If you find yourself feeling like the U.S. Men’s National Team’s match against Wales on Thursday is so much more than ‘just’ a friendly, you aren’t alone.
And no, it isn’t just because a generational talent like Gio Reyna is set to debut, or a because a fan favorite like Tyler Adams is set to return after 20 months away. It’s not even because Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest are set to make their first national team appearances since they made high-profile moves to elite clubs, nor is it because of the unprecedented collection of young talent knocking on the door.
Thursday’s friendly against Wales feels like no friendly the Americans have ever played because of what has preceded it. A 10-month absence of activity — caused by the Coronavirus pandemic — an absence that wiped out almost all of what was supposed to be a special year for the USMNT. Between the Nations League, Olympics and the start of World Cup qualifying, there was a natural setup in place to provide a platform for the integration of a golden generation, the special era American fans prayed for after enduring the debacle that was the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign.
So many things are set to happen on Thursday that should have taken place months ago. Take the debut of Gio Reyna, which would have occurred in March, under a much tamer spotlight, if not for the lost 10 months.
Consider Sergino Dest’s first appearance since his high-profile transfer to Barcelona, or Weston McKennie’s first match since his shock move to Juventus. Both USMNT stars would have been shown off as newly-minted headliners back in October under normal circumstances.
And what of Tyler Adams, who would have returned to the USMNT setup months ago, and at the very least he might have been able to spend some time in September in a U.S. camp, basking in the glow of his unforgettable Champions League winner for RB Leipzig over Atletico Madrid.
The list is long of moments, milestones and breakthroughs missed by the USMNT and its player pool — which in the grand scheme of things doesn’t mean much considering the devastation being felt across the globe during this pandemic — but taking a moment to ponder all that the USMNT missed during the past 10 months will help you understand why USMNT fans are feeling as excited about Thursday’s friendly as they have felt since the 2014 World Cup.
Will that collective emotional overload put unrealistic expectations on what is still just a friendly being played in a closed-door setting an ocean away? Of course, but at some point the adrenaline will wear off, and the realization will kick in that for as much as Thursday’s friendly feels like so much more than it is, the truly important matches are still more than half a year away.
Waiting that much longer sounds cruel given the torture of the recent 10-month wait, but that time is a gift for a USMNT program loaded with young talent that still needs developing and maturing.
So what should USMNT fans be focused on when the team takes the field in Swansea on Thursday? Here are five storylines to keep an eye on:
Gio Reyna’s debut
The 17-year-old is the most highly-anticipated USMNT debutant in the program’s history, and that’s owed in part to the fact his debut was delayed long enough to allow him to break through as a regular difference-maker at Borussia Dortmund.
Watching how Reyna influences the U.S. attack, and how he handles his positional role, will be a top priority.
Yunus Musah’s test drive
Playing in Thursday’s match does not cap-tie Musah, who is also eligible to play for England and Ghana, but the Valencia midfielder should get a chance to feel out a potential future role with the USMNT, giving the Americans a considerable edge in the race to secure Musah’s services long-term.
Berhalter has stated that he sees Musah as more of a central midfielder, but he has shown at Valencia that he can be an impact player on the wing. As the week has gone on it has felt more and more like Musah will get a chance to start.
Tyler Adams’ return
After 20 months away from the USMNT, Tyler Adams is back, and if he is healthy enough to start, how he handles the defensive midfield role will bear close watching. He has long been considered the future of the position, but his injury absence has delayed that transition.
Adams had recently been dealing with a knee injury, so it will be interesting to see how much he can play. Berhalter will be hoping for a sizable appearance, to give him a chance to see Adams and Weston McKennie play together and cultivate a partnership that will be key to the future of the USMNT midfield.
The fullback battle
Sergino Dest is a safe bet to start, but will it be at left back or right back? Reggie Cannon is a Berhalter favorite, and his run of starts for Boavista have only served to solidify his standing as a top option, but there is no denying how much Antonee Robinson has improved since his failed attempt at making the 2019 U.S. Gold Cup squad.
Look for Cannon to get the nod against Wales, with Robinson a good bet to start against Panama, with Dest starting both matches, but splitting his minutes.
The striker audition
Sebastian Soto or Nicholas Gioacchini? Berhalter has a decision to make at the striker position, and while Soto may have an advantage because he has played with several members of the current USMNT squad on the youth levels, Gioacchini could have the edge in sharpness after Soto spent much of 2020 struggling for playing time before finally breaking through on his loan at Telstar.
Soto has played 90 minutes just once in his pro career, and more than 45 minutes just twice since joining Telstar, whereas Gioacchini is a regular starter for French second-division side Caen.
Berhalter mentioned Tim Weah as a potential option at striker as well, with Reyna potentially deployed as a false nine, but Gioacchini is the frontrunner for the starting nod on Thursday.