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United States Men's National Team: Ranking the Top Five Defensive Midfielders

Defensive midfield has suddenly become a strength for the United States Men's National Team, and we're going to rank the top five in the position.

One of the team's leaders and captains plays in midfield right in front of the back line, and a couple of talents have emerged as either starters or transfer targets for European clubs in top leagues.

Plus, there are a few MLS standouts competing for spots, particularly some intriguing young talents on some of the league's best teams.

We'll be evaluating players based on the key defensive midfielder stats - tackles won, interceptions, ball recoveries, passing accuracy and range, and other factors that show how they impact a team - while considering the responsibilities they have with their club and how it compares to what USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter asks of his defensive midfielders.

All stats are broken down into per-90 minute rates unless otherwise noted. The likes of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Gio Reyna, Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio and other similar players will not be on this list, as they'll be ranked in another article for central midfielders.

5. Lennard Maloney

Club: Heidenheim (Bundesliga - Germany)
Key Stats: 5.2 ball recoveries, 1.7 tackles won, 1.0 interception, 3.5 clearances, 60.4 percent tackles won, 74.1 pass accuracy, 2.3 passes into attacking third

Lennard Maloney is an old-school defensive midfielder for Heidenheim in Germany. He sits right in front of their back line and almost acts as an addition center back for the Bundesliga team that held the smallest amount of possession (42.5 percent) per game in 2023/24.

Maloney's 3.5 clearances per game and 2.6 aerial duels won per game each rank in the top two percent of Bundesliga midfielders, and his low pass accuracy of 74.1 percent shows his club's lack of focus on holding onto the ball.

The style his club uses doesn't square well with that of the USMNT under Berhalter, but Maloney is versatile and can play the useful roles of either shutting down an opponent's playmaker or helping the team see out a game from a winning position.

4. James Sands

Club: New York City FC (MLS - United States)
Key Stats: 2.6 tackles won, 7.1 ball recoveries, 1.6 interceptions, 75 percent tackles won, 1.7 clearances, 5.5 passes into attacking third, 85.6 percent pass accuracy, 66.2 percent long pass accuracy

New York City FC defensive midfielder - and part-time center back - James Sands keeps things simple and picks his spots. That approach has gotten him a loan to Rangers FC in Scotland, a lucrative contract upon returning to NYCFC, and 13 USMNT caps.

Sands usually sits right in front of the NYCFC back line, and he mops up anything that comes his way as he wins 75 percent of his tackles and makes 7.1 ball recoveries per match. Plus, he's a deceptively good long passer as he completes 66.2 percent of passes over 30 yards on five such attempts per game.

Sands turns 24 this summer, and the numbers show he has a positive impact on his team. Its average scoring margin improves by 0.43 goals per 90 minutes when he is on the field.

3. Aidan Morris

Club: Columbus Crew (MLS - United States)
Key Stats: 8.1 ball recoveries, 3.0 tackles won, 1.4 interceptions, 92 percent pass accuracy, 2.9 shot-creating actions, 66 percent tackles won, 8.3 passes into attacking third

By virtue of playing ahead of three center backs, 22-year-old Columbus Crew defensive midfielder Aidan Morris shows up better in the attacking stats for his position.

Morris was ever-present for Columbus amid their MLS Cup-winning 2023 season, and he's a key piece for them yet again this season thanks to his defensive instincts and progressive passing. He also has two goals and one assist this season after posting four goals and three assists in 2023.

The team's scoring margin improves by an average of 0.82 goals per 90 minutes when Morris, who has five USMNT caps, plays. No surprise Middlesbrough FC want to bring him to the English Championship.

2. Johnny Cardoso

Club: Real Betis (La Liga - Spain)
Key Stats: 2.0 tackles won, 2.2 interceptions, 6.2 ball recoveries, 2.1 clearances, 60.4 percent tackles won, 84.2 pass accuracy, 2.8 passes into attacking third

At age 22, Johnny Cardoso moved from Internacional in Brazil to Spain's Real Betis, and he hit the ground running.

In his first half-season at the club, Cardoso started 15 of his 17 appearances and ranked in the top 15 percent among La Liga midfielders in tackles won per game, interceptions per game, clearances per game and aerial duels won per game.

Cardoso has a decent passing range and Betis' scoring margin improved by 0.54 goals per 90 minutes with him on the field compared to when he doesn't play.

1. Tyler Adams

Club: Bournemouth (Premier League - England)
Key Stats: 2.3 tackles won, 3.1 interceptions, 5.4 ball recoveries, 1.5 clearances, 75 percent tackles won, 83.1 percent pass accuracy, 6.9 passes into attacking third

Tyler Adams had an injury-laden season in 2023/24, playing just 121 Premier League minutes due to various ailments including a hamstring injury. So, the listed stats are from a very small sample size but aren't too far off from his career averages in those categories.

Adams might be the most important USMNT player and he tends to share the captain's armband with Christian Pulisic. The 25-year-old defensive midfielder's calmness, positioning and strength in duels make him an indispensable part of the team.

While there is more competition for his place than he may be used to, Adams has continued to thrive at the No. 6 position when he's on the field. He is deservedly one of the first names on the team sheet when available, and for his own career and the USMNT's fortunes, fans will hope he stays healthy for the foreseeable future.

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