As the USMNT rounds the corner from the humiliation of 2018 and begins to truly look toward 2022, the team has assembled an enticing roster of young guns from some of the best clubs in the world. Nevertheless, there remains a big hole in the center.
This American generation is stacked in the midfield and on the flanks, and the core of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Tyler Adams is an extremely solid midfield, whether or not Yunus Musah liked what he saw during his stint with the USMNT enough to turn his back on England for good. The problem lies with the forwards—specifically, the center forward. It is still not clear who exactly will be responsible for, you know, scoring goals. While Josh Sargent fits the profile of young Bundesliga guy, the cupboard is bare enough that Gyasi Zardes and, somehow, Jozy Altidore are still legitimately in the mix. Those guys suck! Who leads the line is the biggest question mark for this team; thankfully, this weird pair of European friendlies provided some intriguing options to fill that role.
If last Thursday’s 0–0 draw with Wales was characterized by a performance sound enough for a win but without the goals to seal it, Monday’s 6–2 victory over Panama oversells the performance a bit, but does show how good this team can be if they truly find a full-time striker. Reyna scored on a free kick thanks mostly to a goalkeeping error, and Sebastian Lletget—a real outlier on this team—added a late insurance goal, but the two players who produced the other four goals are the real focus for our purposes.
Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto are both 20, were born within three days of each other, are both enjoying prolific seasons in the second tiers of European leagues, and are each eligible to represent three different national teams (the U.S., Italy, and Jamaica for Gioacchini, the U.S., Chile, and Mexico for Soto). Gioacchini grew up in Italy and France, and he’s been playing at the senior level for Caen for about a year. This has been his breakout season, as he has earned a starting role playing both as a striker and on the right wing. He started for Gregg Berhalter on Monday and delivered two goals within four minutes. Neither took much skill besides standing in the right place at the right time, though the second one was a beautiful team goal. Later in the game, he stepped up to take a penalty for the hat trick and drove it right down the middle for an easy save. Whatever, watch the goal.
Soto signed with Norwich City this summer and was immediately loaned to Telstar in the Dutch second division, where he has been ripping it up, scoring five goals in seven games. Soto reportedly turned down a call-up from Chile earlier this year to stick with the U.S., which is encouraging. I have to note that both of his goals really say more about Richie Ledezma, the 20-year-old PSV attacking midfielder who can really cross the shit out of the ball and earned two assists on nearly identical passes to Soto.
Like Gioacchini, both of Soto’s goals came within minutes of each other, and neither really had much to do with him. Which is to say, four goals from the pair of young strikers does not show that the USMNT has solved the forward problem. Being in the right place at the right time is one of the most critical skill for a center forward, but Soto and Gioacchini bonking in a quartet doesn’t put them in a class with Reyna et al.
However, two years out from World Cup action, the most important thing for the USMNT is to simply identify which players will contend for forward spots so that Bobby Wood doesn’t have to run around and miss shots anymore. Hell, Tim Weah, former S-Tier USMNT prospect currently spending his season with Lille watching from the bench, also came on and played well on Monday, and he could very much start in Qatar. It’s clear that the USMNT doesn’t have a blue-chipper up front, and that’s mostly okay. If all we need is an opportunist, then this November camp has shown that there’s a bigger pool for that than it seemed a month ago.