Saturday night in Kansas City, Kansas, the United States men's national team played the last of three pre-Copa America friendlies, defeating Bolivia by a 4-0 final. Here's what we learned:
Michael Bradley as a 6: The Dream is Real
Perhaps the most pleasing development over the past three games has been the return of Michael Bradley to the role of a deep-sitting six. Just a few days ago, it didn't appear this would be the case at all. On Wednesday vs. Ecuador, Jürgen Klinsmann started an all too familiar defensive-heavy midfield trio, featuring Kyle Beckerman behind Bradley and Jermaine Jones. Beckerman was subbed off at halftime of that game (pushing Bradley further back) and hasn't been seen since.
Klinsmann has a long-stated preference for deploying Bradley further up the field. Has he finally seen the light? If the last three halves are any indication, the answer might be yes. Whether it was the ineffectiveness of the offense with Beckerman in that mix, or the emergence of attacking options (Bobby Wood, Darlington Nagbe) forcing their way onto the field, it's been a refreshing change. Bradley has always been at his best in this role, spraying balls forward, making incisive runs from deep positions. The U.S. has looked more dynamic and kept better possession, and there's every reason to believe we'll see more of this look as the calendar turns to June.
Gyasi Zardes has no interest in your narratives
Following an encouraging second half performance vs. Ecuador, many observers, including this writer, were ready to push Gyasi Zardes to the bench, once and for all. The excitement from the combined performances of Nagbe, Wood, and Christian Pulisic was understandable. But a funny thing happened last night along the way: Zardes scored a brace, and with it, made a loud and clear declaration that he has no intention of exiting the starting XI quietly.
For all the (fair) criticisms of his perceived weaknesses, Zardes reminded us what he brings to the table, and why Klinsmann continues to have confidence in him. As a forward, he creates problems for defenses. Frequently interchanging with Clint Dempsey vs. Bolivia, Zardes' diagonal runs made him difficult to track, and when he gains separation with a ball to run onto, he's deadly in front of goal.
Saturday night we saw a highly motivated Zardes determined to retain his claim on a starting role. The competition for that role has ratcheted up considerably over the past week, and he knows it. Zardes has responded in a big way, and looks very likely to be in the XI on Friday vs. Colombia.
USMNT is entering Copa America with confidence and... optimism?
Don't look now, but the United States is about to enter a major tournament on a high note. We've seen two successive shutout wins against South American teams, five consecutive shutout halves, the emergence of a newly dynamic offense that has figured out how to keep the ball, and the arrival of a bench with greater depth and diversity of options.
The feeling surrounding this team is, dare we say, optimistic?
Look, we know about the many grains of salt that should be taken with the results of friendlies. The U.S. faced a greatly undermanned Bolivia squad that even on its best day is still among the weakest CONMEBOL has to offer. Translating these performances into results when it counts? Well, that remains to be seen.
But it's not merely the scorelines of the past week that should excite us. There have been many signs of a team beginning to find itself; signs of a head coach recognizing and utilizing the weapons he has at his disposal. We've seen newer faces make very compelling cases for minutes, and we've seen veteran players respond to the challenges to their positions. We've seen a USMNT that looks... remarkably credible, even dangerous at times, and that's a lot more than could have been said a week ago.