The United States Men’s National Team has gone through a very tumultuous past 18 months.
The embarrassment from not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup still sits squarely in the minds of the entire program. After puttering around for over a year, General Manager Earnie Stewart finally appointed Gregg Berhalter as the manager of the squad.
Berhalter was not only tasked with reviving this lifeless organization, but also generating interest back in the team from a rather apathetic fan base.
Thus far, the returns have been positive. Berhalter engineered two shutouts during the January camp period. The USMNT blanked Panama 3-0 before disposing of Costa Rica a week later by the famed dos a cero scoreline (2-0).
We’ll first look at the revelations from camp — and then come up with what we think is Berhalter’s choice Starting XI for the friendlies in March (where European players will be available for inclusion).
The 24-year-old from San Jose Earthquakes was the most impressive player over this past month. Lima manned the ‘right back’ position. I put that in quotes due to the fact that he held quite a bit of responsibility. Lima was an outside back defensively. However, he was asked to tuck inside and push up as a de facto midfielder when the team was on the attack.
During these friendlies, Lima demonstrated real bravery (and success) in taking players on one v. one. There was a brilliant stint versus Costa Rica in which he successfully evaded three defenders along the sidelines en route to winning a corner. His most fantastic play came against Costa Rica when Lima won a tackle in open space, before whipping in a deadly cross inside the box (which was ultimately headed in by centre back Walker Zimmerman).
It would be shocking for Berhalter to not call Lima in during the March friendlies. I would be fascinated in seeing how the energetic California native would perform against better competition in Chile and Ecuador.
Berhalter’s scheme appears to favor adaptability as opposed to rigid, static alignments under previous regimes. Lima’s functionality as both an outside back and as an inverted midfielder technically transitioned the scheme from a 4-1-2-3 to a 3-2-2-3. Depending on the game plan, it can morph further into a 4-5-1 — or even a 4-2-3-1. This sort of versatility is vital going forward — particularly against the diversity of enhanced competition.
Duly, another refreshing aspect from these friendlies was the willingness to press. As opposed to hunkering in after a loss of possession, players were instructed to press the opponents’ midfielders and defenders heavily. This not only led to a more rapid reversal in possession, but it also upped the respective tempo of the match. The rhythm with which the team played also improved as a result.
Berhalter’s substitute choices paid off in a big way for both matches. Sebastian Lletget offered a ton of energy as a burly two-way winger. In the Costa Rica game, Lletget’s work rate enabled him to both score a goal and assist on another.
Christian Ramirez made minor cameos in both games — though his movement was quite good. He also nabbed a goal on a tap-in versus Panama.
The most impressive substitution decision was that of Jonathan Lewis. The speedy NYCFC winger impacted the game tremendously well in each of his two appearances. He’s got the quickness and speed to be a real nuisance in late-game situations — not to mention the willingness to take defenders on. When looking at the future, Lewis could be a really valuable player going forward for specific situations (assuming he continues to develop and grow in New York).
With this January camp behind us, here’s a look at a Starting XI for the March 21st match versus Ecuador, as well as a potential 23-man roster for the two upcoming friendlies:
Projected 23 Man Roster For Chile/Ecuador friendlies:
GK: Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath, Sean Johnson (3)
DEF: Tim Ream, Aaron Long, John Brooks, Walker Zimmerman, DeAndre Yedlin, Nick Lima, Matt Miazga, Jorge Villafaña (8)
MID: Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, Duane Holmes, Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Tyler Adams, Sebastian Lletget, Wil Trapp (8)
FW: Josh Sargent, Gyasi Zardes, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood (4)
This personally is the group I think Berhalter will call in — though I’d have some qualms about it. For one, I don’t think Zardes nor Trapp are national team-level players. Zardes struggles immensely with the ball at his feet, and blew several chances in the two friendlies. While Zardes stretches the field to Berhalter’s liking, there are far better options both holding the ball as well as linking with teammates.
Trapp had an atrocious first half in the Costa Rica game before turning the tide in the second stanza of the contest. Trapp did play a really nice ball to spring Paul Arriola on a scoring chance. Other than that, he was plagued far too often by being out of position defensively, as well as passing the ball sideways/backwards as opposed to upfield (which was something Michael Bradley did very well versus Panama).
I expect to see both simply due to their familiarity with Berhalter’s scheme. If I was picking like-for-like replacements, I’d much rather go with Andrija Novakovich and Romain Gall/Djordje Mihailovic.
As for the lineup, I could also see Adams functioning at the No. 6 spot. It would be ideal for another emerging attacking midfielder to pop up in the next few years (Hello, Richie Ledezma/Alex Mendez). For right now, Bradley ironically enough may be the best fit as the shield above the back four. There’s never been any question over his ability to circulate the ball around the pitch. Adams and McKennie possess box-to-box qualities, and thus can help the 31-year-old cover ground.
Long gained the captain’s arm band for both friendlies. This was rather interesting considering that Bradley and his 100+ cap experience was on the roster. This tells me that the current staff rates Long rather highly. Miazga is getting his footing at his latest loan spot (Reading). I could see him involved in the starting XI, though it’s not for certain at this point.
Holmes is my wildcard selection. Electric and bursting with pace, he essentially would play the Jonathan Lewis spot (though Lewis himself could also take that role). Holmes also has the versatility to function as a fullback when needed. I could also see Jonathan Amon earning an inclusion here.
Up top, Sargent has done enough for me to pencil him in as the first-choice striker. His movement is better than any striker within the pool, and his hold up skills have improved quite nicely during Bundesliga play.
Supporters must be excited over the recent developments of Weah. Since going on loan to Scottish giant Celtic, Weah has bagged multiple goals. His movements are excellent — as has been his unabated thirst to involve himself within the final third. Though Pulisic has been in-and-out of the Dortmund team, the three-headed attack of Pulisic, Weah, and Sargent offers much — both presently and in the future.
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