National Writer: Charles Boehm

Bajraktarevic, Luna turn heads for USMNT against Slovenia

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Saturday’s 1-0 friendly loss to Slovenia at San Antonio’s Toyota Field served up a hard lesson for a young US men’s national team with seven debutants in its starting XI.

An ill-timed 26th-minute turnover by Bernard Kamungo allowed their visitors to catch them out on the break for the game’s only goal, with Danijel Šturm playing in Nejc Gradišar on an expertly-executed transition sequence that allowed Slovenia to sit back in a defensive posture and safeguard their lead for the rest of the way at this compact venue some 11 miles northeast of The Alamo.

Yet those are often the experiences necessary for individuals to advance at the international level. In that respect, this opportunity for player evaluation at the conclusion of January camp fulfilled its desired purpose in the bigger scheme of things.

Who stood out?

“The whole camp was about the collective,” head coach Gregg Berhalter told the media during his postgame press conference. “It was about, how do you take a group of guys that have never played together and try to put them together and get them organized enough that they can represent themselves on a field in a proper way? And I think that was accomplished.

“When I look at individual performances, I'd say that the fullbacks [DeJuan Jones and Shaq Moore] had good days, especially getting into attack, starting promising attacks. Esmir came in and made a difference,” he continued. “I thought Diego Luna was aggressive all game. The midfield, I think got into it more in the second half and ended up doing a good job … it was just about speed of play in the first half; the defensive transition moment that we had that gave up the goal wasn't great. But overall, I'd say everyone had decent performances.”

Bajraktarevic & Luna make the grade

That would be Esmir Bajraktarevic, the New England Revolution academy product who was a main topic of Berhalter’s pregame media availability. He demonstrated why during his half-hour cameo off the bench, showing skill and composure on the ball and creating several of the USMNT’s most dangerous scoring chances from his station along the Yanks’ right channel.

“He’s got some unbelievable individual ability,” Berhalter told the TNT postgame show in regards to Bajraktarevic, whose first touch of the day was a cheeky nutmeg of his marker along the sideline after replacing Kamungo – who shook off his early mistake to get on the end of perhaps the best US chance of the first half – in the 61st minute.

At 18, Bajraktarevic is the youngest player in this month’s group, while Luna, 20, is the third-youngest, and seemed similarly inspired in his 77 minutes of bustling, probing work as an inverted winger down the left flank.

Both helped the Yanks create enough good looks that the US tabulated an expected goals number about double that of Slovenia, even if the finishing touch repeatedly went wanting. Both looked comfortable beyond their years, considering it was their senior international debut.

“Both have a lot of individual quality, both have the ability to combine, to dribble, take players one-v-one,” said Berhalter of the duo. “If you think about it, in world soccer right now it's very difficult to find one-v-one players, so it's nice when you see that type of quality. What we do as coaches is encourage that. All week we've asked them to take players on and be aggressive, combining and getting in the penalty box. So, happy with their performance.

“Long term, we hope these are players that continue to progress, continue to make their mark at their club teams and perform at a high level. And then hopefully it leads to more appearances with the senior national team.”

Olympic-worthy performances?

A fast track into the USMNT’s core group of established regulars, most of whom are playing on massive stages at European clubs, might be a long shot for Bajraktarevic and Luna, especially during such a busy year for the program with matches of consequence looming in Concacaf Nations League and Copa América.

But they and several of their age-eligible colleagues seized this moment in a way that can only help their prospects of contributing to the primarily Under-23 squad that will compete at the Olympics in France this summer.

Among them were Aidan Morris, the all-action box-to-box central midfielder so instrumental in the Columbus Crew’s 2023 MLS Cup championship, and Jack McGlynn, the Philadelphia Union homegrown who played four key passes in just 29 minutes vs. Slovenia.

“Specifically with the Olympic guys, we knew they were playing senior internationals and we wanted to give them that experience and also see how they would do,” said Berhalter, who avoided making ironclad statements about the timing of the selection process for the Olympic squad, while noting U-23s coach Marko Mitrovic’s decisions about his three overage players for that tournament will hinge on how much playing time potential selections rack up for club and country between now and late July.

“When you look at guys like Esmir and Diego, they certainly came in and show that they have a lot of individual ability, but they're also hard-working, they also play for the team. So some really good talent there,” he added. “When Jack McGlynn came in, I thought he had some good passing range; Aidan defensively I thought was excellent, breaking up a lot of plays. So all in all, for them to experience what it is like to play at full senior level is valuable, and I think it's going to help them as they move forward with the Olympic group.”