In October, Lynden Gooch earned his first call-up to the United States men's national team. The move made sense. The 20-year-old from Santa Cruz had started seven of the first eight games for David Moyes' Sunderland side, acquitting himself well both in attack and defense. Given his early-season Premier League success, handing the undersized midfielder his debut in the red, white, and blue (which came as a substitute in a 1-1 draw against New Zealand on Oct. 11) wasn't a stretch, especially when considering that he possesses the single trait that U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann seems to value above all others: speed.
Gooch is fast. Very fast. In September, Opta data ranked him as the second-quickest player in the PL, reaching 21.87 mph in open play, just .07 mph behind first-place Shane Long of Southampton and well ahead of more famous speedsters like Chelsea's Eden Hazard, Liverpool's Sadio Mane or Leicester City's Jamie Vardy. Gooch's pace wasn't the only quality that drew Klinsmann's eye, but it was certainly a factor.
The desire to have burners on the U.S. roster isn't new. Speed would be the first line on the resume of recent call-ups including DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Morris (who runs a 4.5-second 40-yard dash) and Josh Gatt; pace also figures into what Klinsmann found attractive in youngsters like Gyasi Zardes and Julian Green. Those five players -- especially Yedlin, Morris and Gatt -- likely got their first chance to impress the coach and his staff specifically because of how fast they are.
Yedlin, Morris, and Green are part of the 26-man roster Klinsmann called in for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Mexico and Costa Rica (Gatt and Zardes are recovering from injury) while burners including Gooch, Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson, and Alejandro Bedoya will also figure into the mix.
Consider what Berti Vogts, Klinsmann's strategist-in-chief, said last year. "We have to look for better players. We have to give the team a little bit more quality. And when you play internationals, you need speed. Without speed, you have no chance to win international-level matches. No way."
This focus started before the 2014 World Cup and continued in Brazil, where the Americans had two of the fastest 15 players in Johnson (eighth) and Bedoya (15th) when ranked by top speed. That doesn't include Yedlin (36th, immediately behind Neymar and Jordi Alba) and, surprisingly, Jermaine Jones (45th), who both figured in the top 50. Clearly Klinsmann and his staff are placing a premium on bringing faster players into the mix with regularity. That strategy is in line with the general trend, according to Ritesh Gogineni, editor of tactics blog The False 9.
"From the late 2000s, pace has arguably grown to be one of the most important attributes for a soccer player," he told ESPN FC. Think about the superstars of the sport -- the Gareth Bales or the Cristiano Ronaldos -- who succeed at least in part because of their otherworldly athleticism and point-A-to-point-B speed. While the American players might lack their technical ability, Klinsmann is attempting to cover that deficiency with sheer speed.
Pace can mitigate mistakes: Taylor Twellman pointed this out during a recent broadcast when he noted that we still don't totally know how good a one-on-one defender Yedlin is because he's quick enough to recover from errors in positioning. Marvell Wynne, one of the fastest defenders in Major League Soccer, told ESPN FC that sometimes his coaches would tell him to "cheat a little bit" with his positioning, knowing that he could get back in time to make a play if the attacking team managed to bypass him. However, Wynne also said that there were points where he felt himself cheating even more and he got burnt. Relying on speed cuts both ways.
When it comes to international soccer in the modern world, speed is necessary but it's not sufficient. Klinsmann isn't wrong to prize pace but the Americans need more than simple speed, which is a more desirable attribute at club teams around the world. "The majority of national teams tend to sit back and don't tend to commit too many forward, meaning that pace is slightly less effective," Gogineni said. "Well structured and organized teams like Spain and Germany have had more success than teams full of pacy and flair players like Argentina."
Additionally, speed isn't as effective against teams that sit deep and try to counterattack, which is the type of opponent the Americans face in many CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers -- especially when they play at home. In the past few years, the Stars and Stripes have struggled to break through defenses that place eight, nine or even 10 men behind the ball; the fact that this strategy counters pace is one reason why.
So what should Klinsmann do?
The U.S. coach clearly isn't going to stop loving fast players. Nor should he. They have a growing place in the soccer world as the game becomes more physical each passing year. But the American teams of the near future need to be about more than running past the other team on the field. They need to play fast, yes, but also play together. That will make them more than the sum of their parts, a trait the American team has had in the past but seems to have lost just a bit in recent years.
"The combination of speed and tactical astuteness at times can cover up the lack of technical ability," Gogineni said. Or put another way by Wynne, "It's all about the relationships [between players]. It's more important to attack and defend in concert."
The MLS journeyman and former national teamer is right. In the end, a single player pressing, chasing the ball or making a break by himself accomplishes one thing, no matter how fast he is: nothing.