As we and many others stress, international friendlies are weird. Especially when everyone has to fly over from Europe for two games that don’t count for anything while trying to not get hurt. And for the USMNT, there weren’t really too many players trying to carve out a role, or a bigger role, within the team. The two friendlies against Uzbekistan and Oman were more about cohesion, and getting used to Gregg Berhalter again. None of the big questions were going to get anything more than hints rather than answers. But what were those hints? This is our best guess.
Yunus Musah might be a serviceable backup No. 6
Again, it’s hard to know for sure, and the USMNT is still in a spot where it has to enlist the services of every psychic, shaman, wizard, and witch to make sure Tyler Adams is healthy for any major tournament. But Musah has played as the deepest midfielder, or as one of two deep midfielders, in the last four games for the A-squad of the national team. The US hasn’t given up a goal in any of them. Again, those games were against a hilariously clueless Mexico, a no more than passable Canada, and Uzbekistan, and Oman. And had Uzbekistan had any finish whatsoever, that clean sheet might have a mark, or two on it.
Still, Musah brings something from that spot that Adams just doesn’t, which is the ability to receive the ball off the defense, dribbling through a presser, or two, and then distributing the ball in the way that jumpstarts an attack. Adams is competent on the ball, but his main thing is to break up an attack and either play something sideways or to try, and be direct as possible straight to the forwards. As we all saw against the Dutch, he lacks a little nous. None of it fosters possession, and those home run passes to the forwards only come off a fraction of the time. Musah provides a different dynamic there, which might be something Berhalter considers in matches where the US is going to have most of the ball. That won’t happen more than once or twice in a major tournament, and against a team with at least a competent counterattack will make it more dicey. It’ll look different against, say, Ecuador in the summer than Oman last night. But it’s good to know it’s in the holster.
There was some variance in attack?
Especially in the Oman match, it was obvious that Berhalter was going back to what worked against a packed in defense, i.e. the Iran match in Qatar and what the US did to score in that one. Which was Weston McKennie pulling out wide to link with Christian Pulisic and the left-back, in this case Kristoffer Lund, and opening himself up to hit the big, cross-field switch to either Tim Weah, or Sergino Dest. McKennie hit this pass at least five times in the first half last night. But against Oman’s 4-4-2 diamond, when both forwards were staying high, it was on all the time. If they aren’t going to stop it, might as well keep using it.
Which would have had all the Gregg-haters twitching, and understandably so, concluding that Berhalter didn’t know another way around a low block. That’s not entirely the case, as Pulisic, Weah, and full debutant Malik Tillman were popping up in all of the half-spaces both inside and out, and linking with Falorun Balogun. There’s still a lot of connection work to be done with Balogun, who hasn’t played for his club yet this season. It was also more of a 4-2-3-1 than we’ve seen from Berhalter, who had been a strict devotee of a 4-3-3. It hinges on McKennie doing more defensive work than he should be trusted with, but in a game like this where the US is going to have the ball all the time, we’ll leave it.
Chris Richards must start
This one is for sure, so no question mark. It would help if Richards was a regular starter for Crystal Palace, and if he doesn’t we’ll have to revisit this. But he’s clearly the best centerback the US has, and he also provides a long-ball ability that none of the others have. That excludes Tim Ream, who might still be able to start during next summer’s Copa America but is a longshot at best to still be upright enough for the next World Cup.
Miles Robinson’s strengths are all defensive, though he should certainly be Richards’s partner assuming health. If the US ever gets Van Gaal’d again, they’ll need a CB who can ping a couple passes out to wingers and forwards. Richards can do that while not losing anything defensively.
Ricardo Pepi isn’t going gently into that good night
Balogun should still be the starter in a first-choice 11, but one big season for PSV, and Ricardo Pepi might change the discussion a bit. While at just 20 his overall game needs work, you can’t ask much more of a No. 9 than to score. Yeah, the quality of the opposition, and all, but these are quality finishes:
That turn-and-shoot from last night shows an instinct that can’t really be taught. Could the US actually have options at center forward? What planet is this?
It will be a big summer for Pepi, as he will almost certainly be on the Copa squad, and then would have a pretty good chance of leading the line for the Olympic team. A definite pivot point in his career, especially if he can rack the lineup in Eindhoven.
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