Just like that, the US men’s national team's marathon 2021 is over.
The final act for head coach Gregg Berhalter’s team was a 1-0 friendly win over Bosnia and Herzegovina Saturday night at Dignity Health Sports Park, home of the LA Galaxy, courtesy of a late Cole Bassett winner.
That gave the USMNT a record-setting 17th win in a calendar year (17-2-3 overall record), vaulting them forward with the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup only 11 months away and more qualifiers looming.
Here are three takeaways from another W for the Yanks, where 14 of the 17 players utilized compete in MLS.
Jordan Morris isn’t back to his 2020 MLS Best XI form, but there were glimpses against Bosnia and Herzegovina that his ahead-of-schedule recovery from a torn ACL is progressing quite well.
Morris, about 10 months removed from suffering a major knee injury while on loan at Swansea City, returned to the USMNT lineup for the first time in over two years. His last cap before Saturday? A Concacaf Nations League match against Cuba in November 2019.
He played 78 minutes before making way for San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell’s international debut, latching onto a clear chance in the 31st minute when his header was saved by the Bosnian 'keeper.
Building blocks, slowly but surely, are piling up.
“What you see with Jordan is the speed, the ability to get behind the opponent's backline,” Berhalter said. “We were pleasantly surprised with him in camp. I think our expectations were that he wasn't going to be as fit as he was. You see he's trying to work off that rust and he's doing a great job.”
This comes after he joined the Seattle Sounders for their stretch run and 13th straight Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance, continuing to accumulate minutes while chasing a return to his old self for the 2022 campaign.
Given his prolonged absence from the national team, both injury-induced and a byproduct of the COVID-19 pandemic halting international competition during its onset, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago Morris was almost indispensable under Berhalter. Saturday’s game marked cap No. 40 for him, and his direct play can prove especially dangerous in transition.
It may be too soon for Morris to feature prominently in the upcoming January and February World Cup qualifiers, though the March window is within reason. Morris would have to perform with Seattle at a high enough level to displace Berhalter’s other preferred wingers, and that’s no easy task considering how those like Christian Pulisic, Timothy Weah and Brenden Aaronson can produce. Other options include Paul Arriola and Konrad de la Fuente, while Gio Reyna can feature out wide as well.
But should it be counted out entirely? Perhaps not, especially with depth needed and if Morris keeps proving that his second ACL tear is firmly in the rearview mirror.
“The thing about Jordan is he's got a fantastic mindset,” Berhalter said. “He really pushed hard this year to get to the point of getting called back in, and I'm excited to see what he can do in January. Hopefully it ends up being with the qualifying team, but we'll see.”
When it looked like a listless 0-0 draw would cap the USMNT’s 2021 in rather lukewarm fashion, up stepped Colorado Rapids midfielder Cole Bassett on his senior international debut.
In the 89th minute, the 20-year homegrown sniffed out the rebound on a shot from left back Jonathan Gómez, a fellow second-half substitute. He pounced after Bosnia’s goalkeeper spilled the dual-national’s effort, punching home to finally break the dam.
It seemed the storyline would be how the USMNT couldn’t capitalize on playing with a man advantage for 50 minutes plus stoppage time, courtesy of a meaty challenge (and subsequent red card) from Bosnian midfielder Amar Begic on Colorado midfielder Kellyn Acosta. Then Bassett intervened.
“I've dreamed about this my whole life, to play for the national team and I've grown up watching all the people play before me,” Bassett said. “The 2014 World Cup was a big moment for me. I can remember watching every single game and studying the players. Just from then on, I've kind of become really obsessed with trying to make it here and for me to finally be here and to score in this moment on my debut, it's something special and especially for my family, they've sacrificed a lot for me to get here."
It’s a fantastic ending to Bassett’s year, one that included him passing on a summertime move to Portuguese side Benfica to remain with Colorado in pursuit of silverware. He helped Robin Fraser’s team clinch the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference standings, and while their playoff run ended on Thanksgiving Day against Portland, a 2022 Concacaf Champions League spot was clinched.
And Bassett played a vital role in Colorado’s punch-above-our-weight collective identity, supplying five goals and four assists across 32 regular-season games (23 starts). Two of his biggest strengths are late-arriving runs and finding danger areas in the final third, both of which were apparent on his late winner in Carson, Calif.
Now, it’s about seeing where Bassett’s long-term future lies amid continued European interest. Colorado transferred homegrown left back Sam Vines to Belgium’s Royal Antwerp last summer, and it’s hard not to wonder if Bassett goes next.
“[Assistant coach] Anthony Hudson was urging to put him on because of the impact he can make and the goals that he has in him,” Berhalter said. “Cole's a guy that shows up and scores goals, and we were seeing that during the week with his finishing ability. He showed that again tonight.”
For all the USMNT accomplished in 2021 – chiefly setting a new single-year record for wins (17) and earning Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup titles with two different rosters – the true test awaits in the new year.
The USMNT have six crucial World Cup qualifiers laying in wait, and they hold second place in the Concacaf Octagonal table while looking to secure one of the region’s three automatic Qatar 2022 spots. Canada are currently in first, while Mexico (third) and Panama (fourth) are nipping at their heels.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest if Berhalter’s group falls short in 2022, the successes of 2021 would be dented. They’re well aware of the need to capitalize on the impending pair of three-game qualifying windows.
“We used a lot of different players in 2021, we had a lot of different programming,” Berhalter said. “We played 10 months of the 12 months we had a competitive game. It was fast and furious, but the guys hung in there, the guys were resilient. No matter what player was called upon they stepped up and in the end, we have something to be proud of. We know that there's a lot of work still to be done."
The first match window includes home fixtures against El Salvador (Jan. 27) and Honduras (Feb. 2), sandwiching a trip to Canada (Jan. 30). Then comes a home test against Panama (March 27) in between sojourns to Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30). The latter trio is especially fraught with challenges – Estadio Azteca can prove hugely problematic, and the USMNT are historically poor at Los Ticos – while the former seems to have a six-points-at-minimum vibe.
However these WCQs unfold, there’s pressure on Berhalter’s team to get the job done via whatever means necessary. Win ugly if required, dispel notions of a young squad growing into the moment. All that matters is avoiding a repeat of that fateful night in Couva when the USMNT missed out on Russia 2018.
It’s also somewhat fitting this Bosnia friendly occurred exactly one year before the 2022 World Cup final will be held at Lusail Iconic Stadium in Qatar. Of course that’s not to suggest the USMNT are bound for that fixture, but rather to underscore the weight of what awaits this new generation of players and a coach whose tenure will be defined by qualification or not.