FourFourTwo USA's 50 Best American Men's Players of 2017: 20-11
20. Darlington Nagbe
To be blunt, it’s kind of hard to assess Darlington Nagbe’s year. On the one hand, he’s exactly what we’ve always known: a possession specialist, adept and dependable at ball retention, almost always able to move the play along.
But in a strange way, it’s this consistency that holds him back. He’s rarely more or less than expected. In the current vernacular, he’s never quite as “extra” as plenty of us might like. Even statistically, he’s so frustratingly predictable. While the goal totals have varied, declining a bit with just four over the last two seasons, he’s pretty much stuck on five assists per campaign. That was his final total for each of the 2015, 2016 and 2017 MLS seasons.
At 27 years old, the U.S. international who broke into the team after gaining citizenship in 2015, is what he is. Not that “what he is” amounts to anything bad.
He’s moving on to Atlanta now in exchange for a impressive package of allocation money and other assets. He leaves Portland with a club record 214 appearances and as the Timbers’ third all-time leading scorer and second all-time assist leader in the MLS era.
The switch could do him well, seeing as Nagbe has barely known a manager other than Caleb Porter since his teenage days. We’ll see if Tata Martino at Atlanta can summon a little more from him, drawing out more of that dynamic ability that we know lies in there but that we see, in all honesty, a little too infrequently.
Nagbe’s national team future, in fact, may just depend on flashing a little more of that. With so many up-and-comers in the U.S. midfield, “pretty good” may increasingly not be good enough.
- Steve Davis
19. Dax McCarty
Dax McCarty’s 2017 began and ended with moments of ignominy courtesy of the New York Red Bulls. In between, he had one of the finest years of his excellent pro career.
The Red Bulls shocked Major League Soccer in January when they chose to trade their captain to Chicago in exchange for allocation money. It took McCarty a moment to wrap his head around the bombshell, but once he did, the veteran holding midfielder played a huge role in transforming the Fire. McCarty recorded five assists in 28 regular-season games for Chicago, helping them finish third in the league after back-to-back last-place finishes in the preceding two seasons.
He had some help, of course, but the leadership, feisty defending and calm, collected play in possession of McCarty did wonders for a Fire team that needed a complete re-wiring. His performances were rewarded on the international stage, where he helped the U.S. to the Gold Cup title and became a consistent call-up (if not minute-earner) in World Cup qualifying. It’s not all that likely that the 30-year-old will be a major part of the US setup going forward, but he’ll undoubtedly be a key piece if the Fire make another leap in 2018.
- Sam Stejskal
18. Tyler Adams
Nothing makes soccer fans crazier than potential new stars, and in 2017, Americans found themselves witnessing the birth of one in Tyler Adams.
The 18-year-old’s second season with the New York Red Bulls’ first team was certainly his breakout. He tallied two goals and added four assists in 24 games, and he did so mostly as a wingback. His position change was notable, especially since the surprising preseason trade that sent Dax McCarty to Chicago was seen as a show of faith in the futures of Homegrown Players Adams and Sean Davis. Long-term, Adams’ future should be in midfield – and it might not be in New Jersey for much longer, if he keeps up this rise in form.
Adams got a look in midfield in his first senior U.S. national team cap against Portugal in November, in a tease of what could be the team’s new-look midfield. Weston McKennie stole the show that day, with a goal in his first senior-team appearance, but Adams was similarly impressive.
The next 12 months will tell us a lot more about Adams’ future. He should continue to get looks for the U.S., and if he keeps up his 2017 form – whether at wingback or in a more traditional midfield role – the Red Bulls will be fielding plenty of transfer offers.
- Jeff Kassouf
17. Kellyn Acosta
The “it” man among young, up-and-coming U.S. midfielders just keep getting younger and younger. Before 18-year-old Weston McKennie began opening eyes, and before 18-year-old Jonathan Gonzalez got heads swinging, more of the U.S. midfield future belonged to Kellyn Acosta.
Not that he’s over the hill or anything, now 22 years old. Acosta probably has a big future ahead, even if his 2017 became a series of highs and lows.
His year began with a flourish as he got into Bruce Arena’s January camp and established himself as candidate to start in important matches ahead. At times Acosta looked like a perfect complement for Michael Bradley; terrific range and willingness to put in the work allowed the team’s metronome (Bradley) to concentrate on pace-setting. It didn’t always work out that way, but Acosta did enough to earn 13 caps through the year.
Meanwhile, he was the centerpiece of an FC Dallas midfield as the club pushed deep into CONCACAF Champions League in the spring. His free-kick goal was the winner against Pachuca in the first leg of the semifinals. (His first national team goal, in the summer against Ghana, was free kick as well.)
As it turns out, a bright spring devolved into a so-so summer. Acosta’s up-and-down performance in the national team shirt reminded everyone that he was hardly a finished product, and that perhaps the time was right for a move abroad.
- Steve Davis
16. Fabian Johnson
From No. 1 last year to No. 16 now? Wow, what happened to Fabian Johnson on our #USMNT50 countdown? Although there is no one, smoking-gun reason, Johnson’s story comes down to the same things that define all athletes’ fortunes: fitness, opportunity and performance.
Over the last year, back, ankle and muscle problems have left Johnson in and out of Borussia Monchengladbach’s team, with other fitness concerns making it difficult for the U.S. international to lock down a consistent role with his club. That, in turn, led to a lack of opportunity, something a downturn in performance has only made worse.
Two years ago, the versatile wideman was coming off his best season, scoring eight times between Champions League and the Bundesliga to become the preeminent American abroad. Since, Johnson has only four goals in the same competitions and, ignominiously, was left out of the U.S.’ squad for the team’s final two ill-fated World Cup Qualifiers this fall.
Now 30, it’s difficult to see where Johnson fits with the U.S. going forward, but the first step to impressing Bruce Arena’s successor will be form and health. Should both return, Johnson could resurface as one of the most valuable players in the men’s national team pool.
- Richard Farley