NASHVILLE — Before this year, Wil Trapp had made two appearances for the U.S. national soccer team, totaling 43 minutes in low-grade winter friendlies.
On Friday, the 25-year-old Ohio native not only started but captained the Americans against a star-tinged Brazilian squad in East Rutherford, N.J. The opposing captain? Global superstar Neymar.
As the U.S. program rebuilds in the aftermath of the World Cup qualifying failure, new characters are emerging and leaders are finding their voice. With a young wave of players provided opportunity, Trapp has seized a prominent role as both a starter in defensive midfield and captain in all five of the matches he has played.
He might wear the captain’s armband again Tuesday against Mexico at Nissan Stadium, the second of six high-end tests over 2 1/2 months.
“Captains are sometimes super-veteran guys or the best player or most influential player,” said Dave Sarachan, the U.S. interim coach since November. “As I’ve gotten to know Wil, he has a natural, mature approach to the game and to the people around him.”
Besides filling key positions at the start of a new World Cup cycle, Sarachan is looking for leaders. Michael Bradley, the longtime captain, is on the downside of his international career. So is Tim Howard. Clint Dempsey has retired.
Trapp, who captains MLS’s Columbus Crew, and Tyler Adams, a 19-year-old midfielder from the New York Red Bulls, have stepped to the forefront. There will be times, Sarachan said, when Adams or one of the veterans lead the squad. But since the winter training camp, he added, “Wil has been my guy.”
Trapp is from the Columbus area and played two years at the University of Akron before signing a homegrown contract with the Crew. He is in his sixth MLS season.
After debuting with the senior national team in 2015 and returning for one game in 2016, Trapp figured into Sarachan’s reconstruction plans early this year at camp in Southern California. “It came quickly,” Sarachan said, “that Wil offered all the qualities of a captain.”
Said Trapp: “You get selected to play for the national team. Then you get selected to play in the game. But then walking the team out as the captain is another feeling because we are America stepping onto the field in our given sport. And I’ve been chosen to lead this group; there is a lot of weight to it.”
Trapp, Sarachan added, is a blend of Bradley and former U.S. midfielder Chris Armas, now the Red Bulls’ head coach, combining Bradley’s seriousness and maturity beyond his years and Armas’s ability to relate with players young and old. All three have played the same deep-lying central position.
Despite his low number of international games, Trapp said he has gained comfort in guiding a squad that includes holdovers, such as DeAndre Yedlin, Bobby Wood and John Brooks.
“It’s a new group and we’re all moving in the same direction,” he said. “We quickly got over that hurdle — if there was any awkward tension — because we just want to win games and we want guys to support each other.”
Trapp said he was a shy figure in his youth career but, on an Akron team in which then-coach Caleb Porter handed large responsibility to his defensive midfielders, he embraced a greater leadership role. He’s in his second season as Columbus’s captain.
“He’s becoming much more comfortable with who he is and what type of leader he is and what it takes to lead,” Crew Coach Gregg Berhalter told MLSsoccer.com this summer. “It’s not that he was uncomfortable before, but now it’s more natural. As he gets older, he’s understanding how to motivate different people and how to talk to people in a different way.”
Leadership means representing a team off the field, as well. While in the New York area, the U.S. squad visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and met first responders who also play for the police and fire department soccer teams.
On behalf of the national team, Trapp addressed the group.
“Being there, conversing with them, it was a heavy situation,” he said. “Knowing we were going to play [Mexico] on the anniversary, it’s a great responsibility and a culminating effect of what it means to represent the country, what it means to be an American and why we love our country so much.”