What did we learn about USMNT this international break?
The U.S. men’s national team is still in a heavy state of flux as they wrapped up their September friendlies with a win against bitter rivals Mexico in Nashville on Tuesday.
But what lessons have we learned about the state of the USMNT as things stand? Which players impressed for interim head coach Dave Sarachan? And what lies ahead for the USA’s caretaker boss?
Let’s dive in and look at the key takeaways for the U.S. national team over the past 10-12 days.
1. Permanent coach is needed, right now
Dave Sarachan has done an admirable job considering the circumstances but now is the right time for U.S. Soccer to push hard for a new permanent coach, with the federation already saying they want to appoint a new head coach by December 2018. Sarachan has been in charge on an interim basis for almost a year and over the past 12 months the U.S. has called up 66 different players excluding the 15 players who were part of the disaster in Cuova against Trinidad & Tobago, many of whom will never play for the U.S. again. If the U.S. would’ve appointed a new head coach in March 2018 (waiting after the results of the U.S. Soccer Federation presidential election, of course) what could they have achieved over the past six months? Plenty. The USMNT has been stood still for too long. They waited for the 2018 World Cup to come and go to see if any decent managerial candidates arose from the dust of the tournament. None did. And here we are.
The leading candidates for USSF President Carlos Cordeiro and new USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart (he started his new job on August 1) to appoint are rumored to be Gregg Berhalter, Tab Ramos, Peter Vermes, Gerardo Martino and Sarachan. The latter has led the U.S. to three wins, two defeats and three draws in his eight games in charge but Bruce Arena’s long-time assistant has been seen as a stop-gap and he will likely remain involved with the U.S. in some capacity after his steady leadership in a turbulent time for the federation on and off the pitch. Berhalter seems to be the overwhelming favorite given his brother, Jay, is instrumental in the upper echelons of the U.S. Soccer Federation and he played with Stewart for the U.S. The way he has created an identity and clear plan with the Columbus Crew, an MLS franchise about to move to Austin, Texas which has been in turmoil for many months, has been astounding. A deal for Berhalter to take charge as soon as the 2018 MLS season is over needs to be made, right now, especially with his former club the LA Galaxy now needing a new manager. We should suspect, and hope, that the USSF has dragged its heels so long to appoint a new coach because they’re waiting for Berhalter to finish things in the correct manner in Columbus. If that isn’t the case, then letting the program drift along with no clear identity or plan is something which could set them back several years and risk not making the 2022 World Cup too. Losing 6-8 months of development time isn’t ideal and it seems like that is what will happen unless Sarachan is appointed on a permanent basis.
2. Formation and identity all over the place
This will become solidified when a new permanent head coach is found, but Sarachan’s comments after the Mexico game were a little concerning.
“We nitpick on the technical side, but you saw a team tonight that played aggressively, competed hard and won most of their duels,” Sarachan side. “I think that’s been a constant over the time I’ve had the group and over the past two games against Brazil and Mexico.”
Winning battles and fighting hard are all well and good, but what is the plan? Sarachan’s decision to go with a flat back four once again versus Mexico, then play Kellyn Acosta out of position out wide when it looked much more favorable to play a diamond in midfield, was a little baffling. A three-man central defense worked so well away against France this summer and it allows the U.S. to get the best out of their flying wing backs (DeAndre Yedlin and Antonee Robinson) as well as giving them a little extra security defensively with Miazga, Carter-Vickers and either Parker or Brooks as center backs. Yet, there has been no clear, consistent message from Sarachan. The starting lineup having an average age of 23 years and five days is impressive, but with the message and formation switching most games, it’s hard to see real chemistry building among these youngsters. There’s no doubt the USMNT looked much better when forced to revert to a 4-2-3-1 formation after McKennie went off injured and that was something Sarachan didn’t have any control over.
The best teams at club and international level have a clear identity. Due to 12 months in flux the USMNT doesn’t have that. Are they a 4-2-3-1 team or a 3-4-3 side? What are the key principles that are important to new GM Earnie Stewart moving forward? At the moment watching the USMNT play is like watching a toddler arrive at Disney for the first time. Plenty of youthful enthusiasm but no clear direction.
3. McKennie, Adams the future
There’s no doubt that Christian Pulisic will be the undisputed star for the USMNT for the next decade or so, but Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams will be more than capable of helping him along the way. Adams, still just 19, scored his first international goal in the win against Mexico and he played in both games, showcasing his energy and ability to play the simple pass at the right time. He and McKennie, just 20 years old, should get the opportunity to start together in central midfield in their preferred deeper positions. McKennie limped off with an injury against Mexico but the Schalke star has a big role to play in the coming years, with he and Adams looking ready to overtake Wil Trapp for those central midfield positions.
A solid, energetic base in midfield plus the ability to connect passes and keep hold of the ball intelligently is something both excel in and as we saw with Adams, he also has the ability to make those key runs forward to open up space and get on the end of things. With McKennie, Adams, Acosta, Trapp, Danny Williams, Lynden Gooch and several others ready to roll, the U.S. midfield is looking pretty good.
4. Striker situation concerning
They aren’t looking great up top though. Gyasi Zardes was chucked up front against Mexico and although he struggled for service he did look to stretch El Tri’s defense and there’s no doubt he is a bigger threat centrally than out wide. Tim Weah was a threat from out wide and looked most dangerous when cutting in from the flank. They key takeaway? We need to see a partnership, two players up top together feeding off each other a la Altidore and Dempsey during the heyday of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. Seeing Weah and Zardes up top together, and Weah with Wood, needs to be a priority during the next international break. That said, Wood’s struggles continue at club level (just two goals in his past 24 appearances in the Bundesliga) and his hold-up play has never been the best. What other options do the USMNT have in attack? Josh Sargent will certainly be an option in the coming years as he continues to develop at Werder Bremen, but aside from that, Andrija Novakovich has shown promise but didn’t feature in either friendly in September. Maybe a few veterans could help out in the striking department...
5. A few veterans could return and improve things
Okay, this is a sore subject. I get it. But now seems like a pretty good time to start reintegrating some of the USMNT veterans and Sarachan has intimated that will be the case this fall. With the MLS season coming to an end and plenty of U.S. players winding down for 2018, the likes of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore at Toronto FC (they need plenty of wins, and help, in their final seven games of the season to reach the MLS Cup playoffs) may be eyeing a return to the USMNT fold. After the debacle of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup last October, plenty of veteran players have been cast aside and many presumed they would never return. But in Bradley and Altidore -- the former is the USA’s long-time skipper with 140 caps and the latter ranks third all-time in goals with 41 -- they have players who can deliver experience in key areas and help develop the prodigious young talents. Could McKennie and Adams learn plenty about controlling the tempo of the game from Bradley by playing alongside him? Of course they can. Can Altidore teach Weah about hold-up play and how to lead the line? Yep. Elsewhere the likes of Tim Ream would suit a three man central defense perfectly but there aren’t too many veterans who would want to return to this setup or suit the role of gradually passing the torch to these youngsters. It’s all about picking a few vets to return for the games against Colombia and Peru on home soil next month, then seeing how that mix of youth and experience plays out. Despite the 2018 World Cup being done and dusted, the ghosts of Couva haven’t been fully exonerated.