One of my favorite things to do while watching soccer is scream “That’s my quarterback,”, a line made famous by Terrell Owens in reference to Tony Romo, whenever I see Crystal Dunn in an attacking position on the pitch. It is said in part because despite the context of the moment in which it was delivered, that line has become iconic in a way that inspires low level chuckles. But, more importantly, for the average American, it’s easier to understand barriers placed on black players who wish to play midfield when equated to the barriers that have faced black players who wish to play quarterback in the NFL.
The USMNT has advanced to the Round of 16 in the 2022 World Cup. There is a strong possibility they will be the only CONCACAF nation to advance in the tournament, and a large part of that is their midfield play. Yunus Musah, Weston McKinnie and captain Tyler Adams, have been three of the best players on their team and arguably one of the best midfields in the tournament, playing the vast majority of the US’s 270 minutes thus far. They are also one of the few non-CAF nations to have an all-Black midfield. Their success is unsurprising to many black fans and former players, but the history of soccer in this country made such a midfield nearly impossible until the epic failure of World Cup 2018 qualification. As is often the case in this country, it has to hit rock bottom before black people are given a chance in spaces from which they were once excluded.
All of this has marked a new beginning for the MNT that inspires hope in many fans. Tyler Adams has been lauded by many as the best player on the team and a young man able to remain calm and within his skillset no matter what comes his way. These are attributes possessed by the best 6s in the world. McKennie is playing some of his best football in a while and has made fearless box-to-box runs and big challenges against the best teams on the World Cup stage. Musah acts as the playmaker, working in tandem with the attack, creating space and opportunity and distributing and interplaying with others while also remaining a goal scoring threat. If we are all witness to the prowess and talent of the black midfield player, then why hasn’t this translated to the women’s game and the USWNT?
Now, before you tell me, I will note that the USWNT has had black midfield players. Notably, two. Exactly two who played there with any regularity, Angela Hucles Mangano and Shannon Boxx. Both players have been sighted by many players, but particularly Black players, as an influence on their desire to play at the highest level. Boxx is credited with revolutionizing the 6 position in women’s soccer in the States, and Hucles Mangano performed at the highest level at the Olympics when called upon to be an attacking mid in the stead of Abby Wambach. Why then, has the development, recruitment and the talent pool of Black midfielders in women’s soccer in the U.S. stalled? Much like the black quarterback in the NFL, it stands to reason that fewer and fewer black players are developed as midfielders beyond a certain point in their careers, nor are they given a chance to explore the position later on. There may also be the bias of “pace and power,” a false label given disproportionately to black players that often robs them of being thought of as intelligent, a quality that is intrinsically tied to the midfield line. Midfield players are often though the smartest on the pitch and those responsibility, at least here, are rarely given to black players. Even with the low numbers and limited access, I am going to make the case for six black midfielders that could help strengthen the much maligned USWNT midfield.
The first choice and the one most fans are loud about. Dunn has played forward and midfield almost exclusively for her clubs and has done so with great success. A former Mac Hermann winner in college and an MVP in the NWSL, Dunn’s attributes are best suited for attacking style play. One of the most versatile players in the game, she could play anywhere on the midfield, but has preferred to play in the 8 or 10 role for country. Dunn can sit a bit deeper and use her defensive skills to win the ball and quickly distribute. She can also make runs from the midfield in conjunction with the forward line, or play quick passes to set up strikers making quality off the ball runs. Dunn is still rounding back into playing a full 90 minutes, but moving her to her more natural, attacking midfield position would stabilize the US midfield.
It has become evident ever since Julie Ertz went down in the first regular season match of the Chicago Red Stars 2021 season, that the U.S. midfield, and the USWNT on the whole, was built around the role that Julie Ertz played. As the lone six, she was asked to defend ferociously, along with our center backs, to cover the large amount of space in the middle that was left by our full backs attacking from a back 4. Ertz is also a phenomenal tackler, who rarely gets a challenge wrong, and she is even capable of making a midfield run to help distribute the ball. We don’t really have a replacement for her, though those who have stepped in have done what they can, but many have asked why the WNT does not shift to having two 6s? If this is the approach the team takes, I hope that one player that gets a look is Brianna Pinto. A prolific player and a Mac Hermann finalist in her career at UNC, she has adapted to her new role as a six at the North Carolina Courage, in partnership with Denise O’Sullivan. Pinto has played with many of the current WNT players in the youth system and her high IQ and her ability to nail a passes from anywhere and on any type of surface (she had one of the best passes I’ve ever seen at Segra Field) means she can manage a lot of pressure that will come at the the midfield line. She will only improve as six in the years to come and should play a part in the future of the WNT.
Another second year player who grew this season was Yazmeen Ryan from the Champion Portland Thorns. Ryan featured in almost every game for the Thorns, often starting as Dunn gave birth and was able to come back on her own schedule. Ryan’s chemistry with Hina Sugita and Sam Coffey, and her ability to both deliver balls into the box and score herself, make her a dual threat from the midfield. Mostly an attacking player, Ryan is adaptable enough to play in the 8 position and use her on the ball skill to make runs much in the way Dunn can.
Okay, this is the first of two Black players that are not actually midfielders for their club, but can play the position well. Naomi Girma is the reigning Rookie or the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, both deserved accolades. Girma is a generational defensive talent who is lauded for her ability to defend anyone and to clear any chances at net. She rarely steps a foot wrong and she is one of the few Black players who gets credit for her high soccer IQ and ability to position herself correctly and read the next play. Earlier I stated that the WNT is still trying to find the player most like Julie Ertz. I would argue that that player is Naomi Girma, who has played the six before. She has the engine, the defensive and tackling ability and is a better passer than Ertz. Girma also possesses a deadly pass that can sail over the heads of defenders, directly to the front line. This skill would be very useful against the press, particularly in the knockout stages of a World Cup tournament. And with Girma at the six, she would cover the large spaces left by the attacking backs while not conceding the middle on the counter. If we must play with one defensive midfielder, Girma seems like the best choice.
This is the second player who is not listed as a midfielder, though Cat Macario can play in any central attacking position based on her skill set alone. Cat prefers to play as a false 9, which is not quite the 10, but they share many attributes, including a nose for goal. Macario may be the best player we’ve ever had on the ball, and her creativity, vision, and shooting ability from distance, make her a threat from the middle of the park at any time. You only need to watch her performance against Iceland in the She Believes Cup 2021 or her past season at Lyon, to see how her dribbling, shooting and playmaking could translate from the forward line to the midfield line. Giving Cat the middle of the park and keeping her closer to the attacking line would cause many problems for opposing defenses looking to content a potent USWNT attack.
Croix Bethune is a current Mac Hermann semi-finalist and a bonafide midfield talent for the USC Trojans. Traditionally, the WNT does not call in college players with regularity, and we are waiting to see if Bethune returns for her senior year at USC or declares for the draft, but much like her idol Megan Rapinoe, Bethune commands the midfield space and scores and distributes with almost equal aplomb. Great with the ball at her feet and at pace, Bethune reads the game very well and can thread passes to the space her striker will be as they make off the ball runs. She also possesses one the ball skills including a very useful step over that she deploys during her central runs. In highlights, I have also noticed she is hard to knock off the ball based on her build. That is a quality we need in a midfielder player, particularly with the future of Sam Mewis up in the air. Bethune has the confidence, skills, intelligence and youthful arrogance needed to make the WNT midfield a bigger threat that opposing teams have to respect.
These are six current players, and my fervent hope during the season where we make wish list and check them twice, is that our system makes space for the development and nourishment of the next generation of Black midfield talent. If so, we’ll have our own Adams/McKennie/Musah midfield on the USWNT one day.