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Now Comes The Hard Part For The USMNT

SANDY, UTAH - JUNE 09: Reggie Cannon #20 of the United States celebrates a goal during a game against Costa Rica at Rio Tinto Stadium on June 09, 2021 in Sandy, Utah. (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

After three wins in three games against CONCACAF opposition, the next generation of United States Men's National Team players will now disperse, not to be seen again until the games matter three months from now. This little stint in the Rocky Mountains—two Nations League games against Honduras and Mexico and a laughably easy friendly win against Costa Rica—is more or less the first time fans have gotten to see this version of this team all together as the core of the program. Christian Pulisic has been a hero for the USMNT for half a decade already, but most of this cohort has either contributed only in spots or existed on the national team only in theory, their potential future footprint rising in promise with every exciting club development but never tested in a USA jersey.

Now, the Nations League is fake and a friendly is a friendly, though players who haven't had an extended run with the team—like Gio Reyna, Reggie Cannon, and Yunus Musah—need the experience, since this here prologue is all the warmup they'll have together before World Cup qualifiers start in early September. All that stands between now and then is the Gold Cup, and Gregg Berhalter has already said the United States will send its B-Team to that tournament. This three-game run was the dress rehearsal for the players who will redeem or not redeem the USMNT's embarrassing failures of 2017.

An optimist would regard the Nations League triumph, particularly the grindcore win against Mexico, as a sign that this group's talent will help the USMNT breeze through CONCACAF and book its flights to Qatar before Halloween. After all, Mexico is the class of CONCACAF. Why are we even talking about potential when the score read 3-2 at the end of the seemingly 19-hour ordeal in Denver? This roster is unlike anything we've ever seen before. A pessimist would not only point out that the team had a lead for fewer than 10 minutes total against Honduras and Mexico, they would also note that all the USMNT's superior talent earned the team in 2017 was an ass-whupping by a squad that's already been bounced from this qualifying cycle because their spot got snatched by Saint Kitts and Nevis. The moderator of this imagined debate would find the common ground by asking the participants what they thought of Berhalter's, let's go with, avant-garde tactics.

The truth is, for better and possibly worse, the USMNT's qualifying roster is far more competent and far less experienced than their hairshirted 2017 counterparts. And you only need to have watched one qualifying cycle to know that advancing through CONCACAF is as much about survival and mastery of soccer's dark arts as it is about creating good-looking attacks. Showing out on a pleasant Sunday in, say, Mönchengladbach is probably harder skill-wise than doing so on a pockmarked pitch in rainy Panama City, but CONCACAF qualifiers are their own beast. And among the no-shit starters, only Pulisic has ever experienced Estadio Azteca.

This team undoubtedly has the talent to get through CONCACAF. That's too important to handwave away here, since there are 14 games in this cycle, and given that long a runway, it's most likely that talent wins out. That 2017 group also had more talent than most of their competitors, but the amplitude of that talent gap matters, and Brendan Aaronson is not Bobby Wood. After two mudfights against Honduras and Mexico, the U.S. finally got to show off how pretty they can be if they get rolling when they played Costa Rica, and Aaronson was comfortably the man of the match. This shit right here made me shriek.

Reggie Cannon and Daryl Dike also scored their first international goals as the USMNT earned a comfortable 4-0 win despite rotating nearly the entire starting lineup. It was a pretty chill win, one that featured Cannon styling on some guy and Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams demonstrating once again why Berhalter should never, ever start Jackson Yueill or Kellyn Acosta over them. What impressed me was the depth of talent, as it is now clear that the team can still outplay the theoretical third-best team in CONCACAF and generate a shitload of chances even without Pulisic. He's the captain for a reason, but this is now a real team.

That depth matters just as much as anything here. The Octagonal (goodbye to the dreaded Hex!) qualifying setup is played in hateful little clusters of three games over seven-day periods. That means the USMNT's European guys, who make most of the roster, will have to finish their qualifying cycle by flying across the ocean amid the homestretch of the club season to play Mexico at Azteca on a Thursday, fly back up to the U.S. to play Panama on Sunday, then go back to Costa Rica on the following Wednesday. That's demanding, significantly more so than getting together with your pals for a couple of elevated friendlies in front of adoring fans. It will take a different set of skills than we've seen so far, and it will take the whole group.

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