The national team shows promise
The US men’s national team played their first pair of international matches post-World Cup this past week. Interim coach Dave Sarachan filled this break with young players. The average age of the latest USMNT squad was 23. I suppose he finally read my tirade against Bruce Arena from 11 months ago and decided to do something about it.
Of course, with such a young team, there is a lot of room for improvement. However, I must say that the good outweighed the bad against Brazil and Mexico. There’s a lot of promise in this group, and the absence of veterans Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Brad Guzan, and the wonder kid Christian Pulisic gave plenty of opportunity to shine.
We’re finally starting to see progress since the epic disaster that was the lack of qualifying for the World Cup. Here are my five takeaways from the last two matches.
Youth is the answer
The key to this break was Sarachan having a brain and digging into the depths of youth talent within the men’s system. And not depending on Pulisic. Tim Weah, Julian Green, Wil Trapp, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie were highlights.
Trapp has taken the captain’s armband in Michael Bradley’s absence, and he will continue to grow into that role. He kept his head and maintained control of the match against Brazil, even though he played on the losing side. Tim Weah and Julian Green made some good runs. Weston McKennie was a madman in the midfield, and Tyler Adams scored the winning goal against Mexico.
In the next few matches, trickling in some veterans to provide some leadership and guidance will be important. The key is finding the right balance at this point. We need to see some consistent minutes for the younger guys, but not sacrifice the experience of guys like Bradley.
Changing of the guard at keeper
Brad Guzan’s absence opened the door for Zack Steffen, and he delivered. Steffen was prominent in both matches, squandering opportunities and being an electrifying presence. He was lucky not to be disciplined for handling a ball outside the box against Mexico, though. Luckily, that was merely one of few blips in his otherwise promising performances.
For a country who breeds goalkeepers, the US hasn’t had much luck figuring out who is taking the baton. Steffen proved that he should be first in line. His club play in Columbus has been superb, and he’s infusing it into the international game as well. If this kid continues to get minutes he should be who we see between the sticks for years to come.
All that said, it’s likely that Guzan is going to reclaim the starting job in the next set of matches. That bothers me. He’s not one of the veterans we need to see back on the pitch. He’ll be great on the bench as a mentor, but I don’t want to see him anymore. Other names to watch out for are Jesse Gonzalez (FC Dallas) and Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge). My ideal scenario is seeing one of those two get the number two spot behind Steffen for the Gold Cup, with Guzan dropping to the number three keeper/mentor role.
Miazga could spark the fire we need
Matt Miazga started alongside John Brooks against Brazil, and Cameron Carter-Vickers against Mexico. He played out of his mind, not allowing himself to be bullied by the superior play of the Brazilians and antics of the Mexicans. With Geoff Cameron aging, and no other central defenders that have been able to play consistently, Miazga is primed to be a mainstay.
Teaming with Brooks seems to be the most successful and (hopefully) likely pairing moving forward. Against a strong Brazilian team, they managed to only allow one goal from open play. Miazga constantly found himself clearing balls and helping teammates who were caught out of position. He was far and away the man of the match in my eyes and even cleared a ball off the line to prevent Brazil from going up 3-0.
Against Mexico he was an absolute pest. That was never more apparent than when he got in the way of Diego Lainez and this hilarious exchange took place.
He got in Mexico’s collective head after this, and that was the advantage the Americans needed in order to create more chances and eventually win the game. Play like this is necessary to get the mental edge in matches, and it looks like the national team finally has someone to fill those shoes. I’m looking forward to seeing where he goes from here. Post Clint Dempsey, this is what we need to see.
Set pieces can be a strength
Aside from the fact that Brazil won 2-0, the biggest takeaway from that match for me was the amount of set pieces we won. And then the number of chances created from them. Yet again, Wil Trapp is coming to mind. He took corners from either side and whipped them into good positions. The main problem right now is finishing. But the more opportunities they get, the better chance they have of converting those opportunities into goals.
To put this into perspective, during the Brazil match they won six corners, but had 11 shots with only two of them on goal. Neither of those shots found the back of the net. Against Mexico they managed four corners, 13 shots, three on target and one goal. Keep pushing the ball forward, drawing fouls, winning corners, and the goals will come.
It’s time to hire a head coach
I’m not going to pretend Dave Sarachan hasn’t done a decent job as interim coach. He has. But he’s not the permanent answer. He’s done an admirable job as caretaker, losing only to Brazil in an 11-month stint. The ball needs to get rolling on the search for his permanent replacement. The U.S. will host the 2019 Gold Cup, and there needs to be some consistency leading up to that tournament.
I’ve previously put my eggs in the Caleb Porter basket, and I still think he’s a strong candidate to take over. He has coached the national team in the youth ranks, and knows what it takes to compete from his time with the Portland Timbers. Yet, according to Porter, Peter Vermes deserves serious consideration. And he’s not wrong. Vermes has done a great job at Sporting KC. The problem there is he signed a contract earlier this year that will keep him there for the next five years. Well, that and the fact that he was in talks with US Soccer before signing the contract.
Another intriguing choice could be Columbus Crew coach Gregg Berhalter. He’s been in Columbus since 2013, and is enjoying a resurgence this year amidst the news that the club could be moving to Austin, Texas. That aside, he’s taken to the youth of his squad, and conveniently manages current national team players Trapp, Steffen, and Gyasi Zardes.
Speaking of a resurgence, Zardes is having his own personal one as he enjoys the success of his club. Currently the Crew are sitting in a playoff spot and they’re looking to go out with a bang. If Berhalter can lead them to another deep playoff run, there’s no reason he shouldn’t be in serious consideration to turn the national team around. He may not think he’s ready, but that would put him in contention.
And let’s face it, we still have a long way to go.