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5 things we learned from USMNT friendlies

As friendlies against Jamaica and Northern Ireland loom, the PST crew discusses which Americans have the most to prove, from Christian Pulisic finding his form to the emergence of a non-John Brooks center back.

What did we learn from the USMNT over this international break?

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Gregg Berhalter experimented with formations and personnel, and a few players really took their chances in a fairly comfortable win against Jamaica and a narrow win at Northern Ireland.

It’s tough to gauge exactly where this USMNT side is at, because although they’ve racked up big wins in recent international breaks, they’ve played against weakened opponents in all of their games.

That’s not to say the USMNT weren’t missing Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and other key players of their own for large spells in these games either, but it is a cautionary note.

We would all love the USMNT to win back-to-back World Cups, of course, but let’s take this one step at a time.

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Here’s a look at the key takeaways from the USMNT action during the March international break, as the Stars and Stripes get set for a huge 2021 ahead with the Nations League final four, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifiers coming up.

3-4-3 formation has a future

This was the most interesting thing from this international break and I thought it worked pretty well against a stubborn Northern Ireland side. It allowed Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic to be at their creative best as No. 10’s and it also brought out the best in wing backs Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson who are at their best when flying forward. Berhalter is still a staunch 4-3-3 guy, but when that isn’t working and the USMNT want to draw out teams who are defending deep, this is a very good Plan B to have. Who knows, with Pulisic, Dest, Robinson and Reyna all playing in this formation for their club teams, perhaps it will become the new go-to in the months and years to come?

Dest, Pulisic relationship developing nicely

One thing we clearly saw over this international break was two players elevate themselves to the next level for the USMNT: Christian Pulisic and Sergino Dest. The latter was exceptional in both games, smashing home a beautiful first USMNT goal against Jamaica and looking both at home on the left and right flanks to flex his versatility. On both flanks he also linked up really well with Pulisic, as the star duo were on the same wavelength and however they line up, they seem to find each other with combination plays. Pulisic finally being back fit and fresh is also a huge bonus for the USMNT, as they have really missed his creativity. The way he dominated the win at Northern Ireland proved how hungry he is to not only get back into the Chelsea team but drag the USMNT up to his level.

Center back remains a question mark

This was one of the negatives to come out of this break. Two different formations, lots of new center backs and the big question remains: who is going to start alongside John Brooks when the World Cup qualifiers come around in September? Miazga and Long looked shaky in a three-man defense. Tim Ream was as solid as ever and youngster Chris Richards (the long-term favorite for the role) did okay when coming on as a sub in both games. But nobody stood out and that is a problem. Walker Zimmerman is another good option for the USMNT and Berhalter still doesn’t know who will partner Brooks. At the other end of the pitch, Josh Sargent is the frontunner to start as the number nine as Jordan Siebatcheu and Daryl Dike did okay when called upon, but the Werder Bremen forward elevated himself to be the starter. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and more goals, from Sargent.

Brenden Aaronson the big winner

There is always, always, one big winner from each international break. That glitzy award this time around goes to Brenden Aaronson. The 20-year-old Philadelphia Union product scored just after coming on against Jamaica and made a big impact when he came on against Northern Ireland too. He is silky on the ball, takes up great positions centrally in-behind the striker and he has incredible energy levels. It is clear that he has already taken his game to the next level since joining former USMNT assistant coach Jesse Marsch at RB Salzburg in January. Aaronson will be a stud for this U.S. side, and for now he will play that role as the first man off the bench to change the game, while pushing Yunus Musah and Gio Reyna all the way for minutes.

Expectations need to stay steady

I want to finish by revisiting something I said in the intro: let’s not get too carried away here. The USMNT played a Jamaica side which was full of a lot of first-time call ups due to travel restrictions and a contractual situation with their FA, and what was Northern Ireland’s B team. The same happened in November against Wales and Panama (it is tough to find opponents for the U.S. right now given a congested World Cup qualifying schedule for other nations and travel issues) and it is hard to know exactly where this team is at.

What isn’t hard to know is that lots of wins and scoring goals will do the confidence of this young side the world of good. Now, it’s go time. Berhalter’s young side will face lots of tougher tests this summer and it is time to see if the groundwork laid in November and March has set them up for success. There has been a lot of negativity around the USMNT in recent years but it feels like this young group of players is finally starting to find its feet. This will be fun.

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