Brandan Craig: Philadelphia’s Rising Leader in Defense by Sebastian Ferro

Brandan Craig: Philadelphia’s Rising Leader in Defense by Sebastian Ferro

Image Rights: USYNT

Date of Birth: 07/04/2004 (19 years old)

Nationality: American

Club: Austin FC (on loan from Philadelphia Union)

Position: Centerback, Defensive Midfield

Height: 185cm (6 ft. 1in)

Weight: 76 kg (168 lbs)

Strong Foot: Right

Youth: Philadelphia Union II

Market Value: €200k (Transfermarkt)

Similar Players: Manuel Akanji, John Stones

Brandan Craig is a complete and powerful 19 year old central defender from the United States  and has excelled for the Philadelphia Union academy, Union II, in the United States. More than capable as a central defensive midfielder as well as part of the back line, he has stood out in the MLS Next Pro with the Union II as well as with the United States at the U15 and U20 level. Most recently he has put in strong performances with the United States at the U20 World Cup earlier this summer. Craig displays a maturity and calmness at the backline that is remarkable for his age which stands out as much as his technical and physical abilities. It is no wonder that even without many senior minutes, he has been heralded as the next great American defender. 

Player History

Brandan Andrew Craig was born on April 7th, 2004 in Philadelphia, which he still is proud to call home as he hails from the Morell suburb in the northeastern part of the city. Craig comes from a footballing family with both parents having played football for Temple University which is also located in Philadelphia. Scouted by the Philadelphia Union at a young age, he played several local club and youth teams before officially joining the Union Academy at the U-11 level. Since then he has flown through the academy and has now become a featured starter for the Union II, Philadelphia’s affiliate for MLS Next Pro in the American third division. Since making his debut for the Union II in 2020 he has made 36 appearances for them and was named captain. However, despite his success at the academy level, he has yet to embed himself with the Philadelphia Union despite consistently training with the first team since the 2022 season. His only appearance with the Philadelphia Union was a 3 minute substitute appearance last season in the 7-0 demolition of DC United. That may soon change because at the time of writing, Craig has just completed a loan move to fellow MLS competitor Austin FC until the end of the season where he will hopefully see regular first team action. At the international level, Craig made his debut with the United States at the U15 level, before consistently impressing with the U17s and U20s. With the U20s Craig starred for the United States, playing a vital part in winning the 2022 CONCACAF Gold Cup which allowed for the US to play in the 2023 U-20 World Cup. Craig was phenomenal in that tournament as well, leading a defense that kept 4 consecutive shutouts in a row including the round of 16 victory over New Zealand, a game in which Craig scored a beautiful free kick, before eventually losing to champions Uruguay in the quarterfinals. 

Playing Style

Brandan Craig is a right footed central defender that is also capable of playing as a central defensive midfielder. He most commonly features centrally in a three man defense but is capable of playing as a left or right defender in a back four. Nearly just as comfortable with the ball on his left foot than with his preferred right, Craig is an outstanding ball playing defender. He often initiates the attacking phase of the game from the back and can use his adept vision, technique and passing range in order to break multiple lines of defense. This also makes Craig an absolute force during offensive set pieces as he can whip in a free kick or deftly place the ball in the box. While not being the strongest in carrying the ball into the next phase of play, he is extremely calm under pressure and has the technique to retain possession when being pressed. When looking at his defensive attributes his strengths include winning his aerial duels and success winning interceptions. His height is not physically imposing and he has a lanky build, however his ability to anticipate and time his defensive actions outweigh any perceived physical limitations. He is still very early in his development yet his ability to circulate possession coupled with his defensive positioning and maturity make him a truly exciting prospect for the USMNT. If he is able to build on his physical abilities and improve on carrying the ball into the next phase of play, he could truly become an elite ball playing defender or central defensive midfielder in world football. 

Game Footage

Here Craig identifies the GK is under pressure and signals for the ball, then when under pressure himself plays a line breaking pass to initiate the counter.
After an uncomfortable through ball Craig manages to successfully track his runner and make the tackle.
Craig is the designated set piece taker for the USYNT as well as the Union II. Here a designed set piece straight out of the training ground gets Craig a deserved assist in the Youth CONCACAF Cup final.

Game notes

Game 1: Philadelphia Union II v Atlanta United II – MLS Next Pro (30-04-2023)

  • Featured as a RCB in a 4-2-3-1
  • Named a starter and played the full 90 minutes
  • Part of a defensive unit that played a very high line in possession, looked comfortable on and off the ball
  • Had a strong game distributing and progressing the ball, involved in essentially every build up and displayed an excellent passing range
  • Looked very comfortable with ball at his feet even under pressure
  • Very effective in generating counter attacks, immediately looked to create offensive opportunities after winning the ball 
  • Strong defensive positioning, did not tackle often but had high success in aerial duels and winning interceptions
  • Very vocal from the backline, commanded teammates in set piece situations and during build up play

Game 2: Philadelphia Union vs DC United – MLS (8-7-2022)

  • Featured as a CDM in a 4-3-1-2
  • Came on as a substitute in 88’, replacing midfielder Leon Flach
  • Completed all three passess attempted and recycled possession well
  • Looked comfortable vocalizing with teammates despite it being his senior debut
  • Good defensive positioning and movement to receive ball despite short time on field

Game 3: USA U20 vs Dominican Republic U20 – CONCACAF U20 Championship (Final: 3-7-2022)

  • Featured as a LCB in a 4-3-3
  • Started and stayed on the pitch until 66’, replaced by CB Marcus Ferkranus
  • Completely dictated tempo, was at the start of all offensive build up from the back
  • High short pass completion, medium long distance passing successful as well
  • Looked dangerous on set pieces, got an assist off of a free kick
  • Was rarely pressed so looked extremely comfortable with ball at his feet, had time to pick the pass
  • Did not have many defensive actions but looked comfortable marking and tracking runners, mixed results regarding aerial duels
  • Vocal at the back and communicated well with teammates, did not get carded, kept a clean sheet

Game 4: USA U20 vs Honduras U20 – CONCACAF U20 Championship (Quarterfinal 1-7-2022)

  • Featured as a LCB in a 4-3-3
  • Named a starter and played the full 90 minutes
  • Broad display of passes, accurately built out from the back with short passes as well as connected with some quality through balls
  • Did very well when pressed, passing range and on ball quality meant that he was never flustered by the opponent
  • Had more work to do defensively and composed himself well, won nearly all his aerial duels and timed his interceptions well
  • Excellent on set pieces, created several dangerous opportunities including one that was converted into a goal
  • Vocal at the back, communicated well with teammates, kept a clean sheet, did however receive a yellow for speaking back to the referee

What’s Next?

As with every exciting prospect the transfer rumors have begun to swirl around Brandan Craig, especially after his exceptional performances in the U20 World Cup. However, what is most important for Craig at this time is to successfully integrate himself into the first team and prove he has the ability to perform as a regular starter in the MLS. Regardless of the international perception on the talent level in the MLS, assertinging himself as a high profile defender against full grown adults before turning 20 years old will go a long way into prolonging his development. In that sense I’m excited to see his performances on loan as there is a more clear path for regular minutes with Austin FC than with the Union. Looking farther ahead towards next season the Philadelphia Union and head coach Jim Curtin play a style of football that suits his skillset. There are some high profile regular starters for the Union ahead of him in the depth chart however being able to break through with that group should help to serve as a positive learning opportunity. His performances at the international youth level show that he is clearly ahead of his peers but he needs to transition his skillset against athletes of a more advanced physical profile. With that being said, Brandan Craig has the talent and ability to one day excel at the highest level of football for both club and country and it is clear from first glance. With his ball control, passing range and ever improving defensive actions, do not be surprised when he is the vocal leader of the American back line offense in the years to come.

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