The United States Men’s National Team composed of MLS players blitzed El Salvador in an international friendly on Wednesday in Miami to come away with a comfortable 6-0 win.
Both Union stars Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie earned a start in Greg Berhalter’s squad and acquitted themselves well. Aaronson notched a goal and an assist while McKenzie helped secure a clean sheet while also scoring a goal that was wrongly called offside.
Orlando City FC winger Chris Mueller was the man of the match and finished with two goals and an assist in a dominant display. Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget and Ayo Akinola rounded out the scoresheet for the Americans on a dominant night against an El Salvador team experimenting with tactics and missing key players due to visa issues.
The positive result reflected well on everyone involved for the USA, but the scoreline should not mislead fans into believing that this is a juggernaut team. They took advantage of an extremely high line in the first half and struggled to put even more past El Salvador in the second. The ruthless display accurately reflected the strengths of the players involved and showcased how Berhalter’s system can attack weakly organized sides.
I’ll try to answer the same questions I did after the United States’ 0-0 draw with Wales, when the squad was non-MLS based (except for Lletget).
Who improved or solidified their standing? Who didn’t?
As I said earlier, pretty much everyone involved looked good, which is how it should have been, but a few players definitely outperformed expectations. It’s probably easier to start with those who didn’t help themselves.
Sorry, Bill Hamid, He did his job and made one good save, but I don’t think he inched his way toward the top two on the depth chart. And then sorry to Daryl Dike. He probably could have put a few away in this game but we’ll have to wait for a look at him.
As for the stock risers, the best displays in my opinion were from Mueller and Jackson Yueill. Mueller is a winger who makes dangerous runs in the channels all day long and he was the prime benefactor of El Salvador’s high line. In my mind, he could fill the Jordan Morris role of a physical winger who makes life miserable for an outside back with about 75% of Morris’ physicality but maybe 10% better finishing. I didn’t realize he could be that before today.
As for Yueill, he basically cleaned up the central midfield by himself and launched pinpoint diagonals whenever he needed to. His midfield partners were Aaronson and Lletget, so it’s not like he had a ton of defensive help. He’s used to running like a madman under Matias Almeyda for the Quakes, and is coming close to being a better peak Michael Bradley than Bradley was. I think he’ll still be behind Adams and McKennie but I feel much better about what would happen to the team if either of those players were unavailable.
The other biggest riser for me was Sam Vines. He had a nice chemistry with Mueller and played the right ball more often than not. He’s known for his defensive ability but we didn’t really see it tested. He’ll see continued looks and because of the depth of the position, he probably made the biggest move from the B-squad today to a potential starting role.
Everyone else pretty much performed to expectations, and that was good news for Aaronson and McKenzie – more on them later. It was also good news for Arriola, who has always been a winger that makes things happen, but went through a tough year at D.C. United while recovering from an ACL tear.
Lletget also did well to reinforce that he is an extremely useful player in the final third for whichever team he is on, just as an attacking midfielder making runs in behind, and NOT as a false nine coming short to make space. I think we thankfully won’t see that again.
How close is this lineup to an ideal starting XI?
Well, when we answered this question with the squad who faced off against Wales and Panama, the answer was: pretty close, sans Pulisic, Morris, a number nine and a left back. I think the friendly in Miami made me feel much better about the depth because most of who we saw could push for spots in the best XI even if they won’t crack it. That’s a great sign for Berhalter and the pool as a whole.
Akinola played well as a number nine, and checks the boxes of a physical forward who can make runs in behind, tousle with center backs, and ultimately, clean up in the box. I still think he’ll have to take the job away from Altidore and Zardes, but then he, Dike, Tim Weah, Josh Sargeant and Gioacchini are right there. It’s a large list, though and he’s young, so he’ll need to continue his growth.
As mentioned, Vines played well and definitely leapfrogged Antonee Robinson on the left back depth chart, in my opinion. It’s tough to make that call now, and I think Berhalter’s ultimate move may be to play two left backs because of how talented Sergino Dest is.
Lletget is probably the closest to the ideal lineup out of anyone on the night as the theoretical central attacking midfielder in front of Adams and McKennie. Yunus Musah played very well in the last camp, however, so it could be more of a call based on the opponent.
Mueller and Arriola are clearly depth pieces, but good to have nonetheless as wingers behind Pulisic and Morris. I think they’re more capable options than Konrad de la Fuente at this point, and possibly Gio Reyna, depending on how much Berhalter wants to press.
Julian Araujo is someone I haven’t mentioned yet, because he could still ultimately end up on the Mexico team. The fact that he was there on Friday was a great sign for Berhlater and he is clearly a talented right back who can seamlessly join the attack. The issue for Araujo is that Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon, and even DeAndre Yedlin are likely to be ahead of him. How patient will he be?
Aaron Long is fine and I was surprised to see him start over Walker Zimmerman. Pretty much anyone is a passable CB next to John Brooks, and since neither Tim Ream nor Matt Miazga have sealed their role, it could have been someone from today.
How do Aaronson and McKenzie factor into the squad?
Both Union players were strong on the night. Aaronson in particular is someone who I was really excited to see, and he didn’t disappoint. He was lethal in transition, particularly on Akinola’s goal (which could have been his), excellent in advancing the ball into the final third (evidenced on his assist to Lletget), and strong as usual in his energetic pressing. That being said, this was a game and an opponent tailor-made for his style of play. If Morris, a No. 9, Pulisic, Adams and McKennie are all on the field (and they should be), Aaronson has to be the No. 10. He can do that but I think Lletget and Musah are a tad more useful at this point in the cycle and his career.
Aaronson’s opportunity depends on how much the USA are playing in transition and how cagey their opponents are going to be. More transition is better for Aaronson because he thrives in space, but too much physicality in a counterattacking game is bad for him. Musah is a tad more box-to-box, and Lletget forces scoring chances himself and finishes them at a high rate. Aaronson is one-two years away from dominating in a No. 10 role, because he doesn’t find the ball enough to break down really well-organized teams. It helps that Adams/McKennie would be behind him, but it hurts him that the likely starting No. 9 will play more like a bruiser in the biggest matches. My pipe dream is still alive of Aaronson, Morris and Pulisic absolutely obliterating teams in transition, but it’s probably not the best option yet.
McKenzie, to me, could start right now at center back next to John Brooks and it could be the best pairing the USA has. He’s that good at everything, including his distribution which is key in Berhalter’s system. He just needs the reps to make it work. Will he be the starting CB in the 2022 World Cup? Probably not, and experience is the limiting factor. He’ll get closer to that role with every strong performance he continues to turn in in high-profile matches.
On the whole, two six-goal outputs for the USMNT is never a bad sign, and Panama and El Salvador are capable of competing in the final rounds of World Cup Qualification, even if it’s not the iterations they trotted out this past month. 2020 was truly a bright year for fans and there should be cautious optimism as the team has plenty of opportunities to keep growing before the Octagon tests what the federation has learned since the failure of 2018.