Maybe having 10 months off from each other is exactly what the U.S. Men’s National Team and their fans needed. The last time we saw the national squad, they were hacking, gagging, and stumbling through the Gold Cup or attempting to play out from the back in another friendly with Mexico with truly dispiriting results. It wasn’t clear if coach Gregg Berhalter had any clue what he was doing, or if he was just hired because he wouldn’t rock the boats with the higher-ups at U.S. Soccer. A break was certainly welcomed, even if the reason for it, the global pandemic, was most certainly not.
There is a mountain of caveats after the U.S.’s two friendlies with Wales and Panama. 1) Wales are a secondary European side, if that, and it wasn’t even their A-team last Thursday. 2) Panama is a secondary CONCACAF side, though they still managed to qualify for the last World Cup ahead of the Yanks. Friendlies crammed into the club season are always a tricky proposition for grading and judging, with limited training time and various health and form of everyone, as well as varying levels of give-a-shit.
But there are caveats on the U.S. side as well. Christian Pulisic, the unquestioned core of the team, didn’t play. And perhaps the biggest one is the biggest reason for hope. This was the first U.S. squad made up of only European-based players, with a host of them making their debut for the national team, almost all of them barely old enough to drink legally on these shores, and a fair few who aren’t even close to that. Most of these players had never played together.
Weighing all of that, the two games did provide the first good vibes around the national team since probably the second half against Portugal in Manaus in 2014.
Leading that buzz was the midfield three Berhalter started in both games — that of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah. While they had their hiccups, there were portions of each match where they simply ran the show. Musah, just 17, became the first player to ever start two games for the U.S. before his 18th birthday. And he looked perfectly in place, and the challenge going forward will be to get him to commit to the U.S. full-time (he’s still eligible to play for England, Italy, and Ghana, though England seems the most likely to compete for his services). If he does, Berhalter and whoever follows, can write McKennie-Adams-Musuh into the lineup in ink for the next 10 years.
Further forward, Gio Reyna — who also would have been the first player to start for the U.S. before his 18th birthday, had his 18th birthday not fallen between the two games — looked every bit the lab-constructed prodigy he is (he’s the son of two former U.S. internationals, Claudio Reyna and Danielle Egan). For long stretches against Panama he was unplayable, and showed flashes of that against Wales as well. He also overcooked it at times, and made the wrong decisions semi-often, but considering he wouldn’t have graduated high school yet in a normal life, that’s to be expected. The vision of him and Pulisic on opposite flanks going forward is going to knock Viagra off the shelves one day soon.
Sergiño Dest lined up at both right- and left-back over the week, and looked the classiest player on the field doing so. Moving to the left allowed Reggie Cannon into the lineup today, and at least going forward has come on leaps and bounds since moving to Portugal. He created the penalty that was missed and his crossing was borderline demonic.
Still, the U.S.’s biggest questions remain, and those are down the middle at both ends. Against Wales, some of the U.S.’s enterprising build-up was undone by Sebastian Lletget playing as a false-nine. Against Panama, Nicholas Gioacchini played as a natural central forward. He answered the call with two goals. Do two tap-ins against a below-par Panamanian side an international linchpin make for a player currently in the French second division? Most certainly not, but it’s a start. And seeing as how the only other solutions are the still very big question mark Josh Sargent, or the decidedly ropy Altidore, Zardes, or Morris, Gioacchini can feel good about entering the conversation. It’s still not a good conversation, or at least one with a satisfying ending. No one cares about what you do if you can’t bulge the net consistently after it.
At the other end, John Brooks is a player the U.S. can call foundational, but without him, both Matt Miazga and Tim Ream failed to convince. This is the 376th time Ream has failed to to do so on the national team, and yet he keeps showing up and getting rewarded with starts. What a perfect metaphor for the country as a whole.
Still, for the first time in forever, the U.S. was fun! They tried shit! Reyna, Musuh, and Dest combined and triangled in ways we simply haven’t seen. They played with zest and energy and, dare we say, swagger. It was a long way from Michael Bradley watching the play blow past him and pointing at nothing. McKennie popped up everywhere against Panama, winning the ball back by pressing high and then getting on the end of attacking moves. Reyna, Tim Weah, Gioacchini and others took players on and got past them. They were entertaining!
Given the age and development curve, it’s hard for U.S. fans to not envision this side with some sprinkling of domestic-based talents growing together and being a real force in 2026 when the World Cup is on home soil, But international soccer doesn’t work like that. Players get hurt, or fall out of favor with club managers and lose form or make a bad move to a club where they don’t play, or have U.S. Soccer force worse MLS players over them in the lineup. There are innumerable obstacles ahead.
But still, for the first time in a dog’s age there’s at least something to dream on.
That nasty word: Hope.
There’s a buoyancy. Is Berhalter the right man to guide them through this stage of development? Who fucking knows? But at least it feels like there’s finally something there and at stake.