No MLS player has played a bigger role on the U.S. national team across the 11 games it has played 2021 than Kellyn Acosta.
Acosta played the entire game against Mexico in the Concacaf Nations League final, starting out at the No. 6 position and later moving to left back in the overtime thriller. In Sunday's 1-0 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals, Acosta was one of the best U.S. players on the field.
“Kellyn was an absolute beast today, winning tackles, covering a ton of ground,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said afterwards.
Which is amazing, considering Berhalter cut Acosta halfway through his first camp on charge of the national team in January 2019.
Acosta started for the USA in some of its biggest games in 2017 -- the 1-1 tie with Mexico at Azteca Stadium in World Cup qualifying and the 2-1 win over Jamaica in the Gold Cup final -- but he was cast aside at the age of 23 without even getting a chance to show what he could do in a game when the USA opened the Berhalter era with friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.
Berhalter said the reasons for not keeping Acosta were simple: "We felt at the time that the other guys in this position were better suited to play the role than he was."
Tyler Adams is the USA's best No. 6, though Berhalter initially tried him out as a hybrid right back. Injuries have slowed the 22-year-old Adams down, limiting him to three starts in midfield during Berhalter's tenure, which now spans 33 games.
Players Berhalter initially preferred at the No. 6 position were World Cup 2010 and 2014 veteran Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp, who played for Berhalter as his captain with the Columbus Crew. Bradley hasn't played for the USA since the opening game of Concacaf Nations League group stage against Cuba in 2019, and Trapp hasn't played an international match since the game before that, a friendly against Uruguay in September 2019.
More recently, Jackson Yueill's stock at the No. 6 position rose, then dropped after he struggled in the Nations League semifinals against Honduras and 2021 Gold Cup opener against Haiti. Sporting KC teen Gianluca Busio earned his first two starts at the Gold Cup against Martinique and Canada but was regularly beaten in midfield challenges. The Sporting KC teen kept his starting job against Jamaica but moved into a more advanced role in midfield.
Cast off two and half years ago, Acosta has now become Berhalter's emergency solution at the No. 6 position.
“We challenged him before the game,” Berhalter said after the Jamaica game. “We said, ‘Listen, this is going to be a physical game, this is going to be a difficult game and we need you. We need you in the center of the field winning tackles, winning duels but also controlling the game with the ball.’ He’s done it before, so we were very comfortable that he would be able to do it again, and I thought he had a strong game.”
Acosta was traded from FC Dallas, where he started out in its academy program, to the Colorado Rapids in July 2018, but his comeback began a little more than a year later when Robin Fraser was hired as the struggling Rapids' new boss. Colorado finished fifth in the 2020 Western Conference standings and sits fourth as the halfway point to the 2021 MLS season approaches.
Acosta's break came when the national team organized a rare December camp at the end of the 2020 MLS season. He was called in and did well enough that he returned in January -- and has been part of every national team gathering in 2021, playing in all 11 games.
Acosta said in a media call before the Jamaica game that the work of Fraser and the Colorado coaching staff helped him learn to get into better positions on the field
"It's just really just hammering the little details," he said, "because that goes a long way."
Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes and Acosta are the only players on the USA's 2021 Gold Cup team who played in the 2017 Gold Cup final when the USA beat Jamaica, 2-1.
"To now be back in the fold is definitely huge for me and positive," said Acosta. "Each game and each tournament brings new challenges. It was special winning the Gold Cup back in 2017 with a different group of guys. And now I'm here at the 2021 Gold Cup, and I'm looking to collect some more silverware and I'm just glad to be back and contribute."
With the news that Yunus Musah is likely out 3-6 weeks with an injury suffered in a preseason game with Valencia, Acosta is all but assured of being called in for the three games that will kick off World Cup 2022 qualifying in early September. If healthy, Adams will be the likely starter at No. 6, but given the schedule -- three games in seven days -- Acosta will likely be needed to start one of the games.
"For me moving forward," added Acosta, "I want to be involved. Each game matters for me, and I'm a team player, so whatever I need to do to, whether it's on the field, off the field, is to help my teammates and coaching staff."