Armchair Analyst: The simple and the sublime from US U-23s at Toulon Tournament

The first half was a bloodbath. Then the US U-23s got better.

They still lost 3-1 to what was essentially the French U-20 B team (HERE is the roster), and yes, the US were entirely complicit in making Fares Bahlouli look like Juventus-era Platini. It was a mostly bad and kind of dispiriting display.

But as long as the improvement curve bends upward, I can live with that.

Here are a few other things to take away from the first game at the Toulon Tournament. I'm going with bullet points, because that's all most of this deserves:


This was far from a full-strength French squad. Guys who could have played in this game but didn't? Paul Pogba for one, and Geoffrey Kondogbia for another. Those are two full French national team central midfielders. If France had brought their full U-23s, this would have been a wire-to-wire slaughter.

At the same time, it was far from a full-strengthh US squad. In the best of times, Luis Gil, Wil Trapp and Jose Villarreal are probably three of the four US midfield starters. John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Oscar Sorto and Walker Zimmerman will be on the backline. You could maybe dig into the US U-20s for a couple of other spots as well, so let's ease off on the torches and pitchforks.

The game is the best teacher. The US were filled with guys like Shane O'NeillBenji Joya, Juan Pablo Ocegueda and – most disappointingly – Julian Green, players who have had and lost starting roles for their club teams over the past 12 months.

Green was particularly bad:

Or it was guys like Marc Pelosi and Jerome Kiesewetter, who've never won starting spots. And furthest down the list were the likes of Will Packwood and Cody Cropper, who've been unceremoniously released from their respective clubs over the last month.

We saw the rust, and the lack of confidence, and the lack of precision from all of them, back-to-front. Whether it was a ridiculous attempted clearance from Packwood, or a poor wall set up from Cropper, or Pelosi booting several restarts into touch... it's apparent why, right now, most of these guys aren't playing.

This does not mean any or all of the above are necessarily bad players. I particularly like Joya, who I think will eventually catch on in either Liga MX or MLS as a useful, box-to-box No. 8. O'Neill still has the talent to be a full US national team regular. Ocegueda actually learns from his mistakes from the run of play, which is a very nice trait for any player to have. Cropper and Packwood probably just need games at any level, whether it's League 2 in England or USL in North America or any/all stops in between.

There was, in other words, individual talent to admire. They just didn't play like a team.

Which brings me to another point...

The 4-3-3 continues to be US soccer's white whale. Given the strong performance we saw from the U-23s vs. Mexico last month, and the ongoing implementation of the 4-1-3-2 (or 4-4-2 diamond, if you want to go with the narrative) at all levels, I was surprised to see Andi Herzog start his team in the 4-3-3 today. Doubly so given the absence of Trapp or Chicago's Matt Polster (there is no indication he's on Herzog's radar, but his ability to spread the field and make his wide players dangerous is remarkably similar to Trapp's) to sit and conduct the game.

Unless you have the ability to play in tight space as well as the likes of Barca or Bayern, the 4-3-3 demands quick, precise switches from deep midfield to the wing.

That type of range and vision isn't in Joya's locker, nor is it in Metzger's (this is not a condemnation of either player, by the way – my thoughts on Joya are above, and Metzger was excellent against El Tri as shuttler in the 4-1-3-2 last month). Green was awful, but both Kiesewetter and Alford Koroma Shams, who replaced Green on the wing an hour into the game, only rarely got the ball with the type of space you see wingers in a functional 4-3-3 exploit.

Think Ethan Finlay in Columbus, if you want to know how that looks.

As Jordan Morris became more involved in the game, the US improved. Morris was isolated in the first half, as often happens to forwards in an unpracticed 4-3-3. And Morris' instincts are all "go forward", which often left his midfield without as many options as they'd have liked.

It's telling, then that the lone US goal came after Morris had checked back into space to give Pelosi an outlet. What happened next is the difference between a Kiesewetter-level prospect:

And a Morris-level prospect:

It really was a brilliant effort from the Stanford & Sounders Academy kid, who's clearly going to be the man for the US Olympic Qualifying team.

• So... what does it mean that the one guy who never looked out of his depth isn't a professional soccer player?

There is a long, standalone column in here, I think. Let's just say that the results for US kids in top academies has been decidedly mixed, and signing with the likes of Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen or Liverpool as a youth has hardly proved to be a fast-track to riches and glory.

That, of course, doesn't mean that college is the right track. But it might be the right track for Morris, who just keeps impressing.

If he's still an amateur come January, then I'll worry.

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