You didn’t really need proof Kellyn Acosta is a midfielder. All you needed was ocular consistency. Acosta’s been a 6/8 hybrid for FC Dallas and Oscar Pareja since the jump, a luxury he has yet to receive with any consistency for the national team.
Acosta has loudly been trotted out as a fullback in brief stints with Jurgen Klinsmann on the full team, notably in a recent World Cup qualifier against St. Vincent & the Grenadines in which he started at left back. This has been his national MO for years, stretching back to his U17 days and most recently his time wearing the captain’s armband for the 2015 U20 World Cup.
Acosta was an outside back in the latter tournament and didn’t look particularly comfortable in that pocket of space dealing with careening wingers pinching inside. In the U.S.’s triumphant 1-0 win against Colombia in the first knockout round – a marvel of American defending, really – Acosta was sent off late for a petulant challenge in the box after being beaten. There was a theme in that.
Acosta won his way into full national team performances on the back of his steady presence as a leader with the YNT, but mostly off his rocketing club form. And all of that? In the midfield.
FC Dallas scattered the visiting New England Revolution into a million points of light on Tuesday night in a 4-2 drubbing in the final of the U.S. Open Cup. The attack will get all the plaudits, which is a fine thing. Mauro Diaz was, as he often is, the best player on the field and dropped through balls on Maxi Urruti like Jiro Ono drops sushi on unsuspecting customers. It’s never quite as good as you expect until it hits your palate.
The engine purring without hitches behind the scenes belonged to Acosta. Here’s what his day looked like from a distributive angle.
That box is Acosta’s pocket, his sweet spot, and he was tremendously active against a side trying to clog this area with a blizzard of technically inclined central midfielders. Forget about formations on paper for a moment and think about the human side of soccer. Players always, inevitably float toward their comfort zones. That box in the middle is Acosta’s, where he prefers to do the majority of his work. It will be this way until he retires.
None of his mistakes – and there were mistakes, as you might expect of a 21-year-old in his first cup final against a team trying to ram open his channel – were catastrophic, and his defensive acumen was on display. Also notice: no natural gravitation to the outside. In either direction.
This in particular is what you get when you drop Acosta into the middle, where he’s most comfortable. This goal killed the game, and Acosta positively mugged Scott Caldwell to start the action (at the very beginning of the clip).
You understand why Klinsmann’s done what he’s done with Acosta, at least in some respects. It makes less sense in the prism of his YNT experience, but there is logic here. The USMNT is fullback deficient, and the easiest way for a ball-winning, agile, technical player to find playing time is at outside back. This same thing happened with young Josh Kimmich at Bayern Munich, where he was often dropped into a fullback role last year in lieu of his more natural position in the defensive midfield. It was not ideal, but fitting in your available players and not necessarily your ideal ones never is.
And yet you can also see the imperfection in it. This sets up in interminable feedback loop where Acosta is exposed at an uncomfortable position at the USMNT level, falls back in the pecking order and is called on increasingly less because he was exposed at an uncomfortable position.
If Klinsmann is so wedded to his central midfield positions that Acosta’s chance there is DOA, then we have a problem. Michael Bradley’s captaincy and veteran know-how may protect him from demotion, but he’s frankly been a shell of himself on the national team level since the 2014 World Cup and his spot should be jeopardized to light a fire in him. For the handful of laudable things Jermaine Jones does going forward, he’s a tire fire defensively and in between injuries is more reckless than ever. The fact that he’s in a nominal 10 role at the club level now magnified all those cringy defensive habits he’s had for years and broadcast them above every other noise. Kyle Beckerman is a sentient 150-year-old dreadlock. And Alejandro Bedoya is a human energizer bunny, moving more often than not without incisive purpose.
There’s no question Acosta has a more difficult trajectory at central midfield, but that’s the story everywhere, in every national team. If the excuse in the coming years is that he’s needed more at fullback, then expect mild disappointment and a string of moderate successes tempered with just as many setbacks.
Kellyn Acosta is a midfielder. Play him like one.