The USMNT faced off against Jamaica in Austria and came away with a 4-1 win and a really fun performance. This continues the trend (four games in a row now) of winning big in friendlies, particularly against CONCACAF opposition. This performance was particularly noteworthy because Jamaica are actually a decent team. Up to this point, I’ve been forced to make caveats for each of the teams the USMNT has faced going back to November, that the quality of the opposition was poor and that players were forced to miss because of COVID restrictions. And there are still caveats to this Jamaican team (players missed because of COVID precautions, players missed because of a federation pay dispute, an abundance of new, uncapped players). But even though this wasn’t quite a full strength Jamaican side, it was still a decent one.
Through of a handful of quality players and heavy recruiting in England, along with a cohesive game plan, Jamaica have emerged as one of the better teams in CONCACAF. While that hasn’t turned into World Cup success, it did get them to two consecutive Gold Cup finals, ( 2015 and 2017, pipping one of Mexico and the US in each tournament) and a Gold Cup semifinals appearance. Now, Jamaica are eying the upcoming World Cup qualifying tournament with a chance to return to the biggest stage. At full strength, Jamaica are a significant obstacle. As mentioned, this wasn’t quite a full-strength Jamaica side. But it wasn’t a particularly weak one, either. Those new call-ups weren’t kids. They were full professionals in their prime playing the English Championship, the nation’s second division. While we will likely need to add in names like Leon Bailey when the USMNT faces the Reggae Boyz in qualifying, this was still a significant test.
It was even more an important test given the restrictions the USMNT has faced. This camp represented the first time Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent were back in camp in well over a year. Integrating them back into the team is a critical objective. On the other hand, due to COVID restrictions and injuries, the USMNT were missing a number of familiar (or aspiring to be familiar names). Missing out on Jordan Morris and Tim Weah due to injury and COVID restrictions was unfortunate. But missing out on Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams for the same reasons respectively was a big deal. The team would have to demonstrate that they could play without 2⁄3 of their starting midfield.
With that said, let’s see how they did. Here’s what we learned:
Left to Destiny
We might as well start with the man of the hour. Sergiño Dest came into the USMNT camp ready to ball. There’s been loads of talk about whether Dest should be played on the right or on the left (including from me.) Ahead of this game, the argument was whether Dest on the left undermined his talents too much to justify putting him at left back. Indeed, with Barcelona this season, he’s mostly played on the right side (mostly as a fullback) and only twice as a left back.
So the lineup for this game set up an interesting experiment: How does Dest do with a decent opponent on the left? Well, he certainly came to play. From the whistle, Dest was out there, playing with a huge heart and clear ambition. He shimmied and swayed, he flicked and brushed past. But it wasn’t just that he pulled out tricks from his bag. It was that he genuinely used those deft touches with purpose and intent. He was at once both the most effective player in the first half, and the most dazzling to watch.
You can tell Sergiño Dest plays with Lionel Messi pic.twitter.com/XxEbsq7HEk— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) March 25, 2021
Thanks to Dest’s willingness to drive forward and combine with the players around him in inventive ways, the team was able to get into the final third with a decent regularity in the first half, though they couldn’t really find a way to break through. And I want to emphasize, it was largely through Dest that the team was able to build up to those chances. Dest has an ability to force one, two, or even three defenders to commit to him on the dribble, only to slip a pass to an open teammate. Pulisic didn’t have the best 45 minutes, (too much dribbling into a crowd), but you can see how having Dest behind him creates space for him. If the two can build up a chemistry, that left side is going to be really effective.
And then there’s the goal. That shot from distance was a work
Erm, wait, something’s off here. Ah, never mind.
Anyway, the takeaway here is that Dest is a very good player, including when he plays left back.
We need to take a moment to talk about Gio Reyna. He had a fine game. But there are particular moments where he’s not make the right decisions. Matt Doyle talked a bit about this in his post-match column, but I wanted to really stop and break some examples down. The issues are subtle and most people are going to miss them without breaking down.
The first is a clip from the second half (you can watch it below) where Reyna picks up the ball, marches down the field, and takes a shot. On the surface, it looks good, but there’s some problems here that undermine the play. So I broke it down into diagrams.
On the surface, it looks good, but there’s some problems here that undermine the play. So I broke it down into diagrams.
The play starts with Reyna intercepting a bad pass from Jamaica in the defensive half. Through the whole match, Jamaica struggled to connect passes when one of the midfield trio stepped up to press (in this case, Lletget), and Reyna recovers the ball. The first image starts from here, with Reyna on the ball, rushing into the opponents half. He’s got Sargent (9) making a run roughly parallel to him, while Aaronson (11) and Lletget (17) move into attack from a little bit behind. Reyna’s got two Jamaican center backs between him and goal, with another defender just behind his shoulder, and another trailing. This 4 v. 4 shows a lot of promise.
After this point, we get to the second image, with Reyna curling his run towards goal. And this is where things start to break down. Reyna has continued his run straight at the goal. The center backs have anticipated this and now stand in his way. Reyna chooses to run straight at them. This is a naive play from Reyna, who is choosing to move as directly as possible towards goal instead of into open space. Aaronson and Lletget realize the play is breaking down and they slow their runs, taking positions where they can be flexible, either in giving options or in recovering if the ball is turned over. As he gets to the box, Reyna finds that he has no more room to run with the center backs blocking his way and with a defender still on his shoulder behind him. Sargent attempts to make something of the situation and makes a run to split the center backs. Reyna ignores this, instead choosing to cut left and drive into the box.
The third image shows the conclusion of the play. Reyna’s gotten into into the box, but he’s not in a good position. He has a defender in front of him, a narrow angle, the goal keeper, and a fair bit of distance between himself and goal. On top of that, he’s now moving out to the left, away from goal, and is a little unbalanced. Reyna takes the shot and shots high.
A lot of people will look at that play and see a threatening moment and a shot at goal (indeed, Ian Darke, to my dismay, even says it’s a good run). But what I see is a textbook example of crisis defending. The Jamaican defenders are in a bad situation, but they successfully bait Reyna into a place where they can surround him, and then push him away from goal. They are able to successfully screen Reyna from goal, while still marking Sargent out of the play. While Reyna got a shot off, the defenders were able to successfully make that shot as non-threatening as possible.
That begs the question, what should Reyna have done instead? You could say his mistake was in taking the ball to the defenders instead of forcing the defenders to come to the ball. Reyna’s already past two defenders; he just has the center backs in his way. If he peels to the right, he can force one of them out of the middle and an opportunity for Aaronson, Lletget, and Sargent to play against a single isolated defender. Alternatively, Sargent could find a huge amount of space. In other words, the odds of scoring would have gone way up. But the odds of Reyna scoring would have dropped.
With that run, it’s admittedly a little difficult to outright say that a different decision would have resulted in a goal. It’s too complicated a scenario. That’s not the case in the next set of photos.
This happened just a few minutes after the above clip. In the first photo, Kellyn Acosta does well to drive forward with the ball into Jamaica’s half. He’s got a number of options, but he sees Reyna in a good position and he passes the ball (blue line) directly to his feet. After that screenshot, Reyna drives into the box, where he takes a shot at the back post, depicted in the second screenshot. On the surface, this looks like a decent set of decisions that even resulted in a chance. The problem is that the MNT could have clearly scored if Reyna had made one of two different decisions.
In the first shot, we can see where Reyna is on the field; level with his defender and wide on the right. This isn’t a bad position. But it’s the kind of position a player takes to retain possession and contribute to build up play. It’s not an aggressive run to create a chance. There’s an opportunity to create a clear-cut chance at goal, but Reyna is not paying enough attention to the other defenders. On the opposite wing, Brendan Aaronson has successfully dragged the center back closest to him deeper into the field. This means that the offsides line (depicted in red) is higher up the field than Reyna realizes. If he noticed this, he could have made a run to move ahead of his defender, into space, but still on side. From there, a similar pass from Acosta, this time a through ball into space (blue dotted line), would have put Reyna in one-v-one vs. the goalkeeper.
Still, while the run Reyna did make wasn’t optimal, he did get in a good position. But that brings us to the second screenshot. Reyna doesn’t realize that Sargent is wide open. A simple square pass and Sargent gets a tap in. Instead, Reyna goes for goal himself. In order for him to score, he’s got to thread the ball between a center back and the goalkeeper, all while he’s moving into a worse angle. It’s a hard shot, and Reyna doesn’t make it.
It’s a testament to Reyna’s physical and technical skills that he’s able to get shots off in these suboptimal moments. In the clip, even though Reyna’s made the wrong run and given the defenders an advantage, he’s still able to create a little bit of space for a shot and force the Jamaican defense to scramble. And even though Reyna doesn't make the best run, he still is able to get a shot off and nearly pulls off a difficult move. But the thing is, he’s not using his prodigious talents to create dangerous chances. He’s using his abilities to compensate for bad decisions.
Some of you might be balking, saying I’m being too harsh, that Reyna is just this kind of player who takes risky chances. But his competition don’t make these bad decisions. Tim Weah and Jordan Morris would have noticed that high offsides line and exploited it. And later, in this exact same game, Nicholas Gioacchini was in a very similar position and noticed almost the exact same through ball opportunity, this time to Lletget, and Gioacchini got an assist. The result is that, while threatening on the surface, Reyna isn’t actually goal dangerous, particularly when compared to his peers. While his competition are getting goals and assists, Reyna is merely getting flashy, but ultimately empty, moments.
Filling in for Adams
For me, the real big question going into the match was how the team were going to cope without Tyler Adams. I spent 2019 hammering on the point that the USMNT struggled to win the ball back without Adams, who was out due to an extended injury. When Adams finally returned to the national team in November, it looked like the problems with winning the ball back were solved. But lo and behold, the next full camp comes around and Adams can’t make it, this time because of COVID precautions. So the USMNT and Gregg Berhalter needed to find a solution to how the team would defend in midfield without Adams. Berhalter apparently decided that Adams’ spot would be filled by Kellyn Acosta.
Ahead of the game, the decision to play Acosta as the holding mid seemed an odd decision. After nominally breaking out with the USMNT and getting a few starts in qualifiers (including away against Mexico in the Azteca), Bruce Arena dropped him to the bench. While Acosta got several games under Sarachan, Berhalter did not seem interested in the Rapids midfielder. That apparently changed when Acosta appeared in the most recent December and January camps, with Acosta finally getting a few minutes. He apparently made an impression. Enough so that Berhalter was willing to try him out in a new position.
I’ve not been very high on Acosta. He always struck me as a player who's skillset didn’t quite map out onto any particular position, and who could keep a consistent run of success at any particular spot. In other words, he seemed like a bit of a jack-of-all-trades when the USMNT needed specialists. If he were to play, it seemed to me he’d make the most success as one of Berhalter’s box-box mids. Yet, here he was, at the base of the midfield, and succeeding, no less! Acosta held his position well, effectively screened the backline, pressed well, passed well, and made several driving runs up the field to launch attacks. It was a good performance.
But Kellyn Acosta wasn’t the whole answer to the problem of how to play without Adams. The other part of that solution was the systemic way the midfield has played for the last few months. The midfield trio presses high up the field and suffocates the opposition’s ability to link play and hold possession. Acosta was part of this, but so too were Lletget and Musah. If you look at the pass map for Jamaica, you’ll find it is astonishingly bad.
This kind of defensive performance, along with the last few games, suggests that the USMNT has finally found an effective systemic answer for how to how to win the ball back in midfield. It’s no longer merely about relying on a player as talented as Adams in the role. Now, the team is performing even without such a talent. And that’s a big deal.
Yunus Musah is well rounded and consistent, but not flashy. His third outing (and his first since declaring for the USMNT) was a continuation of what we saw in November. And that’s an incredibly good sign, especially since Musah’s still 18.
de la Torre had a really good cameo. Coming into the match, I didn’t have high expectations for the Californian (I mean, he was making up numbers after our regular Champion’s League calibre midfielders dropped out), but he looked energetic. His movement on the ball had a drive to it and his passing was tidy. And he got an assist for his efforts. I look forward to seeing in future games if he can replicate the high-energy pressing expected out of midfield.
Reggie Cannon had a bad game. I don’t know what’s up with that. He’s been consistently good since the last Gold Cup. I know he hit a sour patch with his club, so perhaps that’s affecting him. In this game, he had bad turnovers, mistimed some runs, had no chemistry with Reyna, and was significantly culpable on the build up to the Jamaican goal. Not a good outing.
I find the disdain for Sebastian Lletget to be incredibly dull and lazy.
I can't believe Lletget is starting after being competent-to-good in all 18 of his previous USMNT appearances.— Jamie Hill (@_jameshill) March 25, 2021
He had a good game. And it’s not just the goals (though 4 goals in 5 matches is a noteworthy return). I already mentioned that the midfield did an excellent job shutting down Jamaica’s ability to play on the ball. Lletget was a big part of that. If I thought this debate was more noteworthy, I’d write up a whole section and point out the stats. Instead, you can do that for yourself. While he probably doesn’t start over McKennie, he’s a perfectly fine player.
The Brooks-Long center back pairing was quite effective. Brooks took up a role as a proactive defender, aggressively stepping forward to contest duels, intercept plays, and kill counters. But there’s always a risk in playing as an aggressive defender; you can always get caught out. However, Long was always there to clean up anything that went past his partner. Richards didn’t have a lot to do when he came on, but conceding that goal was not a good look for him (or for Robinson for that matter). With center backs, it’s not merely about individual talent; it’s the paring that matters. Right now, Brooks-Long looks like a pairing that works.
Taylor Twellman made the point during the broadcast that the USMNT is going to need a lot of depth this year. The team has a seriously congested schedule coming up. There’s the Gold Cup, Nation’s League finals, and World Cup Qualifying. The U-23 team also has the Olympics, at least so long as they can beat Honduras on Sunday. World Cup qualifying itself will be particularly harsh, with 3 games set for each international break instead of 2. As a result, the USMNT is going to need to rely on a lot of depth. That could well mean upwards of 40 players all told.
That’s all from me. The USMNT will return for a match against Northern Ireland in Belfast on March 28th. As always, we want to know what you think. What do you agree with, what do you think I got wrong? Talk about it in the comments below.
As always, stay safe.