The USMNT Is Hitting Its Stride
4:45 PM EDT on October 14, 2021
Rooting for a national team in soccer is an experience that marries frustration and joy, contradictory emotions rooted, to a certain degree, in the asymmetric nature of the game at the highest level. The current iteration of the United States men's national team is made up of players who spend 90-plus percent of their soccer-playing lives with clubs across Europe (mostly), players with specific roles in specific systems. Once called in, they have days to fuse together into this other team and play a different way in games with fundamentally different stakes.
If the Panama toilet party exemplified the difficulty of knitting together a national team, then Wednesday's 2–1 shitkicking of a geriatric Costa Rica side showed what it looks like when the process works. Six games into qualification, the team has an identifiable core with an established style of play, and the Costa Rica win was perhaps their prettiest game as a unit. The points are important. Seeing a group of players come together as a team is critical. It was, in the words of the two best USMNT players, "Amazing, unbelievable, saucy." The final two games of the qualification round made the path forward for the USMNT unavoidably plain: Gregg Berhalter's beloved MLS clown squad is an active handicap on the team's fortunes, whose continued playing time can't be justified on soccer terms; the youth movement is unstoppable.
It's not difficult to understand the instinct behind playing veterans. They have more experience, and as the first qualification window showed, getting through CONCACAF takes much more than individually talented players. The teen-laden version of the USMNT took its lumps and showed its promise, and there's a sensible logic to being cautious with, say, an 18-year-old who plays out of position at his club in favor of an appreciably worse player with 42 caps and a decade in the U.S. system. However, if the MLS-heavy version of the team farts itself to death on the road and shows that they're bizarrely incapable of, like, playing soccer in the exact sort of game where their experience is supposed to shine through, I'm not sure their experience means much. Also, that group never came close to producing what the USMNT's youngest-ever starting lineup did on Wednesday.
The final score doesn't necessarily point to domination, and nobody would call it a perfect performance, but what the USMNT showed most yesterday was coherence. The midfield trio of Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and, most importantly, Tyler Adams was a forceful, ball-winning unit that kept up a relentless tempo and consistently put the ball in dangerous positions. This version of Berhalter's 4-3-3 doesn't feature a central creator, though a commitment to letting Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest (more on him tomorrow) fly up the field brings a deadly element of width. The USMNT feasted in wide areas against Costa Rica, and both of their goals came through Dest's incandescent play on the right side. He earned the hell out of his long, slow victory lap. I mean, come on:
It is worth noting that some specific players will shift in and out of the lineup. Brenden Aaronson looks too good and dynamic to get moved all the way out of the lineup, but he could shift to the right to make way for Pulisic. Tyler Adams's controlled nastiness makes him the most important player on the team, though the team could get more creativity in the center of the field by toggling one of McKennie or Musah out for Gio Reyna or, maybe, Gianluca Busio. The center back pairing is still not 100 percent settled, even if the role is. Fullback is a position of strength, and in order to leverage that properly, Chris Richards and Miles Robinson or whoever anchors the defense will have to defend in space and hit balls forward. Is a diminishing John Brooks's place in the lineup a given? Certainly yesterday's starters have done the best job out of anyone in the pool, even if there were a couple serious hiccups.
The point here is that whichever specific guys line up from the outset, the team has started to hit that special level where the whole is catching up to the sum of its parts. Watching theory develop into practice is the fun part of cheering for a national team. Most of the core gets to play slightly more preferred or more involved roles with the USMNT. McKennie is the best example here, as Berhalter gives him the freedom to roam around the midfield and play the ball up through the lines rapidly, which he isn't really allowed to do with Juventus. It's a step up in responsibility, but one he's willing to take. The process is far from complete, but enough soccer has been played that we know who the critical Guys are. Mexico looms next month, and though the USMNT won this summer's pair of tournament finals, this one matters more. U.S. fans can feel confident ahead of the showdown, even if Mexico has been flying through qualification. The team has a sense of itself, and that goes a long way.