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2023 CONCACAF Nations League; USA v Grenada: What We Learned

The USMNT got back into the 2023 CONCACAF Nations League with a commanding 7-1 win over Grenada. Here’s What We Learned.

United States v Grenada: Group D - CONCACAF Nations League Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team went down to St. George’s in Grenada for the team’s third match for this edition of the CONCACAF Nation’s League group stage and walked away with a dominant 7-1 result. The goals came early and quickly. Ricard Pepi headed home a cross from Christian Pulisic in the 4th minute to grab the lead. Goals from Brendan Aaronson and Weston McKennie brought the score to three, before Grenada took advantage of a switched-off US side to grab a goal and bring the side to 3-1. However, the goal ultimately merely served as a footnote as the Americans continued to score. McKennie scored a second to close out the half. After the break, goals from Christian Pulisic, Pepi (his second), and substitute Alejandro Zendejas brought the game to 7-1. It was a dominant and confident showing for the USMNT. They will close out the Nations League group stage on Monday, March 27, for a home match v. El Salvador. So long as the team can manage a draw, they will advance to the Nations League finals over the summer.

Going into the new World Cup cycle, the single major question hanging over the USMNT program is over who the new management will be. The absences of a sporting director and a permanent manager unfortunately give every game a kind of asterisk as things will necessarily change once the positions are filled.

However, there are still a few positional needs that clearly need to be addressed:

  • Identify positions where players may need to be phased in/out
  • Clarify the depth at Left Back
  • Fill out the midfield depth chart
  • Identify a starter at striker

Did we learn anything about any of these issues? Well, despite the low level of opposition and the flux at the management level, we kind of got some data points about at least some of these points. Let’s get into it.

New Blood

A new World Cup Cycle means, of course, transitioning players in and transitioning players out. Players get older. For younger players, the passage of time brings the potential for maturation and sophistication. But for older players, it means a potential decline. Every national team program needs to manage this transition. And failure to do so can create significant problems (an aging squad was part of the problem in the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup).

With that said, the following players from the 2022 World Cup will be over 30 by the tournament 2026:

Tim Ream (Will be 39 by June 11, 2026)
Sean Johnson (38)
Walker Zimmerman (34)
Aaron Long (34)
DeAndre Yedlin (33)
Matt Turner (32)
Cristian Roldan (32)
Jordan Morris (32)
Kellyn Acosta (31)

We might as well add the following two players who played during qualifying:

Paul Arriola (32)
Jordan Pefok (31)

Now, not all of these players will need to be phased out. Depending on position and play style, individual players may maintain a high level of ability as they age, even into their late 30’s. For instance, at 35, Tim Ream managed to not only go to his first ever World Cup with the US, but he proved to be one of the team’s most consistent and influential players at the tournament. In particular, I expect Matt Turner will remain an influential figure through this cycle.

With that said, some of these players will decline, while young players will improve and being to more seriously compete for spots. A transition does still need to be made, and this game served to start some of that. Yes, the competition is not good. But this does give a chance for players to get familiar with the program and develop chemistry.

Auston Trusty and Taylor Booth each received their first caps, while a further 4 players with under 5 caps played. Those spots were concentrated in defense, with Trusty, Bryan Reynolds, and Joe Scally playing. Which makes sense given that defense is where players aging out is the biggest issue. On the other hand, this gave Scally room to grow into a potential Left back role that I mentioned earlier. All told, I would say it was a good-fine performance for everyone, though, given the competition, I don’t really have anything of note to say about them in particular.

Reyna at Midfield

I do have something to say about Gio Reyna, however.

The kid has come under the microscope with his parent’s meddling causing and then becoming the subject of a USSF investigation, even as young Gio has seen his minutes limited with his club, Burussia Dortmund. As for his status with the national team is concerned, I think the best approach is to defer to the coaching staff. Ultimately, what is best for the team is to manage the locker room and young Reyna’s relationship with the team and the other players. And the staff are by far the best ones to make that call.

Now, as for how Reyna played...

This game marked the start of Reyna’s career as a Center Attacking Mid, at least with the USMNT. Many have long called for Reyna to be fielded in this position given his play-style and his occasional* appearances at the spot with his club. And having Reyna as an option at midfield is useful as that gives the team a potential different look and fills out the depth chart at a spot of need. However, I have long been a skeptic of this potential position swap for several reasons.

*WhoScored lists Reyna as having played as a left or right sided attacking midfielder this season, never as a central player. I don’t know what to tell you.

Now, how did this positional wrinkle play out?

Well, he definitely was in attacking spots on the field and not on the wings. I’ll say that much.

Passing position for the USMNT, retrieved from Gio Reyna is #7, Aaronson 11, Pepi 9, Pulisic 10, McKennie 8, de la Torre 14.

This pass map isn’t bad, per se. Rather, it hints at limitations of what Reyna brought to the role. To back up for a second, the important context here is that this was a one-sided rout. All the starting attacking players got goals or assists.

Ricardo Pepi scored twice.
Christian Pulisic got a goal and 2 assists (3 if you want to include McKennie’s first goal) and set up another 2 with set piece delivery
Brendan Aaronson scored once
Weston McKennie got two goals off of set pieces
Luca de la Torre got 2 assists
Alex Zendejas scored once as a substitute

That is every single starting attacking or midfield player (plus a substitute) on the score sheet ... except Reyna.

Indeed, Reyna registered no shots, nor did he have any tackles. For me, Center Attacking Midfielders are all about registering assists and goals. They are there to be a direct or indirect goal threat. And Reyna just wasn’t, even though everyone around him was. While Reyna combined fine with the players around him, he didn’t advance play towards goal. He didn’t really set his teammates up into space. And he didn’t use his own personal skill to create chances.

Actually, the goal by Brenan Aaronson really stood out to me for this.

Aaronson received the ball in the middle of the field, exactly where Reyna ought to be. Aaronson found a pocket of space with a bit of skill and then rifled home a shot... which is basically exactly what Reyna’s skill set is. I would comfortably say that Reyna is better at this exact kind of play. Yet it’s Aaronson finding the space and linking up and scoring, not Reyna.

The way that Reyna plays in general with the national team is that he generally floats around, position-less. It doesn’t really matter to him where he’s actually supposed to be, the position are more like suggestions to him. In general, he moves towards the ball and asks to have it on his feet.

When Reyna plays as a winger, usually on the right for the US, this means he comes inside. This naturally transforms the team’s midfield trio into a quartet, giving more options in the middle of the field to hold possession and build towards goal. But when Reyna is already in the midfield, you don’t get that extra player pinching in to create a numbers advantage. In this game, Reyna’s penchant to try and get on the ball actually created something of a problem as you can see on the pass map. Instead of being actually in the middle, he’s pinched towards Christian Pulisic on the left. In turn, Aaronson is coming way into the middle of the field, essentially covering Reyna’s spot. In this game, this doesn’t matter as Grenada is not able to do much of anything to even block the US from going up the field. But against a better team, with only the right back left to provide width, that kind of narrowness will make it easier for the opposition to block the USMNT.

Yeah, ok, Reyna didn’t have the best attacking performance and it didn’t show up on the score sheet. So what?

Well, that is only one problem. Reyna is also not a great link-up player. At center midfield, you want players who can connect the midfield lines with the attacking ones. And the problem here is that the other players are consistently bypassing Reyna to get to Pulisic. Both McKennie and de la Torre have more passes to Pulisic than to Reyna, and frankly, it’s not particularly close. What you want is for your attacking midfielder to serve as a platform that allows the attacking players to get on the ball inside the final third. But here, Pulisic is doing that, not Reyna. And that begs the question, what is Reyna doing on that spot of the field? What is the point of playing him there if he is not generating attacking momentum, if he’s not serving as a connector between the midfield and attack, and he's not aggressively pressing and defending?

It bears repeating, this is but one game, against one well-overmatched opponent. This is a data point, not a conclusion. Maybe Reyna will be an excellent midfield player in the future. But this game was evidence that suggests otherwise.

Closing Thoughts

This game marked a triumphant return for Luca de la Torre. de la Torre didn’t play at all in the World Cup despite making the squad, presumably due to an injury he was recovering from. However, this game was a welcome display of talent. This team needs more dependable options at midfield, and seeing de la Torre succeed again is a welcome sight indeed.

Man, does Alejandro Zendejas look fun. This game officially cap-tied the player to the US. Zendejas was heavily pursued by Mexico, who even fielded him for two senior team friendlies, breaking FIFA rules in the process. Zendejas was rewarded for his choice with the first goal of his international career. Winger is the USMNT’s deepest position, with Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson, and the injured Tim Weah all competing for just two spots. But at 25, Zendejas fits right into that age-profile with Pulisic, Adams, and McKennie. With Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, and Cristian Roldan all entering their 30’s before the next World Cup, this might be Zendejas’ opportunity to take one of their spots.

Ricardo Pepi got back into scoring form with 2 in this game. These were his first goals since scoring two against Jamaica all the way back in October 2021. Striker remains the biggest question mark out of all the positions and I would personally love to see a rejuvenated Pepi make that spot his own. That said...

The US and Anthony are apparently going recruiting...

Folarin Balogun, striker for French club Reims on loan from Arsenal, would instantly be a candidate for USMNT striker. I, of course, plead caution — and respect — when it comes to dual nationals. But there seems to be a lot of smoke and it’s kinda getting a bit warm here.

Even as this camp is underway, MLS is still playing and American players are putting up performances. This camp clearly served as a chance for foreign-based players to get a look in what otherwise are not the biggest of tests. Only Miles Robinson, who did not play v. Grenada, was called up from MLS. At the same time, you have players in MLS performing well. Brandon Vazquez scored his first goal, while Jordan Morris scored 4 (!!!!) times. We presumably will get another look at some of these players when the US plays a friendly v. Mexico for a non-FIFA date in April.

Congratulations go to Anthony Hudson for marking his first win as Head Coach of the USMNT, and in a competitive match, too. That must be a big honor for the English American coach, never mind the interim tag.

The USMNT returns for a match v. El Salvador on Monday, A win or a draw would be enough to make a return to the Nations League knockout rounds.

That’s it from me. As always, we want to hear what you thought of the match. Tell us in the comments down below!