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The latest two friendlies – a 4-2 loss to Colombia and a 1-1 draw with Peru – are in the books. Given the stakes of the game (null), where we are in the cycle (hella early) and the roster called in (experimental), none of what happened should be keeping anybody up at night for good or for bad. They were just friendlies.
That said, there’s always something to learn if you’ve got an open mind and a keen eye. So let’s take a look at the Good, the Bad & the Ugly from the last 180 minutes of USMNT play.
• Dave Sarachan saved his best for last. When he took over a year ago his mandate was more or less 1) to breathe some life back into the program by playing as many kids as possible, 2) to sort out the defense at least a little bit and 3) to get his players to play with pride and toughness.
For the first eight games of his tenure he read that as “play a bunch of defensive midfielders – even if they’re out of position – and very few attackers.” What, exactly, did we learn from games in which Tyler Adams was at winger?
He shed his overly defensive ways for the last two games and while that meant the U.S. got drilled against Los Cafeteros, I don’t care. By playing pretty much every player in their best spot, we learned a lot about who could compete at that level. By doing the same against Peru, we learned about who could compete at that level. These games were fun and good and an extremely valuable couple of data points.
Would’ve been nice to get the win against Peru, but I don’t blame the coach for that.
• The kids the kids the kids the kids. Even without Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic, these last two games were revelatory (and don’t forget the game before that, against Mexico, in which the 19-year-old Adams scored the game-winner off of a perfect cross from 21-year-old left back Antonee Robinson).
What do I mean by “revelatory?” This:
— Arthur Kogan (@TheRealArturK) October 17, 2018
That’s 23-year-old Kellyn Acosta to 18-year-old Josh Sargent to 19-year-old Jonathan Amon to 18-year-old Tim Weah. It didn’t quite come off, which is a shame because if it had, it would’ve been one of the very best goals the U.S. scored this decade.
There were little moments like this in attack scattered throughout the last two games. Sargent’s ability to link play both through midfield and in the final third is advanced for a kid who’s only every played five meaningful games against adults; Amon has a gift for making the first defender miss and his ideas with the ball are very good; Weah not only made the play of the game against Colombia, but he appears to be on his way toward becoming a DaMarcus Beasley-esque defensive presence on the wing.
I’m gonna add 20-year-old FC Dallas right back Reggie Cannon to this group as well. Not for a single second, in his debut, did he look out of place, and the few times he got forward he was able to become part of the play.
The end product mostly wasn’t there on this night, but guess what? I don’t care. You play these tough games with these kids at this part of the cycle with the hope that they will learn from them, and be ready to provide more end product six months from now, and 12 months from now, and 24 months from now and beyond that.
I saw seeds of creative attacking play, and I saw moments of real chemistry. It was good.
• With all due respect to Sargent, the best player on the pitch for the U.S. on Tuesday was Aaron Long. He was smooth and unfazed even while putting out fires and defending in isolation all throughout the first half. Then in the second half, with the USMNT determined to get on the ball a little bit more, he was the one who started most sequences, calmly distributing through the Peruvian press.
Most of those sequences died in midfield, which we’ll get to in a minute. But Long – who, like Cannon and Amon, was making his international debut – walked out onto the field against a top 20-ish team in the world and put forth the best game an American center back has played this year.
If Long can replicate this next month against England or Italy, one of John Brooks or Matt Miazga is going to have to fight for their job.
• Michael Bradley’s first 70 minutes against Colombia were really good, and his last 20 minutes were the opposite of that. The veteran tasked with locking down a result let Falcao slip right past him and into the box for what proved to be the game-winning goal.
Then on Tuesday, Cannon was subbed out after 84 really solid minutes for veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin. One-hundred-twenty seconds later, this happened:
For both veterans, the defensive lapses represented a worrying continuation of their respective club form.
There’s maybe nobody in the world who needs an offseason more than Bradley, who’s basically played every available minute since he was 17 years old and looks like he’s carrying all of them out there whenever he sets foot on the pitch. He can still bring calmness to the game and spray passes better than any d-mid in the US pool, but watch him (try to) move and, compared to the player he was 12 or 18 or 24 months ago… it’s night and day.
I question whether he’ll ever get his legs back.
With Yedlin, I’m on the verge of giving up the ghost re: him ever being a conscientious defender. He’s 25, so definitely not a kid anymore. He’s played 200-plus professional games, 65 of them in the English Premier League. Why is he still falling asleep at the back post? Why is he still getting pulled into no-man’s-land?
On this roster, he should be a leader – someone who sets the tone and makes veteran plays that the kids don’t even see unfolding. He wasn’t that at all.
• It was always going to be a tall task in any of these last four games, and if at the start of September you’d offered me a 1-2-1 record with a -3 goal differential against Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and Peru, I’d have taken it.
But yeah, the old complaint is there: I’d like to have seen more meaningful possession through midfield rather than hurried, nervous, scattered play. It was especially lacking in the first half against Peru.
If Gregg Berhalter takes over next month – and at this point, it’d be kind of shocking if he didn’t – it’ll be interesting to see how much of Columbus Crew SC’s calm, two-touch soccer he tries to bring to the national team. Given the player pool, maybe it’s just not worth it.
But I actually suspect it is. Let me put it this way: Counterattacking is fine, and we should do a lot of it. But good-to-great counterattacking teams, in any league or international competition, tend to end up with 40 to 45 percent of the ball. The U.S. against Peru had 31.6 percent.
I’m still fine with the result, but how much more satisfying would Tuesday have been if they’d been able to just put their foot on the ball for the final 15 minutes and kill the game off? If you can’t do that, you’re going to invite teams forward, and if you invite teams forward, you’re leaving yourself open for back-breaking last-minute goals at the back post.
• Antonee Robinson’s night was a STRUGGLE against Colombia, just as it was against Brazil in September. Ben Sweat’s first half was a nightmare against Peru.
Robinson bounced back with a strong sub appearance, including that game-winning assist, against Mexico. Sweat bounced back with a defensively competent and occasionally useful offensive performance in the second half against Peru. Anyone who looks at the left back position and decides that all hope is lost is being ridiculous.
One of the best things Sarachan did was leaving Sweat in there. Dude played through his yips and was useful in the second half.https://t.co/5hXrnY22M8
— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) October 17, 2018
Anyone who looks at it and says it’s a position of strength is being equally ridiculous. Robinson needs to develop some smarts in a league not known for emphasizing that, Sweat needs to bottle what he had in the second half and make sure he brings it to bear for the full 90 whenever he’s on the field for club or country, Danilo Acosta needs to find a team that will play him, and maybe Nick Lima (who’s right-footed, but is equally comfortable at left back) needs a look as well.
Regardless, unless George Bello is about to make a Cannon-esque ascent in 2018, this is an area of concern.
• Wil Trapp did a nice job of organizing the US midfield – there’s a reason Peru didn’t have a shot on goal until the 70th minute, and it was because the U.S. lines were tight and connected even after the countless turnovers that plagued the team.
What he didn’t do was win the ball much, at all, in the center of the pitch, and that puts a hard cap on his usefulness as a player, especially with younger guys like Adams and Russell Canouse coming through the ranks. Moreover, Trapp’s biggest strength has always been his ability to organize the game by spraying possession from side to side and eventually playing his team into the attacking third.
On Tuesday, he wasn’t able to do that:
By no means was this entirely his fault. Sweat’s struggles meant that Trapp was constantly pulled out wide to help shut down Peruvian attacks; none of the other midfielders could put a foot on the ball and control the game even a little bit; the whole endeavor was hamstrung by a lack of urgency to push the game forward, which meant that even when the USMNT were in good spots they were hesitant to do anything except cycle uselessly.
But Trapp is 25 – not a kid – and while he’s not the type of veteran that Yedlin is, he was nonetheless one of the older players in this camp and was expected to bring some sort of order to the chaos, and he did not. If he’s unable to do that in the long run, he will find himself looking up the depth chart at others very, very soon.
• Bringing Sweat back on for the second half was one of the best things that Sarachan did, since it led to 45 solid minutes for a previously nervous player at a position of need. Maybe he’ll never wear the Red, White & Blue again, but (more likely) when he does wear it again in January camp, we’ll all see a more confident and competent player. It was a good piece of man management.
So was benching Kenny Saief for this game:
We assumed COL were targeting robinson but really they just went after the weakest entry point in the 442. After the goal dave moved saief right (instead of telling him to play real defense). COL found him there too. Then it’s dominoes pic.twitter.com/43UmYOQfC3
— constable velasquez (@away_goals) October 15, 2018
Click through and look at that whole thread, with clips, of Saief’s lack of defensive effort against Colombia. That’s unacceptable from any player at any age, but for a 24-year-old – again, not a kid – who plays for a UEFA Champions League team?
I had high hopes for Saief heading into this camp and was hugely disappointed by what we saw last week. Hopefully the message has been sent and we’ll see better from him the next time he’s given the opportunity to fight for a role with this team.
• Same for Julian Green, I hope. He got stuck in on a tackle against Colombia and it led to Wood’s goal. He pulled out of a tackle (you can hear Ian Darke commenting upon it at the start of the clip above) against Peru and it led to a goal conceded. That’s not how you win a job.
Green is, from my point of view, still a man without a real position with this group. He gets into great spots, but doesn’t have the speed to be a pure winger, doesn’t have the technique to eliminate players off the dribble, and doesn’t have anything close to the vision needed to be a playmaker.
The good news? If he can get healthy, the next time the U.S. step on a field it’ll likely be Pulisic picking the ball up in those spots. And if that doesn’t put a smile on your face, you just don’t know how to be happy.