It flew under the radar this year, didn't it? The usual friendly (sometimes friendlies) after the USMNT's January camp is never exactly a huge moment for the fanbase, but it usually sparks a decent amount of interest. For some reason, in 2020, it did not.
And that's kind of a shame because 1) the US played really well – lacking some cutting edge in the final third, but pretty and effective in the build-up and especially defensively – against a veteran Costa Rica side in Saturday's 1-0 win; and 2) they did it with a team full of kids.
It's that second bit that made this result particularly interesting.
This was a different January camp than we're used to. In the past, the camp was used to keep veterans sharp and introduce a few players who'd been on the fringe of the team. This time there were relatively few veterans and more than half the roster comprised guys who are still years away from hitting their prime. Seven Americans got their full USMNT debuts on the day, and in total nine players are U-23 eligible.
So let's start there
Winner No. 1: The US chances of making the Olympics
Olympic qualifying runs from March 20 through April 1 in Guadalajara. The US have failed to make the past two summer games, and three of the past four. There is a direct line from that to the full national team's struggles over the past decade.
For those of you who don't know: The Olympics themselves are mostly a U-23 tournament (for this one that means players born on January 1, 1997 or later), with three overage players sprinkled in (one is almost always a goalkeeper, and my guess is that's what we'd see this time as well if the US make it). Olympic qualifying itself, however, is only a U-23 tournament.
Since guys like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Josh Sargent, Gio Reyna and Tim Weah are U-23 eligible, we're sitting pretty then, right?
Wrong. No professional team is required, as per FIFA regulations, to release players for youth tournaments:
Kreis also said he's not counting on the likes of Tyler Adams or Christian Pulisic to be available for Oly qualifying tournament. "Players that are contributing week and week out for the 1st team in major divisions...I think we have to say those guys are not available." #usmnt— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) February 2, 2020
There is a chance that Adams, Pulisic etc. have clauses in their contracts that allow them to play in the Olympics proper, but not in qualifying. If the US are going to make it through qualifying, it's going to have to be guys further down the depth chart – many of whom we saw on the field in Carson.
Bear in mind that MLS teams don't have to release any of their players, either. They usually play nice, but I'll just lay this marker here: If Atlanta are still active in the Concacaf Champions League, I doubt that Miles Robinson will be part of Olympic qualifying. And I wouldn't blame them one bit for not releasing him.
So the take is this: A young, short-handed US looking as purposeful, solid and often incisive as they did against a Costa Rica team that's raised hell in the Concacaf trenches for a good long while was something of a surprise, and a heartening data point.
Winner No. 2: The Youth Development Pipeline
We have all spilled oceans of virtual ink on the things that have gone wrong with the US player pool and, thus, the US player pipeline over the past 15-20 years. A story in two charts:
I think the main problem with the USMNT in the last decade is that the players just weren't very good. That is starting to change. The 2016 USMNT was worth half as much as the 2011 version (adj. for inflation). pic.twitter.com/bYUtLZ7AEW— Alex O. (@atosoccer) June 26, 2019
Highest valued USMNT players by Transfermarkt of all time, inflation adjusted. Hard to argue this current crop (Pulisic, McKennie, Adams) isn't special. pic.twitter.com/k4f9DXHRbR— Alex O. (@atosoccer) June 27, 2019
Valuations from Transfermarkt should be taken with a grain of salt, but the figures they give tend, at the very least, to be in the ballpark of where a player's actual value is.
Now bear in mind that these tweets are from half-a-year ago, and don't account for the meteoric rise of Dest, the eight-figure sale of Weah and the steady growth in value – strongly tied to on-field experience, mind you – in players throughout the very, very young player pool over the past year.
It all culminated in one of the youngest lineups the US have ever fielded, with an average age of 23 years, 216 days as per US soccer. More kids are being integrated young, and are winning spots for club and country because they're outplaying the veterans ahead of them.
The vast majority of these kids have come through the USSDA. The DA's been imperfect – it produces a lot of soft players who don't know how or when to give or take a foul, to be quite honest – but it's also been miles better than the programs that preceded it. And when you have cohort after cohort (the '97s, '98s, '99s and '00s already look like they're four straight groups filled with special players) producing high-level talent, it suggests that something's gone right.
My argument is that we all have to figure out what, exactly, that is, and how to make it scale. That's the real challenge ahead of US Soccer.
Winner No. 3: Sebastian Lletget, Jackson Yueill and Reggie Cannon, USMNT regulars
All three of these guys had strong 2019s not just relative to expectations, but overall. If we had a World Cup qualifier tomorrow Lletget would be a starter, and Cannon arguably would be as well (I'd take him over DeAndre Yedlin at RB, and switch Dest out to LB). Yueill would certainly be in the 18.
Given that, and given the amount of talent coming through the ranks at their respective positions, nobody had more to lose in this game than these guys.
And none of them lost anything. The defining aspect of this game was how clean Yueill and Lletget were through central midfield, constantly showing up in the right pockets of space at the right time, and then having the skill to receive the ball under pressure, turn and find a pass. They almost immediately broke Costa Rica's shape, forced them deep, then set and kept the tempo throughout. Only some failures of execution in the final third kept the US from cruising to a multi-goal win (usually when a team generates 17 total shots, including 13 in the box, they score more than one goal).
Cannon was, of course, the player who made the game-deciding play by surging forward to draw a penalty, and was very, very good at cutting out danger when the Ticos tried to break (though to be fair, the Ticos themselves cut out a bunch of danger with some truly awful passing in those moments).
All three looked like veterans who were stabilizing the team, and at the same time giving the newcomers – guys like Uly Llanez, Jesus Ferreira and Sam Vines – the platform they needed to, if not necessarily "shine," at the very least show their potential.
Winner No. 4: The US left side
It was Llanez at LW and Vines at LB.
Vines spent last season for the Rapids starting and making his name by playing mistake-free soccer week after week — the high point of which was probably a "shut down Carlos Vela repeatedly in 1v1 situations" performance last spring. His agility and lateral movement both seem to be top tier (and both were on display in this game, as Costa Rica's wingers found no purchase against him in isolation), but given how infrequently he gets forward for the Rapids there were/still are valid questions about both his straight-line speed and ability to make meaningful, progressive passes.
It's not like Vines was at Cannon's level in the attacking third – let alone someone like Dest – but he constantly got forward and into the right spots, did so in rhythm, and never left the back door open. He was an asset, and if he can polish up his game this year (much like Cannon did in his second year), the US will have left back depth for the first time since... ever, maybe?
Llanez, who became the youngest player in USMNT history to convert a penalty, was something short of "awesome" but nonetheless very, very promising. He played without fear, tracked back well defensively, and got into the right spots in the attacking third. His decision-making was often a beat slow or outright wrong, as TUDN did a nice job of pointing out on the broadcast:
But I'm kind of in the "who cares?" camp on that at this point. He's 18 years old and was playing his first-ever national team game, having never played a first-team minute for his club. There were bound to be some issues with speed-of-play and decision-making.
To be clear, it all could've been better from both of them:
Llanez & Vines did a really nice job of getting exactly where they wanted to in the first half – exactly where the system wants them to be – but neither could quite find the final ball. pic.twitter.com/d7TIOedIEq— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 1, 2020
But that doesn't mean it wasn't promising. It really, really was. And if it's these two guys on the field next month in Guadalajara, I'm fairly convinced the left side of the US attack with be a legitimate strength – even without the likes of Pulisic and Dest.
A Few Concerns
• The US transition defense, especially early, was gappy, and if the Ticos could've been cleaner in their touches they'd have had some good looks at the very least. The US have been rope-a-doped countless times by Costa Rica, remember.
• Only once did the US come close to conceding, when LA Galaxy center back Giancarlo Gonzalez got loose on a set piece midway through the first half. It looked like Cannon got picked and that led to the open header. Thank goodness for the woodwork.
• As promising as Llanez looks, and as talented as Pulisic and Weah are, do they make that hustle play to win the ball ahead of Gonzalez that Paul Arriola made in the build-up to Cannon's eventual penalty? I'm not sure it's a "yes" for any of them.
Arriola is the epitome of a Concacaf grinder, and plays like that show why he'll continue to have a place in the pool.
• Ferreira was good and fun as a false 9, drifting around to find pockets of space between the lines and forcing the Ticos shape to collapse (as USMNT GM Brian McBride pointed out in a halftime interview). He's a natural at combination play, and this sequence shows some of that:
I love that sequence. But as soon as the ball swings wide, Ferreira needs to be pushing hard for the near post instead of just kind of drifting to the spot.
Given the "are they even starters this year?" questions around Jeremy Ebobisse and Mason Toye, I think the biggest area of concern heading into Olympic qualifiers is that starting center forward role. Ferreira staked a bit of a claim with his ability to create for others, but needed to do more in terms of being dangerous himself in order to solidify a spot on the depth chart.