Costa Rica's a good team, and fans of the US men’s national team should be glad the US played them on Wednesday night. They should be especially glad because not only did the US win, throttling the Ticos en route to a 4-0 final which was not as close as the scoreline indicated, but that they did so while getting to see a double handful of guys who are mostly back-ups get serious minutes.
That is good. That is what friendlies are for -- to build familiarity and winning habits. I think friendlies are particularly useful when they involve stuffing a regional rival into a locker. That is a commendable winning habit.
But the intensity level was unmistakably set to "friendly." If you watched the Nations League semifinal vs. Honduras, let alone the final vs. Mexico, you know that there was a massive gulf in intensity between either of those games and this one. The blur of action and heart-on-your-sleeve urgency you see in any game with stakes? Even one in a made-up tournament that nobody really cared much about until this month? You just can’t replicate that in a friendly.
That, however, is not the only thing worth replicating. So let’s start there:
1) The Qualifying Cadence
US head coach Gregg Berhalter was explicit about the reason for tacking this friendly onto the back end of the Nations League final four: he wanted to mimic the new World Cup qualifying cadence, one in which the US have multiple three-game windows.
Past FIFA international dates have only been two games. Thanks to the global pandemic that has had to change, as the field for the final round of qualifying has been expanded -- the old Hexagonal is now an Octagonal. At the same time, while the field’s expanded the calendar has shrunk. There is simply less time to get these games in, and that’s how you get three-game international dates.
That, more or less, is the sole reason this friendly existed.
The players got it. Even if they couldn’t replicate the intensity level of the Nations League games this was not a stroll in the park. To bring it back to the lede: winning is a habit, and the things you do in order to win are good habits to build.
"I want to win all three of these games, because in qualifying that means nine points and it puts you in a very good position," Tyler Adams told USsoccer.com, and that’s basically it right there. Build good habits, do so within the structure of what World Cup qualifying is going to feel like in terms of the travel and time between games, and collect points.
Let’s hope it translates in September.
2) Back to Building With the Ball
A theme that Berhalter has repeatedly stressed throughout his two-and-a-half years in charge is that he wants the US to become comfortable and eventually deadly at beating good teams by using possession to pull them apart. On an immediate level he means this particular group of players, but on a longer timeline he’s talking about adjusting the culture of the game here.
Obviously, as we saw against Mexico, Berhalter’s not about to throw everything else away. On Sunday night the US beat El Tri by getting out in transition and slaughtering them on set pieces, which has been the American Way for a long time.
It is good and smart to be able to go back to that style of play when the opponent and/or situation calls for it. You could see it in the lineup Berhalter put out that night -- a two-man central midfield with Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta is going to do a lot of things right, but they are not going to dominate the ball. Conceding that off the bat set the terms for the engagement.
Refusing to concede that set the terms for Wednesday night’s engagement. The US gobbled up 65 percent possession and strung together multiple back-to-front passing sequences that were both pretty and effective:
This was, in a lot of ways, very reminiscent of the Honduras game. The big difference was that this time, the US finished their early chances.
This is also The Tyler Adams Effect. Adams is a good but not overly gifted passer of the ball, and is prone to sloppy turnovers himself (the first noteworthy thing that happened in the game was Tim Ream bailing Adams out after a bad giveaway 90 seconds in), but whatever little bit he takes off the table there, he puts back onto it with his defensive presence.
The US as a whole are simply much more confident in possession when Adams is on the field at the 6. They know he is going to clean up the vast majority of messes, and so they are more willing to drive forward and play confident, unencumbered soccer. They took the type of risks with the ball that they are often unwilling to if Adams isn’t out there.
He is the most important player in the pool right now. Only John Brooks is in the same neighborhood.
3) The New Normal
The first US goal was scored by a 20-year-old, the second by a 21-year-old, the third by a 22-year-old and the fourth by an 18-year-old. Those first three guys -- Brenden Aaronson, Daryl Dike and Reggie Cannon -- are all back-ups.
There was also the return of 18-year-old Yunus Musah in central midfield -- nominally a back-up, but not for long I don’t think -- who adds a level of ball security and ball progression that is just lovely:
This type of play only rarely leads to a goal, but it solves problems for your team while causing problems for the opponents. Musah has done it on the regular in his minutes with the USMNT thus far, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t get more chances to show this in central midfield for Valencia next year.
What I’m saying is that if part of the cadence was getting the (mostly) first-choice guys up for meaningful games against the best Honduras and Mexico can offer, then the other part was getting the back-ups ready to perform against a Costa Rican side going through the exact same exercise the US were.
They almost uniformly hit their marks. And given their respective ages, that bodes well for damn near the rest of the decade.