This is starting to get a little bit familiar. For the third time in a row, the USMNT came out in a friendly against a CONCACAF opponent, this time it was Trinidad & Tobago, and put out an absolutely stunning level of attacking, bagging at least 6 goals. Against the Soca Warriors, it was SEVEN goals, two each from the attacking three of Jonathan Lewis, Jesus Ferreira, and Paul Arriola, along with one from Miles Robinson. It was a great performance.
However, as was the case with the previous two friendlies, there are asterisks to be named. Every year, the January camp falls outside of FIFA windows, which means clubs are not required to release players. This of course kept out the USMNT’s Europe-based players, but it also impacts the opposition. And secondly, we have to consider the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. It appears that the USMNT was originally set to play Serbia, not T&T. But when that match fell apart, the Trinidadians were happy to step in. The Caribbean nation’s national team has not been able to secure matches due to the pandemic, so this was the first time they could get a group together. But due to the rushed nature of the match, they had to make due with whoever they could get. And that meant that a lot of their players were lower-league or semi professional players who haven’t played a lot over the course of the last year. And, well, that lack of playing time showed.
Still, you have to play who’s in front of you. The USMNT did that, and did that well. Even if they weren’t a full strength team, T&T is fairly likely to play the US again in World Cup qualifying. In fact, all three of the last teams the US played against are in similar positions and one or two of them could play in the final round (El Salvador and T&T would have to play a play-off round against each other, assuming they win their respective groups). So there’s still something to the game. With that, let’s get into what we learned.
One of the things that Berhalter has consistently done with his January camps is emphasis players who are eligible for the Olympic teams. This January camp was even more explicit than those in the past, with the federation calling in a full Olympic squad for training and only a handful of senior players. Let’ set aside the fact that the Olympics may be cancelled. Berhalter and the federation are clearly making an appearance at the Games a priority, even though it is not a senior competition in the men’s game. To that end, Berhalter played 6 players who are Olympics eligible in the starting line-up, with 4 more coming on as subs. This has continued Berhalter’s project of awarding caps to new players, with 6 more players making their first appearance for the senior team.
The truth is that most of the best players for the current USMNT are under the age of 24, and thus, eligible for the Olympics. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergiño Dest, etc. They are all eligible. But they almost certainly won’t go to the Olympics, precisely because it is not a senior team competition, and thus clubs are not required to release players. And, with the Gold Cup, Nation’s League knock out rounds, and World Cup qualifying, the calendar is pretty chock full with competitive games that will require the best players. Instead, it’s likely that it will be these players from MLS who will be filling out the roster.
But it’s not merely about the Olympics themselves. One of the big failures of the USMNT in the last cycle under both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena was an inability or unwillingness to transition in younger players. That is not at all the case with Berhalter. The Olympic teams are training with the senior squads. Those young players are given opportunities to play with the senior team, and to impress. And, regardless of who is getting called up, the patterns of play are staying about the same. Speaking of which...
Establishing the Patterns of Play
The USMNT has played roughly the same way since November, even with a whole slew of different players. The only player who has appeared in all four games was Sebastian Lletget, and he’s cycled through a couple different roles. However, Berhalter has managed to keep the way the USMNT play the same, regardless of who is on the team.
And, to make a crucial point, the way that the MNT is now playing is different from how the team played in the 2019 Gold Cup, when they last played T&T (a 6-0 win). In that game, the team played in a 4-2-3-1, with the pair of Michael Bradley and Weston McKennie sitting deep behind Christian Pulisic. Defensively, the team played out of a mid-block; not trying to win the ball back immediately but also not bunkering down and playing deep.
However, much of that has changed. Last January, Berhalter had the January Camp squad press high up the field. And then, in November, with the European based roster, we saw the midfield shift so that there was only one holding player (Adams) with two dynamic box-box midfielders actively playing a role in both attack and defense sitting in front. It’s a traditional 4-3-3 (or 4-1-2-3 or 4-1-4-1, whatever you want to call it). The team has always aimed to create through possession of the ball. But now, there’s a clear move to play on the counter-press. After the team loses the ball, they recover it quickly and try to create opportunities. You can see that most clearly with the second goal.
Kellyn Acosta wins the ball back and pokes it to Jackson Yuiell. From Yuiell, it goes to Lletget, then to Jon Lewis out on the wing. Lewis plays the overlapping Sam Vines who puts the cross in for Jesus Ferreira to bang home. We’ve consistently seen play like that from this US side.
Make Your Move
The final big thing I took from this match is that so many players look really good, and that many of them were out there making a case for a transfer to some place new and bigger and better. In the background to this game, we’ve got buzz that Paul Arriola could be headed to the English second division to play with Welsh Club Swansea. Aaron Long joins him with links to a number of English Premier League clubs, including possibly Liverpool! And finally, in a bit of a surprise twist, Daryl Dike, who made his debut as a sub, made a jump to join Barnsley in the English second division on a short term loan.
But that’s just the players who were on the field. Jordan Morris has already gone to Swansea on loan. Meanwhile, reports say that Bryan Reynolds, FC Dallas’s right back, has completed his move to Roma in Italy (before even making his first senior cap!). And Yedlin and Chris Richards made moves in search of playing time.
The competition for USMNT spots is ratcheting up and clubs are taking notice. With instability surrounding MLS start date due to labor talks and the pandemic, players won’t necessarily have the kind of club play that they would want going into the March international break. But beyond that, there’s just a slew of young talent and more and more of it is constantly emerging.
Matt Turner saved a penalty. On his debut, no less! For that, he gets a note from me. I don’t actually have more to say about him — he had essentially nothing else to do — but save a penalty and you get some deserved recognition.
Matt Doyle made the point that Sam Vines has made the same incisive cross for a string of games now. Sam Vines has a reputation as being a more defensive option at fullback, but this shows he has more than that to his game. Left back is one of a few positions still in flux, with the most high profile player at the spot, Sergiño Dest, being a right back, while the next most high profile player, Antonee Robinson, having a skills mismatch for the current team. I’d like to see if Vines can elevate his game in the coming year and maybe make a jump to a decent team in, say, Germany or Italy.
Sam Vines. Same pass vs. Costa Rica and vs. El Salvador and vs. T&T.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) February 1, 2021
I'm surprised that people are surprised by his vision on that first goal. pic.twitter.com/qWv7A3MHPz
Sebastian Lletget was asked to play like Weston McKennie. Something I noticed early on was that Lletget was shading in to cover Vines when the fullback went up the field. It’s the exact same play that we saw McKennie do with Robinson in November. If Lletget was there to be a driving attacking force, he shouldn’t have been holding back there. That about confirms to me that the two central midfielders need to by dynamic and aware in both attack and defense. Oh, and Lletget did OK defensively.
Jesus Ferreira is good as a False XI. It’s pretty clear that Berhalter wants a striker who can come deep and link play in midfield. Jozy Altidore does that, Josh Sargent does that, and Jesus Ferreira did that to 2 goals and three assists. With Sargent struggling to bag goals with Werder Bremen, and with Altidore’s health and consistently more in question than ever, striker is the most up-for grabs spot on the field. (Poor Gyasi Zardes, he’s the clear goal scorer, but gets relegated to the bench.) Also, I am contractually obliged to admit that Matthew Hoppe exists, has scored goals for a bad Bundesliga team, and should get a look.
That’s it for me. As always, I want to know what you guys think. Did I miss something? Get something wrong? Let’s talk about it in the comments below. Stay safe, everyone.