Thursday’s 0-0 draw between the USMNT and Wales was fairly forgettable in the long run. It was missing some star players (Christian Pulisic, Gareth Bale, among others) and it barely featured any real scoring chances.
But it was the first game the USMNT has played in nearly a year, and for that reason, it is notable. Gregg Berhalter, attempting to continue the tactics he had begun to lean toward prior to the world collapsing, played a contingent of young, mostly European-based talent that will hopefully grow together with the national team over the next decade-plus.
America’s best young players on full display
The game, which will be followed by a match against Panama on Monday, was another glimmer of hope for a national team program that has seen plenty of good news in recent months. Its best players, all young, are now playing legitimate roles for massive clubs: FC Barcelona, Juventus, Chelsea, Manchester City, Borussia Dortmund, and Red Bull Leipzig, among others.
That success has yet to translate to national team success, mostly because the US haven’t played a competitive game in forever. But most of the young guys making inroads in Europe got to play together on Thursday, and we got a glimpse of how Berhalter will use these weapons.
Some played better than others.
Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, paired together in deep midfield, were fantastic, moving the ball with skill and covering ground in front of the backline. But Konrad De La Fuente, a 19-year-old who plays mostly for Barcelona B, struggled on the left wing. He skied a chance in front of goal that was likely the best chance for either team, and never found his explosiveness.
Dortmund’s Giovanni Reyna also had a tough time getting production, though he did have a bit more success than Konrad. Not unrelated to the problems of the wingers, Berhalter had no actual center forward to play, so Sebastian Lletget, a midfielder for the Galaxy, played as a sort of false 9. That meant no one was occupying the defenders and half-spaces that forwards usually occupy, and no one was in the 18-yard-box to scrounge up a shot.
The lesson: the US is going to need Josh Sargent, Jozy Altidore or Gyasi Zardes available in real games. Forwards are important.
Pulisic, who picked up a hamstring with Chelsea and had to leave US camp, was the other obvious missing piece. His on-ball creativity was missed in this game, as the US kept the majority of the possession and bossed the game, but failed to come up with ideas in the final third.
Most of the US’s attacking production came from the unlikely duo of McKennie and Sergino Dest. McKennie is skillful on the ball and dribbles with purpose. Dest is similar, and it was his overlapping that helped the US produce meaningful possession near the opposing goal. At times, McKennie and Dest put together combination play down the flank. That proved one of the most effective methods of attack.
It also might have been by design. Both wingers were often inverted, helping make up for the lack of a true forward, and they usually rotate inward at the top of Berhalter’s defensive shape. McKennie took the opportunities to range forward. Dest was up for the task of filling space on the flanks. Left back Antonee Robinson wasn’t, however, as he struggled for most of the game, losing the ball in bad spots and failing to effectively overlap.
17-year-old midfielder Yunus Musah, who also is eligible to play for England, started on his debut and looked fun and ambitious. It remains to be seen whether he’ll choose England (it’s easy to be cynical there), but he has a lot of promise, and the US should keep up the recruiting process.
Expect changes against Panama
Against Panama, we’ll likely see a different group of players. Berhalter will have another chance to implement the principles of how he wants to play, which means a fluid attacking structure and building from the back. These are the players who will execute this style in the future.