Oliver McManus writes about 10 young players to watch at the upcoming CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup is just one in a line of international tournaments flooding our telly boxes over the summer – what break, hey? Consisting of 12 teams from North America, competing over 3 weeks to take home the prestigious trophy – only Mexico, America and Canada have ever won the tournament but Honduras, Panama, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica join them from the Central American zone with Curacao, Jamaica, French Guiana and Martinique making up the Caribbean quartet.
With a whole raft of players looking to take to the field in a bid for blazing glory, here are my 10 (relatively) Young Players to Watch
Alvas Powell // Jamaica // 22 // Right Back
Kicking things off with my personal favourite player in the whole of the Gold Cup, Alvas Powell is a 6ft1, powerful right-back born and raised in St Thomas, Jamaica.
Having made his international debut for his home country at the age of 18, Powell has made a total of 16 appearances in the succeeding 5 years but over the past 12 months has found himself at the heart of Theo Whitmore’s team.
Part of the Portland Timbers squad that captured the 2015 MLS Cup, Powell’s key strength is his desire to dribble deep into the opposition’s half with his long, rangy legs and Bolt-esque acceleration in order to escape the guise of his opposite number.
Equally strong at the back, the Jamaican is quick to dive into a tackle but more often than not emerges with the ball thanks to his acute concentration and pin-point precision when going to ground – a unique controlled aggression.
His does however have a number of areas for development – as is to be expected when just 22 – more specifically with regards to his creativity in the final third. Crosses into the box can sometimes be lacking in quality, as does his heading ability which whilst not necessarily crucial in his wider position, is always a good skill to have in your back pocket.
Further to that his performances as of late have come in for some flak with many pointing out his defensive deficiencies have deepened towards the latter end of the season, being attributed to his lack of consistency and stamina to play a full season.
Nonetheless, Powell is promising and has proven his critics wrong time and time again and yes, he may be a tad erratic with his performances but when he’s on song, he’s pitch perfect. The Gold Cup, then, will be a chance for him to remedy his recent failings and put himself back in the good books.
Alberth Elis // Honduras // 21 // Forward
Alberth Elis is a strange guy – not in that he’s an odd person just in that his style of play is a bit unique, shall we say? At 6ft he’s not exactly incredibly tall and yet he still pertains a distinctly gangly stature.
Currently playing for Houston Dynamo, on loan from Monterrey in the Liga MX, Elis has scored 6 goals from 14 appearances this season and first made his name back in his home country where 25 goals in 62 appearance for Olimpia secured him a lucrative move to the Mexican club.
Capable of playing on the right or left wing, Elis’ main position is as the sole striker of a front three and is capable of using his long frame to his advantage, with a fluid agility and extreme turn of pace that when combined is something quite wonderful to watch.
A real flair player, he’s not afraid to pull the old step-over or body fake out of his locker and whilst traditionally right footed, he’s rather adept with the left foot too which often results in a bamboozled defender as they try to figure out whether he’ll dive down the line or chop inside.
An area of weakness for Elis is his passing accuracy, with just an average of 15 completed passes during his games this season – a higher success rate could see him presented with more opportunities in front of goal.
That being said, he does make the most of what opportunities come his way and with Houston having the option to sign him permanently upon the conclusion of his loan spell, he’ll be looking to strike Gold this summer for Honduras and bolster his club standing.
Ronald Matarrita // Costa Rica // 22 // Left Wing Back
A man who refuses to be put in his box, Matarrita has found comfort in the position of left-back and left-wing over the course of his career for both Alajuelense, New York City and his country Costa Rica. As a result, I was in two minds as to what position to mark him down as – hence left wing back.
Matarrita signed for New York City in January of last year and made 25 appearances in his first season, consistently impressing and ended up collecting the NYCFC’s Defensive Player of the Year – some accolade to garner in his first year.
Despite being in the early stages of this MLS season, Matarrita has continued to show the quality that earned him that award with respectable performances across the board – a distinctly impressive trait is his pressured dribbling, somewhat akin to a lion stalking his pray, before using trigger like timing to pounce, steal the ball and kick on with an attack.
In addition to that, Matarrita shows stamina beyond his years and is fairly easy to spot during the latter stages of the match because he’s the only one bombing around like it’s still only the 8th minute!
A strong indirect set-piece threat, Matarrita is well informed when it comes to making attack-minded decisions and is always thinking one step ahead, about the potential permutations of a move, in order to give his team-mates the best opportunity for success.
An average of 2.3 tackles per game, 2.4 interceptions / clearances per game is a further testament to just how underrated a player is. If I’m being honest with you, it’s hard to pick a weakness with this guy, I’m not saying he’s Lionel Messi, just that he’s an incredibly well rounded player and seems to be fairly good at all parts of the game.
I for one am excited to see what Ronald Matarrita can bring going into the future and, of course, at just 22 years age he has quite a long future ahead of him. There have been rumours of a few Championship level clubs coming in for the young Costa Rican, which can do nothing to harm his confidence so let’s wait and see what happens with this particular rough diamond.
Alphonso Davies // Canada // 16 // Winger
Yes, you did read that right. Alphonso Davies. Sixteen.
It’s actual madness that this guy is 16 and is playing professional football for the Vancouver Whitecaps and Canadian National Team.
Let’s take a look at this incredible talent – at just 16 years of age, he’s already a full 1m 81cm (5ft11.5 / 6ft, depending on who you ask) and is a left winger, born in Ghana to Liberian parents but raised in Canada since he was 5.
What stands out for me with Alphonso is that he’s very confident on the ball and won’t be shied by the fact he’s 5, 10 years younger than his opponents – instead he will use this to his advantage and often think “hey, I’ve got nothing to lose” and just go for it. Which is something you don’t see enough these days.
Incredibly, as well, he’s got a strong defensive contribution to his game as he’s constantly tracking back, refusing to give up on any cause until it is well and truly lost and even then he’ll just give it twice the effort for the next time.
I honestly can’t help but look at this man and constantly be in awe of what he does because for all his faults and obviously he has faults – he’s 16 for god’s sake.
As a youngster he’s going to need nurturing and developing and a particular area of improvement could be with his first touch as oftentimes he’ll snatch at the ball and lay it off a bit heavy, giving the opposition that extra half-second to grab the ball.
With 34 professional appearances already under his belt, Davies is not short on experience and if he keeps up this type of progress, he’ll have near enough 150 appearances by the time he’s even turned 20.
Not necessarily guaranteed to get plenty of minutes at the Gold Cup, his time might be limited but his potential certainly isn’t.
Matt Miazga // U.S.A // 21 // Centre Back
A shock $5million signing for Chelsea back in January 2016, Miazga went on to prove his quality to a certain extent during this season whilst on loan at Vitesse in the Eredivisie this season with 29 appearances.
Strong and physical in his playing style, Miazga uses his 6ft 4in stature to boss around attackers, imposing himself on their backs whilst being careful not to cross the line and commit cynical, unnecessary fouls.
That physicality is one of his strongest assets and enables him to take the ball off the opposition with ease – resulting in an impressive 1.2 interceptions and an off-the-scale 5.1 clearances per the game- also a sign of his no-nonsense style.
With that being said, whilst he does stay clear of those unnecessary fouls his enthusiasm can get the better of himself at times and it’s fair to say he’s got quite a hot head – not hot feet but a hot head and is quick to react to potentially fiery situations.
A strong suit of his is his ability to maintain close-contact with the man he’s meant to mark, refusing to let them out of his sight and always staying one turn, one yard ahead of the attackers in order to defuse potential moves before they’ve even occurred.
In addition to that despite his tendency to hoof the ball from play when he does actually take the time to get the ball on the ground and pass it around, he does it with sublime quality – a near on 84% success rate from an average of 39.5 passes per game (not high for a defender, but comparatively average).
Another player yet to really break in to the national team, Miazga has represented his country 17 times at Under-20 level but just 2 times at full senior level. With another loan move on the horizon, Miazga will hope to impress in order to secure the highest level of play possible for next season.
Ismael Diaz // Panama // 20 // Winger
Ismael Diaz is one of the most highly rated talents in the Porto B team – the secondary team to Portuguese giants Porto. Having played for the Panamanian club, Tauro F.C. since the age of 15 he attracted scouts from all across the Europe – the likes of PSV Eindhoven included – before he was snapped up by Porto in 2015.
Right footed but playing on the left wing, Diaz is surprisingly agile whilst standing at 6ft and weighing in at 78kg but he’s able to shimmy either way with the ball as well as whip out a couple of tricks in order to bomb down the line or cut in onto his stronger foot.
Equipped with phenomenal pace, too, and thanks to a strong weak foot (if that makes any sense), is capable of firing in strong crosses to place goal scoring opportunities on a plate for his team-mates.
Since joining his current team Diaz has made 55 appearances with 15 goals to his name with an extra 10 assists on top of that – a creative talent that’s full of energy. And although he’s yet to break into the first team for Porto, he has helped the reserves to the 2015/16 Segunda Liga (2nd division on the Portuguese League Pyramid).
Weakness wise we’re probably looking at a couple of areas – free kick accuracy is one of them where he tends to favour power over precision which as we all know, more than often, results in a high blazing shot.
An additional area is his tendency for flair which is undoubtedly mainly a positive but when it doesn’t pay off it can result in quite a sulky player, getting a bit downbeat and taking himself out of the game – but equally, if it pays off, sometimes he can almost just stand and admire what he’s done, putting him out of possession for the next play.
With a good reaction time, Diaz is quick to adapt to situational play and is the sort of player to really go in hard for a 50/50 ball and uses all his intelligence in order to assess play and attempt to make the pass or dribble in the best interest of the team.
Panama can go into this tournament with high expectations – having finished 3rd last time around – and Ismael Diaz can have high expectations for his future too.
Gino van Kessel // Curacao // 24 // Striker
Ah yes now we come to the “(relatively) young” player on this list because I was trying to give as broad a spectrum of players as possible representing as many nations as possible and, for me, Gino van Kessel is Curacao’s main player to watch.
Despite being just 24 years of age, van Kessel has played for 6 clubs across 4 countries in the space of 4 years and is currently on the books of Slavia Prague but spent the second half of the season with Lechia Gdansk in Poland.
Always prolific wherever he goes, van Kessel scored 10 goals in 25 appearances for Trencin in his first spell before grabbing a further 23 from 47 in his second spell between 2015 and 2016. This hot streak has continued onto the international scene with 7 goals from 11 games for Curacao since his debut in 2015.
Valued in excess of £1million by his club, the Dutch-born striker is another inexplicably fast player – probably the fastest on this list – with the type of head-down-and-run style that only goes to frustrate defenders time and time again.
Another key strength is his heading accuracy whereby he provides a constant threat within the penalty box – especially from corners – thanks to his busy style of play and powerful legs leading to a high, floating jump from which he can get both power and precision to his header.
Unfortunately for van Kessel he has come in for some serious criticism this season with fans of both Prague and Gdansk slamming the Curacaoan for being “lazy as ****” and yes, that is a direct quote from one of the fan forums I was looking at whilst doing my research.
Evidently then we may have found out why he doesn’t stick around at any club for particularly long and it’s a real, real shame because when he’s on fire he could burn a house down – “he’s at his best when he’s angry” is another quote I found online.
Do you know what, I do hope he gets his act together because he’s genuinely a really exciting player to watch and he’s an odds-on starter for the national team at this upcoming Gold Cup so frankly, I want him to do well!
Jordan Morris // U.S.A // 22 // Striker
The first college player to get called up into the United States’ senior squad since Chris Albright in 1999, Jordan Morris made his international debut in 2014 whilst at Stanford and has since gone on to make 15 appearances but yielding a mere 2 goals.
Picked up by Seattle Sounders, Morris has had trials for big European clubs such as Werder Bremen but has decided to commit his future within America for the foreseeable future.
It’s clear to see why he’s attracted some interest, with 14 goals from 41 MLS games with a type of attacking aggression that is purely a delight to watch – a player that is constantly driven by that lure of a goal.
Technically gifted with the ball at his feet, Morris has a calm and composed head on his shoulders and shows maturity beyond his years on the pitch. He’s sensible enough to deploy little tricks to his significant benefit – for example, the simple enough curved run instead of just a straight path in order to buy himself an extra half a second to make up his mind. I was always told to do this when I played football and maybe if I did it a bit better I’d be at the Gold Cup instead of Mr Morris.
Predominantly right-footed Morris is able to score with either foot, really, and is a very efficient finisher from outside the box but is your typical poacher within the 18 yards and in all honesty is just going to put the ball away with ease if you give him even an inch of space.
This season has been a bit slow for him, however, with a rather poor return of 2 goals from 16 MLS games but he looks to be finding some level of form heading into the CONCACF Gold Cup and will be looking to find his scoring boots in time to leave a lasting impression.
Orbelin Pineda // Mexico // 21 // Central Midfield
8 down and just 2 to go as we hit a double header of Mexican talent and first up we have the 21 year old central-midfielder Orbelin Pineda who has already played for two of the biggest domestic clubs in Mexico – 59 games for Queretaro and 32 games, thus far, for his current club Guadalajara.
Diminutive in his frame, Orbelin is just 5ft 6 in height and 64kg in weight and yet he certainly throws the full extent of that weight around the pitch and is, like Ronald Matarrita, an incredibly well-rounded player wherever he’s placed in the squad.
A strong defensive contributor thanks to his high work rates both going forward and tracking back, Pineda is impressive with his jockeying (I still maintain that’s an underappreciated skill) to force his opposing number into hesitating with the ball before utilising his strong standing tackle to take the ball.
From that he can stem the attacks with intrinsic vision combined with fluidity in both feet. A lovely short passer capable of playing it simple he also has a superb through ball, where he’ll just sit up, lean back a bit and stroke the ball through into the oncoming attacker – keep an eye out for it.
He wouldn’t be Mexican without a penchant for dribbling, would he? And he has more than a penchant for dribbling, let me tell you now. If he gets the ball and he thinks he can run with it then he will run with it and just take on any man he sees. It’s that sort of confidence that he exudes and uses as his 12th man.
If I had to ascribe him a weakness it would be his strength which is, to be honest, a distinct weakness because he is 5ft 6 and only weighs 64 kilos. I’m not joking when I say that a strong gust of wind could knock him over.
Nonetheless Guadalajara have valued him at about £8million and he’s attracting vast, vast interest from across the world – Spain, for obvious reasons, looks like the most likely option for Orbelin to go to and it’s not beyond his wildest dreams for that move to come about shortly. Personally, I suspect his big move will come in about 2 years’ time and this Gold Cup is a stepping stone on his way to much, much, greater things.
Rodolfo Pizarro // Mexico // 23 // Attacking Midfielder
The final player and our second Mexican player who, like Orbelin Pineda above, also plays for Guadalajara. Pizarro, however, is a relative newbie to the Guadalajara setup having made his name for Pachuca where he made 150 appearances over the span of 5 seasons.
In those 150 games, Pizarro scored 10 goals and yet thanks to his newfound role of attacking midfielder within his new club he has hit 6 goals in his first 16 games and simply put, he is loving this increased licence for creativity that he’s been given, he’s thriving.
His main strength is stamina which is unworldly, akin to a marathon runner he is real box-to-box runner who will at times appear to be a headless chicken but always manages to produce some sort of quality end result. And because of that he has found himself as a valued member of his club where he plays an average of 86 minutes per league game.
Further to that he possesses an impeccable creative vision for which he can be applauded with the way in which he makes things seem almost effortless – just a sort of “did you just see me do that? And what?”. He’s a real maverick and will often just do the complete opposite of what you expect, he won’t play a simple square ball and instead he’ll ping a 40-yard diagonal across the field.
Another highly valued player by the Guadalajara chiefs, they signed him for $15million and have tied him down to a “long term” contract for which they’ll be hoping to get the most bang for their buck. Inevitably, it seems he will move away from Mexico at some point – if he continues to improve at this rate – but he won’t go cheap and the club will probably double their money on him
He’s only played 6 international games for Mexico but with the majority of “major” talent for the nation having been picked for the Confederations Cup, it looks as though this could be a Golden opportunity for Pizarro to shine and stake a case, actually, that he should be a part of those major tournaments going forward.
I think as well that if he continues in such fashion within the Liga MX he will simply kick the door down and force his way into the first XI because, let’s face it, if you’re good enough then you’re old enough. Pizarro is good enough, more than good enough. So it’s time he got his dues.
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