The Stars and Stripes are back on the pitch, and the future looks exciting.
Though the marquee players aren’t available, the United States men’s national team -- led by interim manager Anthony Hudson -- had plenty of youth on display in its 2-1 loss to Serbia on Wednesday.
FC Cincinnati’s 24-year-old striker Brandon Vazquez scored the team’s first goal of 2023 on a clean header, but that was the only time the USMNT would find the net. Serbia equalized on a free kick right before halftime, then made it 2-1 a minute into the second half.
The USMNT attacked relentlessly as Serbia absorbed the blows, but ultimately the visitng team came out unscathed. Let’s take a look five takeaways from the first of two January friendlies for the United States:
Cade Cowell is putting himself on the map
Remember the name. Cade Cowell, 19, came into the friendlies as a player to watch and absolutely unleashed chaos on the Serbian defense. The San Jose Earthquakes product showed off his pace and directness every time he received the ball and deserved to pen his name onto the scoresheet with a goal or assist.
He had a moment in the second half where he hit the post twice in one minute and never looked depleted of energy. His passing in the final third will need polishing, but he can provide serious competition to Christian Pulisic on the left wing as he continues to develop. Also, considering he didn’t get much help from Jonathan Gomez or Paxton Pomykal on the left-hand side, imagine what he could with more service.
Jalen Neal’s USMNT debut starts brilliantly
Three clearances, one blocked shot, one interception, 9-for-9 accurate long balls, 101 touches and 86-for-92 completed passes (93%), 19-year-old Jalen Neal has also established himself as one to watch at both the club and international level.
The LA Galaxy product has yet to make an appearance in MLS, but that’s likely not going to be the case for too long. His composure is absolutely vital for a young center back and is usually the make or break of a high-quality one. He rarely made mistakes in possession and moved adeptly without the ball.
His part in Serbia’s second goal was the sole down point in what was otherwise an extremely solid debut for someone who demonstrated the poise of a 10-year veteran. You wouldn’t think Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long were the vets on the pitch with the way Neal played.
Brandon Vazquez could solve USMNT’s No. 9 woes
It might be wise to invest in Brandon Vazquez stocks early. The 24-year-old FC Cincinnati striker registered 19 goals and eight assists in 35 games last season, and he got on the board with a header in his Stars and Stripes debut.
The lack of a true goalscoring No. 9 was evident all throughout the team’s run in the 2022 FIFA World Cup, but it wasn’t exactly surprising given the lack of options heading into the tournament. Vazquez hadn’t yet made his debut at the time, but his finishing ability could be what sets him apart moving forward.
His hold up play will need to improve, though, as he often disappeared for long stretches when not receiving service. That skill is why Josh Sargent and Haji Wright played significant minutes in Qatar, but their finishing against sturdy defenses couldn’t be relied upon. If Vazquez combines both, he can grab hold of an open competition at striker.
Gabriel “Gaga” Slonina showed why Chelsea invested in him
English Premier League side Chelsea dropped $15 million last summer to sign Gabriel Slonina from Chicago Fire, then allowed him to stay on loan in MLS for the season. They may have invested in the 18-year-old at the right time.
Goalkeepers tend to hit their primes in their late 20s or throughout their 30s. See compatriot Matt Turner for example, who has hit a new level with Arsenal at age 28 and became a pivotal player for the Stars and Stripes in Qatar. Slonina, however, is 10 years younger and is playing like a veteran, though he’s definitely raw.
He saved four shots on the night and connected on 3 of 7 long balls to display some intriguing distributing quality. There’s a long, long way to go in his career, but $15 million could turn out to be a bargain signing for the Blues. Expect Slonina to compete alongside Turner and Co. for more caps sooner rather than later.
Anthony Hudson doesn’t stray too far away from Gregg Berhalter’s tactics
Not that it’s exactly surprising considering it was his first game as interim manager, but Hudson’s tactics stayed within the realm of Berhalter’s implementations during the previous World Cup cycle.
The starting lineup featured a 4-3-3 without a true left-footed center back, one single pivot holding midfielder who made advanced runs, a right-footed right winger and two advanced center midfielders. When the U.S. managed to pin Serbia’s five-man low block, at times the fullbacks would push all the way up to create a 6-to-5 overload in the back line.
That didn’t always happen, though, because this specific Aidan Morris-Alan Sonora-Paxton Pomykal trio aren’t yet capable of dominating possession, winning second balls and pinning teams deep, but it transpired on occasion.
Then in the second half, some of the substitutes helped bring out more in specific players. Swapping right back Julian Gressel for Dejuan Jones unlocked Alejandro Zendajas in advanced roles, and going with a double pivot of Kellyn Acosta and Eryk Williamson helped them retain possession better when Serbia looked to hit the counter. That made Cowell even more dangerous in isolation situations.
With game one out the way, it’ll be interesting to see how his approach alters -- or remains -- against Colombia on Saturday.