As their most recent squad announcement for this month’s matches against Wales and Panama showed, the United States men’s national team has some exciting individual talents coming through. With an average age of 21 years, 10 months, the likes of Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna will take the headlines, but a team is not made of glamour alone and the good news is that a midfielder from Brazil is also emerging who can set the stage for the more attacking players to succeed.
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Joao Lucas de Souza Cardoso was born in Denville, New Jersey, where his Brazilian parents ran a porcelain business. When their son was only 3 months old, they went back home to Criciuma in the south of Brazil, though Joao Lucas was never allowed to forget his North American roots. When he showed promise at football, he was nicknamed “Johnny.”
Now 19-year-old Johnny Cardoso has become the first player in 24 years to earn a call-up to the U.S. while playing for a club outside North America or Europe. (Cobi Jones last did it, during the 1996 CONCACAF Gold Cup while playing for Vasco da Gama.) A year ago, Cardoso was named to the roster for the United States U23 team for the first time for a camp in Miami and now he’s in the big leagues.
Much of the credit for this recognition has to go to Eduardo Coudet, his club coach at Internacional, in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. An Argentine, Coudet is in his first year in charge of the club and when he took over he was eager to have a look at the products of Inter’s much-praised youth ranks. The youngster who caught his eye was Cardoso — not one of the players the local media had considered among the most likely future stars, but now the attraction is clear.
Coudet was a midfielder with a top-level career that was solid rather than stunning. He had a few games with Celta Vigo in Spain, but his best football was played in Argentina with Rosario Central and River Plate, before he ended his playing days in Mexico and then with Philadelphia Union and the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. He was not exceptionally quick or skillful, he had no outstanding talents, but he understood the game and could make a midfield tick by doing the simple things at the right time. Clearly, Coudet saw some of those qualities in Cardoso.
Johnny Cardoso has been called up to the U.S. men’s national team for the first time. Ricardo Duarte/Internacional
Cardoso has been with Inter since 2014. He began as an attacking midfielder and then played with some success as a striker, but on his way through the youth ranks he was transformed into a deep-lying midfielder precisely because of his ability to understand what to do and when to do it. Coudet, then, saw a player who was not blessed with excess pace but was quick on the turn, quick to make the pass, quick to move into position to receive. Cardoso is strong enough to take care of himself in a crowded midfield and he can keep the ball moving, which keeps his team ticking over.
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September was his best month so far and he started a number of big games for Inter. Coudet uses his defensive midfielder almost as a third center back, and though Carsoso has had some experience in this role, most of his appearances have come higher up the field, where Coudet values the calm maturity of his play. Cardoso has taken just a few months to go from being just one more of the club’s youth products to a star of the future.
After an injury spell, he is being eased back into contention, and started Wednesday night’s 2-1 win against Atletico Goianiense in the Copa do Brasil. There is plenty of competition for places in the Inter midfield, and he is unlikely to start many games when the team is at full strength, but the club is fighting on three fronts: Inter is top of the league and still alive in both the Copa Libertadores and the domestic cup. The matches are coming thick and fast, and there will be chances for fringe players.
The hope is, for club and country, that Cardoso can grow into something much more than a fringe player.