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USMNT v. Wales, 2020 friendly: What we learned

The USMNT made their return after almost a year forced out by the pandemic, and while we didn’t exactly get to see a lot of goals, we did get to see some exciting new faces.

Wales v USA - International Friendly Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images

There was a USMNT game! After almost a whole year, we finally had the return of the United States men’s national team! And, I gotta tell ya, it feels good to be watching and writing about these games again. I have missed it dearly. And, quite honestly, this was an enjoyable one to watch and analyze. There’s been a lot of negativity about the team for a little while (I suppose such is the nature of the team), but, even though the side didn’t get a goal and didn’t generate many shots, a lot of their play looked good.

Of course, we have to take the opposition into consideration. I don’t particularly rate Wales even on their best days, but this team was without Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey, the two truly world class talents in the Welsh player pool. Instead, we saw a collection of players largely pulled from Championship clubs or the fringes of Premier League teams. This wasn’t a great European power. Instead, they were more akin to a CONCACAF opponent.

In contrast, the USMNT has suddenly stocked itself with a slew of players getting consistent minutes with big European teams: Sergiño Dest with Barcelona, Weston McKennie with Juventus, Gio Reyna with Dortmund. Even without Christian Pulisic, the MNT has a ton of young talent. This is a team we should expect big things out of. With that said, here’s what we learned from this match.

Sebastian Lletget is not a striker

Yup, we are starting with the hot takes here, folks.

There’s not a lot to say about the actual decision to start Lletget as a false 9. It was stupid and it didn’t work. Lletget is a good player, good enough that I am willing to entertain the thought that he might be included on important squad rosters. The way he drives the play forward from midfield is useful and different from the other options we’ve seen thus far from the midfield talent pool. But he’s not a striker. And I hope he doesn’t get slotted in as a false 9 again.

... And that Affects Gio Reyna

I wish that was all that I had to say about the striker situation, but, unfortunately, this decision spiraled out and affected the rest of the game.

The way that a false 9 is supposed to play is by dropping into midfield in order to provide numbers in the middle of the field and thereby potentially create space for goal-scoring wingers when the center backs follow. The best false 9s (for my money, Francesco Totti) would both be able to get on the ball in midfield to create AND score themselves. Lletget is a poor fit for this as he isn’t a real creator or goal scorer so much as he ratchets up the tempo of the attack. Lletget is at his best when he gets on the ball and is allowed to drive forward while quickly linking up with forward-moving teammates. Having him so high up the field to start means he has to check back to the ball ... without any players ahead of him with which he can link play. But even worse, this means that Lletget is basically already sitting in the same space as Gio Reyna.

In particular, the decision to field Lletget as a false 9 made it difficult to evaluate Reyna, but, from this game, it was clear that what Reyna wanted to do was to come inside and hold possession in the area in and in front of the opponents’ box. In the press session ahead of the match, Berhalter specifically said that he wanted his wingers to get in behind the backline. Neither Reyna nor Konrad did much of that. But with Lletget already there, that space got cramped and easily marked. The two struggled to link up effectively and chances didn’t really happen. If you put a proper striker there, however, they may have been able to make more room for Reyna by occupying the centerbacks and playing hold-up.

The USMNT sorely needs both chance creators and goal scorers. While the team has shown that they can bag goals by the bunches against Caribbean minnows, they have struggled to generate chances and actually knock them in against stronger opposition, getting shut out by Mexico and Canada in 3 out of 4 games last year. In this game, the United States also struggled to create clear-cut chances, generating just one shot on target (a speculative — though good — effort from Uly Llanez). To say the least, this match didn’t assuage concerns. It remains to be seen who exactly Reyna slots in there.

The Return of Tyler Adams

It’s been a year since last we saw the likes of McKennie, Dest, and Brooks. But it’s been almost two years since we last saw Tyler Adams, with his last appearance at the very first international window in 2019. Since then, the USMNT has struggled to maintain a defensive presence. I have (repeatedly) criticized the team for not being good at winning the ball back and for poorly screening the backline. Through all of that came the admission that Tyler Adams could quite plausibly come back and fix everything.

Well, Tyler Adams came back. And that defensive frailty was fixed.

Wales absolutely struggled to play into the United States half, especially up through the middle. Take a look at this map of successful Welsh passes:

Wales Successful Passes Map

It would be unfair of me to attribute all of that to Adams (McKennie and Yunus Musah were quite good) but I mean, that gap is EXACTLY where Adams slots into the field.

Over the course of 2019, Berhalter was forced to move a midfielder deeper to partner the holding player and provide more stability. But the strengths of Adams allowed McKennie and Musah to play higher up the field. That in turn allowed the US to run an aggressive and high press, suffocating the Welsh midfield. No matter where the Welsh players turned, there was a player there to press them, and another player there to pick the ball after a sloppy touch or pass.

Antonee Robinson is Not a Possession Player

There’s been a lot of noise over the last few years over Fulham left back Antonee Robinson and, to be quite honest, I don’t really get it. I don’t really rate him. But you have to keep an open mind about a player attracting interest from Serie A and regularly playing in the Premier League. Still, it seemed to me that Robinson was a player specifically molded for a specific situation and play style: run fast out wide and whip in crosses. And, for this match, I think that skillset let him down.

Robinson is a really fast player and he's got the ability to put in really dangerous crosses. But it seems like that’s all he is. He switched off at bad moments against Wales, repeatedly losing his man or getting caught too high up the field. If it weren’t for McKennie keeping a watchful eye or the general solid play of John Brooks, the US could have been severely punished. When he doesn’t have open space to run into, he doesn’t seem to have ideas. He doesn’t make incisive linking passes, nor does he beat past players on the dribble. While the team is in possession, he doesn’t make the same kind of dynamic runs that we see from Dest or Cannon.

This isn’t to say he doesn’t have talent. The one time he found himself with open acres to run into, he did just that, getting to the byline and whipping in a good cross. But nobody was there to receive that cross. And, quite frankly, there’s nobody who would have been. The team didn’t have a proper striker and neither wingers showed any suggestion that they would make that run. I’m not even sure that any of the other strikers we’ve seen would have been there to bang that one in. Not Jozy Altidore nor Josh Sargent. Maybe Gyasi Zardes, but I know just how excited the thought of Gyasi Zardes makes most of you. Really, what Robinson needs right there is someone like Brian McBride, a player the USMNT just doesn’t have. Robinson and the USMNT are in a mismatch.

What really worries me is how Robinson would react to a press. Wales put up a low block and didn't press particularly highly, so it wasn’t a big issue in this match. But the few times when Robinson was on the ball with defenders closing in, he looked very uncomfortable. He doesn’t have the kind of comfort in close quarters that we see from the rest of the squad. And it stands out. If I were given this match and told to make a game plan to beat the US, I would isolate Robinson as the pressing target.

Robinson’s struggles contrast with his opposite, Sergiño Dest. Dest is comfortable on the ball, he is highly technical, and he’s good in possession. When he played, he played with swagger and style, creating some of the most threatening moments for the MNT. And the thing is, Dest can play left back. Dest’s flexibility means that Robinson isn’t just competing with the left back player pool (for this camp, that’s Tim Ream... who maybe should start the next game). He’s competing with the right backs, too. Because if Reggie Cannon can come in and out perform Robinson at left back, I don’t see any reason not to shift Dest over and do so.

Closing Thoughts

Yunus Musah looked cool and calm in midfield. He won the ball well and had moments in possession that caught the eye. He’s just 17, just made his debut, and just got into camp a few days ago (last one to arrive) and he already looks like he fits in. There’s a lot of competition for that third midfield spot next to Adams and McKennie (Brendan Aaronson, Paxton Pomykal, Wil Trapp, Gio Reyna, Sebastian Lletget), but I like what I’ve seen so far from Musah. Out of all the young players making their debuts, Musah made the best first impression.

Konrad looked out of his depth. Konrad de la Fuente looked a bit over-awed with the moment. Given that the MNT needs more offensive output from its wingers, I think he’s not quite ready for the full international stage. Let’s give him a year or two.

I’m happy to see Weah again. He didn’t do much (didn’t have the time) but it’s good to see him healthy and playing again.

Weston McKennie might be about to become the next Arturo Vidal. I’ve been hard on McKennie in the past, but, wow, in this game, he looked so good. He was doing it all, covering in defense, breaking up plays, linking passes, playing in long balls. I’ve criticized him before about consistently keeping his focus up, but in this game, he was completely locked in. He’s already looking this good at the age of just 22. This is a really special player.

Dest is also a really good player. Just bears repeating.

That’s it from me. If you disagree with my thoughts or felt I missed something, let me know in the comments before. The USMNT will return on Monday, November 16th, to take on Panama in Vienna, Austria. I’ll see you guys then. And, as always, stay safe.