By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Jan 26, 2023) US Soccer Players – Familiar roles featured new faces as the USMNT opened both a new year and a new World Cup cycle with a 2-1 friendly loss to Serbia in Los Angeles on Wednesday night. Here are a few observations as the Yanks shift focus towards Saturday’s match vs Colombia at Dignity Health Sports Park, this January camp’s final act.
Youth in the back
The national team that fielded most of the youngest lineups at Qatar 2022, highlighted by a starting XI vs Iran that averaged 24 years, 321 days of age, trended even younger on Wednesday. Assistant coach Anthony Hudson’s starters were just 23 years, 18 days old on average. That youth was most apparent along the back line.
Center back Walker Zimmerman was the only carryover from the World Cup squad, and right back Julian Gressel was an exception to this camp’s norm debuting at 29-years-old. The rest of the defensive unit was about as young as you can get at this level.
Left back Jonathan Gomez is 19. So is Zimmerman’s partner, Jalen Neal. The LA Galaxy homegrown joins select company by having made his first senior international appearance before making his first-team MLS debut at his club. Behind them, Gaga Slonina set a new mark for youngest goalkeeper in USMNT history at 18 years, 255 days, nearly a year younger than Tony Meola on his debut back in 1988. Just in front of the back four was a 21-year-old defensive midfielder, Aidan Morris.
All of them showed the quality that has powered them to this stage so early in their careers as the US imposed their game model on the visitors. Unsurprisingly there were also signs of their inexperience, in breakdowns which Serbia exploited to carve out their margin of victory. As Hudson’s opposite number noted, in the long run that result is secondary to the developmental benefits.
“They try to play in the 4-3-3 system, like top team,” said Serbian manager Dragan Stojkovic of the USMNT. “They tried to have possession, control the play, but sometimes because of maybe inexperienced players, young players, they also make some mistakes. But this is very, very normal.”
The identity endures
The system, implemented by Gregg Berhalter and his staff over the 2022 cycle, remains in place. That’s different from some January camps past, where coaches took the opportunity to experiment with new formations or roles for established players, and it makes sense under the current circumstances.
Sticking with the up-tempo 4-3-3 built around attack-minded wingers, two rangy #8s and a single pivot reduces the variables. It gives newer arrivals a familiar foundation on which to showcase themselves. In the lead-up to this game, several players noted that they’d arrived with solid ideas of how the USMNT wants to play based on watching previous matches.
This is not just the tactical structure that Berhalter concluded was the best bet for success. It’s also the same basic blueprint that US Soccer decided to place at the center of the technical curriculum implemented at youth level more than a decade ago, modeled after the possession concepts made renowned by the Netherlands and FC Barcelona.
“I’m disappointed, obviously, with the result, but the way they went about the game was pleasing to me,” said Hudson of his side’s assertive approach.
Urgency on the flanks
Several wide players grabbed the spotlight at LAFC’s BMO Stadium. Club America released Alejandro Zendejas to take part in only the first game of this camp due to its Liga MX Clausura schedule, and he played with the drive of someone intent on making the most of a one-night-only situation. Working as an inverted winger along the right channel, he covered plenty of ground, was adept in duels and tight spaces, and creative in the final third.
“This guy is an exciting player and he’s someone that I feel can help the national team,” said Hudson of the FC Dallas academy product. “He adds depth to the team. I think he’s right there, in a position where he can step in and help the team with our full squad. And he’s also someone who’s slightly different in terms of his characteristics to what we have.”
Cade Cowell made a solid case for himself on the opposite flank. The San Jose Earthquakes youngster narrowly missed on several quality shots, including two that clanged off either side of the woodwork in a frenetic second-half sequence. Assertive both on the dribble and in combination play, the 19-year-old earned the fans’ man of the match nod on US Soccer’s app and warm words from the coach.
“He was really just outstanding tonight. Really direct, really aggressive, brave,” said Hudson of Cowell. “He deserved a goal for sure. But this is probably one of the best performances I’ve seen from him. I’ve seen him have some amazing moments. I think tonight’s showed another level, another step forward.”
End product matters
The Yanks’ goal was created by two debutantes who took winding and differing paths to this opportunity. Gressel’s on-a-dime cross onto the head of Brandon Vazquez to flick home epitomized their particular skill sets and provided an objective data point to suggest they can fulfill a role with the full group. Possibly a great deal more.
For the individuals who work so long and hard to reach a moment like that, goals can bring powerful encouragement to keep going. They also help national teams navigate to the positive results across different situations that are needed to sustain long-range improvement. Hungry newcomers often deliver jolts of intensity that can elevate the collective.
“I’m really, really pleased with Brandon, because he’s obviously had to be patient,” said Hudson of Vazquez. “You can tell he’s someone that wants to be here, that this is a big moment for him. So for him to get that goal and the type of goal it was, was really, really pleasing.”
Like Serbia, Saturday’s opponents won’t bring a full-bore squad to Southern California. Only one member of this Colombia camp has more than three career caps. Still, the MLS track records of the half-dozen US-based players among this batch of Cafeteros suggest they’ll pose a hefty challenge.
Strikers Cucho Hernandez and Chicho Arango have ranged from elite to downright dominant as leading #9s with Columbus and LAFC, respectively. Quick, skilful Santiago Moreno has grown into a crucial attacking linchpin for the Portland Timbers. The New England Revolution believes Dylan Correro is primed to make the same scale of impact for them after losing long stretches of his 2022 to injury.
Manager Nestor Lorenzo has ample pace and creativity to deploy in this match. He’ll likely take note of the USMNT’s moments of vulnerability to rapid transitions on Wednesday. That sets up a useful test for a young Yanks team that now wants to show they can not only play progressively but win games in the process.
Charles Boehm is a Washington, DC-based writer and the editor of The Soccer Wire. Contact him at:email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at:http://twitter.com/cboehm.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The Olympic angle at this January camp
- Into a new era of North American soccer broadcasting
- Five questions for USMNT Players in England in 2023
- US National Teams had a good 2022
Photo by Arron Gent – News Images via ZUMA Press Wire – ISIPhotos.com