Sports

The U.S. Men’s National Team Is Fun Again

And fast and skilled and confident and maybe, hopefully, kind of good.

Weston McKennie runs with the ball on the field
Weston McKennie is fun! Geoff Caddick/Getty Images

It’s been so long since we’ve seen the United States men’s national team in action that it’s a wonder Thursday’s game against Wales didn’t open with a “Previously on the USMNT” recap.

It would have been of limited help. Despite the scoreline, the team that played to a 0–0 draw in Swansea bore very little resemblance to the ponderous outfit that took the field in 2019. This version played quickly and with purpose through midfield. Players in all sorts of positions sent defenders backpedaling, and players other than the quarterbacking defensive midfielder sought out dangerous long passes. At times they were sloppy, and they were never able to find the goal they probably deserved, but still. The U.S. picked up the pace and made it fun, and it has not always been that way in the last two … five … nine years. What gives?

When last we left our intrepid heroes, nearly a full year (and several lifetimes) ago, they were finally on the upswing. The anger directed toward Gregg Berhalter’s tactical rigidity—and the fact that every U.S. opponent was better at playing against his system than his own team was at playing with it—was tempered a bit when he made some changes for a pair of must-win games against Canada and Cuba. The team responded by dropping four goals apiece on those opponents. Progress! Something to build on going into the new year!

The new year had its own ideas about that. The U.S. has played a single game in 2020, beating a partial-strength Costa Rica 1–0 to cap its annual January camp. But this is the first time in a long time that the team has brought in its true tentpole players, even if a number of important contributors were left at home to prepare for the Major League Soccer playoffs.

While the U.S. national team itself has been in suspended animation since 2019, the American player pool has gotten a lot deeper and better. Last year, Gio Reyna, who turns 18 on Friday, had yet to make his senior debut for Borussia Dortmund. Last week, he started in the Champions League and against Bayern Munich in a four-day span. In any other year, he might have secured six or eight caps by now. Instead, the game against Wales was his first.

He’s not the only one. Thursday’s starting lineup saw two other teenage debutants, most intriguingly the 17-year-old Yunus Musah, who’s been getting a lot of minutes this season for Valencia in Spain. Musah is eligible for the national teams of the United States, England, Italy, and Ghana. He has spent his youth career mostly in the England system, and could take this call-up almost as a curiosity since it does nothing to tie him to the U.S. going forward. But the fact that he’s USMNT-curious can only be a positive development, and his confident play in the center of midfield, receiving the ball under pressure and driving forward, will have won him a lot of U.S. fans, if the program can seal the deal.

There’s reason to be optimistic. Berhalter’s biggest win of 2019 was a recruiting one, securing the commitment of Ajax’s Dutch American fullback Sergiño Dest. Now he’s Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest, which … awkward timing for the move, but still, big news. Likewise, Weston McKennie, once entangled in the slow-motion car crash that is Germany’s Schalke 04, has been plucked out by new Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo to play an all-action disruptive role in the midst of that team’s passers and finishers. So dependent has Juventus grown on McKennie that it won just a single league game, and that via forfeit, during a recent spell when he missed time after contracting COVID-19. (Cristiano Ronaldo also missed those games, but that was probably a coincidence.)

These were huge moves for Dest and McKennie, made even bigger by the fact that neither has been pinned to the bench in their new homes. Both were outstanding against Wales. The U.S. offense came alive whenever Dest got the ball, whether he was cutting inside to take on defenders or pulling wide to aim crosses. McKennie was always available, always turning and finding options forward, always hustling back to snuff out Welsh danger.

He and Tyler Adams—playing his first game for the U.S. in more than 600 days—made the team hard to play against. Wales was limited to chances on the counter and set pieces. Having that pair plus Musah in the middle and Dest on the outside made moving the ball through the middle third of the field look easier for the U.S. than it has been in years.

However, as the 0–0 scoreline might clue you in on, the U.S. struggled in the final third. There was little chemistry between the front three, which included Reyna and fellow first-timer Konrad de la Fuente (also at Barcelona, though he mostly plays for the club’s reserve side) as well as veteran midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who was out of position as the team’s center forward. (Top European-based forward Josh Sargent was unable to join the team due to coronavirus restrictions in Bremen.) The three seemed unsure of how to move together, and Reyna and Dest seemed to get in each other’s way as often as they successfully interacted.

Those problems might have been mitigated had Christian Pulisic been available, but some things don’t change even after a year. Pulisic’s nagging injuries once again kept him on the sidelines, just as they did last November. His form has been consistently good at Chelsea when healthy, but that caveat looms larger with each hamstring tweak and abductor tear.

Still, there’s no version of the U.S. men’s future that doesn’t include him, and this is a roster that was very much built for the future. Six players made their debut for the U.S. The average age for the starters was barely over 22. But the future might not necessarily be now for all these young players, at least not with the full national team.

The U.S. men’s program is gearing up for what could be four different competitions this coming summer, pandemic permitting: the U-20 World Cup in May, World Cup qualifying beginning in June, the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July, and the U-23 tournament at the Olympics in July. It’s a lot of games in not a lot of time, all on top of a compressed club schedule that’s already wearing players down with six months to go.

And so this camp is partially about expanding the player pool to prepare for all those games. It’s very exciting that Wolverhampton Wanderers see so much potential in 19-year-old defender/midfielder Owen Otasowie, but that potential likely isn’t enough to keep calling him up for the senior team when he could go to either the Olympics or the U-20 tournament instead. Same with defender Chris Richards, who has made a handful of appearances for Bayern Munich, the current best team in the world, at the age of 20. It’s entirely possible that by May it feels ridiculous to talk about demoting Richards, but it also may be clear by then that he’d be better served getting games at one of the other levels than backing up the stalwart John Brooks for the senior team.

By the end of this summer, if all of those competitions go through, we’ll have a much better idea of where the U.S. stands roster-wise going into 2022. The players who rise to the top of their level will move up, those who disappoint will fall off, and hopefully the process will end with not just World Cup qualification, which no one will ever take for granted anymore, but a team that can be successful on the biggest stage in two years’ time.

What will be most exciting to see going forward—other than a world in which the U.S. can play games in its own country without causing a public health hazard—is whether the energy and tempo the youngsters brought to this game can be carried over to other rosters. We’re looking at a lot of potential games next summer for U.S. men’s teams. It’d be a huge win for fans if they all managed to be so fun.

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