The US men's national team kicked off a busy year with a deserved, if somewhat incomplete 1-0 friendly win over Costa Rica on Saturday. Here are a few thoughts on the outing.
Give Gregg his due
Look, if you’re reading this you probably know all about the overarching negativity that’s lingered around the USMNT since the woes of 2017. While you could argue that Gregg Berhalter and his players might have done more to vanquish that with a couple more big wins last year, they deserve the chance to keep their heads down and do their work, and be evaluated fairly on days like this.
And Berhalter deserves some praise for giving new faces a chance, both in Saturday’s lineup and the January camp roster in general. The starting XI was 23 years, 216 days on average, the youngest in “Camp Cupcake” history and marked by four debutants, all 20 or younger. Another three came off the bench to mark their first caps. And I’d contend that all over them looked like they belonged, at the very least.
The coaching staff looked to offer some stability with the familiar Aaron Long-Walker Zimmerman center back duo, Sebastian Lletget and Paul Arriola in the attacking band of three, and Reggie Cannon and Jackson Yueill look increasingly like nailed-on regulars. The core ideas they’ve worked on over the past year were recognizable and often pleasing to the eye. As for the top newcomers...
Jesus and Uly
For many of us one of the long-running asks of the national team is the desire for greater Latino representation, not only in personnel but also style. And there were genuinely exciting signs of progress here as Jesus Ferreira and Ulysses Llanez shined on their first exposure to this level.
Confident on the ball, full of ideas and already showing promising chemistry, they linked play and drifted into dangerous spaces around the attacking third. Given their modest top-flight experience, this really should encourage supporters.
Though it would’ve been a tremendous boost to see one of them score in the run of play, Llanez will savor his game-winning goal from the penalty spot in front of a big hometown crowd of family and friends. Maybe some US fans can even watch his Kobe Bryant-tribute celebration and dream of a someday where “Uly”, too, can become a first-word household name across the nation.
As for Ferreira, the intelligence and variety of movement he showed in the No. 9 role belied his tender years, and troubled the Tico defense. As new USMNT GM Brian McBride said at halftime:
“I thought Jesus Ferreira was excellent in dropping into that hole and really making the game, connecting, opening things up. [Costa Rica] realized it, they condensed the space, and then we started going wide.”
Time for transitions?
Nothing’s perfect, of course, especially in January. Amid plenty of positive buildup play, the finishing nous wasn’t quite there for the home side. And if I were to nitpick further, I’d wonder why the USMNT continue to look uninterested in quick, aggressive counterattack bids for long periods under Berhalter.
Given that some of Costa Rica’s most dangerous moments came off transitions and set pieces in their direction, it might’ve behooved the Yanks to respond in kind where and when balls turned over in promising areas going the other way. When such situations arose, it didn’t appear that there were practiced collective movements at front of mind for those in positions to stretch the opposition.
It was a recurring theme in 2019 and at this point I’m not sure whether Berhalter has pushed it down the to-do list, or just doesn’t see it as a priority at all in his system. Time is short in most international windows, so January is a period in which you’d expect to see more signs of automation in this regard.