Adam Belz on the young generation that provides the USA with more 'lottery tickets' than ever

Adam Belz  is the agriculture reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune by day and the mastermind behind the Podcast and Twitter account Scuffed by night. A lifelong player and student of the game — and a journalist since college — Belz began his youth national team coverage after Christian Pulisic  burst onto the scene in early 2017. Belz started with a newsletter that focused on up-and-comers of national team pedigree in Europe, MLS, and beyond. In 2017, he made “all touches” videos of Jonathan Gonzalez, Weston McKennie, and other prominent youth players to complement the newsletter. He moved into podcasting in April 2018. Belz and his guests provide some of the most insightful U.S. youth national team coverage in the country, as well as delving into in-depth senior side analysis, too.

SOCCER AMERICA: What’s your elevator pitch for you podcast, Scuffed?

ADAM BELZ: I like to say that it's low-fi, but high-brow. If you're obsessed with the men's national team, you should probably be listening to it, because we get into greater depths in the young player pool than just about anybody else, and we marry that with pretty strong analysis of the senior men's national team as well.

SA: Let’s dive into the senior side stuff, and then the U-20 World Cup. What did you think of the U.S. Men’s 3-0 friendly loss to Venezuela?

ADAM BELZ: I didn't get to watch it until late, because I was driving. I saw all of the negative feedback on Twitter and was expecting it to be worse than it was, to be honest. I thought we gave up three cheap goals, and otherwise we probably had the better chances.

We don't have an inspiring player pool. That's the bottom line. The system seems pretty complicated for the players who are limited.

The thing that I was thinking about today, with that game in mind and the U-20 World Cup in mind, is how we structure our midfield as a nation. How much do we prioritize toughness, ball-winning, and transition moments in our midfield, and what are we looking for in a six?

Are we looking for a six who's pretty static and just passes the ball around? Or do we want somebody who can dominate? You can tell by the way I framed the question I think we need ball-winners. Wil Trapp is not that.

SA: What do you think of Gregg Berhalter’s system? You mentioned before it looked pretty complicated ...

ADAM BELZ: I've been intrigued by it since Berhalter took over, but it’s getting less intriguing to me by the day. What it's predicated on is Wil Trapp or Michael Bradley at the 6. We have to see it with the first-choice lineup that Berhalter can field from this Gold Cup roster before I'm ready to say, 'forget it.'

But you look out a couple years: Tyler Adams is a very good six at one of the best Bundesliga clubs right now. We've got good fullbacks at the U-20 level. Sergino Dest and Julian Araujo — who didn't get to play at the U-20 World Cup but is an excellent player.

We've got good left backs coming out too. Chris Gloster, who was excellent at the U-20 World Cup, has a good chance of becoming a full national team left back. Even further down the road we have some exciting young left backs, like Kobe Hernandez Foster, who’s a special player, and George Bello, who's been blooded by Atlanta's first team.

I don't think we need to do all of this [tactical] stuff just so we can have a slow, quote-unquote distributor at the six.

SA: Let’s say the USA beats Guyana, T&T, and Panama and win its Gold Cup group. Advances to the quarters and most likely plays Jamaica or Honduras. Advance to the semis and play a team we’ve already beaten, or most likely Jamaica or Honduras. Say the USA gets to the final. Does our metric of success for the Gold Cup depend on beating Mexico and winning the whole thing?

ADAM BELZ: I don't expect us to beat Mexico. They're so far ahead of us in our current state. That can't be the benchmark. I think getting to the final is important. If we lost to Mexico, fine. If we beat Mexico, even better. I would say not getting to the final would be a pretty disappointing outcome.

SA: Let’s move onto your bread and butter: the U-20 World Cup. How would you recap of the team’s performance in Poland?

ADAM BELZ: It's the most talented collection of players in the age group that we've had. You can see that we could play with anybody. With a couple of different lineup decisions against Ecuador, and a little bit of a better performance from a couple of players, we'd be in the semifinals and then there would be no doubt that this is the best U-20 side ever.

It's the same mathematical outcome, but if you watch the game we lost to Venezuela [a 2-1 loss in the 2017 quarterfinal] and if you watch this game where we lost to Ecuador [2-1 in the quarterfinal], they're not even close to the same thing. We're so much better at soccer now. This team was so much better than the team in 2017. It's not even close.

SA: How do you rate the U-20 World Cup as a litmus test for international and pro careers?

ADAM BELZ: You've got to be cautious. The 2017 U-20 World Cup is the one I've paid closest attention to besides this one. And I think if you look at that team, it was pretty easy to see that Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent, and Cameron Carter-Vickers and Eric Palmer-Brown were the standouts. It's hard to project, but I don’t think it's impossible.

I would say two things are positive: the weakness of the player pool in the senior team bodes well for this U-20 World Cup team just because there's such a drop-off in talent. Can we say with any certainty that any one or two or three will be a national team impact player? Probably not.

But the quality up and down the roster is so much higher, and there's so much quality off the roster, too. Somewhat famously now, James Sands and Brenden Aaronson were left off of this roster by Tab Ramos. There are going to be other young players who emerge too. It's kind of like the lottery tickets concept. We have more lottery tickets than we've ever had. Some of them are going to hit, especially because as we've seen over the last couple days, our national team pool is very shallow.

SA: Whose stock rose the most at the U-20 World Cup?

ADAM BELZ: Chris Richards' stock probably rose the most. He was so reliable. He recognizes danger so quickly, and reacts so quickly, and he has the athleticism and the calm to execute his decisions.

SA: Do you think the third tier of the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich II is where he should be playing?

ADAM BELZ: I sure would like to see him play higher up. It's hard for me to say definitely that he should be playing for Bayern II. It does worry me a little bit. It's not a path to professional first-team minutes that seems to work for a lot of people. Ideally, he goes on loan to a second Bundesliga team.

SA: Other players whose stocks rose?

ADAM BELZ: Both fullbacks, Chris Gloster and Sergino Dest, were outstanding. Dest struggled a little bit in the start of the tournament. Gloster struggled a little bit in the first half against Ecuador. Comfortable on the ball, comfortable defending one vs. one. Tough, fast. Dest is more comfortable going forward.

SA: Do you think Dest can make Ajax's first team this season? Right now, he's with the U-21s.

ADAM BELZ: I certainly hope so, if not, I hope he gets loaned out to a good team. He played a lot of games, particularly in the second half of the season for Young Ajax. Young Ajax are so much better than the teams it plays against that they often dominate games. He struggled a little bit against Ukraine, the first goal was kind of his fault. But he was dominant against France and did really good against Ecuador too.

SA: What did you think about the midfield?

ADAM BELZ: In the middle of the field, everyone’s stock kind of held, except for Chris Durkin, who's stock probably dropped a bit. There was talk about a Bayer Leverkusen loan a couple months ago but D.C. United turned that down. I wonder how much D.C. United are regretting it. Durkin is a great kid and he works his butt off, but he's just not mobile enough at this level to play the six.

I would argue that had Brandon Servania had started that game vs. Ecuador, we wouldn’t have conceded that first goal. I'm not sure Durkin's quality on the ball, which has always been his big selling point, is at a high enough level to compensate for his defensive shortcomings. He's just not super quick. That's what it comes down to.

SA: How about Alex Mendez? He’s one of the most touted players of this squad. Some say he’s a guy for the future, some say he’s too much of a defensive liability. How do you see him fitting in with the senior team in the future?

ADAM BELZ: He's a tough one. We knew he doesn't bring defensive bite. On the other hand, he is magic on the ball. Nobody — even Richie Ledezma, who I love, doesn't see the passes Mendez sees or hits the ball like Mendez does — can play like Mendez can. We can't afford to give up on a player like Mendez as a soccer nation at the age of 18 because he doesn't defend well enough.

I'm still optimistic about him. If he could get 30% tougher and more alert on defense, and he's in a position where his strengths are emphasized, and his weaknesses protected, that would work really well against Concacaf opponents in World Cup qualifying. If he develops as a player then it could work against even better opponents.

When he gets on the ball, he's going to put butts in seats, he's going to get on SportsCenter, as long as he can iron out a few little things on defense.

SA: What about Ulysses Llanez?

ADAM BELZ: I've been saying for 18 months that he's a more dangerous winger than [Barcelona academy player] Konrad De La Fuente. They're both very young, but right now, at least in short bursts, he's even more dangerous than Tim Weah.

I love watching him play, I have all kinds of optimism for his career. He's a true winger, he's two-footed, and so much quality oozes out of him when he's playing an early ball. He can score, he can cross the ball beautifully. He has things to iron out in his game but I thought his stock rose.

SA: Let’s talk about Josh Sargent. How much of a snub do you think it was this summer that he wasn’t picked for the senior team or the U-20 team? Wasn’t the whole reason he wasn’t on the U-20 team was so that he could play in the Gold Cup?

ADAM BELZ: I know a lot of people are outraged about that, but I wanted to see Sebastian Soto [pictured above] in this tournament. I thought Sargent had already been down the U-20 route. But it does seem a little bit of a mess-up.

SA: What prompted you start the podcast after you already had a newsletter going?

ADAM BELZ: The newsletter had subscribers in the mid-triple digits. It drew the attention from [Total Soccer Showhost] Daryl Grove. He was a great encouragement to me. In late November of 2017 I started a Twitter account, and three to four months later started the podcast. I thought, 'it’s time to turn the page.' I could be in on this new era that I still feel is coming.

SA: Tell me about this new era.

ADAM BELZ: We have a Development Academy that's been in place [about a decade]. Kids who are 99's, 00's, and 01's are the first group of American soccer players who have come up entirely in this professional academy environment. U.S. Soccer got rid of the Bradenton residency program.

I feel like the quality of players the U.S. is producing is better. You look at Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. Last year we had three, 20-year-old players who are not just on the books of good clubs in Europe, but are actual contributors for three of the bigger clubs in Germany. That's unprecedented. The last time we had multiple 20-year-olds who were major contributors to the national team was Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley in 2001 and they were both playing in MLS at the time. It's a categorically different thing in my mind.

And then we've got a ton of lottery tickets out there in Europe right now. Some of them are going to hit, whether it's Mendez, Ledezma, or [Chris] Richards, or Gio Reyna, or Sergino Dest. Surely a handful of those will make an impact on the national team.

Also, we're coming from a position of being so bad. We didn't make the World Cup, but also the missing generation of the mid-90s birth years and the weakness of those is a real thing. The new era, with a deeper and better player pool, is coming right out of that.

SA: Back to how you started you podcast ...

ADAM BELZ: If I wanted to reach a larger audience and find a way to get some financial reward out of it, it made more sense to do a podcast. I tried it out with Dillon Payne and I figured out that I could do it. I wanted my friend Greg Velasquez to do it with me too because he's very sharp. I took the plunge to pay for a hosting service and getting it up on iTunes and stuff like that in April of 2018. It's been really fun.

The overhead is very low. I pay $12 a month for hosting, I use standard-issue GarageBand for software, I use a $30 program that records Skype calls, and I have to put $5 in my Skype account every month or so, but that's only for international calls to cell phones. It's really low investment in terms of money, but a huge investment in terms of time, obviously.

I'd say at least 20 hours a week. Because you've gotta watch the games! That's the thing that Total Soccer Show does really well, and when we're at our best, that's what we do well: we watch the games closely and then try to find something interesting to say about the action on the field, whether that's assessing a young player or a national team game.

If you take an academic approach to watching a game, you can get more out of it than if you're just angrily noticing a giveaway here or there.

Access the Scuffed Podcast HERE

3 comments about "Adam Belz on the young generation that provides the USA with more 'lottery tickets' than ever".
  1. Mike Beaudry, June 14, 2019 at 3:23 p.m.

    Great takes! I have high hopes for Fuemtes, Dest, Sargent n others. Really enjoyeed your takes.
    ome more thimg I wou;d love to see both Sargent m Soto develop into world calss stfrikersm  Mendez and Ledeszma do the same. It will be very interesting wh0 develops further Fuentes or Llanes n Dest n Araujo, meice delimma to have m Richards, n Dloster could be special alomng with Bello. I think the future is very bright!

  2. Kevin Leahy, June 14, 2019 at 7:19 p.m.

    I thought his insight on the senior team was right on the mark not, to mention the younger players.

  3. beautiful game, June 15, 2019 at 7:34 p.m.

    Very informative interview of Mr. Belz who has a v.g. perception of player quality

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