DENVER — The collection of players on the U.S. Men’s National Team roster for the Concacaf Nations League stockpiled trophies during the past club season in an unprecedented way, and now will try to carry over the trophy-winning habit to the USMNT.
The first step toward that first trophy for the so-called ‘Golden Generation’ takes place on Thursday in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals against Honduras. Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Zack Steffen and Sergiño Dest headline a group that is very young, but also unquestionably talented.
It is a group that is also brimming with confidence after having won a combined 12 trophies among the 23 players on the roster, capped off by Pulisic winning the UEFA Champions League with Chelsea last Saturday. That sort of success has this American squad believing it can lift a trophy together on Sunday, even if the more-experienced Mexican National Team enters this week as the favorite to win the competition.
“I think for our group the goal is winning this tournament,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters on Wednesday. “We know what is at stake and we also know what is at stake later this year, but for now we just have to focus on what we can control.”
First thing’s first, the USMNT must defeat Honduras, which is a considerable underdog, but is also aware that it has beaten the Americans before, and can take some inspiration from the Honduran U-23 Men’s National Team’s win over the Americans in Olympic qualifying in March, a win that sent Honduras to the Olympics and dropped the United States from Olympic contention.
“Anytime you can play meaningful Concacaf games there is going to be pressure, but we have been in situations like this before and we are ready for what we will see from (Honduras),” Pulisic said. “I am excited for the opportunity to be back and hopefully can help make an impact with the guys.”
The USMNT will play its first competitive match since November of 2019, when a pair of wins against Cuba and Canada secured the team’s place into the final four.
The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Nations League finals by a full year, and the Americans wound up going a full year before anything close to resembling a full-strength team was able to take the field.
A pair of March friendlies became the first chance for Gregg Berhalter to see his budding collection of top-end talent, as well as the recent 2-1 friendly loss to Switzerland, but now Berhalter will have his chance to see his young stars in matches that actually count.
“We are excited to get back to competitions,” Berhalter said. “It’s like any game you set your team up, especially in a tournament format to be ready for your opponents threats. [Alberth] Elis is a dynamic player, we know him well from MLS and he also plays with Reggie Cannon at Boavista.
“We know they will look to hit us on the counter and with transitions. We’re going to have to be cautious in a way, but we’re also going to need to play how we want to play and that could mean pressing high to avoid those counters.”
There are still some question marks regarding the starting lineup Berhalter will use on Thursday night, with the defensive midfield role a key one. Tyler Adams continues to recover from a back injury, and while it can be seen as good news that he wasn’t replaced on the final roster, his lack of playing time in the past month will likely limit any contribution he winds up making.
“So Tyler is working his way back,” Berhalter said. “In terms of his availability, we’re still working through training today to see if he can play a part. Signs are looking good for him though, and he is making progress.”
Berhalter will also have to decide whether to start Matt Miazga or Mark McKenzie next to John Brooks in central defense. Miazga has the experience edge, but McKenzie’s quickness could see him chosen against a fast Honduras attack.
Then there is the fullback position, where Dest’s struggles at left back against Switzerland revived the questions about whether he should be used only at right back. If Berhalter stands pat, then Reggie Cannon will stay at right back, but if Dest moves back to his natural position, then Antonee Robinson will get the nod in what would be a cap-tying appearance for the English-American fullback.
Whatever the final lineup winds up being, it will be heavily favored against a Honduras side that does boast some dangerous attacking weapons, but also has a defense that is likely to struggle with the dynamic threats in the U.S. attack.
The Catrachos might take some confidence from knowing their U-23 team defeated the U.S. Under-23 team in a match that kept the Americans out of the Olympics, but Honduras will be facing a much different challenge on Thursday in a star-studded U.S. lineup eager to start winning trophies together.
“We are ready to go, we’ve been waiting for the opportunity to play in competitive matches again and we know what we are up against,” Pulisic said. “Honduras is a team we have familiarity with and know some of their guys, they are going to make it tough for us, and we just need everyone ready to go to work for the team.”