Wales – USMNT: So what if the U.S. men’s national team played a very young Wales side to a mostly dull scoreless draw in Swansea on Thursday?
The (not-so-) Baby Yanks were far and away the better side, but more importantly every returning player showed signs of individual progress made in 2020.
Here are three things we learned about Gregg Berhalter’s side on a rainy night in south Wales…
The great thing about kids is, they eventually grow up
It had been so long — 285 days, to be exact — since we saw the USMNT and its promising generation of youngsters that some of them almost seemed unrecognizable with another year of life’s experiences under their belts. For all of the excitement around the “potential” of this group, everything still hinges upon continued development and reaching said potential. It can be difficult to see improvement with regular exposure, but the last nine months have afforded us an opportunity to look at these players in a very clear before-and-after light, so the question is this: Who has grown up the most since we last saw them in the red, white and blue?
- Sergiño Dest — Aside from simply looking the part of a 20-year-old professional at arguably the world’s biggest club, Dest now appears to have a far greater understanding of where he’s supposed to be at all times, and when he can (or can’t) take a chance on either side of the ball.
- John Brooks — This is a bit of a different one with Brooks ascending to another level as he enters his late-20s, but Brooks appears to have done a complete 180 from previous USMNT appearances. More on him in a moment.
- Weston McKennie — For 45 minutes, McKennie was everywhere, in everything, bothering everyone. It was a far cry from the “never stop running while never actually arriving anywhere” maximum-effort approach of caps gone by. McKennie was more active than ever before, but with purpose and a tangible impact on the team — taking the ball off attackers, winning important second balls and attempting (and even sometimes completing) aggressive forward passes.
Given the positions they play and the clubs they play for, you can make an easy case that Dest, Brooks and McKennie are three of the five most important players for the USMNT as they tackle the next 24 months leading up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The fact they look to be the most improved individuals of the last 9-12 months should be a very comforting sign of things to come.
John Brooks has taken ownership of the defense
Wales managed to take all of four — yes, four — shots in this game, so this isn’t so much an assessment of Brooks, ball-winning defender, as it is about Brooks, ball-playing defender.
As we’ll discuss in another brief moment, the USMNT struggled a fair bit to move the ball from defensive third to middle third, but much more so to move the ball from middle third to final third. In a word, such progression of the ball was nonexistent. It’s nice to have a Plan B, though, and Brooks was very happy to step into the void and play a bunch of ultra-aggressive, line-breaking passes from the backline. On the rare instance the Yanks made their way into the Welsh penalty area, it was typically a direct result of Brooks picking out Konrad de la Fuente or Yunus Musah making an inside run into either channel. While it amounted to very little on Thursday, imagine Brooks playing those same passes in behind with someone else on the receiving end…
Throw in Christian Pulisic, and…
Watching the USMNT run into the glass half-circle around Wales’ defensive third was a never-ending exercise in frustration, but don’t let that discourage you altogether, because yet another youngster — 22-year-old Christian Pulisic — figures to be the missing piece for a team completely devoid of one-on-one attackers. The issue on Thursday wasn’t so much that there wasn’t a natural or recognized striker on the field for 79 minutes — though, it didn’t help — but that the front-four of Gio Reyna, Musah, de la Fuente and Sebastian Lletget are all quite passive on the ball.
Unless they see 20 yards of open space in front of them, everyone is looking to make the pass to someone in a better position. When Pulisic gets on the ball, whether in traffic or open space, he’s almost always going to carry it forward and create that open space for someone else by drawing defenders toward him. Without that player against Wales, the USMNT was slow at its best, and completely static at its worst.