The US men's national team kicked off this summer of soccer with a pretty blah 2-1 loss at Switzerland on Sunday afternoon.
There were some good moments, and it was unmistakably a friendly in terms of the urgency with which it was(n't) played, so I don't think anybody should be panicking. But there were also some bad moments, and that lack of urgency is a concern in and of itself given how close the US are to games that actually matter who whole damn bunch.
Real quick on that: Friendlies are friendlies, and good teams know how to work their way through them and find good stuff to learn and take away from them, then apply them for real when the whistle blows in official competitions. But history is littered with teams who did only part of that and were just never able to flip that switch, get out of third gear and get into "must-win" mode.
I think we saw some of that with the US U23s in Concacaf Olympic qualifying. I'm sure their build-up patterns looked nice and well-rehearsed in training, but once the games started for real they didn't match the energy of their opponents at any point. And we have received lesson after lesson over the past decade -- including a gigantic one in Couva -- about how it is an absolute necessity to play this game with some urgency.
I don't love how clearly that was missing today. I am, in fact, very worried about that.
Anyway, I'm tired of writing "it's just a friendly." We'll get the real thing on Thursday (7:30 pm ET | TUDN, Paramount +) when the US play Honduras in the Concacaf Nations League semis.
US head coach Gregg Berhalter sat down with Bobby Warshaw for a preview of this entire camp about a week ago, and in it he said one of the ways he was looking at this particular game against Switzerland was as a test for Jackson Yueill and Kellyn Acosta in particular, as well as Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson and a few others. These players broadly fall into the "talented newcomers" category, but not in the way that the likes of Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest — remember, they're both still newcomers as well — do.
Reyna and Dest are so talented that you just have to figure out a way to get them out there. Yunus Musah might be as well, and there are a few others on that list.
Yueill, Acosta, McKenzie and Aaronson are a cut below that, and the roles they're fighting for are clearly defined. "Reliable backup" is the bar that needs to be cleared.
To that end I think this game served as a positive data point for McKenzie, Aaronson and especially Yueill, who had more of a direct defensive impact in his hour on the pitch than I think I've ever seen from him. I threw together a mini comp of his defensive interventions over just a small slice of the first half, and he was everywhere:
Yes, that included him pantsing his Swiss counterpart Denis Zakaria to set up that chance for Dest. I did not see that coming, and neither did Zakaria.
This is the test for Yueill. There aren't many questions about his ability to pass the ball at a high level (though he played it way too safe for my tastes today), but there are valid questions about his ability to be, at the very least, "acceptable" against the likes of Zakaria.
He passed the test, as did McKenzie, who played as a right center back. In fact I'd say both passed the test so well in the first hour that Switzerland changed their approach and, instead of trying to play through central midfield or attack the US right, they almost exclusively switched to going at the US left side.
Aaronson passed the test for the first half before struggling a bit in the second. I also thought there were some communication issues between he and Dest — often when Dest came inside off the ball in possession, Aaronson didn't stay wide to present John Brooks a wide option in distribution. That is the kind of thing that can be ironed out in film sessions.
Acosta did not pass the test. He looked energetic, but not entirely comfortable reading and breaking up plays as a No. 6, and didn't track the run that led directly to the second Swiss goal.
Whether he's at right back or left, Dest is an inimitable attacking weapon. He has to be out there, but it's increasingly clear that one problem Berhalter must solve is how to keep him out there without him becoming a defensive liability.
Dest was caught up, in no man's land pressing no one, on the first Switzerland goal. He conceded a penalty that was missed. His failed clearance led to the second Switzerland goal. In between all of that, there was this:
That's not all on Dest, obviously. Weston McKennie got turned and allowed Switzerland to play through the first line of midfield pressure too easily on that first break-out. On the second, it was a mess of a 50/50 that turned into a quick transition moment (which is basically the definition of modern soccer, so yes, that is a teamwide concern).
Nonetheless there's a reason Taylor Twellman was talking so much on the broadcast about the 3-4-2-1 the US played back in March, one that puts Dest at wingback instead of fullback and thereby limits the fallout from his occasional defensive indiscretions. You want to be able to get him forward, but you don't want the trade-off to be "John Brooks is going to have to make multiple plays in the open field while backpedaling."
That is not a good trade-off for any center back in the world, but especially for Brooks. Dest either has to get better at sniffing out when opposing attacks are aiming for the gap behind him (and then, you know, getting back!) or Berhalter might have to scrap the 4-3-3 against good opponents when Dest is out there.
You can absolutely get better at recognizing those patterns, by the way. Alphonso Davies did for Bayern Munich, and that's what propelled him from "devastating attacking fullback" to "probably the best left back in the whole damn world."
Dest is an unquestioned starter for the US, and the way the team is set up and is supposed to play is designed to fit his strengths. He's got to minimize his weaknesses so that the whole system can function better.
I have long been a card-carrying member of the "Josh Sargent will figure it out when he's in a coherent system with talented teammates."
He has that with the USMNT. At this point, though, I think I am more discouraged by his lack of goalscoring output than I am encouraged by the fact he did, in fact, make a number of good and dangerous runs in this one. He really was trying to be a threat and often was, but the payoff was not... great. It was not great.
More frustrating is the reason Sargent presumably tops the No. 9 depth chart is because of his link play, which has occasionally been awesome (I still fondly remember that Peru game a couple years back). In this game it was non-existent to the point of being a liability rather than a strength.
The competition for this spot is wide open. I suspect we'll see Jordan Siebatcheu get a crack at it for at least a few minutes vs. Honduras, and it seems likely that Daryl Dike is going to get the final game of this camp, a friendly vs. Costa Rica. Gyasi Zardes is, of course, still waiting in the wings.
I don't know who we'll consider the starter by the time World Cup qualifying begins in September. I just hope that whoever it is earns the job, rather than takes it by default.