There was an anti-climactic feel leading up to last Wednesday’s U.S. Men’s National Team friendly against Costa Rica, at least before the match kicked off. Just three days removed from the dramatic Concacaf Nations League final win against Mexico, the USMNT couldn’t have been blamed for still feeling the effects of celebrating an unforgettable win, but it didn’t take long on Wednesday to understand why the friendly still had value.
Whether it was players who didn’t get a chance to play in Nations League, players who only played sparingly, and some that did play but came away looking for some redemption, Wednesday’s 4-0 win wound up serving as the perfect cap to the four-game stretch the USMNT went through, starting in the Swiss Alps, then the Rocky Mountains, and concluding in Utah.
Brendan Aaronson came away as the top player in Wednesday’s win, but Tyler Adams showed why he is such an important piece to the puzzle that is Gregg Berhalter’s first-choice squad.
The RB Leipzig midfielder had already showed that value as a second-half substitute against Mexico, but the way he dominated proceedings as USMNT captain on Wednesday served as an even more clear reminder of just what unique qualities he brings to the defensive midfield role, and why there is such a monumental gap between Adams and the other defensive midfield options in the pool.
In the ‘Players needing some redemption’ department, both Tim Ream and Mark McKenzie played much better against Costa Rica than they did against Mexico. And yes, obviously, the level of opponent and magnitude of the match was significantly different, but in the case of McKenzie, the match served to show what the Genk defender brings to the position with his excellent passing and combination of strength and quickness.
Ream was also miles better against the Ticos than he was against Mexico, and while that isn’t going to slow down the calls for him to be phased out of Berhalter’s plans, it does offer at least some evidence to support the idea that Ream could be useful against some Concacaf opponents, though maybe not Mexico.
The over-arching message from Wednesday’s win was the reminder of just how much depth the USMNT has compared to year’s past. When you consider that Berhalter could trot out a lineup featuring players from La Liga, Ligue , the Bundesliga and English Premier League who didn’t actually start against Mexico you realize just how many options Berhalter will have when things get serious again come September for Concacaf World Cup qualifying.
Here are some more thoughts on the USMNT win vs. Costa Rica:
Aaronson makes case for bigger role in qualifying
Aaronson was limited to a 12-minute cameo in the Nations League last week, playing as a substitute in the semifinal win against Honduras, and while he didn’t get much of a chance to show just how dangerous he could be, Aaronson more than made up for that on Wednesday against Costa Rica.
The Red Bull Salzburg winger was active throughout, taking defenders on the dribble, delivering good passes and pouncing on a loose ball for the opening goal of the match to give him three goals in just seven USMNT appearances.
Aaronson showed his ability to operate both on the wing and centrally, as he took full advantage of the tactical freedom to float into different spots in the attacking third.
Aaronson’s quickness, confidence on the ball, ability to press and positional versatility make him a very valuable option for Berhalter, and while he isn’t likely to unseat current wing starters Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna any time soon, if he can maintain his starting role at Red Bull Salzburg in the new season and continue to improve, Berhalter will have to find a way to get him on the field more often.
Nations League exclusion doesn’t faze Musah
As satisfying as last week’s win against Mexico may have been for U.S. fans, there was one lingering worry to the most forward-thinking of said fans: the future of Yunus Musah with the USMNT.
Musah didn’t play in the Nations League tournament last week, which was seen as a missed opportunity to cap-tie him. There have been conflicting reports about whether Musah could conceivably still represent another country given the fact he filed a one-time switch to play for the United States and then participated in four international friendlies with the USMNT.
Cap-tied or not, Musah did not look like a player who had suddenly grown disenchanted with the USMNT program because he missed out on two games. In fact, Musah was very visibly involved in the post-victory celebrations in Denver last Sunday, looking very much like a player who plans to stick around for a while.
Berhalter alluded to as-yet-undisclosed factors having been at play that kept Musah out of Nations League, which would explain why he was not used.
“Due to unforeseen circumstances, we didn’t feel like (Musah) arrived in the best conditions to compete in Nations League,” Berhalter said after Wednesday’s win against Costa Rica. “These are must-win games and it’s not easy to just throw guy on, when you have a game plan and when you’re trying to win.
“Having said that, we still believe in his talent,” Berhalter said. “I think he showed (on Wednesday) his talent, you know, his his line-breaking dribbling and composure on the ball. He’s gonna be a fantastic player. He’s also a fantastic guy and that’s why you saw his good attitude. He was really excited to see what that level was like, what the competitiveness of CONCACAF was like, and just excited to be part of the group.”
Musah showed off his quality against Costa Rica, including his ability to keep the ball and attack on the dribble. His smoothness in possession is impressive to see, and the poise he possesses for an 18-year-old is what has both Berhalter and USMNT fans so excited, and might we why those same fans are so nervous about losing Musah, if in fact that is still a possibility.
As far as Berhalter is concerned, he believes Musah’s relationship with the program is a healthy one and he expects the New York-born midfielder to be a USMNT factor for a long time.
“I think this is a relationship that’s going to continue for many years to come, because he’s such a talented individual,” Berhalter said.
Dike leaves a good impression
Daryl Dike’s exclusion from the Nations League roster was an unpopular decision among USMNT fans who were eager to see him build on his outstanding loan spell with English League Championship side Barnsley, but the Orlando City striker still stayed with the USMNT throughout that tournament, and earned the start against Costa Rica.
Dike responded with a Man of the Match-caliber performance. He had a hand in helping Aaronson’s opening goal happen, he set up a golden scoring chance for Tim Weah that drew an outstanding save, then Dike scored his first national team goal with a well-timed run and composed finish.
“Daryl got an opportunity (on Wednesday), and I think he did really well,” Berhalter said. “The physical side of it was there. The movement behind the backline was there. The only thing I would highlight is potentially the movement in the penalty box. Really attacking crosses and getting on the end of crosses.
“Daryl’s a young player, and he has a ton of room to grow, and we’re going to be here and help supporting him to get there.”
Berhalter brought Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok to the Nations League at the striker position, but Dike’s impressive embracing of his role throughout the month had to earn him some points, as did his goal-scoring performance against Costa Rica.
To Dike’s credit, he did not let his Nations League omission get him down, and actually appeared to develop a good friendship with Pefok while celebrating the team’s successes throughout the week in Denver.
“Of course I wanted to be included in the roster, but at the same time, I always look at the positives,” Dike said after the Costa Rica win. “I get to still be able to train with some of the top players in the world, I get to train under some of the best staff in the world.
“For me, two years ago, or something like that, if you told me I would be able to just to be in that position, just to train with these guys, regardless if I’m playing, I would have loved it.”
Dike’s summer could be a very interesting one. He is due to return to Orlando City, but his goal-scoring exploits in England could produce a transfer. If not, then Dike would have to be considered a leading candidate to be part of the USMNT Gold Cup team in July.
Cannon shows he can be a two-way threat
When the Nations League semifinals were set to begin, Reggie Cannon was expected to be the starter at right back for Berhalter’s side, but the Boavista fullback wound up on the bench for both wins, against Honduras and Mexico, which raised the question of whether the former FC Dallas product had fallen out of favor.
Cannon did make appearances off the bench in both Nations League matches, but he took full advantage of his first start in June against Costa Rica, scoring a beautiful goal and playing an excellent match, showing off some good attacking characteristics to go with his established strength as a defender.
Part of the reason Berhalter went with DeAndre Yedlin against Mexico was due to Yedlin’s ability to operate both as a fullback and right wingback, two positions he has plenty of experience playing. Cannon has almost exclusively operated as a right fullback in a four-man defense throughout his career.
So has Cannon slipped down the pecking order, or should we expect him to be right back in the starting picture come September?
Cannon’s club situation could play a role in his standing. Cannon is drawing transfer interest after an impressive first season in Europe, and if he can secure a move to a top league, then Cannon would be better positioned to battle for continued starts at right back, where Sergiño Dest, Yedlin and Bryan Reynolds will be pushing for minutes when World Cup qualifying begins in September.
Antonee Robinson boosts his stock at left back
No American fullback helped their cause in June more than Robinson, who started in the Nations League win against Honduras, then again in the friendly win against Costa Rica. The Fulham defender is clearly gaining the trust of Berhalter, who had long been believed to not rate Robinson due to a perceived lack of on-the-ball technical quality.
Robinson looked far more confident in his more recent USMNT appearances, including the Costa Rica match, where he helped set up the opening goal with an excellent cross into the penalty area that eventually turned into an Aaronson goal.
Robinson’s standing with the team is held up a bit by Dest, and where Berhalter will ultimately use the Barcelona fullback, but as Robinson solidifies his standing with the USMNT, it could help convince Berhalter to keep Dest at his natural right back position.
Robinson is another American player expected to make a transfer move this summer after Fulham’s relegation. The Everton academy product has been linked to Manchester City, and we shouldn’t forgot the transfer he nearly made to AC Milan before a heart defect found during his medical halted the transfer.
If Robinson can secure a move to stay in the Premier League, and earn regular playing time, then he just might be Berhalter’s starting left back come September.