A seven-day span has seen the US men’s national team defeat Honduras and Mexico to hoist the inaugural Concacaf Nations League trophy, then cap their current camp with Wednesday’s 4-0 defeat of Costa Rica at Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah.
It was a good week. And if you view it under the lens of a warm-up for the three-match international windows of World Cup qualifiers that lie ahead, it was perhaps even better.
“Playing for stakes, playing for a trophy was really important. But it was even more important to turn around today and have a good performance,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the win. “We set out a goal to get nine points in this week, and we did that. And I think it took a lot of mental fortitude, a lot of mental strength to get up to the intensity we needed to win this game today. So really proud of the guys. I think we made a step forward.”
Many observers would describe Wednesday’s young lineup as a B team, with squad rotations made to account for the physical and mental load undertaken at high altitude over the past two weeks. Even under the limitations of a friendly setting, their sparkling display gave the coaching staff plenty to ponder – starting with Brenden Aaronson and Daryl Dike, who scored the game’s first two goals and made life miserable for Los Ticos.
“We know Daryl is a handful, we purposely played direct from goal kicks to him to put the center backs under pressure; you saw his movement behind the line on the goal,” Berhalter said of Orlando City’s 21-year-old striker, suddenly a hot topic on the European transfer market thanks to his productive loan spell at Barnsley.
“Daryl got an opportunity tonight, and I think he did really well. The physical side of it was there, the movement in behind the backline was there. The only thing I would highlight is potentially the movement in the penalty box, really attacking crosses and getting on the end of crosses. But Daryl’s a young player, and he has a ton of room to grow, and we're going to be here and helping support him to get there.”
Dike was one of the final cuts from the Nations League roster, but remained with the squad and kept a sunny disposition along the way, building relationships with his teammates. While the Oklahoma native didn’t delve into too many specifics when asked about his approach to a summer that could feature multi-million-dollar bids for his services, he sounded eager to keep climbing the ladder he’s on.
“In terms of thinking about what's next, I kind of do what I've always done,” said Dike, whose goal was his first on the international stage. “Throughout college, throughout playing with Orlando, Barnsley, with the national team, I've always taken things step by step and let the things that might be out of my control and other things happen behind the scenes and work on what I control, whether that be training as hard as I can every day, and competing in matches.
“If you take two years ago or something like that, and told me I'd be able just to be in that position just to train with these guys – regardless of playing, I would have loved it. And that's kind of how I go back to things,” he continued, adding that he’d like to compete in next month’s Concacaf Gold Cup if selected.
Though a bit younger than Dike, Aaronson has already moved across the Atlantic and appears to be growing from strength to strength after his wintertime start at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Against Costa Rica he looked the same bustling, skillful dynamo Philadelphia Union fans fell in love with, full of both effort and guile.
“I've learned a ton over the past 11 months,” a 20-year-old Aaronson said postgame, noting how steep his trajectory has been since he first earned a spot in the Union’s lineup in 2019. “I've learned a ton with the coaching I've had and just playing the professional game … This is my second year now of playing professional. So it's been a crazy two years, I guess you can say.
“The way that we set up as a national team, we have direct directions and Gregg does a great job. Nico [Estevez], Anthony [Hudson], our assistant coaches, they do a great job of giving us this plan and executing it. So it really showed on the field and I think was really good tonight.”
Dike’s movement and physicality were key in the sequence capped by Aaronson’s goal, leaving the South Jersey product raving about the experience of playing alongside the big No. 9.
“I haven't played with Daryl that much, but all I can say is the guy's a beast,” said Aaronson. “He wins his duels when the ball’s up, and he has such a strong presence up there, and he's got an awesome personality. He's an amazing guy to be around. I mean, on the field, you could just see his qualities today. Not only can he hold the ball up, he can create chances for himself. So he's going to be someone in this national team for a while, and it was awesome playing along with him.”