The United States Men’s National Team played to a 0-0 stalemate against Wales on Thursday with a youthful squad composed of almost entirely non-MLS players.
The United States looked like what I expected for a team at this point in Gregg Berhalter’s cycle with the roster he called and the amount of time he had with the squad. That is to say, the Americans played an exciting brand of possession-based football with intense pressing against an inferior side, but lacked the sharpness or personnel to be effective in the final third.
There was an immense amount of hype heading into this game, given the USA hasn’t played in 10 months, and that many of the highly touted prospects from the pool were given opportunities to shine. And for the most part, the team was exciting to watch! The online hype machine can make evaluating this team a tricky task, but I would lean toward this display being a positive step for Berhalter and his team’s development. There’s a case to be made that the USA hasn’t trended upwards since the middle of the 2014 World Cup cycle, so… progress.
I don’t have an exactly organized singular take from the performance beyond what I’ve already noted, so here are three interesting discussions that delve into the pressure points for this iteration of the team.
Who improved or solidified their standing? Who didn’t?
A classic winners/losers discussion. I thought Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams showed why they are world class players for Juventus and RB Leipzig, respectively. Their positioning was impeccable, their distribution and combination play were superb, and by and large, they controlled the midfield in both directions. I think they should be treated as locks in the lineup for any competitive match, barring fitness/rotation. Yunus Musah also impressed – he was strong in the press and excellent in transition. I think Musah was shoehorned into a position slightly different from his role at Valencia. In Wednesday’s match he maybe wasn’t creative enough given that McKennie and Adams are closer to an 8 and a 6, but he showed more than enough to warrant future looks in the squad.
Both center backs, Matt Miazga and John Brooks, acquitted themselves well. Berhalter’s center backs need to be extremely comfortable playing out of the back and Brooks in particular offered some great line-breaking passes to get the offense in gear. Serginho Dest also showed his dynamism going forward, and he is pretty clearly the best attacking fullback in the pool.
Antonee Robinson on the other hand, produced more of a mixed bag. He gave the ball away in transition a couple times and was less of a threat on the left wing than Dest. I think of anyone on the field, he probably made Berhalter question what he has on the depth chart the most. Left back is clearly the federation’s weakest spot, and maybe Robinson is dynamic enough to hold down the spot, but Sam Vines clearly warrants a look. Maybe Berhalter plays a right back out of position — either Sergio Dest or the solid DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon.
Konrad de la Fuente and Gio Reyna were fine. Both kids clearly know how to play in a pressing system and displayed good positional awareness. That being said, the final product was lacking, and Konrad in particular wasted a golden chance in the first half. I think both players can feature in this cycle, but the other options in the pool are more reliable and productive.
How close is this lineup to an ideal starting XI? Which MLS Players should get consideration?
Or, an interesting segue to the fact this lineup sorely lacked a true No. 9. The USA looked rather toothless for all their ball domination, but there’s a formidable attack lurking here with a true striker to aim at in the box or to run in transition.
Sebastian Llletget is a player I really like, and I would love to see him in the 10 spot underneath a real striker, but as the false nine, the space he created with his runs wasn’t all that valuable. The USA’s best bet is the well-tread Jozy Altidore, and even on a night like tonight, Gyasi Zardes would have been effective. Daryl Dike has turned enough heads with Orlando City and plays with a brand of physicality that should translate well in CONCACAF. Josh Sargent and Tim Weah are options, but probably not starters.
As mentioned above, the wingers didn’t impress, and Christian Pulisic is an automatic starter on the wing. I think Jordan Morris should be the first choice for the other spot and then it’s exciting to imagine a team capable of steamrolling just about anyone in transition with Adams and McKennie behind them.
Brooks has cemented his spot as the first choice center back and Miazga is close. I am intrigued by Chris Richards, but there are always the reliable Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman available. With the outside backs, Dest is a must-start on either side. As mentioned above, either Cannon or Yedlin could play the other wing, or maybe we see another name like Vines. Berhalter could always return to the banished Timothy Chandler or Jorge Villafana.
In goal, Pennsylvania native Zack Steffen is the clear No. 1, but I have a feeling we’ll get to enjoy the spectacle of Brad Guzan starting an away CONCACAF qualifier because of his ‘leadership qualities,’ as is tradition.
Perhaps the most interesting choice is what to do with the last midfield spot, which should be someone creative. Lletget could work here (and is my best bet), but I could see Pulisic moving inside with a different winger out wide. Musah did enough to warrant a shout at a look with a traditional striker in front of him. I think this also is where we could see Paxton Pomykal or a certain Union player to be discussed momentarily. And if Berhalter could ever convince Darlington Nagbe to reconsider his self-imposed ‘retirement’ from international soccer, he could unleash either Adams or McKennie in a different role.
How do any of the current Union players factor into the squad?
I’m namely talking about Brenden Aaronson, Mark McKenzie and Alejandro Bedoya. Although to get it out of the way once … why not give Matt Real a look at left back?! He would be an extremely aggressive supersub to chase a game.
Given what we saw from the center backs against Wales, I’m convinced McKenzie checks all the boxes already. He is physical and an excellent distributor, and the type of player who would thrive next to Brooks. He has an outside shot of making a squad, but whenever he gets minutes I believe he can play his way into a role.
Aaronson is probably the most exciting player in the pool we haven’t seen get real minutes yet. As has been the knock on him by many, he probably doesn’t find the ball enough to be an elite No. 10 yet, but this is something he certainly can develop at Salzburg. Matt Doyle of MLSSoccer.com, however, has floated the possibility of him playing as a wide playmaker, which is a role I can see him fulfilling well, especially if the USA focuses on hunting transition chances. With Pulisic inside, I wouldn’t mind an Aaronson-Altidore-Morris front three at all, but it might be too soon for Aaronson to step into a large role.
Bedoya is on the opposite end of the spectrum and given how young this squad is, maybe his time is up. I don’t think so because the unsaid X-factor for the USMNT is how in the past, despite whatever talks there were of catching up to the ‘global game,’ they turned games into rock fights against the biggest opponents in the biggest games. Berhalter seems more likely than any manager to get away from this given his loyalty to his system, but I’m skeptical. This is why Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore probably still have a spot in the squad. And Bedoya is an unquestioned warrior with defensive discipline and enough positional savvy and vision to be counted on in crucial moments. Maybe I’m wrong, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all three (current) Union players feature for the Stars and Stripes over the course of the cycle.
That last paragraph sums up my last talking point for the night. The USA looked good with the ball and were exciting going forward. Berhalter’s identity is crucial in my opinion, because at the national team level, too many teams are cobbled together and expected to fit great talent into suboptimal organization. The United States, until proven otherwise, are on the other end of the spectrum where the sum must be greater than the parts. That’s where Berhalter faces a conundrum, because his system banks on this team being better at possession football than their opponents. In a World Cup, it assuredly will not go like that. Is Berhalter justified in evolving the identity of his team when it won’t look that way at the level many fans want to see the USA succeed at? Can the USA have its cake and eat it too?
The answer is probably no, not yet, but I think the federation and the collective psyche of the fanbase is tired of the old school grit associated with the team in lieu of talent. And while Berhalter is building a ‘system’ he is an astute tactician who can employ flexible styles. It was a bit disappointing we didn’t get to see this side in an altered game state, whether that would have been chasing or protecting a lead, but we will soon enough. The hype train might cool off by the time 2022 rolls around, but Berhalter is growing this side incrementally and Wednesday’s performance shows that the kids are, in fact, alright.