Sunday saw both sides of the USMNT program. One is, hopefully, a last vestige of catastrophic failure. The other is a symbol of as-yet-unfulfilled hope.
The US senior team played a friendly to start the day, beating Northern Ireland 2-1 in Belfast. Gregg Berhalter rolled out a 3-4-2-1 formation featuring new striker Jordan Siebatcheu, a 24-year-old on loan at Young Boys who recently committed to playing for the US, up top alongside Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna. Both Pulisic and Reyna scored goals — Reyna’s was particularly nice — and the US picked up a win on the road against European opposition, even if it wasn’t a mistake-free performance.
It was another glimpse into the future of the program, which has given us so much hope over the past few months. They beat Jamaica 4-1 earlier in this window, with a first-team squad filled with young and exciting European-based players. Back in January, with a squad of MLSers, they incinerated Trinidad and Tobago 7-0 in a friendly.
With World Cup qualifying approaching quickly, it’s great to see the team developing an identity, with depth in multiple spots. Gregg Berhalter has players who can actually execute his preferred system. The three-at-the-back they used against Northern Ireland may not be the first-choice formation (the 4-3-3 likely is) but it is important to have options. The US has plenty of competitive games this year, with the Nations League in June, the Gold Cup in July, and then World Cup qualifiers kicking off in September. Both summer tournaments are winnable.
Despite hope and promise, USMNT falls flat for Olympic qualifying
Amid the hope and promise of the 2021 USMNT, a U-23 side comprised mostly of MLS-based players fell flat in Olympic qualifying, losing 2-1 to Honduras and somehow missing out on the Tokyo Games. That’s the third straight cycle in which the US men have failed to qualify for the Olympics. Not great!
There were some standout performers in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament (Jackson Yueill and Hassani Dotson among them), but more duds. Jesus Ferreira and Sebastian Soto struggled. Tanner Tessmann, a teammate of Ferreira’s at FC Dallas, couldn’t find his footing. Goalkeeper David Ochoa looked good for much of the tournament, but it was his howler in the second half against Honduras that led to the loss.
This U-23 squad did not feature any of the US’s top players in that age group. All of them were too busy playing with the senior team (or, like Tyler Adams, being called back to their Champions League clubs). Nonetheless, the US’s depth should be better than it showed against Honduras. The Olympics is obviously a big tournament and the US should be qualifying for it, even if it isn’t a big focus in men’s soccer.
U-23 coach Jason Kreis missed on some important decisions. He was married to a possession-based approach despite calling a team of defensive-minded midfielders. Portland Timbers starters Eryk Williamson and Jeremy Ebobisse both could have been contributors had they been part of the squad.
The failure to qualify for the Olympics reminds of the USMNT’s notorious loss to Trinidad and Tobago to flame out of World Cup qualifying in 2017. It’s not an unfamiliar experience in American soccer. But the hope on display earlier in the day, and every week in European club matches, goes a long way toward mitigating the disappointment. With so many competitive matches and tournaments approaching, the US finally has an opportunity to play competitive games with a full strength squad and test their progress.
The World Cup is next year. The years of wading aimlessly post-Couva are over, and the core of players that has been coming into focus will be on display soon.