.S. scorers, will young competition and Dempsey’s continued relevance keep him from achieving that objective? Altidore currently sits 16 behind both
6) Michael Bradley — 5 percent — The sentiment behindAlexi Lalas’ “Zen burn” is perhaps the reason Bradley doesn’t get enough love and has become a critical magnet amongst USMNT fans, but Toronto fans understand that Bradley’s skill set is still vital. Bradley plays calm and composed, a central midfielder who can make big tackles but usually gets to the ball before one’s needed. His USMNT performances recently make the argument for European football, but Bradley is the top American player in Major League Soccer.
5) Other — 10 percent — Wood was the leader here despite losing steam at Hamburg this season.
4) Clint Dempsey — 16 percent — Perhaps the closest thing U.S. Soccer has to a folk hero outside of Tim Howard’s Belgium performance, Dempsey’s five years between Fulham and Spurs are rarefied air for American attackers abroad. He returned from a serious heart ailment to bag 14 goals and four assists as MLS Comeback Player of the Year, and has helped Seattle not miss injured striker Jordan Morris. Also overlooked: He has five goals and three assists for the USMNT since coming back in March, and three of those goals came in an inspiring hat trick versus Honduras.
3) Geoff Cameron — 17 percent — One of Stoke’s most valuable player, Cameron’s club and country look entirely different without him. Cameron leads the Potters in interceptions per game, offsides won per game, and is behind only Joe Allen, Jese, and Eric Choupo-Moting in dribbles per game. He followed up perhaps his worst match as a USMNT player by being a game-changing sub, only to see Bruce Arena ignore him for the two most important matches of the qualifying mess.
2) John Brooks — 23 percent — The big American center back was a key part of Hertha Berlin’s strong defense last season, and is perhaps under the radar having missed the better part of this early season and the World Cup qualifying debacle. Now at Wolfsburg in a record transfer involving an American, Brooks doesn’t turn 25 until January.
1) DeAndre Yedlin — 26 percent — More than a quarter of you tabbed the Magpies right back, who took his first steps in Europe with Tottenham less than three seasons ago. Still just 24, Yedlin is the most promising American full back/wing back in some time.
The 19-year-old “Don’t call him Wonderboy” admitted to fighting depression after the USMNT failed to qualify for the World Cup, but Christian Pulisic is the primary cause for optimism in many circles of U.S. Soccer.
USMNT supporters see him as the key to the future, club coaches see him as an example of how an elite career can be nurtured here, and European export proponents see his exponential growth at Borussia Dortmund as a beacon to call young U.S. talent overseas.
Short of world elite, but best American player in history
About where he is now: Key player on a good team
It won’t surprise anyone that Option No. 3 was the least popular, as it’s difficult to believe a healthy Pulisic won’t continue to improve. He’s already one of the most important players on a UEFA Champions League team — and the most important player on the USMNT — at age 19, so the nine percent of people who voted “About where he is now” are mostly cynics or detesters of the game here, in all likelihood.
Thirty-seven percent of fans think he can be a Best XI candidate, which would put him in uncharted American waters. Getting to this point would mean Pulisic would get to a point where voters consider him capable of fitting in a team like the 2016 UEFA Team of the Season. The attack-minded players there only need one of their names: Messi, Griezmann, Ronaldo, Modric, Iniesta.
Now, this also would mean that Pulisic would need to either lead Borussia Dortmund to a Bundesliga crown and/or deep into the UEFA Champions League, and that leaves this poll option a massive bet by voters. He could also be an otherworldly playmaker on a second-tier team, but would need to just dominate. In the last three seasons, guess who many teams have placed a player on the Best XI?
Seven. That’s 33 spots taken by seven teams. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, and Manchester United. PSG has one (Zlatan Ibrahimovic) while United had a half (Angel Di Maria played for the Red Devils and Real that season).
Which brings us to the majority vote: 54 percent of voters think Pulisic will not quite reach world elite, but will be the best player in United States history. This would mean passing the accolades of Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, and Landon Donovan. From a team standpoint, this won’t be terribly hard.
Pulisic has won the German Cup. Howard has a League Cup, FA Cup, and Community Shield. Dempsey played in a Europa League final with Fulham, while Donovan won all of his club accolades in Major League Soccer.
What would it take for Pulisic to take a step into that category while staying in Europe (Forgive us for assuming a healthy Pulisic could return to MLS at any time in the next dozen years and contribute like Dempsey at the very least)? Would he need to join the rarefied air of aforementioned clubs like Real or Bayern Munich? Lothar Matthaus thinks he can do a job at the latter.
At a certain point, naysayers like to say Pulisic is being overhyped. We get that. As a culture we’ve gone through varying degrees of that, from Maurice Edu all the way up (or down) to Freddy Adu. But no player in U.S. history, at his age, has been nominated for the Goldenboy Award. Donovan didn’t make a senior appearance at Bayer Leverkusen until 22, and Pulisic has 71 first team apps for BVB with 10 goals and 14 assists.
This is the great unknown, paved by the work of Dempsey and Howard, Bocanegra and Reyna, Keller and even McBride. While we should sit back and enjoy it all, there’s no doubt the focus will only continue to grow on Pulisic. It seems, wonderfully, that pressure doesn’t bother the kid.