The first US men's national team outings in nine-and-a-half months are officially in the books. The first of those outings, a scoreless draw at Wales, was good in that it highlighted a bunch of the things that Gregg Berhalter has been trying to instill:
- The US were mostly good with the ball
- The US controlled possession and, thus, the tempo of the game
- A bunch of new, young players made their debuts
- Catastrophic errors were avoided
It was also bad in that, you know, it was a scoreless draw vs. the Welsh B team, and it's not like it was scoreless because the US were fluffing chances. They just didn't turn that possession into much penetration. That's been an ongoing issue against pretty good-to-excellent teams during Berhalter's two years in charge now.
The second game, Monday's 6-2 rout of an overmatched Panama side, was both better and worse. Here's the worse part:
- They gave up two goals to an overmatched Panama side
This was probably the weakest Panama team in 20 years. Their golden generation — players like Blas Perez, Luis Tejada and Jaime Penedo — have aged out, and the new guys aren't anywhere near as good, nor they play with the same type of urgency. They do not score a lot of goals, and it was kind of shocking to see them score two against the US. Neither Matt Miazga nor Tim Ream covered themselves in glory on the defensive side of the ball. I do not think we will see that combo again.
But it was also good in a lot of ways:
- Drubbing a non-minnow Concacaf side 6-2 is objectively good
- The patterns of play Berhalter has been trying to instill were present, effective, and often executed at pace
- Many of the younger players looked more comfortable in their second cap than their first
- Once Panama fought back a bit, the US woke up and killed them down the stretch
It is nice to see a young team score goals, but I'd argue it is even nicer to see them refuse to get Concacaf'd.
Here's a bit more of what we learned from this camp:
It's a 2-3-2-3
I wrote in my preview that the US seemed destined to go for a 3-2-2-3 in possession this cycle, with Tyler Adams (or Jackson Yueill, or Johnny Cardoso — who was good vs. Wales but struggled vs. Panama) dropping back to split the center backs and pushing the fullbacks up, then spraying. There was some of that, but it certainly was not the default look.
Instead, Adams largely stayed central and a bit ahead of the center backs, whether it was Miazga and Ream on Monday or Miazga and John Brooks last week. The fullbacks both got forward, which did create the "2-3" shape up top once the wingers pinched in, but more of that came from combination play via central midfield and less of it via dimed diagonals. It is a real difference, though I'm not willing to say whether or not it's a "significant" difference. I need to see more of it against better competition and in games with real stakes.
My gut is that I like it. The second line of "3" with Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah just smothered almost every counter opportunity before they could even start. Their mobility and ability to work as a trio was perhaps the biggest revelation of the camp, and it's hard to imagine there won't be a full-court press from Berhalter & Co. to get Musah to commit to the US team.
An attacking aspect of this set-up that didn't really work is the fact that it, in theory, allows more freeom for either McKennie or Musah more freedom to make late-arriving runs into the box for pull-backs – which one one of the very best parts of McKennie's game in particular. You can do that in a 3-2-2-3 (McKennie literally has done it from that set-up), but there's one more moving piece if/when you take that risk, and little complications like that can become big issues if the shot is blocked or the cross cut out and a counter starts in the other direction.
Those pull-backs are going to be the lifeblood of this attack. Watch this clip and you'll all see the goal:
Watch it again, but focus on Gio Reyna. After releasing the pass he actually slows his run and opens up for the pullback.
He is using the defender's anticipation of a hard, direct run against him, and understands where the space in the box is about to materialize because of the pattern of play.
This is good soccer from him and the US. There were a lot of little moments like that against Panama, and while I will reiterate that this is a weak Panama team compared to the past two decades, this is the exact type of team you have to beat in order to make it to the World Cup and face the Belgiums and Brazils of the world.
There Will Be a Press
The US alternated between pressing out of a 4-4-2 diamond, which was more prevalent vs. Wales with Sebastian Lletget as a false 9, and a 4-3-3 with some of the same principles, as we saw against Panama.
In either set-up the goal is the same: force the opposing goalkeeper to make tough choices and tougher passes in order to find pockets, or coax them into blasting it long and giving the 12-and-a-half combined feet of US center backs a bunch of aerials to dominate.
The only other option is to clip a ball to the weak-side fullback along the touchline, which is something Panama's Orlando Mosquera did time and again. That is a recipe for turnovers, as happened time and again.
On the flip side, I think it's pretty clear that the US need to get ready to be pressed more often. Wales basically let the US have possession in the first half, then caused real problems — and nearly a goal — with some fairly committed high pressing in the second half. Panama's goals didn't come from pressing, but they definitely rattled the young US side for good chunks of the second half with some energetic, front-foot defending. Brooks and Ream were generally outstanding playing out of it, as were Sergino Dest and Reggie Cannon. Adams and Johnny struggled a bit.
So it goes with young players — even ones on Champions League/Copa Libertadores sides.
Be Excited About the Kids
Musah, who might've been the second-best US player vs. Wales behind only McKennie, largely overdelivered. McKennie, Adams and Dest looked like what they are — veterans of the Champions League, and $20 million (at least) players. Reggie Cannon is not going to be a $20 million player, but my guess is he'll be close to a $10 million, mistake-free RB who occasionally makes match-winning plays thanks to his understanding of when to get forward and pin-point crossing.
Tim Weah looked healthy-ish, if not necessarily sharp. Antonee Robinson struggled, and I'll go ahead and admit I still don't quite see it with him (the door is very open for Sam Vines, though I'll go ahead and persist in my belief that Dest on the left with Cannon on the right will end up being our best bet even if Dest didn't look great there vs. Panama). Konrad de la Fuente and Uly Llanez looked like what they are, which is to say teenagers who aren't yet really ready for first-team minutes. Richie Ledezma mostly looked like that as well, though he obviously had a major say in the late onslaught vs. Panama.
I think Johnny will be very good as long as he keeps getting minutes and, quite frankly, I liked his willingness to kick people. I am still high on Chris Richards, though I am not enamored of his club situation (I don't think he's going to regularly play CB for Bayern Munich any time soon).
So much of the above can change so quickly over the course of a few short months. For Musah, McKennie, Adams, Cannon and Dest, it changed for the better and they are all on clear, upward trajectories. The hope is that most of the rest of the players from this camp can do the same, but nothing's guaranteed.
Still, just from a depth-building perspective, this camp should be considered a major win.
Reyna is probably the highest-rated truly young player in the pool. He was dominant vs. Panama, if a bit sloppier than I expected him to be on the ball in midfield. He's not easily or often taken off of it for Borussia Dortmund, but got it caught up in his feet a few times vs. Los Canaleros. The same vs. Wales. I am not particularly concerned about this long-term — international soccer is just different. He'll figure that part out.
The real issue with Reyna is this one:
The Reyna we've seen at Dortmund over the past year makes that pass. The Reyna we saw for US youth teams at various age-groups often doesn't. It is why so many teams functioned better once they got him out of the engine room.
This was his first-ever cap, and he followed it up with a much better second outing. He's getting real minutes for one of the 15 (or so) best teams in the world at age 17 (now 18). The failure to make this pass is not a five-alarm fire.
But it is something to be aware of.
Another potential issue that I came away from this camp thinking about: Reyna was much better on the left than on the right. Christian Pulisic is much better on the left than the right, and Jordan Morris is much better on the left than the right.
I don't think this is a five-alarm fire, either. But it's something to be aware of.
I am curious to see how Berhalter will fit his consensus most-talented players on the field and meld them into a high-functioning unit. I don't think that's entirely clear yet, even if the system itself, and how it's supposed to function, is.
The Situation at Striker
Here's what I tweeted after the Wales game, during which Lletget was miscast as a false 9.
That doesn't even factor in Gioacchini & Soto, who I hope we'll see more of on Tuesday.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) November 12, 2020
I just hope GGG stops with the false 9 stuff. We don't need it.
Berhalter did indeed stop with the false 9 stuff vs. Panama, and both Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto made good cases for themselves. Gioacchini's natural inclination to link play is such a nice foundational building block, but he seems to pair it with high-level mobility and a willingness to scrap in the box. Soto, obviously, just has a nose for goal.
None of these guys — either those two, or Gyasi Zardes, Jozy Altidore, Josh Sargent, Daryl Dike, Jeremy Ebobisse or Ayo Akinola — need to become Robert Lewandowski to play a significant role in what has the potential to become an excellent attack (though I would not complain if one did, in fact, become Robert Lewandowski). They just need to be capable of executing those patterns of play at pace, to stay on their toes, and to put the ball in the net when the opportunity presents itself.
Regardless, I do believe that one of these guys needs to start even if it means leaving a nominally more talented winger or attacking midfielder on the bench. Balance, and getting the talent on the field to function together, is more important than just putting as much talent as is possible out there.
I don't know if there's much else to take from these games beyond that. They were B Team, shake-the-rust-off friendlies, and they were largely fun and good even if there were bits of disappointment scattered in. There is a clear plan of attack — and of how to attack — and more young talent than the program's ever had scattered throughout the roster.
But the truth is that with 10 months between now and the start of World Cup qualifying, these games will be largely forgotten as the games that matter finally come around. It's not a scoreless draw vs .Wales that'll determine who's on the field and in what role next September; it's club situations and injuries and opportunity, as well as a jam-packed next summer of US games at every age-group (Johnny, Uly and Konrad with the U-20s? I'd like to see it!).
We'll know more by then. In the meantime, the past 180 minutes were pretty fun and pretty purposeful. That's good enough for me, for now.