Hard on the heels of a thrilling, drama-laden World Cup campaign, the US men’s national team are expending significant time and resources to call in two dozen players and schedule two friendlies for this January camp, the first of which resulted in a 2-1 loss to Serbia at LAFC’s BMO Stadium on Wednesday night.
In the eyes of interim head coach Anthony Hudson, however, the whole thing would be more than worth it simply to gain the permanent allegiance of Mexican-American standouts Cade Cowell, Alejandro Zendejas and Brandon Vazquez.
Vazquez delivered Wednesday’s end product, clinically finishing an angled header off a pinpoint Julian Gressel cross to open his scoring account at the senior international level. While showing a few nerves and rough edges, the FC Cincinnati frontrunner offered a robust physical presence up top and got himself into dangerous positions repeatedly.
Though the Serbs exploited a few errors in the defensive end to snatch the victory, Vazquez’s arrival in the USMNT’s muddled No. 9 pool will likely prove much more meaningful in the bigger picture.
Praise for Vazquez, Cowell, Zendejas
"It's interesting because I thought all night long we got into some really good positions in wide areas. And our final ball was not great,” said Hudson postgame. “That was the first time we put in a really good cross, and it was an outstanding header. "And I'm really, really pleased with Brandon because he's obviously had to be patient. And he's come in, he's had a few days training, you can tell he’s someone that wants to be here, that this is a big moment for him. So for him to get that goal and the type of goal it was, was really, really pleasing.”
Beyond Vazquez, no one came closer to the scoresheet than Cowell. Working as an inverted left winger, the San Jose Earthquakes’ talented homegrown player earned the fans’ Man of the Match award administered by U.S. Soccer, showing both dynamism and cleverness on the ball and clanging two shots off the woodwork.
“Cade, wow. Like, what a performance from Cade,” said Hudson. “I’m so proud of him, so impressed with his performance. He was another one where, I kept turning around to our sports scientists and coaching staff – because obviously, we had set [playing] times, and as the clock was ticking, I knew he had to come off. And I didn't want to bring him off.
“He was just really just outstanding tonight. Really direct, really aggressive, brave. I think maybe if he’d have stayed on, I think he deserved a goal for sure. But this is probably one of the best performances I've seen. I've seen him, I've seen him have some amazing moments. I think tonight's showed another level, another step forward for him. So it was a really special performance from him and I'm really proud of what he did tonight.”
The interim boss also raved about Zendejas, who was consistently lively along the right channel opposite of Cowell in his first match back in US colors in more than half a decade. This was a fleeting but fruitful experience for the dual-national winger before he returns to Club América in time for their Liga MX clash with Mazatlán on Saturday.
“Incredible,” said Hudson of Zendejas. “Obviously he has to go back to his club tonight, and I was pretty much trying to beg him to stay, because I thought he was outstanding. He came in, he's been in a few days, and you saw him tonight, you see his personality on the field. He’s a really, really exciting player. Exciting player, good quality, technically really, really strong, really attack-minded and I just love his desire just to keep going.”
The FC Dallas academy product completed 83.3% of his passes, including two key passes, took five shots, drew four fouls and won the lion's share of his 15 duels – numbers that underlined a high score in the eye test, as he showed hunger, cleverness and personality along the right channel.
An eye on Zendejas' future
The Mexican-American attacker still remains eligible to play for El Tri, and he pointedly sidestepped questions about his future intentions when he faced the media on Tuesday. But Hudson made clear that he believes Zendejas can contribute to the full-strength USMNT right away.
“There's obviously a lot of other really good guys that have come in, interesting players. But if we get to the end of this window and Alejandro, we can keep him with us, irrespective of what goes on, it’s been hugely successful,” said the Englishman. “Because this guy is an exciting player and he’s someone that I feel can help the national team. I think he adds depth to the team.
“I think he's right there, in a position where he can step in and help the team with our full squad. And he's also someone who's slightly different in terms of his characteristics to what we have. So, yeah, look, I think it's been great that we've been able to bring him in and we would love to bring him back, for sure.”
The Yanks close out this month’s activities vs. Colombia on Saturday evening at Dignity Health Sports Park, home of the LA Galaxy (7:30 pm ET | TNT, Telemundo, Peacock). Beyond that, the entire player pool will be available for selection when Concacaf Nations League play resumes during the next FIFA international window in late March.