It was a productive June for the US men's national team, one that saw the first competitive win over Mexico since 2013, a bit of dominance against regional powers Costa Rica and Honduras, a filling out of the depth chart and a trophy for their efforts with regard to all of the above. Nothing's perfect, of course, but it would've been greedy to ask for more than that.
And so, with that in mind and with the start of World Cup qualifying less than 80 days away, here's what we learned from this camp:
It was a relief to see the kids ratchet up their intensity in meaningful Concacaf games. You might say "we already knew they could do that because of the Nations League win over Canada in late 2019," but actually we didn't. That game was dominated by Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Gyasi Zardes and Aaron Long, none of whom were in this camp. This month's US team was vastly different.
And this month's team looks like the beginning of a golden generation for the US — or even better, the start of a new normal in terms of depth and talent throughout the pool. "Superior talent" is the best baseline possible to build from, and the US really do have it with this group. But you need more than talent to win meaningful games. You need knowhow, and this group lacked it.
Christian Pulisic (who was not great vs. either Honduras or Mexico, to be fair) struggled in the 2019 Gold Cup and the subsequent Nations League loss to Canada. Weston McKennie had been bossed by the El Tri midfield two years ago, and was at least somewhat culpable on Jona Dos Santos's game-winner. Gio Reyna is precociously talented, but also he's just 18. The fullbacks are mostly young and mostly unproven in the international game. Same for the center back depth chart behind John Brooks, and same for the central midfield depth chart, and same for the center forward depth chart. There were a lot of known unknowns to figure out.
That's because this kind of generational shift is unprecedented in recent USMNT history. If you think back to previous great players being integrated into the US pool they always had the luxury of doing so while the veterans were doing the bulk of the heavy lifting.
- Marcelo Balboa, John Harkes and Tab Ramos were the backbone of the US team through the early 90s, laying the foundation for the next wave — guys like Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride and Eddie Pope — to push in.
- Reyna, McBride and Pope were the first names on the team sheet when Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley and eventually Clint Dempsey pushed into the squad.
- Donovan, Beasley and Dempsey were the focal points when the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore became the new generation.
And then, for a variety of reasons, there was no clear successor to Bradley and Altidore, no one for them to directly hand responsibility to. The line ended, and that's a big part of why there was such a massive failure in 2018.
This is not to say every one of those above transitions went smoothly; they most certainly did not. But for the most part there was a clear line of succession, one in which the veterans taught the kids how to win in Concacaf. And that's how you win three straight Hexagonals and compete vs. Mexico on equal footing for just about two straight decades.
This generation didn't really get that luxury. It's not quite as stark a "figure it out for yourself" situation as that Balboa/Harkes/Ramos group 33 years ago, but it's in the ballpark. And the Nations League turned out to be a very good test.
Not everybody passed. A bunch did, though, and I'd argue the best part of this month was the US had two chances to fold against Mexico and refused to. Just as important: it was Pulisic, McKennie and Reyna who pulled them through. Getting the stars to produce like stars in the biggest games is not something to take for granted.
"It was a massive, massive game for us just to show Concacaf what we're about, and I think it was the first time we've really had all this group of players together," Pulisic told ESPN about the win over Mexico. "I think it just gives us a lot of confidence moving towards qualifiers and things coming up, and I think that is something we really needed."
Gregg Berhalter earned an undeserved reputation for tactical dogmatism from the chunk of the US fanbase that does not pay enough attention to MLS. Those of us who do pay attention to MLS know Berhalter has beaten the likes of Jesse Marsch, Patrick Vieira and Tata Martino in knockout games, and he didn't do so by being completely inflexible. Instead, he mostly dropped the patient, build-from-the-back positional play that was the longtime hallmark of his Columbus Crew teams (and that he is still building toward with this US squad) in those games and embraced gameplans that went directly at his opponents' weaknesses.
Still, that reputation for dogmatism and inflexibility was conventional wisdom in certain circles of USMNT fandom. Much of it can be traced back to a 3-0 friendly loss to El Tri in late summer of 2019. The US on that day tried and repeatedly failed to build through Mexico's pressure at all costs, part of what Berhalter called an ongoing process as the US had to learn how to use the ball against good teams.
“By definition a process takes time,” Berhalter said that day. “So, we have to be patient with that.”
Obviously the build-out-of-the-back ethos was not totally abandoned vs. El Tri this time around — just ask Mark McKenzie. Berhalter is still an idealist in terms of how he wants the game to be played, and is willing to suffer as many friendly losses as is necessary to get the US to that level.
But by setting the US up in a 3-4-2-1 with strong 4-4-2 principles in the Nations League final, Berhalter pretty much conceded from the kick the US weren't going to be controlling the game with the ball or repeatedly breaking Mexico down via possession, and pretty much conceded the US weren't going to be playing through the press every single time. This blueprint was much more about solid mid- and low-block defending, quick transitions and set pieces.
The point was to win the game.
“We want guys that really understand what it means to win and value what it means to win, but also having the expectation that winning is what we’re looking for, and anything less than that isn’t good enough,” Berhalter said in the days before the semis against Honduras.
It is a familiar level of pragmatism from Berhalter, and one that should serve the US well in the upcoming qualifiers.
Build from the back, stretch the field touchline to touchline if possible, use the ball to get the defense turned around running at their own goal, and put multiple runners into the box.
That is the simplest way to summarize how Berhalter wants the US to play, and there were sequences of the above throughout the wins over Honduras and Mexico before that pattern of play became the defining feature of the 4-0 friendly win over Costa Rica:
That's just a small sample of what we saw across those three wins. Obviously not many of these build-ups ended up as goals, but through two matches the US spent a lot of time being just one pass away from turning that approach into scoreboard dominance. That includes the game again Mexico in which "use the ball" became Plan B or C instead of Plan A.
In the third match, which is the most dominant win I can ever remember the US posting against Costa Rica, the effectiveness of Berhalter's system became damn near the entire story.
To be fair, I think a portion of that comes down to the difference in intensity level between any official competition and any friendly. But it's just as fair to say the regularity with which the US were one pass away from a tap-in represents progress within the framework of the process Berhalter has been talking about since he got the job.
This was a step on that path in the same way the beat-down from El Tri was two years ago.
I am team "Josh Sargent was actually pretty good in his appearances this camp, just snakebitten in front of goal." You can crush him for not finishing, but the thing I'm most concerned about is if he knows how to get into good spots in the first place.
For Werder Bremen over the past few years he mostly was not doing that. For the US over the past few weeks he mostly was doing that, and was probably the player whose assessment most hinged upon the "one pass away" issue. If Reyna gives him that early tap-in to finish off a 30-pass sequence vs. Honduras, we're talking about Sargent differently right now, right?
I'll put it another way: It's telling a team as smart as Borussia Monchengladbach are about to spend millions on him. Given that and given what I saw in these games, I am just not very worried about Sargent in the long term. I'm betting he will come good eventually.
The other reason I'm not worried about Sargent is Jordan Siebatcheu-Pefok and Daryl Dike exist, and I don't think it's foolish to suspect both can surpass him on the depth chart by the time qualifying comes around. They might have already — I am not convinced, for example, Sargent makes this Dike run:
So while the best data point from these games would've been Sargent turning a corner and looking like a $20 million striker for a Bundesliga side with Champions League aspirations, I am plenty happy with the not-quite-as-good-but-still-promising data point of Pefok and Dike both scoring and looking borderline dominant against Concacaf opponents.
The No. 9 isn't a strength in this roster as of yet, but I don't think it's a weakness.
Jackson Yueill is the player who faltered most this camp. Yueill had previously put in a number of fairly assured performances, including in the big 4-1 win over Canada that got the US into the Nations League semis in the first place. His bravery getting on the ball and ability to pick a pass were legit weapons, and made it worth keeping him on the field in spite of some defensive limitations.
That bravery deserted Yueill against Honduras:
In the first sequence he fails to find Pulisic, who has a nice fat channel to run into. The whole point of playing with the ball rather than against it is to get Pulisic in position to run into space like that.
In the second he fails to receive across his body and play up to Reyna, who is in an acre of space and just dying to push the game forward. Unfortunately there's plenty more where these two clips come from.
Yueill's passing is supposed to be — has actually been! — a force magnifier, something that makes the game easier for his team overall as well as for his individual teammates. He has been an asset and a problem-solver for the US over the past couple of years.
Against Honduras it was the opposite of that, as his lack of willingness to play these kinds of passes repeatedly defused US attacks and, at the same time, repeatedly put his teammates in tough spots. Berhalter said in interviews leading up to this camp the games were meant to test a bunch of the young guys who hadn't played at this level, and name-checked Yueill.
I don't think he passed the test.
He entered this camp as the clear back-up to Tyler Adams as the No. 6 and I suspect that's no longer the case. Kellyn Acosta got the start against Mexico, didn't play scared and generally acquitted himself well. I don't think I'm the only one who'd be more comfortable with Acosta in the XI of an important qualifier than Yueill at this point (if Adams can't go, obviously).
Acosta, however, plays the position different from Adams and Yueill. Those two are usually all over the ball and have the game run through them to a good degree. Acosta is, like McKennie, a much lower-usage player, and so we saw Berhalter accommodate that by playing those two in a double pivot in the win over El Tri. Acosta is not a true back point in the way we've seen Yueill repeatedly play that spot, or in the way that Adams did against Costa Rica. Rather, he is best either in a true box-to-box role or as the more defense-minded of a pair in the double pivot.
Could he be a back point, though? We've seen him do the job once, back in March in a friendly win over Jamaica, and he was pretty good. I wouldn't be against seeing more of him in that role, though I suspect this summer's Gold Cup will be used to blood other potential answers like Portland's Eryk Williamson, Philadelphia's Leon Flach and NYCFC's James Sands.
World Cup qualifying has never been a "roll out your best XI every game" sort of proposition, and that will be especially true this go-round with the new, three-game international dates. Squad rotation and quality depth are more important than ever before, and I think it's fair to say the US handled that burden better than any of their Concacaf rivals over the past two weeks. That includes the performances of Dike and Pefok, Acosta in the double pivot, Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah on the wings, and obviously Ethan Horvath in goal. Knowing those guys are there and ready to step in is the biggest, most important answer to get.
But some questions remain beyond the exact order of the No. 9 depth chart and who the back-up No. 6 is:
- McKenzie did enough to beat out Matt Miazga and win the job partnering Brooks for the Nations League games, but he didn't do enough to lock down a starting spot long-term. In fact I'd argue his play opened the door wider for Chris Richards, Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman.
- Tim Ream is something of a security blanket for Berhalter. He's Brooks' back-up as a left-footed, string-pulling distributor of a center back, while also filling in as an old-fashioned stay-at-home left back in a back four or starting next to Brooks as a LCB in a back five (or three). It is a valuable role, but Ream turns 34 later this year and there is no like-for-like heir in the pool of younger center backs coming through the ranks.
- At some point in these games Sergino Dest flipped from asset to liability. He's still the most talented fullback in the pool and, long-term, I think he'll be fine, but it's hard to imagine the version of him we just saw holding up on the road in the heat of a qualifier. Berhalter's decision to take him off after an hour vs. Mexico was the right one, and I do think it's worth questioning whether the US can go with four at the back against a good team if Dest is one of the fullbacks. It might have to be five at the back any time he's out there.
- Yunus Musah is maybe my favorite player in the whole pool and I refuse to worry about his status. If he were about to switch back to England or over to Italy or Ghana he wouldn't have played at all. Barring injury we'll see him in September.
(I really hope I didn't just jinx that).