With Spain’s top two divisions in the midst of their short holiday break, YA takes a look into the up-and-down season for its small collection of Americans pursuing their careers on the Iberian peninsula.
The first half of the 2020-21 season for Americans in Spain’s top two divisions has been an exercise in high potential and bitter disappointment, with none of the five having straightforward paths to consistent minutes.
We’ll take a short deep-dive into the ups and downs for this collection of current and former USMNT players at the halfway point of their respective seasons.
Sergiño Dest at FC Barcelona
The 21 year-old defender began his season with the Blaugrana well enough, starting all but one of their first 12 games, but has fallen on hard times since the beginning of November. This is due to a mix of persistent injuries and potentially a change in coaching, but the result has been a total of two starts (one only lasting for 45 minutes) and a total of 139 minutes spread over three games during the last ten competitive fixtures for Barcelona.
Part of the issue is that Dest’s position within the Barca system has yet to be clearly defined, with him lining up at right back, left back, right wing and left midfield at various points in La Liga and Champions League this season. As an attacker, he has contributed three assists, and a few should-have-been-goals, although he has been a deadly-accurate passer. As a defender, he’s been proficient and without any major gaffes, although to be fair, his best contributions come as an attacking wingback.
His recent downturn in playing time has been discouraging, however the extent to which it is purely due to injury, as has been suggested by head coach Xavi, and how much is a result of him falling out of favor of the coach (which has been heavily rumored in the media since his arrival) is in question. Adding intrigue to the mix is an endless onslaught of transfer rumors suggesting interest from the likes of FC Bayern and Chelsea.
Through all of this, Barcelona has struggled mightily. They have won only seven of their 18 games, are currently in seventh place, and have regularly drawn or lost against teams that they should have brushed aside even on their worst day. Oh, and they missed the Champions League knockout round for the first time in nearly 20 years. Things have gone slightly better under Xavi than his predecessor, but he has still overseen a range of disappointments and distasters against the likes of Benfica, Real Betis, FC Bayern, Osasuna, and Sevilla. Outside of those, there have also been several near-misses.
What is clear is that Barcelona have a breakneck schedule in early-2022, with anywhere from six to eight games (dependent upon a pair of knockout competitions) between their first outing of the year on January 2, and their final before the international break three weeks later. Already by the time they visit Granada on January 8 for their third game in just under six days, it should be clear where Dest stands in the team, and whether the team plans to cash out on their still valuable commodity.
Yunus Musah at Valencia CF
For Valencia’s Yunus Musah, the first half of the Spanish season so far has been a tale of two competitions…three really, if World Cup Qualifiers are figured in.
In La Liga, he’s had little impact on his team’s fortunes, playing a grand total of 393 minutes over 14 appearances, two of them starts. He has zero goals or assists, a pair of yellow cards in his limited time, an acceptable overall pass completion rate of 78% (which rises to 80% in the four games where he’s logged roughly 75% of his playing time), but his overall involvement in the games is underwhelming.
In his two starts, against Athletic Bilbao and Cadiz, he totaled 81 touches, 45 attempted passes and one shot over 168 minutes of play. This is a player who is not getting involved in the run of play. Even more damning, there have been multiple instances where he was caught off-guard or ball-watching when opponents scored a critical late goal. This isn’t to say Musah was solely at fault for these goals, but he needed to do more.
Ultimately, the 19 year-old is a quality player and can play his way back into some kind of regular form for Valencia in La Liga, but it’s going to be tough with the team finally putting together a strong run that’s bringing them closer to the European qualification spots.
The other side of the coin is Musah’s strong play in Valencia’s two Copa del Rey outings, where he has scored twice and assisted once, while putting in a man-of-the-match performance in one of the two. Yes, these were against lower-league opposition, as will be their next game in the competition on January 5, however he’s used these opportunities well to stay in the eye of head coach José Bordalás. With any luck, the potential pair of Copa games will keep him fresh for the late-January international window for World Cup qualifying, where his strong play has made him a regular starter under Gregg Berhalter.
Matt Miazga at Deportivo Alavez
Matt Miazga is on yet another loan arranged by his parent club Chelsea, this time at struggling La Liga outfit Alaves, and has seen a once-promising situation turn sour.
The season started off well enough for the 26 year-old, racking up six starts in his first seven games after arriving in Spain, however he has played a total of 17 minutes in the following nine league games, albeit with the last three in isolation due to a Covid infection.
He wasn’t having particularly bad performances, and the team only gave up more than a single goal in two of his starts (the first two, to be exact). However they also only scored three goals in those first seven games, which could have played a role in dropping Miazga to the bench (after which admittedly their results did temporarily improve).
The season is long, the team has not won in La Liga since early-November, and as a result are staring down the barrel of relegation, so Miazga will get more chances. Those might come sooner, rather than later, as Alaves opted to cut ties with previous head coach Javier Calleja, and brought in new coach José Luis Mendilibar, in a desperate bid to save their season. Miazga has also returned to training after missing several weeks in isolation.
Even if teams generally have no long-term interest to invest in developing a loan-army player such as Miazga, a team in survive-at-all-costs mentality will put the players on the field that give them the best chance to earn points. The poor defensive record by Alaves (allowing 14 goals in their last six winless league games) will have the new coach looking long and hard at his defensive options.
In the end, it will likely be off to the next loan destination for Miazga after this season, but at least he can make the most of his final months in the Basque region.
Matthew Hoppe at RCD Mallorca
The Yanks-Abroad winner of the “last-second surprise transfer” award of the summer transfer window went to 20 year-old Matthew Hoppe, who made a deadline-day move from relegated German club Schalke to Spanish La Liga club Mallorca for a reported €3.5 million plus add-ons.
Let’s make this simple: Hoppe has hardly played. We’ll ignore his massive 16 minutes of time on the field for Schalke in the 2. Bundesliga days before his transfer, and focus on his…hm…89 minutes of playing time for Mallorca in two games after arriving in Spain.
Yes, there was an assist on Mallorca’s lone goal in a 6-1 loss to Real Madrid in his lone start in late-September, but he’s not seen the field since, with a reported leg injury having kept him off of the bench since early-November. Current noise in the Spanish-language media suggests that he is not due to return until late-January, and that the team is keen to move him to another team on-loan for the remainder of the season, with La Liga 2 and the 2. Bundesliga named as possible destinations.
For the sake of the player and his development, which is at a critical point, we can only hope that one of these rumors, or some other move will come to fruition.
Shaq Moore at CD Tenerife
Lastly, down in Spain’s second-tier La Liga 2, Shaq Moore has been forced to settle into an inconsistent role at right back for Tenerife after falling behind new arrival Jeremy Mellot. This comes after a largely successful 2020-21 season where he started in 37 of the team’s 42 league games, appearing in 41 total.
In comparison, through 21 league games in the current season, he has ten total appearances, with only half of those being starts (plus an additional two starts in their two Copa del Rey games), typically as cover for Mellot.
Similarly to Frosinone’s Andrija Novakovich in Italy’s second-tier, he has fallen down the pecking order on a team that is in the thick of the promotion hunt. Even if dropping down to second fiddle isn’t ideal from a player’s standpoint, reliable backups like this are important to a team pushing for promotion over a grueling 42-game schedule (which could add two more in the case of entering the promotion playoff), so it will likely be more of the same for Moore until next summer.