The US men's national team host Trinidad and Tobago on Sunday (7 pm ET | FS1, UniMás, TUDN) in both teams' first friendly of 2021. As is the tradition with these January camp games, neither side will be at full strength because this is not a FIFA-mandated international date. Teams are not required to release players, and thus if they're in season, they don't.
That means there's even less to learn than in the typical friendly. It does not mean, however, that there is nothing to learn. Just as in the final three friendlies of 2020 — a scoreless draw at Wales followed by complete stompings of Panama and El Salvador — we can get a sense of how head coach Gregg Berhalter wants his team to play, who's showing an ability to play that way, who's moving up the pecking order in the fight for sports and so on.
1. The midfield shape in possession
Since Berhalter's taken over he's tinkered with the US' midfield shape a decent bit. Some of this is based upon the opponents, in that against weaker teams he's had the US in what I'd consider to be a pretty aggressive 4-3-3 with dual attacking midfielders getting VERY advanced and one lone regista tasked with both shuttling the ball from back-to-front and shielding the backline.
At other times — notably 12 months ago vs. Costa Rica — it was more of an asymmetrical 4-2-3-1 with something of a double pivot as one of the more attacking midfielders (Sebastian Lletget on that day) dropped deeper for extra dirty work. Three months ago vs. Wales it was the familiar 4-3-3, but also kind of different in that Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah seemed to have a more egalitarian sharing of responsibilities. Four days after that against Panama, Adams was something close to an old-fashioned destroyer while Musah and McKennie pushed higher.
It is good and smart to be flexible. Berhalter's come up with looks that are both distinctive yet similar while playing out of roughly the same shape. That portends a high level of in-game (and in-tournament) tactical flexibility.
2. Yueill pushing up
I'm assuming we'll see the "regista" version of Berhalter's 4-3-3, and I'm also assuming Jackson Yueill will get the start as the No. 6. He's played that role a bunch over the past two years for club and country, and mostly been very good. He is a natural distributor and his work in shielding the backline has grown considerably.
He is not yet, however, a natural presser. Berhalter asked him to do a lot of that in the win over El Salvador, to mixed results:
That compilation's just from the first 20 minutes. You can see him winning the ball and winning fouls, and on the final clip, his pressing creates a goal. In between those, he was twice a half-step slow, which could have turned into breakout opportunities against better opponents.
This is a very Adams-y way to use the defensive midfielder — Adams is the best pressing player in the pool and one of the best in the world. He creates turnovers, and even for teams heavily invested in positional play (as the USMNT under Berhalter are), turnovers are the lifeblood of the modern game.
Yueill is never going to be Adams in that phase of the game, but he's improved a bunch since early 2019. It seems like he'll have to improve even more if he's going to solidify his spot in the d-mid pecking order.
3. Daryl Dike, make your case
Berhalter said it last year: Jozy Altidore is still probably the most talented No. 9 in the pool. I do not think that assessment is wrong.
He also said Altidore's fitness issues have held him back, and that's clearly not wrong, either. Altidore is 31 now and spent most of 2020 looking like a shell of his former self to the point where it wasn't just, "Is he going to be fit enough to play 90 minutes?" It was, "Is he going to be fit enough to make an actual run?" Quite often the answer was no.
The good news from the US perspective is there's suddenly a glut of young, high-upside center forwards vying for the job of Jozy's successor:
- Josh Sargent was the anointed one, and to be fair to him, his goals per 90 while with the US has been good (just don't pay too much attention to who those goals have come against), but his goals per 90 for Werder Bremen has been abysmal.
- Nico Gioacchini debuted in that win over Panama with a brace, though he hasn't exactly been lighting it up in Ligue 2.
- Sebastian Soto also debuted with a brace in that same game. He scored for fun in the Dutch second tier, but bear in mind it's the Dutch second tier (he's on his way to Norwich in the Championship now, for what it's worth).
- Matthew Hoppe burst onto the scene this month with five goals in three games for Schalke. He's yet to make an appearance for the US at any level, and it's not exactly clear his hot streak will continue.
- Ayo Akinola burst onto the scene last summer with a hat-trick against D.C. United, then just kept scoring — including a goal in his debut for the US last month. This month he happens to be with the Canadian men's national team.
() Calling any of these guys "Jozy's successor" is a bit of Gyasi Zardes erasure, but I do think it's reasonable to hope one or more of these guys ends up being a better USMNT No. 9 than Zardes.
The sixth member of this group is young Daryl Dike, who was superb for Orlando City last year and is in his maiden voyage as a national teamer. It's a good bet he'll get at least 30 minutes, though I would hit the "over" if you wanted to slap the line there. The other guys have all made compelling cases in one way or another, and now it's Dike's chance to do the same.