USMNT Profile: Alex Bono’s rise to his first US call-up

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With January camp under way in Carson, California, there are a number of new faces to the young group. Jurgen Klinsmann has called in 28 players to the month-long training camp leading up to a January 28 friendly with Chile.

There’s a clear goal with this camp. As Klinsmann has named just seven players who were present in Brazil at the World Cup this summer, there are 14 uncapped members of the senior squad, including 12 of which who are of Olympic age. It’s as green as can be, and with the Gold Cup this summer and the next World Cup what seems like light years away, the U.S. coaching staff is hoping for somewhat of a fresh start.

One of those players is a complete unknown, at least to the general USMNT fan, simply because he has hardly featured in the U.S. picture up to this point, at any level. But to goalkeeper Alex Bono, who received quite the surprise nearly two weeks ago, that doesn’t mean much now.

“Obviously you would like to be at those youth national team camps,” Bono said. “But the fact that I haven’t doesn’t bother me now and I’ve gotten the call here. Things happen. Rosters are made, teams are picked, and players don’t make cuts, and that’s the way things go. But I’m honored to have gotten this call.”

Bono is a 20-year-old from Baldwinsville, NY, part of the city of Syracuse. That led him to Syracuse University to play his college ball, which in itself is quite the inauspicious start for a national team player. Syracuse, the year before Bono’s arrival, won three games. All year. The year before that, they won just two. It was a rocky start for new head coach Ian McIntyre, a Basildon, England native.

The project was daunting, but under the guidance of McIntyre, Bono and his teammates turned things around – and fast. In Bono’s freshman year, Syracuse went 14-6-1 and made both the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament and the third round of the NCAA Tournament. Then, after a “down” sophomore year of 10 wins, they exploded this season.

“As players at that point my freshman year, all the guys on the team said wow it can’t get much better than this,” Bono said. “But it did.”

It sure did. Buckle up. The team this year went 16-4-1, earning the school’s first #1 national ranking ever, and made noise in the NCAA tournament. The team started off the season on an unprecedented run, winning 11 of its first 12 games. Bono and his defense conceded a pint-sized three goals over that span. Ultimately, Bono worked to finish the year with an ACC-leading 0.55 goals against average, and gobbled up 12 shutouts, also an ACC best.

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Bono (left) and Syracuse head coach Ian McIntyre with the MAC Hermann Award nomination (Photo credit: Syracuse University)

He was selected by Toronto FC in the first round of the MLS SuperDraft, sixth overall. He became the first Syracuse player ever selected in the first round of the draft (Teammate Skylar Thomas also went in the first round this year, 11th to Toronto as well).

So to say it’s been a rise to the top for Bono is an understatement. A meteoric one would be more appropriate. Especially when you consider where he came from. Not only did he attend then-minnows Syracuse, but he started even before that at a club in Upstate New York called Empire United.

Tommy Tanner and Peter Ramin, both working for Empire, are friends of Bono’s family and convinced him to join Empire when he was 13 years old. Just like any other kid looking for special training, Alex tried out. He made the team and clearly stood out, but there was a glitch, one that gave him a little extra push.

“We had a ‘keeper at the age group one year ahead of him that was also a standout ‘keeper,” Ramin said. That goalkeeper was Andrew Coughlin, who also played at Syracuse for a year before transferring to nearby Canisius. “That team was the older team – normally we would have pushed Alex up to play on that team, that was our best team in the club that won the New York state championship a number of times. But Alex was humble enough and courteous enough to stay down and play at his true age group, and I really think that helped him a lot because that team wasn’t that good.”

So Alex passed up a chance at state championship glory, and instead got pummeled in goal. This, both Ramin and Tanner say, was a key moment in his development. Alex was stuck behind Coughlin in high school for a while as well, but that ended up working out in the long run as well. “We didn’t have to be too creative [to find Alex],” said McIntyre. “He goes to school 15 minutes down the road, so it would have been a real mess-up had we not identified a player of his talents.”

All this led him to now. Having left Syracuse after his junior season for the MLS draft, he got the call that had eluded him for so long. A call to the national team setup. And it came directly from Jurgen Klinsmann.

“It was definitely a surprise,” Bono said of his call from Klinsmann. Bono was in the on his way back from the presentation of the MAC Hermann award, the college soccer version of the Heisman. Bono was in the airport, and not having been in the youth national picture his entire development, the call wasn’t only a surprise, it came out of nowhere. No warning, no hints, not even an inkling that something might be coming. “I got the call Friday morning [January 9] with no expectation, I didn’t even think a call like that was coming, and when it did I was just so overwhelmed and honored to be attending.”

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Bono and SU goalkeeping coach Jukka Masalin, who also worked with Alex at Empire United (Photo Credit: Syracuse University)

Alex was too professional to mention this, but one of his coaches ratted him out. “Alex did not believe it was Jurgen Klinsmann,” Tanner said, having heard from his family about the call. “He thought it was one of his buddies joking around with him.”

But, after being overlooked and finally forcing his way through the door, giving the coaches few other options, he’s on the scene and he’s ready to work. Hard.

“He’s just a really hard-working kid who’s worked very hard to get where he is,” Tanner said. “He deserves the accolades he’s getting right now. I told his dad for four years he needed to come join the club, and he finally did, and Alex has gone on from there.”

We would, however, be completely remiss to leave out two very important people from Alex’s story, his parents. Both coaches mentioned how wonderful the Bono family was in terms of his upbringing and his development, and it shows. In this day where mothers and fathers control every aspect of their prodigy children’s athletic upbringing, and are often obnoxious in the process, Alex’s parents let the coaches and Alex make the decisions. Tanner and Ramin both made sure to point out that Alex’s parents were completely on board with keeping their kid down a level through the academy, and Alex himself was quick to go a step further.

“I should start with my parents,” Alex said when asked about his biggest influences on his career. “Not necessarily my soccer development, but my development as a person.”

But now that he’s on the big stage, it wouldn’t have been a complete interview without asking one particular question of the 20-year-old. Of any player at the national team camp, who would you most like to stop a shot against? It took him a moment, but he settled on one name.

“Jermaine Jones,” Alex said assuredly. With his former club Empire signing on as a New England Revolution affiliate recently, Alex got the chance to train with the senior team a few months ago. “He’s had some good goals for the national team, he’s got a powerful strike, and when I went to train with New England over the summer, I left the week before they signed him, so I didn’t get the chance to face him.”

Now they’re teammates with the U.S. national team. Meteoric rise, indeed.

He may or may not play in the immediate future, but with the Gold Cup, the Olympics, and plenty of time to develop before the next World Cup, Alex Bono is a name for U.S. fans to remember.

Report: USMNT turned down Lopetegui meeting request

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The United States men’s national team has been missing a full-time head coach for a long time, and is set to appoint a boss — probably Gregg Berhalter — within the next week or two.

But Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl dropped a bomb on a weary and leery U.S. fan base after FS1’s broadcast of the USMNT’s 1-0 loss to Italy in Belgium on Tuesday.

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Wahl says that former Spain and Real Madrid coach Julen Lopetegui recently approached U.S. Soccer about the vacancy, but was told the program was too far along in its process.

From Wahl on SI.com:

U.S. Soccer, the source said, replied that it was too far down the line in its process to entertain the interest of Lopetegui, who was undefeated in 20 matches (14-0-6) across two years as the Spain coach. U.S. Soccer offered no comment when asked for a response.

The report will only add more consternation as Berhalter, well-qualified in his own right, attempts to right the good ship USMNT.

How in the world, at any point in the process, a program like the USMNT refuses the chance to speak to Lopetegui would be hilarious most times, though it certainly is likely very late in the process (which has not been anywhere near transparent).

If Berhalter had been told he was hired, that’s about the only acceptable answer (and even if he was, some would still have wanted the U.S. to say ‘Tough break, Gregg. We owe the process this conversation’).

Also a former Porto boss, Lopetegui led Spain’s U-19 and U-21 sides to EURO titles. He was fired by Real on Oct. 29, which would’ve given the Yanks a chance to reach out to him.

Again, I think Berhalter has everything it takes to be a wildly successful USMNT boss, but this process has not been covered in glory.

Player ratings: USMNT loses late vs. Italy

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The USMNT closed off another year with a sour taste in its mouth, losing track of Italy’s Matteo Politano as the Azzurri finally found a way past American goalkeeper Ethan Horvath with a stoppage time winner in Belgium on Tuesday.

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Starting XI

Ethan Horvath — 8 — Very good after a nervy moment early, the Club Brugge man will have shown a new coach he should be in consideration for the top job. Could do little on the goal.

Shaq Moore — 7 — Quite decent despite playing 4/5 of the match on his non-preferred left side.

Cameron Carter-Vickers — 5.5 — Beaten a couple of times, but a clean sheet against Italy in Europe is what it is.

Aaron Long — 6 — Left in no man’s land by Lletget in stoppage time.

Walker Zimmerman — 7 — The standout of a decent night for the three center backs, even chipped in with a header on goal in the first half.

Reggie Cannon (Off 76′) — 6.5 — A decent performance with promising moments moving forward for the FC Dallas right back.

Kellyn Acosta (Off 83′) — 7 — I though the Colorado Rapids midfielder was the Yanks’ best field player on the day, with quite decent service on set pieces to boot.

Marky Delgado (Off 62′) — 5 — Inconspicuous

Tyler Adams — 6 Busier than Delgado, but was a bit overran and will take this as a learning experience.

Christian Pulisic (Off 83′) — 6 — Just fine. Saddled with either a second striker or 3+1 attacking midfielder role, Pulisic was understandably troubled by Leonardo Bonucci (though we have to imagine the Italian wasn’t happy to deal with him either).

Josh Sargent (Off 62′) — 5 — Good energy, but clearly taking a step up in class from Hertha Berlin’s reserves. Hesitated to pull the trigger to find Reggie Cannon’s adventurous run in the early second half.

Subs

Wil Trapp (On 62′) — 5 — Looked confused at times in the middle of the park, troubling for a player who’s received plenty of time to get used to these situations.

Bobby Wood (On 62′) — 6 — Just fine.

Jorge Villafana (On 76′) — 6 — An improved performance from last week versus England, albeit in a cameo.

Sebastian Lletget (Off 83′) — 4 — How a clean sheet is quickly undone against Italy: Lletget leaves Politano, who starts a quick exchange between Marco Verratti, Moise Kean, and himself to win it in stoppage time. Maybe harsh on a man who waited almost 2 years between caps, but true.

Romain Gall (Off 83′) — 6.5 — Lively in limited time, Gall earned a corner with a wayward shot from distance (though his ensuing corner service left plenty to be desired).

Three things we learned: Italy v. USMNT

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GENK — The U.S. men’s national team lost 1-0 to Italy in Genk, Belgium on Tuesday to finish off its 2018 schedule with a defeat, as they conceded in the 94th minute.

Matteo Politano struck with 30 seconds left to condemn the USMNT to a second-straight defeat of this international break, as they closed out the calendar year with a disappointing performance and, eventually, defeat.

Dave Sarachan named the youngest U.S. lineup in the modern era (since 1990) with an average age of 22 years and 71 days, while Christian Pulisic became the youngest captain in that era. Italy’s team was a mixture of youth and experience as Ethan Horvath made several fine stops but couldn’t preserve the shutout for the USMNT.

Here’s what we learned from a tight encounter in Belgium.


HORVATH, PULISIC, ADAMS STAND TALL

Three of the USMNT’s standout performers in Genk were captain Pulisic, midfielder Tyler Adams and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath. The former looked on a level of his own among players wearing a U.S. jersey, buzzing around the Italian defense and trying to make things happen. A superb run and cross down the left and then a lovely scooped pass, both to Josh Sargent, showcased his quality on the ball. The only problem for Pulisic was that he didn’t see enough of it. With long balls pumped up to him, Pulisic didn’t win many aerial duels against Leonardo Bonucci but his best work was done dropping off Josh Sargent and picking passes.

At the other end of the pitch Horvath stood tall to deny Italy’s captain Bonucci a clear goal, tipped another dipping effort over and then pushed a dangerous cross in the box away right before half time. And in the second half Horvath saved with his feet as Kevin Lasagna was clean through on goal, pushed Vincenzo Grifo’s shot wide and denied Lasagna again. The Club Brugge stopper enhanced his chances of challenging Brad Guzan and Zack Steffen for the No. 1 jersey, and a year after his horror mistake allowed Portugal to score in Sarachan’s first friendly in charge, Horvath took his second chance and deserved a clean sheet.

In midfield Tyler Adams was brave on the ball in front of the back three, tried to get things going in attack and was the most composed U.S. player on the pitch. The New York Red Bulls midfield, still a teenager, will no doubt be a big part of this team moving forward and he, Pulisic (obviously) and Horvath proved they will be in many USMNT squads to come. The rest struggled a little.


YOUNGSTERS OVERWHELMED

When you name the youngest USMNT lineup in modern history, you’d expect a few bumps in the road during the game. That is exactly what happened. A back three of Cameron Carter-Vickers, Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long, plus Shaq Moore playing out of position at left wing-back, was undone by simple long balls over the top as the USMNT dropped deeper and deeper throughout the game. The U.S. only had 26.6 percent possession and were happy to sit deep and try to hit Italy on the break, just like they did against France in Lyon.

Unlike the game against England last week, this was nowhere near a full-strength USMNT lineup and you could make an argument that only two players (Adams and Pulisic) would be regular starters moving forward.

The likes of Zimmerman, Long, Moore and Cannon were decent enough and got plenty of the reps with the USMNT under pressure for most of the game. One thing is now for sure, whoever is in charge for the January camp and beyond: experimenting needs to stop. The past 13 months has shown us what over 50 players can do. Now a permanent coach needs to select his best squad and work with them each camp moving forward.


SARACHAN’S REIGN SUMMED UP IN 90 MINUTES

Dave Sarachan’s record after 12 games in charge of the USMNT reads 3-5-4, as he set his team up for the draw against Italy but didn’t get it.

Just like they’ve done against top teams in the past, and they did against France in Lyon back in June, the U.S. sat back, soaked up pressure and tried to grab a clean sheet. It wasn’t pretty and didn’t work, but it could prove to be a valuable learning experience for Sarachan’s young team.

The past 13 months has seen him steady the ship after the nightmare of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, but in truth there are still more questions than answers when it comes to what is next for the U.S.

Sarachan has now handed debuts to 23 players, more than any other U.S. manager in the modern era, and his task was to try and restore pride in the program after the World Cup qualifying debacle. He may have done a bit of that, mostly thanks to putting his faith in youth, but the U.S. has pretty much stood still in 2018. Some players have taken their chances, others haven’t and, perhaps most importantly, the USMNT still don’t have a permanent head coach.

That is the biggest issue of all, but that is no longer Sarachan’s problem.


Italy finally finds way past Horvath, USMNT

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The United States men’s national team closed out its 2018 with almost as many questions as it closed out 2017, losing 1-0 on a stoppage time goal in Belgium.

Actually, there may be more questions after the result, as goalkeeper Ethan Horvath made a statement between the sticks with more than a half-dozen saves in place of injured Zack Steffen.

Italy scored in the fourth minute of stoppage time, a terrific team goal completed by two tremendous touches from scorer Matteo Politano.

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The first half-hour was marked by significant Italian possession, and most notable for some dogged interventions from alert USMNT goalkeeper Horvath.

The Club Brugge man played well in Belgium, stopping Leonardo Bonucci point-blank on the Italians’ best chance of the first half.

Horvath was busy again in the 44th minute, reacting quickly to an untouched Marco Verratti free kick.

Fortunately for the U.S., there were few ideas on display from Roberto Mancini’s men.

Verratti headed over the goal within the first 10 minutes of the second half, but the Americans had a chance for an unlikely opener with a 56th minute free kick. Nothing.

Horvath was back in the spotlight with an in-tight leg save after Walker Zimmerman put off a driving Kevin Lasagna in the 59th after Bonucci sent him over the top of the defense.

A Kellyn Acosta free kick found Zimmerman at the back post, but Salvatore Sirigu was there for his first save of the afternoon.

Hoffenheim’s Vincenzo Grifo forced Horvath into a flying save in the 70th minute, and Mancini’s men couldn’t do anything with the ensuing corner. He’d then stymy another 1v1 chance on the left side in the 72nd.

Lasagna probably should’ve given Italy a winner in the final 10 minutes, but he smashed the ball over the bar.

Substitute Romain Gall forced a corner kick out of a diving Sirigu in the 90th minute, but the youngster’s corner didn’t clear Italy’s line.

Verratti and substitute Moise Keane played Politano on goal, with Sebastian Lletget leaving Politano after the Inter man started the play and Aaron Long unable to switch in time.