Zack Steffan

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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 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.