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USMNT looks to build with Nations League visit to Canada

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The United States has faced much criticism since failing to miss out on the World Cup two years ago. If Gregg Berhalter is to silence the naysayers, he must use the Nations League as a building block for sustained success with a view towards 2022 World Cup qualifying.

Step 1 was completed Friday with a 7-0 demolition of lowly Cuba, and Step 2 comes Tuesday evening as the USMNT heads to Toronto to meet Canada at BMO Field, with kickoff set for 7:30 p.m. ET.

[ MORE: An in-depth look at Canada ]

The United States did the job at hand, soundly beating a far inferior opponent, allowing the squad to move forward quickly and emphatically. There is plenty more to prove, but the engine is revved and the gas pedal pressed. Still, Berhalter and company must remember this is a marathon not a sprint, and even the slightest slip in Nations League play will open the floodgates of criticism.

Seeing the bigger picture

The biggest thing for the USMNT to piece together in the Nations League is a sustained run of success that builds not just positive feelings but true momentum born by consistency. It will be fascinating to see the team chosen by Gregg Berhalter as he looks to put together consistent starting lineups that help build not just victories on the scoresheet but also chemistry between players who have a legitimate chance of seeing future lineups in more high leverage matches.

Against Cuba, positive performances can lend themselves to more opportunities down the line, but Berhalter must also be realistic about who has a chance to be contributors not just against the minnows of CONCACAF but also against teams the United States has aspirations of competing with. Against Cuba, Jordan Morris continued his revival as a winger, and he should be given more opportunities to build a relationship with Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic up front. Jackson Yueill is another player who can earn his way into long-term contention, but it remains true that Michael Bradley is still the team’s best option at holding midfielder and requires minutes with the other consistent starters (although it would be interesting to see if the two can play together coherently). Reggie Cannon played well at right-back but incumbent DeAndre Yedlin deserves the chance to prove he’s still the correct choice after returning from a long injury layoff.

A view towards the future must be in the back of Berhalter’s mind, not just looking to achieve results but also achieve results with the right players. Meshing the correct squad now will unquestionably pay dividends down the road as the United States hopes to turn around recent negative results against teams like Mexico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Italy, and Colombia which fans aspire to be competitive against. With the start of World Cup qualification less than a calendar year away, the time is now to end the wild experimentation and begin dividing up the precious minutes between players who are considered legitimate possibilities for the potential 2022 squad.

18-year-old Alphonso Davies represents a youth movement with the Canadian national team that gives fans hope for the future (Photo by Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Switching gears to Canada

Canada will no doubt present a tougher test than Cuba, but the United States will still be expected to emerge victorious, and anything less will represent yet another two steps back after one step forward.

The northern neighbors have high aspirations, hoping to challenge for World Cup qualification. Head coach John Herdman said in the run-up to Tuesday’s match that the United States may be a rival, but they’re also “standing in the way” of the ultimate goal, confident speech ahead of such a difficult test. LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye took it a step further, saying his play with the Canadian national team over the next few years “is going to help shape the foundation of how Canada is going to be in the next 10 years.”

Canada has a crop of young talent with Kaye joined by 18-year-old Bayern Munich winger Alphonso Davies and 19-year-old Gent youth product Jonathan David.

Still, they have not defeated the United States in their last 17 tries, dating back to 1985. Their last match was a measly 1-0 victory over the same Cuba squad that was obliterated by the US, forced to play 35 minutes a man down after Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry was sent off. Canada still managed to hold a whopping 81% possession in that match, but worked just a single shot on target, which resulted in Davies’ 9th minute opener. They will need to be both more disciplined and more dangerous if they wish to pull off the upset in Toronto.

Projected lineup

— Steffan —

— Yedlin — Long — Ream — Lovitz —

— McKennie — Bradley — Roldan —

— Morris — Sargent — Pulisic —

Brad Guzan started the Cuba match in goal, but Zack Steffan is the true long-term option here and it would be natural to see him return to the lineup against the tougher opponent. Gregg Berhalter loves Aaron Long and his return could also be expected. As stated above, Bradley is a contentious selection among many fans but his presence calms the midfield, and he delivers a long ball forward like nobody else on the roster. The front three played exceptionally well against Cuba and it would be questionable to see anyone but those players start again with Jozy Altidore injured.

Prediction

The United States will no doubt face a tougher challenge, and the young attacking talent will test the in-flux back line. Yedlin at right-back will have the toughest test matching up with Davies defensively which could force him back more than Berhalter wants. It will be imperative for the midfield trio to establish control of the central areas and work forward from there. It can be expected that the United States will control the tempo, and if they stay calm, cool, and collected when Canada counters, they should come away with a nervy 2-1 victory.

USMNT player ratings from 7-0 defeat of Cuba

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The USMNT’s first ever match CONCACAF Nations League match was always supposed to be a straight-forward win, but this was something else.

The Yanks smashed Friday’s visitors to Audi Field by a 7-0 margin, scoring six first half goals and riding a right-sided master class from Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon and Jordan Morris to victory.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

Here are the individual ratings from a comprehensive-enough win.

Starting XI

Brad Guzan — 6 — Didn’t do anything wrong. Also didn’t really need to be there. Hopefully someone brought him snacks.

Daniel Lovitz — 6 — Drew the penalty with a cross, but otherwise didn’t have a ton to do.

Matt Miazga — 6 — Befuddled by a Tim Ream mistake and nearly allowed a shot, but again, three of the backs and their keeper had very little to do all night.

Tim Ream — 5 — Two dicey plays including a poor giveaway around the hour mark, but a good safety valve at the back when the Yanks allowed a long ball counter in the 73rd.

Reggie Cannon — 8 — Sensational pace and industry, and it the energy never left him. Instrumental in the first two goals as Berhalter asked his right back to do his best Trent Alexander-Arnold impression. It wasn’t a bad one.

Jackson Yueill — 8 — Exactly one blip in 90 quality minutes. Begging to be considered as the fourth midfielder behind Tyler Adams, McKennie, and Michael Bradley.

Cristian Roldan — 6 — One nice play in the second half and worked hard on the night, but a poor giveaway in the first half could’ve soiled a great start if the opposition was up to it.

Weston McKennie (Off HT) — 10 — Electric. Industrious. Fun. This was an emerging midfielder from a semi-regular European-qualifying club showing what it looks like when the opposition takes several steps down in quality. A joy to watch.

Christian Pulisic — 7 — Solid enough for the Chelsea man, who captained the squad and didn’t put a foot wrong. Scored his penalty and otherwise was content to let the others drive the bus for once.

Jordan Morris (Off HT) — 9 — The extra touch that made the fifth goal a Cuban own goal instead of an outright finish stops us from giving him a 10, but really it’s just nice to be picky and positive for once. Morris has found his home as a wing in Berhalter’s system.

Josh Sargent — 6 — Nice to see him get the start, but does that mean it’ll be Gyasi Zardes against Cuba? He was “in and around” the goal all night, and his goal was very well taken. Sliced a good chance over the bar in the 90th after producing the chance with a takeaway.

Substitutions

Tyler Boyd (On HT) — 6 — Flashed some good moves. Had a great steal outside the 18 but was stepped on and effectively limped out of the fray.

Paul Arriola (On HT) — 6 — An okay night for one of Berhalter’s mainstays.

Sebastian Lletget (On 68′) — 6 — A moment or two off the bench for the Galaxy man.

LIVE, Nations League: USMNT v. Cuba

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Gregg Berhalter leads the United States men’s national soccer team into the second tournament of his tenure when the Yanks host Cuba on Friday in Washington, D.C.

[ FOLLOW: USMNT on Twitter ]

Christian Pulisic captains the heavily-favored Americans, and will have Josh Sargent and Jordan Morris up top.

Brad Guzan is in goal, with a back line of (left to right) Daniel Lovitz, Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, and Reggie Cannon.

Pulisic is joined in the midfield by Jackson Yueill, Weston McKennie, and Cristian Roldan.

The impossible annual task of choosing an MLS Best XI

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Forget about a functional XI when you’re putting together an MLS Best XI.

That’s true in most leagues, to be fair, but the offensive firepower in MLS puts up gaudy numbers as silky attackers are given a bit more free reign than their used to in previous leagues.

Consider that two players eclipsed the 30-goal mark in Carlos Vela and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, with the latter doing it in under 30 matches. Josef Martinez also came close in 29 matches.

[ MORE: MLS Cup Playoff Power Rankings ]

Those players are enough to form a trident for your Best XI, and they come from loaded units.

Then there’s midfielder Maxi Moralez of NYCFC with his 20 assists in 2434 minutes.

Vela had double digit goals and assists, an achievement met by Carles Gil (New England), Alejandero Pozuelo (Toronto), and Nani (Orlando City).

They all can’t make it.

So we’ll build from the back, and likely punish the fullbacks thanks to a remarkable group of attackers.

Here is who is getting my vote.

Goalkeeper

The backstop is always a tricky choice. Bill Hamid and Brad Guzan led the league in clean sheets with 14, but only the former will warrant consideration here. The Galaxy’s David Bingham led the league in saves and saves inside the box, while also stopping a pair of penalties.

Both join Portland’s Steve Clark, Vancouver’s Maxime Crepeau, and New England’s Matt Turner as advanced stat darlings.

For me it comes down to Hamid and Bingham. The former had far superior defenders, but I can’t get past DC United’s 38 goals allowed to the Galaxy’s 59. Maybe it’s the hockey fan in me thinking of it like the Jennings Award, but that’s my tiebreaker.

Defender

I’m gonna start with DC again here, and the Black-and-Red have two players deserving of a place: Frederic Brillant and Steve Birnbaum.

Here’s why I’m opting for the latter: On the SofaScore list of the Top 20 rated defenders in MLS, minimum 25 games, all but two were dribbled past 11 times or more: Orlando’s Lamine Sane and Birnbaum.

Birnbaum’s number? Two.

You read that right. In 3032 minutes this season, he was taken twice.

Other contenders include:

— Ike Opara, who had another remarkable season and didn’t miss a beat in switching from Sporting KC to Minnesota.

Bastian Schweinsteiger in Chicago dropped from the center of the park and was very strong.

— Miles Robinson of Atlanta was exceptional, especially given his age, while Ryan Hollingshead had the best advanced statistical season of any back on WhoScored. Jorge Moreira gets that nod on SofaScore. And spare a thought for Keegan Rosenberry, who intercepted 16 more passes than anyone else in MLS (82) but still can’t get a call from the USMNT.

Everybody else

We named the prime attackers in MLS at the top of this post. You’d like to add Nicolas Lodeiro and Diego Valeri.

Eduard Atuesta and Mark-Anthony Kaye from LAFC have been difference makers behind Vela. In-beom Hwang was marvelous more often than not but on a terrible Vancouver team.

But there’s one name I believe qualifies as the least-heralded star in MLS.

Minnesota United’s Jan Gregus needs to be on this team. I don’t think he will because his goal and eight assists don’t pop off the page and the Slovakian national team doesn’t get as much love as center midfield partner and well-established bulldog Osvaldo Alonso.

Gregus was fifth in MLS in interceptions with 1.9 per match, 2.2 key passes, and crafts an awfully nice looking long pass. You could argue that he was the key to Minnesota’s fourth seed.

The Best XI

So here’s my team. We’d be destroyed out wide, but would probably score 10 goals a game so man would we entertain?

Bill Hamid (DC)

Robinson (ATL) — Birnbaum (DC) — Opare (MIN)

Gregus (MIN) — Atuesta (LAFC)

Lodeiro (SEA) — Moralez (NYCFC)

Vela (LAFC) — Ibrahimovic (LAG) — Martinez (ATL)

Bench: Bingham (LAG), Brillant (DC), Gil (NE), Pozuelo (TOR), Przyzbylko (PHI), Valeri (POR), Schweinsteiger (CHI)

Combing through Gregg Berhalter’s latest USMNT call-ups

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This is going to meander a bit, because I’m just not sure what to make of Gregg Berhalter’s latest selection of USMNT call-ups other than to say that they make me uneasy.

The roster may be meant to develop long-term success, but his unorthodox decisions are — rightly or wrongly — putting a lot of eyes on short-term results. Because like it or not, the CONCACAF Nations League results affect their FIFA rankings, which matter to Hex qualifying places.

The U.S. was always expected to boss Cuba on Oct. 11 before a challenging match versus Canada at BMO Field four days later. The Yanks haven’t lost to Cuba since 1949, and the matches are usually quite one-sided.

[ MORE: Dest turns down cap-tie call-up ]

Facing an improved Canada angling for a Hex berth is a different feat, even if the Americans haven’t lost to the Canucks since 1985. That’s a run of 17 matches which includes 10 wins.

That could well end this month.

Single matches have become as scrutinized as ever since Bruce Arena’s USMNT crashed out of World Cup qualifying in Couva. Arena has rebounded, rescuing the New England Revolution and putting them into a playoff spot, but the national team has been at sea since Berhalter took the reins of the club.

Now Berhalter is making a habit of calling up players who are not in form, or not the best at their positions amongst Americans in MLS. There was online buzz about Berhalter calling up Brenden Aaronson instead of some non-first team players in Europe, and that’s an interesting conversation, but really we should be asking what qualifies Aaronson ahead of a number of his peers (let alone those a bit older and more experienced than him).

As an aside, I’m thrilled for Aaronson and excited to see an 18-year-old prospect put on the shirt of the country. There’s always hope, and the U.S. and MLS are churning out better players than ever before. I just don’t get this selection now.

Cannon and Aaronson (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

I want to reiterate that I’m not judging players against some sort of perceived “Eurosnob” standard, though I’ll raise my hand high in the air and acknowledge that while I really enjoy MLS and marvel at its incredible rise, there are at least a dozen leagues in Europe (including two second tiers) which are currently above it in top-to-bottom roster quality.

The issue I see with Berhalter’s roster isn’t about Richie Ledezma (please actually call the kid, okay?) or Eric Lichaj or Julian Green. It’s about the players Berhalter is picking from within his own backyard.

Go back to his first January camp and first match as USMNT boss: Nine of the 11 starters are still with the squad (Djordje Mihailovic and Jeremy Ebobisse are out).

Fourteen players are back from that squad, which did not include any European-based players. The MLS additions are Brad Guzan, Jackson Yueill, Jozy Altidore and Brenden Aaronson. The others are Tyler Boyd (Besiktas), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Josh Sargent (Werder Bremen), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle) and Weston McKennie (Schalke).

That seems like a pretty high number to return from a side which is 7-4-2, with a 1-2-2 record against Top 50 sides. The win is a B team beating a Costa Rica B team. The USMNT has also lost to two teams (Jamaica, Venezuela) outside the Top 50.

It’s not like these players have shown an incredible amount in a U.S. shirt, but aren’t in a good fit in their club. Considering that the Yanks are not producing goals by the dozen, consider this:

The leader in “big chances created” in MLS this year is current call-up Jordan Morris with eight. Jozy Altidore is second, also a call-up. No sane mind has a problem with either of those players being on the roster.

But Corey Baird has created two, good for 60th in the league amongst Americans. He is credited with 28 key passes. That’s 19th amongst Americans. He has five goals and three assists, both good for the fifth-highest totals… on his team, which has the scored the second-fewest of any playoff team.

I literally feel bad for harping on Wil Trapp‘s continued presence on the squad, because it’s not his job to turn down call-ups, but this one is astounding. The Columbus captain has started just three of the Crew’s last six matches. Known for his familiarity with Berhalter’s system as well as his passes, Trapp is 40th amongst American MLS players in key passes. He is fifth amongst U.S. MLS midfielders in accurate long balls, and three of the four players ahead of him (Michael Bradley, Jackson Yueill, and Cristian Roldan) have been called up, too. So there’s some method to that madness, but still should that override a consistent series of pedestrian at best performances in the USMNT shirt?

Aaronson is another weird one, and not just because he’s an unfamiliar name at age 18 in MLS. We should absolutely note that he’s unlikely to play a ton, especially against Canada, so the argument here is more about Berhalter’s rationale than Aaronson doing some sort of damage to the team’s fortunes.

He’s been a part of U-23 camp as Jason Kreis prepares for Olympic qualifying, and there’s really no need to see him ahead of a number of players who aren’t in contention for the Olympics. And if in fact the U-23 pool is in play, then there are a number of players from that group worth considering over him.

He might be great, and this might be a bit of brilliance from Berhalter, but he’s also the 10th rated American midfielder under 20 inside of MLS, many of whom play a similar role as him (How Paxton Pomykal isn’t in this camp is beyond me). Even taking out Sands, Cerrillo, and Durking, there’s a series of players in a bit better form above him. Again, I’m not questioning Aaronson’s long-term prognosis, rather where he is now. You don’t want to see what happens when you toss 20- and 21-year-olds onto this list.

Fullbacks Reggie Cannon, Daniel Lovitz, and Nick Lima have all dipped 10 places or more amongst American players in MLS (WhoScored) since the last round of call-ups.

Here, without judgment, is a list of American fullbacks who rank higher in performance score this year than all three of those players on multiple stat sites, having played at least 20 matches (ages in parentheses)

Ryan Hollingshead (28)
Tommy Thompson (24)
Aaron Herrera (22)
Jordan Harvey (35)
Graham Zusi (33)
Donny Toia (27)
Justin Morrow (31)
Jorge Villafana (30)
Keegan Rosenberry (25)

I’ve written this before, but this round of call-ups seems to reinforce it: The only conclusion I can reasonably come to is that Berhalter is so confident in being able to out-produce his peers, as he did with a substandard roster in Columbus, that he doesn’t care what the metrics say.

I get Gyasi Zardes, who is presently a very decent bench option beyond Jozy Altidore and Josh Sargent. The majority of the roster is defensible, which is a low bar, but fine.

I just feel like Berhalter is about to hang his hat on how his side fares against a Cuba team which should be defeated by any combination of regular MLS starters, let alone the best available to him.

Then Canada, who is much improved despite its losses to Mexico and Haiti and Gold Cup (At least they scored against Mexico, amirite?).

Canada has a Champions League goalkeeper in Red Star Belgrade’s Milan Borjan, but very little in defense. Their midfield is going to be a batch of MLS players and Rangers man Scott Arfield. The one place they can burn you is with talented attackers Alphonso Davies (Bayern Munich), Jonathan David (Gent), Junior Hoilett (Cardiff City) and others.

So it’ll be a bit concerning if his XI looks like anything other than this:

Steffen

Yedlin — Zimmerman — Miazga — Ream

Bradley — McKennie — Lletget

Pulisic — Altidore — Morris

That’s still a lineup that beats Canada, maybe comfortably.