Corey Baird

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Three players (and a tactic) under the microscope for USMNT

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It’s becoming pretty clear that what the public wants to see from the United States men’s national team is not necessarily in lockstep with what Gregg Berhalter wants to see from the squad (aside from obviously goals and wins, which have both been in short supply).

He made this pretty clear last month, for better or for worse, when he defended his side’s myriad errors in playing out of the back against Mexico. He’d made it clear over a longer period of time, too, with the continued call-ups for a certain subset of players who have been poor for club and/or country.

[ MORE: Schweinsteiger retiring ]

That happens with a lot of managers, and we still love Berhalter’s ability to squeeze something good out of lesser materials as he did with the Columbus Crew. While we admit to not being particular high on the manager’s squad selection, he shouldn’t have problems over the course of the two month’s CONCACAF Nations League matches with Canada and Cuba.

If he does, well, we’re going to be having a different conversation. And to be frank, that didn’t seem like anything worth worrying about just a few short months ago. Berhalter had been overrun by Tata Martino and Mexico in the Gold Cup Final, but honestly did a decent job in marshaling his men toward a result (Jozy Altidore atypically missed a big chance to score on the night).

Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes, but last month’s remarkably poor performance against Mexico rolling into a match versus Uruguay’s B-Team which was rescued by an increasingly impressive winger named Jordan Morris (‘Member him?).

But Cuba and Canada present two very different challenges for the United States over the next eight days. Cuba is the type of side the U.S. should boss 95 percent of the time, with bad fortunate possibly contributing to the occasional draw.

The attackers are going to be under pressure to produce this month, due to the fact that they, well, won’t be likely to face

Cuba has only one player on its roster playing outside of the Caribbean and Central America, and that’s USL striker Luis Paradela (who just came to Reno with the notable status as the first Cuban to play in the U.S. without defecting).

Canada presents a big threat to the U.S. back line, but its defenders should not be a match for a Christian Pulisic-led attack.

This is a week for the attackers.

Disclaimer: You won’t see us putting Christian Pulisic on this list for numerous reasons despite his status as an on-again, off-again lineup member for Chelsea. There is no doubting his acumen as a USMNT player and little reason to expect he’ll be anything but fantastic against these CONCACAF foes. If for whatever reason he isn’t a freed being against Cuba, or is rested, the chance to out-duel fellow CONCACAF phenom Alphonso Davies would be something he’d embrace even if he was going 90 on a religious basis for Frank Lampard.

1. Josh Sargent — Jozy Altidore’s latest injury has expedited the need for another CONCACAF killer, perhaps a new one. With Timothy Weah also injured, Sargent is the one.

Make no mistake about it: These games are not even in the ball park of “make or break” for the 19-year-old, who has started Werder Bremen’s last three Bundesliga matches.  Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt has opted for five different formations this season, deploying Sargent as a right wing four times and center forward twice.

But a strong showing or two could conceivably cement Sargent’s status as the top striker in the program.  Playing at a high level with Christian Pulisic amongst others would also help, because chemistry will be key in World Cup qualifying and Sargent can make a statement with his boss under pressure and both Altidore and Weah on the sidelines.

Sargent should have every opportunity to feature against Cuba and Canada, and we may see Berhalter put the teen in the lineup against Cuba on Friday and let his performance determine whether he keeps his place or sees Gyasi Zardes return to the fold against Canada.

2. Corey Baird — The Real Salt Lake man would be on the fringes of the national team picture under a lot of coaches, but Berhalter has liked what he’s seen from the 23-year-old. Baird started Berhalter’s first USMNT friendlies and is still in the fold. He’s come into club form heading into the last two international breaks, and is now called up for the fourth separate camp.

He’s gotta find a goal or standout cameo at the minimum, especially considering the players (Altidore, Weah) who will soon return to the fold. Baird has a goal and an assist from the left wing over his past two RSL matches as the club snapped out of its doldrums ahead of the playoffs.

3. Tyler Boyd — What a year it’s been for the one-time New Zealand striker, who took a loan to Turkey with both hands and earned a permanent transfer for a Champions League club and a new international registry.

Boyd is having fits and starts with Besiktas, and it’s fair to say that’s also been the case for the USMNT. He scored a pair of goals on his Gold Cup debut against Grenada, but was kept on the bench for the semifinals and final.

We’re not going to pretend that we see every Besiktas match, but the metrics for Boyd’s early performances have not been good. To be fair, no one had been playing that well for the 12th place side before they beat first place Alanyaspor at the weekend. The bad news is that Boyd was stapled to the bench, as he was three days prior when Besiktas lost to Wolves in the Europa League.

Like Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, this camp can be a welcome chance for Boyd to unleash his tools. Cuba is a bit easier to break down than Wolves or Trabzonspor.

BONUS. Playing out of the back — Gregg Berhalter bristled when asked about his side’s poor play against the Mexican press and his stubbornness in sticking with the attack all the way through a brutal loss to a rival.

If his men can’t do it against Cuba, forget about it.

This is going to be an under-the-radar test for Berhalter, who has continuously opted to use a mauler of a center back (Aaron Long) who is a heck of a tackler but lacking in the passing department. With Matt Miazga back in the fold and the chance to pair him with either Tim Ream or Miles Robinson, behind Michael Bradley, what will Berhalter choose and how well will it work?

Stock up/stock down: USMNT January friendlies

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Given the impressive group of USMNT players and prospects abroad, this January camp was of monumental importance for the all-MLS squad assembled by Gregg Berhalter.

Aside from goalkeeper Zack Steffen, himself headed to Manchester City in the summer, and perhaps LAFC’s Walker Zimmerman, everyone had something to prove to Berhalter and his staff: Even former longtime captain and 143-times capped Michael Bradley.

[ MORE: USMNT 2-0 Costa Rica | Player ratings ]

Consider this list of players not called into January’s camp and wins over the mostly “B teams” of Panama and Costa Rica.

Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga, John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, “Timo” Weah, Josh Sargent, Bobby Wood, Ethan Horvath.

And those are just the “must” call-ups for March’s visits from Ecuador and Chile.

So keeping in mind the staff had a dozen non-friendly chances to evaluate the players on a myriad of levels, here are those who raised or lowered their stock in the matches versus Panama and Costa Rica.

Stock up

Jonathan Lewis, New York City FC (21) — Personal anecdote: I watched Akron play the University at Buffalo a couple of  times during Lewis’ lone season with the Zips, and Lewis’ electric talent leapt off the pitch. That’s a nearly essential sign if a college star has an international future.

Lewis was an impact sub for Berhalter in a similar fashion. In addition to the unteachable pace he possesses, Lewis stood up a cross that Sebastian Lletget finished for the difference-making goal against Costa Rica.

But Lewis’ pro career has been a slow burn (Dominic Torrent deployed him much more than Patrick Vieira, but still zero starts). Even with David Villa leaving NYCFC, Lewis is behind Jesus Medina, reported $9 million buy Alex Mitrita and 2018 revelation Ismael Tajouri-Shradi. He needs an outlet, and maybe former (ages ago) Akron coach and current Columbus boss Caleb Porter would be up for it?

Sebastian Lletget, LA Galaxy (26) — Lletget left the United States for West Ham United in 2009, so we saw very little of his development. He became, in fact, a curiosity thanks to his making just one senior appearance in West London.

Upon his MLS debut with LA, though, it became clear there was something very good here. Lletget scored for the USMNT in his third cap before suffering a Lisfranc injury and missing 18 months. He scored on Saturday — in the same venue in which he was hurt — and was perhaps the most composed player in a U.S. jersey.

His ability to play anywhere in the midfield is huge, and Berhalter will love what he’s seen from the veteran.

Michael Bradley, Toronto FC (31) — The short- and long-term future of the midfield runs through Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, but Bradley’s performance against Panama — as poor as Los Canaleros were — shows he’s going to be someone who has in him at least another World Cup cycle as a contributor. Think a rich man’s “Kyle Beckerman in the 2018 qualification cycle.” Even if he is not starting, his experience and engine combine to make for a tremendous asset.

Bonus positives: Djordje Mihailovic, Chicago Fire (20). Steffen (23).

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Stock questionable?

Let’s first put a list of players who, unless there were unreported injuries, couldn’t get many minutes, if any, for Berhalter: Reggie Cannon, Auston Trusty, Marky Delgado, Mark McKenzie, Keegan Rosenberry, Justen Glad, Kellyn Acosta, Tyler Miller.

Most of this bunch is quite young, so it’s hard to say they aren’t for the future. Delgado, Acosta, and Rosenberry are the biggest eyebrow-raisers given their age and importance to their current clubs.

Stock down

Corey Baird, Real Salt Lake (23) — A lot of astute soccer minds love Baird because he’s very good positionially, and that’s true, but this is also a player who was the 18th rated Real Salt Lake player last season despite producing eight goals and five assists. It’s one of those “arguments against analytics,” but he has to get goals and assists against this opposition. Instead, he was just okay. You could easily argue that the team Panama put out there would finish dead last in MLS. I need my wingers to feast on that.

Gyasi Zardes, Columbus Crew (27) — I hate the idea of piling on, and it’s silly to write off such a tantalizing and industrious talent when so many coaches have failed to do so, but Zardes just isn’t on the level and hasn’t been for some time outside of MLS.

While thriving in MLS usually is a gateway to torture CONCACAF, Zardes hasn’t scored in his last 13 caps. Eight of those caps were 45 minutes or more, so it’s not like he hasn’t a chance to score (He has pitched in an assist). As a center forward, hold up play is important but not as much as goals. Jozy Altidore will need to get a chance to show he should be in the group with Josh Sargent, Timothy Weah, Bobby Wood, and even Andrija Novakovich (and Jordan Morris). Not good for Gyasi.

(Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)

USMNT 3-0 Panama: Mihailovic scores on debut as US impresses

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It was a day of debuts for the USMNT as they defeated Panama 3-0 to end January camp on a positive note. Gregg Berhalter led the United States for the first time as head coach, while five debutants earned their first senior international caps, the most in a single match since 1992.

One of those debutants, Chicago Fire academy product Djordje Mihailovic, bagged the game’s opening goal, giving the hosts tangible reward for an energetic and sharp showing. Walker Zimmerman grabbed the second goal, sealing the win, while substitute Christian Ramirez poked in the third at the death. Another debutant, Aaron Long, wore the captain’s armband over Michael Bradley, a surprising development when the lineups were announced.

The United States off the opening kickoff showed a fascinating tactical shape and clear purpose. Defender Nick Lima, listed as a right-back, often pushed forward into central midfield when the U.S. had possession of the ball. He would occupy the space next to Michael Bradley, with the other defenders forming a back three.

[ MORE: Player ratings from USMNT win over Panama ]

The hosts had the first look at goal, with debutant Jeremy Ebobisse – deployed on the left wing – crossing to Gyasi Zardes completely alone in the penalty area, but his wide-open header was sent over the bar.

Bradley was at the heart of every U.S. possession, and he nearly created another goalscoring chance on 20 minutes when Cristian Roldan had the ball down the middle and should have seen Corey Baird running clear on goal, but instead wasted the chance with a shot from 28 yards out. Five minutes later Baird had another chance, putting his layoff from Zardes just inches wide right. Nick Lima had a shot that also went a hair wide of the post a minute later from Zardes again laying off.

The U.S. continued to dominate and nearly found the opener on a corner in the 28th minute. Long had a touch at the near post and flicked it across the face of goal where a charging Walker Zimmerman put it over the bar. The attacks continued to prove dangerous but lacked the final ball, as Zardes again missed with a header in the 39th minute after Daniel Lovitz delivered a brilliant curling ball into the box.

Finally, the U.S. was able to celebrate after Panama failed to deal with a broken attack. In the 40th minute, the U.S. pushed forward after a turnover and Lima was the man on the ball through the middle. He threaded Zardes through the center, and while Zardes went down under pressure looking for a foul, the ball fell at the feet of Baird, and he cut across to Mihailovic who came charging in and blasted the ball into the back of the net with the help of a slight deflection.

It has to be said that Panama was horrific in the first half, but they picked things up after the break and worked a big chance in the 55th minute that required a reflex save from Zack Steffan, the first real action for the U.S. goalkeeper.

Mihailovic had another big chance on the stroke of the hour mark, charging again onto the ball at the top of the box, but his vicious shot was blocked. He came off soon after for Sebastian Lletget in Berhalter’s first substitution.

In the 70th minute, the U.S. was again put under pressure on a free-kick that saw two Panamanian attackers get behind the defense, but Ernesto Walker sent his glancing header just wide. With Panama beginning to find a bit of comfort, the United States bagged a second goal to put the game away, made by Lima with a wonderful bit of defense to offense. With Panama on the counter after the U.S. saw an attack fizzle out, Lima came thundering in with a thumping tackle, winning the ball off Edson Samms and then delivering a pinpoint cross to a host of bodies in the penalty area. Walker Zimmerman rose the highest and pummeled in a header for the strike.

With the game winding down, substitute Christian Ramirez came on for Zardes and poked home the exclamation point on great work from fellow substitute Jonathan Lewis down the left flank, bursting past his defender and cutting across to Ramirez all alone on the doorstep with the goalkeeper pulled out.

That was nearly the final kick of the game, with no stoppage time added. It was a solid win against a poor opponent for the United States, with few trouble spots to shake a finger at. Berhalter earned victory in his first coaching appearance for the USMNT, giving hope to fans as they move forward toward the Gold Cup, and eventually, the World Cup qualification cycle.

U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team fails to qualify for World Cup after loss to Honduras

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For the first time in the history of the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, the United States has failed to failed to qualify.

The U.S. needed a victory in Sunday’s quarter-final of the CONCACAF tournament against Honduras to clinch a berth to the semi-finals and to punch a ticket to the World Cup but it was not to be as Honduras shocked the favored Americans, 3-1. With the loss, the Stars & Stripes crash out of the tournament they previously qualified for on each of their previous 15 attempts. The win guarantees Honduras a spot in the World Cup and a semi-final matchup with Mexico, who defeated Guatemala 2-0.

The Americans dominated early on with first half opportunities from Shaquell Moore, Corey Baird and Joel Sonora but each effort was thwarted by Honduran goalkeeper, Cristian Hernandez. Los Catrachos broke the deadlock in the 42nd minute when Christopher Alegria unleashed a 30 yard blast to hand his country a 1-0 lead. Two minutes later the Americans responded when Christopher Lema linked up with Sonora, who unleashed his own long distance strike to tie the match 1-1 going into halftime.

U.S. manager, and former Red Bulls assistant coach, Richie Williams (pictured) hoped to inspire his squad at the break but just 12 minutes into the second stanza Honduras’ Alberth Elis received a diagonal ball from Brayan Velasquez, beat an onrushing Thomas Redding and dispatched a dink past American goalkeeper Jefferson Caldwell.

Elis was a constant menace and nearly doubled his side’s lead in the 66th minute when his strike from 12 yards out hit the underside of the bar but was ruled not to have crossed the goal-line. But the nail in the U.S. coffin was nevertheless delivered two minutes later when Kevin Alvarez unleashed a furious free kick from 28 yards out that Caldwell couldn’t parry. The win was Honduras’ first over the U.S. in eight meetings in the U-17 championship.

The U-17 defeat comes just one year from the historic letdown of the U-23 Men’s National Team’s failure to qualify for the Olympics. The loss raises questions about the state of U.S. soccer, and in particular, the Residency Program that has been the primary feeder for the U-17 squad over the last 14 years. Questions will also be asked of Williams’ failure to motivate his talented squad and his decision to sit one of his best midfielders, Junior Flores, during the quarter-final loss.