The United States men’s national team returned to action this past week, with a 4-1 win over Jamaica last Thursday and a 2-1 win against Northern Ireland on Sunday. However, the U23 side failed to secure passage to the Olympics in Tokyo, the third straight Summer Games the Americans will miss out on. In January, we looked at areas the USMNT needed to address ahead of a busy summer and the road to the 2022 World Cup. Did Gregg Berhalter’s side come any closer to fixing those issues?
How big a deal is it that the U.S. men again failed to qualify for the Olympics?
There’s no positive spin to be derived from the U.S. U-23 men’s team’s inability to qualify for the Olympics for the third time running. Yes, you can trot out all the excuses you want about the team’s players being at the beginning of their club seasons — all but three players on the roster are in MLS — from while the competition wasn’t. European clubs not releasing other age-eligible players like Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic is another reality the U.S. had to face. But the fact remains that a country with the resources of the U.S. should find a way to qualify on the men’s side. That it didn’t is a failure, plain and simple.
The outcome was down to some self-inflicted wounds. The team’s roster construction was a talking point from the moment it was announced, in particular a corps of midfielders whose abilities skewed towards the defensive side of the ball. Manager Jason Kreis said the group had more attacking skill than they had showed previously, and while that proved true for Hassani Dotson, it didn’t for Andres Perea and Johnny Cardoso. Tanner Tessmann showed some attacking ability, but he didn’t see the field with near enough regularity to have an impact. Then there were forwards Jesus Ferreira and Sebastian Soto, who didn’t provide much of a impact.
Kreis’ choices did little to dampen the suspicion that two Portland Timbers players, midfielder Eryk Williamson and forward Jeremy Ebobisse, would have helped, and he’ll have to live with that. So when goalkeeper David Ochoa‘s attempted outlet was deflected back into his own net in Sunday’s semifinal, the accumulated errors meant the U.S. couldn’t make it all the way back.
How big a blow is this to the U.S. men’s program? It’s certainly not fatal, especially in terms of qualification for the 2022 World Cup. It might not even be a body blow. Players develop with their clubs, not their national teams. Also, this failure also doesn’t hide the fact that the current crop of U.S. players is immensely talented. But it is a punch in the face, and reminder that even in CONCACAF, nothing is guaranteed.
An international program always wants to maximize its odds of success, and part of that is having its youth teams qualify for the top tournament in their age group. In this instance, the failure to qualify means a bit less accumulated experience in a pressurized environment to draw on, one less layer of success to gain confidence from. The pain will linger too. — Jeff Carlisle
Failing to qualify for the Olympics is a very big deal, especially given that securing a place at the Tokyo Games was made a priority by U.S. Soccer after the previous two qualifying failures. Missing out on the Olympics is also a huge missed opportunity from a developmental perspective, as the tournament would not only have provided a once-in-a-lifetime experience to so many young players, but also would have served as a chance for the U.S. to lay down a marker in a major underage tournament and start to build a winning culture. The loss also takes a bit of steam out of the program’s recent forward momentum with the senior team, and hopefully won’t stunt the growth of young players like Jesus Ferreira, Sam Vines and David Ochoa.
While the U.S. wasn’t able to field its best team of eligible players due to club restraints and COVID-19, Jason Kreis’ side still should be expected to qualify comfortably over the likes of Honduras or Canada. The fact that the U.S. didn’t points to failings within the program, as the decision to hire Kreis, and some of the decisions in terms of squad selection will both be heavily scrutinized in the coming weeks. Missing the Olympics for a third straight cycle is unacceptable in a region like CONCACAF, and Sunday’s defeat is a massive failure that could have lasting effects in terms of player development. — Gus Elvin
Who should be the starting U.S. striker?
It seems like with every U.S. men’s national team training camp, another group of young forwards arrives in a bid to catch the eye of manager Gregg Berhalter. Back in November, it was Caen’s Nicholas Gioacchini and Norwich City’s (then on loan at Telstar) Sebastian Soto. In January, Ferreira returned along with Barnsley loanee Daryl Dike (five goals in 11 games). This time around, Dike’s return was accompanied by Jordan Siebatcheu, who has 10 goals in the Swiss Super League for Young Boys. Schalke’s Matthew Hoppe awaits his turn to get in front of the U.S. manager.
When combined with holdovers like Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes and Jozy Altidore, it speaks to how Berhalter is still casting a wide net for the role of go-to forward at this summer’s Nations League finals and Gold Cup, as well as when World Cup qualifying begins in September.
Janusz Michallik highlights Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna as he evaluates the USMNT’s 2-1 win in Belfast.
At present, Sargent appears to have moved into pole position. He’s getting steady playing time with club side Werder Bremen and has been lauded for doing the grunt work required of strikers — the pressing, the holdup play, the passing — with distinction. His strike rate has perked up a bit as well, scoring seven times in all competitions for Werder this season. And yet Berhalter has made it clear he wants to see more goals from Sargent at international level, stating after Thursday’s 4-1 win over Jamaica that while he expects the goals to come for the U.S. forward, he still wants Sargent “to be more active in the penalty box.”
That critique would appear to leave the door open a crack for others. The 2021 MLS season starts in three weeks, at which time more pointed assessments of Zardes and Altidore will commence. Zardes remains a favorite of Berhalter, but with so many U.S. strikers in Europe, one gets the sense Altidore’s window is closing. Certainly his experience counts for something, but in Siebatcheu and Dike, Berhalter has a pair of forwards who offer the same level of physicality that Altidore’s provided.
Berhalter has toyed with using a “false nine” (Ferreira) in the past, but the FC Dallas man was ineffective for the most part during Olympic qualifying. While some of that can be chalked up to the lack of creativity around him, he didn’t help himself with his overall performances. Soto could suffer a similar fate, though with Norwich City primed to get promoted to the Premier League, any success at club level will get him noticed.
Ultimately, taking advantage of club opportunities is the thing that will dictate Berhalter’s thinking. It has worked so far for Sargent, though there is still time for others to make their push for more playing time. — Jeff Carlisle
Has a preferred center-back duo emerged?
The USMNT’s best XI is starting to take shape, but one of the outstanding questions is who will be Berhalter’s two starting center-backs? With the finals of CONCACAF Nations League, the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying all quickly approaching, Berhalter will be keen to land on his best center-back partnership sooner rather than later with John Brooks, Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, Chris Richards, Walker Zimmerman, Mark McKenzie and Tim Ream all still in contention for starting roles. While the U.S. experimented with three at the back (Ream, Miazga, Long) on Sunday against Northern Ireland, Berhalter looks as if he will have his side primarily operate out of a more traditional 4-3-3 formation with two center-backs.
Starting on the left, Brooks looks a shoo-in to start, as the 28-year-old is the most experienced of the group at the international level and has had a standout season in Germany with VfL Wolfsburg. His team boasts the Bundesliga’s second-stingiest defense (0.84 goals against per game), and in the 23 games Brooks has started, Die Wolfe have lost just twice, amassing 10 clean sheets and conceding only 20 goals. Yes, Brooks has had an uneven career at the international level, but he is in the form of his life, and his distribution and aerial presence are unrivalled in this group. Behind Brooks, Long, Ream, Richards and Zimmerman have all shown they are capable of playing on the left side.
While the starting left-sided role looks settled, who will partner Brooks remains very much up for debate. If the U.S. had a competitive game tomorrow, Long would likely get the nod, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t calls for Miazga, and particularly Richards to get more of a look. Long has been extremely steady in a U.S. shirt and while unspectacular, has hardly put a foot wrong. His detractors will point to the New York Red Bulls defender’s limitations with the ball at his feet and the fact that unlike most of his competition, he still plays in MLS.
Meanwhile, Miazaga has had an impressive season on loan from Chelsea with Anderlecht and at times in the past has looked the part of a bona-fide international starter. Then there is Richards, the real variable in this competition. There is no doubting that the 21-year-old has the upside and skill set to make this role his, yet he is still largely inexperienced both at the club and international levels. Richards’ combination of athleticism and passing range presents an intriguing proposition for Berhalter long term next to Brooks, but is the Bayern Munich prospect ready having made just 14 first-team appearances at club level? Ideally, Richards continues to develop quickly and emerges as Brooks’ preferred partner, but at this moment in time, the safer combination of Brooks and Long looks likeliest as the U.S. gears up for a busy and very important six months. — Gus Elvin
Which U23 players shone in Olympic qualifying?
Jackson Yueill. The tournament was billed as a big chance for Jesus Ferreira, Johnny Cardoso, Sam Vines and Sebastian Soto, but it was the Steady Eddie, Yueill, who did his reputation the most good in Guadalajara. The 24-year-old started three of the USYNT’s four games, scoring two goals, and impressing with his calmness on the ball and expansive passing range.
Yueill stood out the most in the 2-1 semifinal defeat to Honduras, as he did what a captain should do and led from the front. After going 2-0 down, many of the U.S. players hung their heads, but Yueill was not one of them, the midfielder immediately responding with a thunderbolt of a goal to drag the U.S. back into it. Later, he had a free kick well saved by Honduras goalkeeper Alex Guity, and as the U.S. pushed for an equalizer it was the San Jose Earthquakes man who looked the likeliest source. With the U.S. still searching for a backup No. 6 behind Tyler Adams, Yueill’s strong tournament bodes well and likely will earn him chances with the senior side in the coming months.
Minnesota United FC’s Hassani Dotson (two goals) also looked bright in this tournament, as was Real Salt Lake goalkeeper David Ochoa — minus his mistake for Honduras’ second goal in the semifinal — but Yueill gets the nod due to his fantastic goal and display of leadership in the second half against Honduras. — Gus Elvin
Is the player pool deep enough to win the Nations League and Gold Cup?
Defining success this summer can be distilled to two primary aims: win a trophy and get off to a good start in World Cup qualifying. In terms of the first goal, for all of the improvement the U.S. men’s program has shown lately under Berhalter, it has yet to really announce itself with what could be considered a signature win. Winning the Nations League would come close, especially if it comes at the expense of a full-strength Mexico side.
The Gold Cup is likely to have less prestige given that the U.S. roster will be at less-than-full strength, but winning that tournament would at least give Berhalter something more tangible than friendly wins when it comes to the trajectory of the U.S. team.
The most important games will come in September, with the first three matches of World Cup qualifying. These include an away tilt against Honduras and two other matches, against opponents still to be determined. The emphasis will be on avoiding the poor start that plagued the U.S. during the 2018 cycle, and expecting Berhalter’s first-choice lineup to be available.
Whether there’s enough talent to fight on all fronts, the answer is dependent on a few moving parts. Berhalter certainly has more wiggle room now that the Olympics are out of the equation. There will be no more questions about overage players, or if clubs will release certain performers. Now, the Europe-based players will focus on the Nations League. Given the increasing level of talent for the U.S., that group is more than capable of winning that competition. Then — as Berhalter noted this week — they’ll be given time off to unplug and unwind, before returning to their clubs for preseason with an eye on the aforementioned World Cup qualifying matches, which means a ‘B’ team comprised mostly of MLS players will compete for the USMNT at the Gold Cup
Will other teams, including Mexico, follow suit? That’s always the question when it comes to the Gold Cup. The U.S. prevailed back in 2017 with an MLS-heavy roster thanks in part to Mexico prioritizing the now-defunct Confederations Cup. Two years ago, both teams brought their A-teams and Mexico came out on top. In this instance, El Tri manager Tata Martino has stated that the Olympics will have priority in terms of players. Even so, the U.S. stands a good chance of reaching the final, having done so in seven out of the past eight tournaments. — Jeff Carlisle