The US men's national team played Brazil Friday and were outclassed, but not embarrassed, in a 2-0 loss. The US played Mexico on Tuesday and were solid, unspectacular and ultimately victorious in a 1-0 win over their southern neighbors.
And like that, the 2022 World Cup cycle has begun in earnest.
Let's go down the list of what we've learned, via these friendlies, the ones before the World Cup, and via club form, and what has to come next in order for the US to become something closer to a complete, multidimensional team:
What We Learned
• The John Brooks & Matt Miazga center back pairing should work. There were so, so many on-field things we lacked over the past seven years, but the biggest – and most destructive – one was consistency on the backline. Far too often the US went into big games trying a brand new CB pairing, be it Omar Gonzalez & Matt Besler in Honduras in a qualifier, or Brooks & Geoff Cameron at the World Cup itself, etc etc etc.
In those situations the CBs are thrown in the deep end and asked to learn each other's tendencies as much as they're asked to stop opposing attacks. Getting Brooks and Miazga reps now (and Miazga & Cameron Carter-Vickers) is the best thing Dave Sarachan's done as interim boss.
• Tyler Adams, midfielder. Ok, I'll stop with the right back stuff. I still think his ceiling there is damn near unlimited and wish we had cloning technology in order to play him at both spots. But central midfield is the most valuable real estate in the game and his ability to make it a no-fly zone, then do good things both in possession and attack is too valuable to move out of that spot.
• The No. 1 kit probably does belong to Zack Steffen. He didn't really get a chance to do much in these two games, but as with the CBs: Reps matter. He'll learn to trust the guys in front of him, and they'll learn to trust him.
• The left back spot is Antonee Robinson's to lose. He got torched by Douglas Costa early against Brazil, but recovered to put in a good final 75 minutes of that game, including a couple of nice plays in emergency defense. Against El Tri he came into the game and got the game-winning assist along with a handful of other nice moments:
Lost in the fray, but I loved this bridge by Antonee Robinson to blow by the defender and put a good cross into Bobby Wood. pic.twitter.com/oOrzJrQfjz— USMNT Videos (@USMNTvideos) September 12, 2018
He's not the finished product – he takes bad angles in defense and too often settles for the easy ball rather than being aggressive with his distribution – but he's a superb crosser, has a pretty good first touch, has blazing speed and doesn't commit dumb turnovers. He's also starting and going 90 every week at a good level at age 21.
What Needs To Happen Next
• Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic need to get healthy and find their form. McKennie's night on Tuesday was cut short by a left knee injury, while Pulisic didn't make the trip. Yes, the US went out there and beat an admittedly experimental El Tri team without a pair of starters for top four Bundesliga teams – guys who play huge roles on teams that made the Champions League. That's significant and speaks to the depth of the pool.
But let's hope that next month we see the McKennie who showed up and was electric against Portugal, Bolivia and France, and let's hope that next month we see the Pulisic who's expected to be the USMNT centerpiece for the next decade.
• Reggie Cannon and Russell Canouse. Two of the less convincing performances from this camp were by Shaq Moore and Wil Trapp, and in my mind it's opened the door for a look at other young options at RB and DM. Cannon has better feet and is a much better passer than Moore, while Canouse has more range and agility than Trapp, and is a better ball-winner/tackler while bringing nearly the same passing range.
• The center forward situation needs to be sorted out. If he stays healthy and keeps playing like he has been, I don't think there's currently a better center forward in the pool than Jozy Altidore. Between him, and Bobby Wood, and Andrija Novakovich (who I still don't really rate, but he's scoring in the Eredivisie), and Gyasi Zardes and Dom Dwyer, I think the position is good enough for the next couple of years.
The development of Tim Weah – who played on the wing and was mostly ineffective – and Josh Sargent over the next 12 months is crucial. Not as crucial as getting a coach who's actually willing to play attackers out there, but it's up there.
• Turn the solid, compact defense we've seen into a consistent ability to generate attack. Obviously getting fully fit and sharp versions of McKennie and Pulisic will help in that regard.
Less obvious: It doesn't need to be "attack via possession." We probably have the personnel to see a high pressing game, or an all-out sit-and-counter approach, a la France. You don't need to play with the ball to win in soccer; you can play against it.
There's a suspicion that the US fanbase wouldn't be happy with that.
- I don't think that's true. If the approach wins, people will be happy.
- I don't care. Whoever the next coach is has to make pragmatic decisions first, and aesthetic ones... maybe fifth?
• Yeah, we need a permanent coach. Sarachan's done fine in solidifying the defense and has done good work in terms of introducing new players into the pool, but he has a Klinsmann-esque desire to play four central midfielders at all times. If McKennie hadn't gotten hurt and forced Sarachan's hand on the Julian Green sub, the game would've played out as a boring, punchless 0-0 draw at best.
"Pragmatic" does not mean "defensive" by the way. Oftentimes the pragmatic thing to do is to add another true attacker.
• Speaking of, more attackers need to be introduced into the pool. Wingers Emmanuel Sabbi and Jonathan Amon are tearing it up in Denmark, and I would like to see them both. Kenny Saief has had the worst luck since filing his one-time switch to the US, and isn't playing for Anderlecht right now, but I'd still like to see him next month. Kelyn Rowe, who has started just 11 games this season, has been underutilized by Brad Friedel and the Revs, but let's remember how good he looked at last year's Gold Cup when he finally got capped:
Just look at this absolutely filthy assist: an impeccable flick, followed by a great change of direction, leading to a perfect cross into the box. Yes please. pic.twitter.com/gt7irutohs— Joseph Lowery (@joeInCleats) January 22, 2018
Maybe Romain Gall as well, though I'm still very skeptical considering how poorly performance in the Swedish league translates up. Beyond those five the pickings are pretty slim. The hope is that youngsters like Jonathan Lewis, Chris Mueller, Andrew Carleton and Gianluca Busio (to name four) get their chance and take it over the next 12 months.
We saw last night why this is important: When Green came on, that made for three pure attackers on the field. Green's smart enough to find good spots in the attacking third, but he lacks the burst to create any sort of separation against pro defenders, his decision-making is too slow to slip passes into tight spots, and his vision is too limited to check down and find unmarked options at the back post.
Green is an inferior player to McKennie, but he helped just by virtue of being another attacker. And that's fine. But we could/should do better than "fine," and if I was the next coach, identifying attackers who could help push this group up a level or two from that would be the first bullet point on my to-do list.