By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Mar 30, 2023) US Soccer Players – March is almost over, and with it, the group stage of the second edition of the Concacaf Nations League. Thanks to wins over Grenada and El Salvador in League A group D, the USMNT will continue its defense of the CNL trophy in June, when League A’s four group winners gather in Las Vegas for the semifinals. Here are a few things we learned from this month’s international window.
Two of the USMNT’s top performers were familiar faces making much-anticipated returns to the fold. Ricardo Pepi struck for three goals across the two matches. That included the game winner vs El Salvador on Monday, where he came off the bench and scored with his second touch of the ball. That game also saw Miles Robinson notch his first cap since the devastating Achilles rupture that ruled him out of the World Cup last year. With a practically flawless display, the Atlanta United center back picked up right where he’d left off.
“Miles, really, really pleased, just pleased he’s back, pleased with his performance,” said interim head coach Anthony Hudson. “You saw moments of the old Miles, where he’s just so dominant in one-v-one situations, and he reads plays well and he steps in at the right time. He just very, very quietly goes goes about being dominant in his role.”
Pepi showed his resilience and focus, making what he afterwards called “a big statement” in the wake of his own World Cup disappointment.
“I’m so happy for Rico, because he works so hard, and that’s a guy with a lot of confidence to come in and finish like that, in a tight game, in a really challenging game,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner. “To see somebody his age who’s taken a big step in his career, gone over to Europe and things, let’s say haven’t gone perfectly to plan for him. To turn around and take his opportunities here, it’s just really, really great for him and for this program.”
The USMNT spent much of the 2022 cycle in an orthodox Dutch-style 4-3-3 formation with twin #8s and a single defensive midfielder. This month Hudson made subtle adjustments on that platform. Most notable was a shift towards a more fluid central-midfield triangle that often looked more like a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot behind a central playmaker.
“We want to play attacking soccer. We want to have the ball, we want to control the game,” said Hudson before the El Salvador game. “And I think having a double pivot in there as well, it helps with close connections. We had the idea of it being able to attract the opposition midfield up to create space for players like Christian (Pulisic), Gio (Reyna) and Brenden (Aaronson), and then having our fullbacks join in. So it helps close connection with the center backs and getting our best players into the best possible positions where we can help them be successful.”
Individual players and the relationships they craft with one another influence these subtle distinctions almost as much as a coach’s structure or nomenclature. The existing chemistry between Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah as twin 8s can be carried over to a differing interaction in a flipped triangle, for example. That also applies to those not present, like Tyler Adams, the influential captain sidelined with a hamstring injury whose absence Hudson lamented.
“Depends on the game, really,” said Musah when asked about this month’s tweaks. “We’ve done that before, we’ve played in many games with two and one, and the opposite, in the middle. So it depends on the game, obviously, and what the solutions are. And yeah, it’s something that we’ve been practicing for a long time. So we’re just building on what we’ve worked on, really, nothing too drastic of a change.”
Just reaching the 2022 World Cup was a long, difficult climb that would rank as the summit of many players’ entire careers. Performing well there was a tightrope walk, a massive physical and psychological task for individuals as well as the collective. It’s not uncommon for teams and players to feel a hangover in the wake of such an undertaking.
There was little sign of that in this window, the first camp featuring the full player pool since that tournament. The group’s focus started at the top. Trusted veterans like Pulisic, Turner, McKennie, and Tim Ream set the tone. McKennie’s steady work in midfield was particularly notable, considering it later emerged that he was battling through illness.
“His performances for us, I think, have been very good,” said Hudson after the win in Orlando. “Over in Grenada I thought he was really really clean on the ball, he has moments where he does some really, really good, high-level things, how he turns in tight areas and has good vision.”
The coach also praised the commitment of Pulisic, who was determined to be an attacking protagonist even fresh off a two-month stint on the sidelines due to a knee issue.
“I’m amazed by Christian,” said Hudson. “When a cycle is over, and then you have the start of a new cycle, especially the one we’ve just had, where you have the high of a World Cup, and then you have games like these at the time of the season where players are fighting for relegation, Champions League, real tense times in their clubs, it’s very, very easy to turn around and look at the schedule and say, ‘Look, with all due respect, I think the team can get away without me and win these games.’… Great character, loves playing for his country, is inspiring to the rest of the group.”
The close of the CNL League A group phase served up one unexpected result. Panama knocked off Costa Rica in San Jose on the final day to move ahead of Los Ticos in Group B and grab a semifinal slot.
Another head-turning development unfolded in Group A, where Mexico was pushed to the limit by Jamaica. After a 1-1 draw in Kingston in their first meeting, El Tri twice had to rally from behind to salvage a 2-2 draw at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. It was enough to advance into the semis, though at a cost. Mexico’s performance rendered it a lower seed in the bracket, setting up a semifinal showdown with the USMNT.
Most observers expected the region’s leading giants to face off in the tournament final, as they did in the inaugural Nations League and do so often in the Gold Cup. Meeting one step earlier may even raise the stakes, considering that a rivalry loss at that stage might just sting worse. It’s certainly a big test early in the tenure of new El Tri coach Diego Cocca. And it sets up back-to-back meetings between these old adversaries, with a non-FIFA-window friendly in Arizona having just been announced for April 19.
Meanwhile, Canada stands to benefit. If it can navigate past rugged underdogs Panama, it will have a chance to affirm its rise into the Concacaf elite with a shot at its first major trophy in more than two decades.