USMNT - Wales preview: the key storylines and players to watch in Swansea
November 11, 2020
THE UNITED STATES national team will return to the field on Thursday when it visits Wales in Swansea and it will end the longest gap the team has gone without a game in the modern era. The team has not played since early February and since November 2019 in an international window.
When combined with the gap in time along with a roster that consists of 10 newcomers looking to earn their first cap, it is hard to know what to expect. It is also hard to know what to build from this game as first-team club minutes are questionable for some and others are still very new to the first-team, professional game.
Wales, meanwhile, is a decent team to face although it likely has an eye to the two coming Nations League games it has this window against Ireland on Sunday and Finland next Wednesday.
Here are several thoughts on the U.S. team ahead of Thursday's game against Wales.
Gio Reyna’s arrival is one of the most exciting and most anticipated debuts in recent memory for the U.S. team. At just 17, and as the son of a U.S. national team legend, Reyna’s progress at Dortmund is truly special. He is even ahead of where Pulisic was at his age at Dortmund.
Gregg Berhalter has known Gio Reyna his entire life as Berhalter wasn’t just a World Cup and Copa America teammate with Claudio Reyna on the national team, he was also a high school classmate and teammate with the elder Reyna at St. Benedicts in Newark, NJ.
There are so many storylines for Reyna’s arrival into the full national team that it will be quite a debut.
“It's Gio very first time in here,” Weston McKennie said. “He's had experience with the youth teams. He's had great experience and exposure with Dortmund side as well. We try to say it and I experienced it myself, even though you may play for a very talented club, it's always a different environment here, playing for the national team. And he's adapted really well. You can see it in training. I can play combinations of them. He is quick on the ball. He's doing what he's what he's meant to be doing and he's excelling at it as well, which is really amazing for a kid of his age.”
Berhalter on Gio Reyna: Gio and his dad have a very similar grace to the way both moved around the field... they're both also really competitive #USMNT— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) November 9, 2020
For Reyna, he is excited for his arrival both because of the coach – but also the teammates and the style they want to play.
“Of course, I know him really well and I have almost my whole life,” Reyna said of Berhalter. “It just makes you feel that much more comfortable and super easy to talk to you if I need anything. He's always there for advice and will help in any way possible. But that and the system kind of fits the players that we have. We like to play faster, we like to be attacking, have the ball, create, run - really some entertaining stuff. So, I think with the guys we have, and the style we want to play, it's perfect for myself and the team.”
Who stays in the pool?
Gregg Berhalter was blunt when speaking with the media on Monday when he said there will be players on this roster who we won’t see again with the USMNT for awhile. He added that these players could shift to the U-23 national team or the U.S. U-20 team for the first half of 2021 as the Olympics and the U-20 World Cup are both targets for U.S. Soccer.
It is easy to draw reasonable conclusions that he’s talking about young players who are still fighting for limited club minutes or who haven’t even made their debut. While very promising, the opportunity to lead one of the top youth teams has proven to be an effective springboard for U.S. Soccer to help its top young players to make the transition from youth to adult levels.
On the current roster, Uly Llanez, Konrad de la Fuente, Johnny Cardoso, Chris Richards, Richard Ledezma, Owen Otasowie, Chituru Odunze, and Sebastian Soto are candidates for the U-23 or U-20 team and might make that shift to the youth teams in 2021. Even a more experienced player like Tim Weah needs to get on the field more and remains U-23 eligible.
These players might all play in these two games – and for all but Weah and Llanez it would be their first cap. But moving forward, remaining with the national team heading into March and summer 2021 will come down to performances in this games, but more importantly performances – which will be played out in the months ahead.
But so far, integrating them into the team hasn’t been hard.
“It's been good so far,” midfielder Weston McKennie said. “I'm definitely watching training. You play with them - there's a lot of talent, there's a lot of quality. There's a lot of people that we haven't seen before that have come in and made good impressions so far, in my eyes. Obviously, it doesn't matter in my eyes, it matters in the coach's eyes and the staff's. They've integrated pretty well. It's so many new players that I feel like it's not so difficult to really integrate into the squad - as if you're just one or two guys that are new trying to integrate into the squad that's been together five, six years. So it's pretty easy for them to integrate in here.”
Building the core
There are five young players who are all regular first-team players in the UEFA Champions League: Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna, and Tyler Adams. That puts these five players likely into a different category than the rest of the players in the entire pool.
Berhalter said that two of the hallmarks for a successful soccer country are a successful and thriving domestic league along with the number of Champions League players a country has
Some of these players have played together before but some are completely new to each other. Tyler Adams has never played with Sergino Dest. Gio Reyna has played with none of the players.
Building up chemistry within these key five players is critical. While Christian Pulisic won’t play and will soon leave camp, it was still beneficial to having him in camp for leadership and comradery purposes.
But any chance to have them on the field together is still key. But with Pulisic, Adams, and McKennie, it has been rare to see them on the field at the same time.
“It's frustrating for us,” McKennie said. “We really want to be on the same field and we want to play at the same time. But it hasn't been that way. We've had injuries in the past. Tyler had a really long injury. Christian has been unlucky with the recent injuries and just in the past as well, I've missed a camp as well. So it's something that we're still looking forward to and it's something that we're definitely getting toward to be able to accomplish - hopefully sooner rather than later.
“We kind of know we have a chemistry and we have an understanding of how we play and how each one of us contributes of how to play off of each other,” he added. “So that's why it makes it a bit nerve wracking for us, because we know that we could possibly have a really, really good connection on the field as well.”
The core of the team won’t necessarily be only those players. Zack Steffen, John Brooks, and others have strong resumes but competition in central defense and goalkeeper could increase in the years ahead.
Yunus Mussah is a young player at just 17 who seems to have both a very high ceiling and the ability to help the team immediately. His involvement in this camp was extremely surprising given that he left the United States shortly after his birth and was raised entirely in Italy and England. He has also been involved with England’s youth national teams in the past.
Berhalter has done extremely well to get Musah to this point of at least considering the United States. But the U.S. manager is also clear that long-term, Musah’s international future is undecided. His current form for Valencia in Spain (where he is a first-team starter) will only keep England very interested.
Obviously for Musah to continue to consider the United States an option, a positive experience for him in this camp is a priority. Having Pulisic involved (even as he won’t play) is a huge help.
Following the Wales game and the Panama game, it will be interesting to see comments from Musah and from players about his experiences but that hasn’t stopped both English manager Gareth Southgate and U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter from speaking about Musah this week:
“I know John (McDermott, assistant FA technical director) has spoken with the family and they know where we sit with it,” Southgate said. “But also we want to get that balance right of not just pushing him up the age groups quicker than we think is right because we’ve got other boys in the system as well, and we don’t want to promise things that we can’t fulfil.
“It sounds as though he’s going to meet with America this time and experience that,” Southgate added. “That doesn’t rule him out of being with us moving forward. So, we’ve just got to make sure that the boy and the family know that we think he’s a good player, that he’s on a good trajectory. We’re monitoring him. He’s been with us in the last couple of months and we’d very much like his future to be with us.”
Meanwhile, Berhalter was full of praise for Musah in his first U.S. camp.
All the intel we had about Yunus was that he was an absolute great guy and great pro. And, you know, I can say that's absolutely all true. It's been a pleasure having him in camp. He's such positive energy, such a nice, nice person. And he's a good player. He's a very good player. He's a special player. You'll get to see that tomorrow, I'm sure. When you think about quality and for his age and his profile, everything is high quality.
Goalkeeping and backline
One of the keys to the U.S. team moving forward will be the backline. The good news for Berhalter is that three of the team’s four central defenders boast a ton of experience and leadership potential. Between John Brooks, Tim Ream, and Matt Miazga, there is plenty on which to build. It is a position where it is good to have experience.
“John Brooks, I haven't seen him in awhile either, but he's definitely, alongside Tim Ream, the veterans on the team,” McKennie said. “I think they're very important because at the same time, I've had my experiences here, Tyler Adams had his experiences here, Christian Pulisic had his experience here.
“But, at the same time, we're so close to the ages of the kids that are coming in that it's a little hard for them to look at us as like an authority figure - as a person that they really have to pay attention or listen to whenever they try to give them advice or say something,” McKennie said. “Tim Ream and John Brooks, they're a little bit older than us, so they have a little bit more experience and a little bit more like: 'OK, this guy is older then me. Let me show him some respect.'”
With all the successful U.S. national teams of the past, there has always been a very good leadership out of central defense – whether it be Carlos Bocanegra, Eddie Pope, Matt Besler, or Jay DeMerit. While he was a veteran of the 2014 World Cup team, he was mostly on the bench. Can he be the leader this cycle on a much younger team?
Berhalter likes his chances with Brooks.
“John is steady as they come,” Berhalter said. “He is a very steady player in terms of his mentality, his personality, he's a very calm person. Our job is to let him play how he plays. He is a very physical, dominant player. He can be very good on set pieces, very good pass through out of the back. He's a good guy to have in the team. The thing I like about John is that when the level steps up, I think that's where he can step up as well. He's a guy that shows he can adapt to the demands of the game.”
The rest of the backline is relatively easy to figure out.
Matt Miazga probably will get the start at right central defender as he is playing regularly for Anderlecht. Chris Richards is likely to get minutes over these two games but he is still on the younger and inexperienced side, for now.
There are only three fullbacks in camp right now (with Tim Ream as a potential back-up left back). There are three likely formations for Berhalter. He could go with Sergino Dest on the right, Antonee Robinson on the left. He could also go with Dest on the left and Reggie Cannon on the right. Finally, he could go with Robinson on the left and Cannon on the right – although this seems the least likely given Dest’s rise at Barcelona.
The most likely scenario in the strongest pairing is Dest-Robinson given that Robinson is now a starter for Fulham. Cannon, however, has very strong defensive and physical abilities that could be useful depending on the approach the U.S. team makes.
Goalkeeping is almost certainly going to see Zack Steffen as the starter for these games. Moving forward, however, nothing is clear at the moment and neither Steffen, Horvath, or even third-string Chituru Odunze are starters for their clubs.
In a 4-3-3:
- Steffen- GK
- Dest – right back
- Miazga – right center back
- Brooks – left center back
- Robinson – left back
- Adams – defensive midfield
- McKennie – No. 8
- Musah – No. 10
- Reyna – left wing
- Weah – center forward
- Llanez – right wing
Many of the choices are obvious but there are few options. Does Reyna start out wide or the middle? If they want to get Musah into the game – and Berhalter has said he wants Musah in the middle – that likely puts Reyna out wide.
The absence of Pulisic and Sargent as well as top MLS players missing (like Altidore and Morris), and the drop in form of players like Tyler Boyd, means the wing and center forward positions are up for grabs. That remains the most unpredictable area of the field for the U.S. team against Wales and Panama. For now, Llanez probably has the inside track by virtue of playing there in January camp.
Weah could factor in at wing but more likely he is at center forward. Nicholas Gioacchini is playing more first team minutes than many attackers, so he could see significant minutes. Seabastian Soto as well as the U.S. team might not want to lose him to Chile. Konrad de la Fuente hasn’t played first team minutes but his rise within Barcelona should see his debut happen in these games – as well as a possible start.