USMNT fans got to see just about every element of the national team in their two friendlies of this window, good and bad. If you wanted dynamic, vibrant attacking moves that made one dream of what could come on the bigger stages that will soon be here, they had that for ya. If you were a sadist and wanted to see some truly woeful and wayward defending without Tyler Adams, the US had that in store too. Whether any of it was truly new or informative, that’s harder to parse.
First the good. The US absolutely demolished a Ghana team that may or may not have already had their minds on the flight home 4-0. Ghana are a quality enough side, and that’s what another quality side should do to a team that isn’t fully there. The US blitzed Ghana with their press and direct attack and were 3-0 up less than halfway into the first half.
For any US fan who really wanted to get that tingly feeling in the knees, the link-up play between Falorin Balogun and Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, and Tim Weah would have done the job. For instance, this flick to Sergino Dest in the build-up to Reyna’s opener:
There was also the third goal, which the US created off its press and Balogun sat down both the Ghana keeper and closest defender with a spin straight out of the Olajuwon school:
The US hasn’t really gotten the most out of Balogun yet, as they’ve only had limited games with him, and for a few of those he was still in transfer limbo and not anywhere near game sharpness. This window, after a run of games with Monaco, he was as incisive as he’s ever been with the national team, popping up between the defense and midfield and combining with the attacking three behind him.
The star of the two games though will be Reyna, putting behind whatever mishegas people worried (or hoped) would still linger between him and Berhalter. Though fitness only kept him to 45 minutes in each, he was played in his favored No. 10 role, giving the US more of a 4-2-3-1 look, and he looked every part of a player that the team is going to run its entire attack through. His control and vision allowed him to dance through both Germany and Ghana, draw defenders, and leave Pulisic and Tim Weah in acres of space out wide. The only thing between him and being a linchpin is a sustained run of health, which he quite simply has never put together.
There was also the bad for the USMNT, and specifically what they will do when Tyler Adams isn’t around. Germany gave them a harsh lesson on Saturday afternoon on why Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie do not constitute a defensive midfield by themselves. While plenty of teams will struggle with Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala, the frequency with which they were able to cut inside and find literally no one in the middle of the field and ahead of the US defensive line was infuriating. That is where Adams certainly would have walled them off for sure, instead of either falling in line with the rest of the defense or just looking bewildered as to where to be, as McKennie and Musah were. Which is fair enough, neither are No. 6s and neither plays there for their clubs (though Musah at least plays close to that with Milan). When Sane or Musiala or İlkay Gündoğan were simply allowed to pick apart a flattened US defensive set-up, it was death, and the US could have lost by more than the 3-1 that they did.
To be fair to them, they also could have scored more than the one goal they did, as in the first half with Reyna on the field they looked quite dangerous. It was a far more open half than any team would or should allow in a game that mattered, but in a game that didn’t the US was able to throw haymakers with Germany. Only in the second half, after Reyna had gone off, did the US look second-best and cower.
While much was made of it being GERMANY, that’s paying attention to the name rather than the actual team. This Germany is not France, it is not England, it is not Spain, nor Brazil, nor Argentina. It’s debatable whether they’re even Portugal or the Netherlands. They are still a team that has not won a knockout game in their past three major tournaments and hasn’t even gotten out of the group in two of them. To see the US so far away from them in the second half was sobering.
But these are about pointing to the future, and how exactly Berhalter is going to set up the US with both Reyna and Adams will provide all sorts of headaches. The main one is just hoping both can ever stay on the field. Reyna is always a stiff breeze from yet another trip to the trainer’s room, and Adams hasn’t played since March and may be headed for surgery that will keep him out months more. He’s still a player that has never managed more than 2,500 minutes in a season, and only eclipsed 2,000 last year. And look where that got him.
Their varying states of health may never cause Berhalter to face a selection problem. But should by some miracle they are both fit at the same time, especially at next summer’s Copa America or two years down the line at the World Cup, how the manager will get both into the same midfield is an open question. Adams is an automatic pick when healthy. The US simply doesn’t have anyone else who can play as the deepest midfielder, at least against quality opposition. Reyna is at his best at the head of midfield, but that means one of Musah or McKennie has to sit.
Berhalter could bail out and put Reyna out wide ahead of Tim Weah, but that’s not the best use of Reyna’s skills, which do wonders as a dribbler and connector to the attack from the center. It would also cost the team Weah’s direct pace and ability to get behind, as well as his pressing.
Perhaps it will depend on opponent, with a more defensive gameplan causing the MMA midfield we’ve seen the most of, and in games where the US will have to unlock a stubborn defense bringing Reyna into the fold ahead of one of the Ms. It’s a good problem to have, to be sure.
From here the US will have two Copa qualifiers in November that will double as Nations League games against whatever whiffleball the preliminary CONCACAF rounds have served up, which is Trinidad and Tobago. March will see the semis and final of the Nations League, and then it will be go-time for the Copa. Berhaler will spend all that time finding whatever rabbit’s foot or fountain for the blessing of a clean bill of health for Reyna and Adams, the sharp ends of his midfield. Even if that provides a different conundrum.
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