The top members of the United States Men’s National Soccer Team (USMNT) will get some rest and relaxation this month following their club seasons and winning the inaugural continental Nations League. After a season where many raised hardware in Europe — including the Champions’ League trophy — they won Nations League the old-fashioned way: they CONCACAF’d it.
After squeezing out a semifinal win against Honduras with a late sub goal, the 3-2 final victory over Mexico featured the best and worst of the teams and their fans: Mexico scoring first in each half, the Yanks responding, tactical blunders, amazing individual performances, homophobic chants, players nearly coming to blows on the field, and two high-drama PKs in extra time. Christian Pulisic’s clinical spot kick and Ethan Horvath’s heroic save (as an injury sub nonetheless) proved the difference.
After three wins in four matches in this international window (a loss to Switzerland and a thrashing of Costa Rica), the team will get ready for the Gold Cup, likely with a vastly different cast. Gregg Berhalter and his staff will probably pick from MLS rosters, as most of the European-based players will be called back to their clubs for preseason work. We’ll likely see this group again in September as World Cup qualifying begins.
New level of expectations
Since the new lineup debuted last year in friendlies, the infusion of European-based talent created lofty expectations for a program still reeling from the failures of 2017. Dominating weaker teams is one thing. Going 15 rounds with the top-ranked team in your continent and winning the fight is another.
The younger team playing together had not faced a veteran squad in a truly competitive game. Allowing a first-minute goal didn’t help the argument. However, the Americans kept their heads, tied off a free kick, and did so again after Mexico went ahead late in the second half. Against a physical and tested opponent, the US got the result and lifted a trophy.
Playing in top European leagues and winning at those levels creates a new pedigree and competitive level for the USMNT. Going down twice and fighting back proved their mettle and toughness. That will be called upon with tough away games including what could be a vicious environment at El Azteca next March as qualifiers wind to a close.
Eight teams vying for three automatic slots and one playoff chance means 14 matches in just five windows; four of the breaks will see three games in a week or so. The team will need depth, which they’ll have with impressive talent off the bench. Pulisic will likely not play all 14 dates. Expect the team to rotate fresh players and build that experience.
Setting the lineup
Going forward, there are still some questions for the USMNT’s lineup and formation. With all those games shoehorned into the international breaks over next season, that might be to their advantage. Three games per break means Berhalter can tinker with his starters and deployment. The 3-4-3 that left the defense exposed against Mexico could work well against Jamaica and other teams that are more keen to sit back and defend the relentless US attack.
As the schedule goes, the Americans should aim to rack up early wins. The last window in March 2022 ends with a trip to Costa Rica, two games after the match in Mexico. Success early and getting players comfortable in roles will help the team get results in those tough road contests.
The ideal formation for this team might be a 4-4-2. Mexico challenged the back line and suggested some extra defense would help the US protect from counterattacks. If they can do this while still allowing Sergino Dest to join the rushes, that could be difficult to solve. The midfield could go linear or into a traditional diamond with Tyler Adams as the quarterback.
So here’s the jackpot question: does the US have a striker? They have very good attackers in Pulisic and Gio Reyna. However, they don’t have a true center forward. We’ll see some of the best dazzle at Euros this month, like Romelu Lukaku and Robert Lewandowski; Josh Sargent isn’t quite there yet. Reyna runs wing for another great striker at Borussia Dortmund in Ervin Haaland. A few early goals for Sargent could build his confidence.
Berhalter might even try to bring Brandon Aaronson to the middle and let him fricassee defenders like he did for Philadelphia Union and has already for Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. Another option, likely also off the bench, is Jordan Siebatucha, who broke the stalemate against Honduras and excelled at Switzerland’s Young Boys.
We should look forward to a very fun stretch of national soccer. This team should win games handily and entertain. Books will have betting options and informed fans can probably make some money. I still want an explanation as to why my moneyline bet on the final didn’t cash when the US won in AET (the only Nations League game to go beyond 90 minutes, which I’m not sure the books knew).