Growth of U.S.’s budding stars reflected in national team’s silky play

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In the 285 days since the U.S. men’s national team last played, it seemed like there was a sea change for the Americans. The U.S. now has a player at Juventus in Weston McKennie, while Sergino Dest and Konrad de la Fuente are on the first-team roster at Barcelona. That’s to go along with Christian Pulisic at Chelsea and Tyler Adams at UEFA Champions League semifinalists RB Leipzig.

With that kind of pedigree in its ranks, and youngsters like Borussia Dortmund‘s Giovanni Reyna and Valencia‘s Yunus Musah breaking through, expectations have been raised considerably, even as manager Gregg Berhalter tries to downplay them.

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Which is why Thursday’s 0-0 draw against Wales felt like a different kind of result on European soil. A look at the score and one would think that this was another one of those gritty, grind-it-out draws on the road, but it was nothing of the sort. The U.S. showed the kind of calmness and patience on the ball that has been rare in its trips to Europe. Playing out of tight spaces was the rule rather than the exception, with the three-man midfield of McKennie, Adams and Musah doing plenty to control the game’s tempo.

Musah — one of six U.S players to make their debut — looked nothing like a 17-year-old, and while there were moments when he could have released the ball quicker, he showed plenty of ability in terms of running at defenses as well as vision. Given that Musah is eligible to represent England and Ghana as well as the U.S., Berhalter can only hope that he ultimately chooses to represent the U.S. over other contenders.

Reyna found the going a bit tougher, and at times was even guiltier of hanging onto the ball too long. He had some dynamic moments running with the ball, but also let his frustrations get the better of him. Midway through the second half he barged into Wales defender Tom Lockyer in retaliation for what he perceived as a foul that went uncalled. It’s precisely the kind of play that on the road in CONCACAF could be punished severely. Still, it was a day that the 17-year-old will long remember.

As for Adams, the match was not only his first for the U.S. in 20 months, but one in which he anchored the U.S. midfield after Berhalter had dabbled with playing him at right-back. The American side looked better for having Adams’ energy and passing in front of the defense, although John Brooks in particular looked composed in the back.

“I felt good because I think that’s my natural position,” Adams said. “Being out there, being able to kind of command everything that was going on in front of me, tell players when to go and when not to go, to initiate the press when to stay back, it allows me to lead the team in a better way I think. I was confident in the guys in front of me understanding the tactics so it made my job a little bit easier, but I love being the cover in front of the backline being able to win balls and then just give it to the guys in front of me and let them do their thing.”

The U.S. was also extremely effective in its press, and the Americans’ two best chances of the night came directly off turnovers in Wales’ defensive third, although it should be noted that this was a Welsh side missing several key players, including Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, while Ben Davies and Ethan Ampadu remained on the bench.

Yet for all of the possession that the U.S. had, there was a distinct lack of punch in the attacking third. Some of this was down to Berhalter’s decision to play Sebastian Lletget as a false nine, but it’s important to drill deeper on how the approach fared. In terms of providing an outlet and allowing the U.S. to play out of its own half, Lletget did well, completing 28 of his 32 passes. On the one hand, this is precisely what Berhalter wanted Lletget to do. But further up field, the tactic wasn’t as successful, although that wasn’t down to just the player.

“We wanted him to look for the third man more than he did,” said Berhalter about Lletget. “I think he did it once or twice, but as he comes down and it needs to be laid off, and then we should be moving behind, I think the wingers weren’t in a high-enough position to take advantage of that at times. That was something that we missed.”

McKennie added that the U.S. was a bit beholden to looking for combination play rather than the run in behind the defense, something that the injured Pulisic would have helped with.

“A one-on-one type of player that can beat the defender, and get down the side and play a ball in or cross it, that’s something [Pulisic] has done many times, as you saw in Gold Cup as well,” McKennie said. “I think the dynamic movement in behind the line was something that we were missing. And that’s something that we’ll obviously look at in the video, just to see how many runs we made in behind the line to open up the space and just make that unselfish run.”

It has to be said that this is a group that still needs time to develop chemistry. In addition to the lengthy hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. had just two days of training — and just one full session — prior to this match. But the question still remains: Who will get the goals and provide that presence in the box to draw more attention from opposition center-backs? For that reason — and with Josh Sargent unavailable due to COVID-19 quarantine restrictions — it might have made more sense to get Nicholas Gioacchini on earlier or give Sebastian Soto his debut, although there is still another game to play against Panama on Monday. The forward depth chart has long been thin, and there are scant opportunities to see what the current group of forwards can do.

That said, the foundation of possession and pressing is one that looks a bit more ingrained in the players. Given the state of the game amid a pandemic, that is largely down to the progress U.S. performers have made at club level. But Berhalter will nonetheless be pleased that he has more to work with, and the Wales match counts as a step forward.