Despite relative paucity of goal danger, the US men’s national team gave us some tasty morsels to chew on in their long-awaited return to play, banking a decent 0-0 draw with Wales at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium on Thursday.
Teenagers Konrad de la Fuente, Yunus Musah (sign him up!) and Gio Reyna made their debuts, a bustling central-midfield trio imposed themselves on the home side and the US controlled the tempo, if not the scoreboard. Here are a few other observations.
Engine room humming
As promised, Gregg Berhalter trotted out a front-foot 4-3-3, and as promised, Musah took up a central position, working alongside Weston McKennie in an FC Dallas-esque “twin No. 8s” setup backed by Tyler Adams at the 6. And verily, it was good.
Showing prodigious range and bite, the troika asserted their dominance in the center of the park, looking eager to embrace Berhalter’s more assertive pressing approach. Their energy pushed Wales onto the back foot and made sure that the USMNT had plenty of the ball, tilting the possession battle 61-39 in their favor (and in the early stages it was even more one-sided than that).
This didn’t solve the issues in the attacking third, but it certainly gave the Yanks a stable platform upon which to build further, and hinted at a fittingly aggressive identity in the bigger picture.
Sugar and spice
It wasn’t all blood, guts and destruction. Both the aforementioned central trio and several others, Sergino Dest in particular, were downright Brazilian in their displays of flair and swagger, squeezing in feints, dragbacks, stepovers and even an elastico at every opportunity.
Of course it all needed to be capped by a firm finish or two to earn a victory. Still, given the grim cloud of frustration and opprobrium that’s hung over the program since the nightmarish finale to 2018 World Cup qualifying in Couva, it was extremely heartening to see a youthful group infused with such joy and creativity, and the beginnings of a real understanding – to borrow a term coined by McKennie, “comfortability” with one another.
“You know, a footballer can recognize someone that can play football," added McKennie. "I can recognize what someone's good at, what someone's not good at. And I think we all know that we like to play. We like to combine, like to make those small touches and small passes."
“In the past we didn't so much have the little flair, the tiki-taka type, I guess, of playing … So it was just fun. I think a lot of guys had fun being out there.”
t’s been far too long since this program took pride in themselves as not merely a hard-working side defending the colors, but an entertainment product, and a spicy one at that. When Dest nutmegged Dan James with a very extra, and mostly unnecessary, snake along the touchlines, it hinted at a brave new world, one that most USMNT fans will want to see a whole lot more of.
Number 9, number 9, number 9…
On first blush, Berhalter probably bears as much responsibility as anyone for the goose egg, because his deployment of Sebastian Lletget as a false No. 9 didn’t really come off. Postgame the coach explained that the idea was to create numerical advantages in midfield while also forcing the Welsh defense to make tough decisions on the fly.
But as smart, selfless and willing as he is, Lletget just doesn’t play this role often, for club or country, and it showed. He looked to be playing catchup in terms of the movements and runs needed to maximize his teammates’ good work once they reached the Wales penalty box, and at that level, something more like autopilot is needed to strike paydirt.
COVID-19-related restrictions prevented Josh Sargent from joining the USMNT this month, and he surely would’ve gotten the start otherwise, but it would have been good to see more time given to a true frontrunner like Sebastian Soto or Nicholas Gioacchini, who logged 11-plus minutes off the bench but had little opportunity to show himself.