- The U.S. men's national team's rebuilding project continued with a pair of split friendly results, which yielded a slew of takeaways regarding the direction of the side.
Now that the over-the-top debate and handwringing about the merits of Matt Miazga's short joke has quieted (oh, it hasn't?) and the dust has settled on the U.S. men's national team's two September friendlies, it's time to take stock of what we saw.
There was a continued insistence on a 4-1-4-1 formation overloaded with central midfielders by trade who were not necessarily in their best positions. There was a first win over Mexico in over three years, which, from an intangible standpoint, is a nice take-home prize for the young U.S. players getting their first taste of the rivalry, even in a watered-down form. There are still lingering questions surrounding the team, though, as is to be expected during a lengthy rebuilding process.
So what did we learn? Here are five takeaways from the pair of friendlies:
This U.S. is nowhere close to Brazil and shouldn't have been troubled by Mexico
The whole point of these fall friendlies is to set the bar for the U.S. and see where it stacks up, given the competition (but also with the caveat that these games are exhibitions). The Brazil match was a wake-up call. Neymar & Co. never needed to find another gear, and if they were troubled at all, they would have done so with ease. There's no shame in losing to Brazil 2-0, especially with what was essentially a U-23 team, but the gap between this group of U.S. players and the world's elite is quite large.
Mexico, meanwhile, was about as experimental a side as it gets, with a lineup that featured seven first-time starters and four first-time internationals. With Mexico already operating with a second-choice squad, the more-experienced likes of Hirving Lozano, Raul Jimenez, Guillermo Ochoa and Orbelin Pineda had all returned to their clubs before the USA match. This was a team ripe to be beaten handily, regardless of the immense talent and potential Diego Lainez, Roberto Alvarado and Victor Guzman bring to the table.
That the U.S. couldn't assert itself or show any true glimpses of rhythm or dominance doesn't simply disappear with the 1-0 result. The U.S. deserves credit for reacting to its opportunity and striking after the red card. Antonee Robinson deserves credit for bouncing back from his poor showing vs. Brazil, coming off the bench and delivering the assist that sprung Tyler Adams for his goal. There are certainly some positives to take away. But there are far more questions that won't be answered as long as the status quo remains in place. Speaking of which...
The coaching change is overdue
Dave Sarachan has made the most of navigating through an incredibly tough situation. It's not his sole fault the U.S. didn't reach the World Cup, but he'll forever be attached to the regime at the helm for the failure. He's done what he can to introduce new players and to teach a National Team 101 course to those experiencing things for the first time. There's little doubting his devotion to and care for U.S. Soccer, and the young players he is overseeing seem to think highly of him. But the USA's World Cup qualifying failure was nearly a year ago. Yes, there was an election and change at the top at U.S. Soccer. Time–too much of it, it could be argued–was needed to hire the new USMNT GM and implement the slight restructuring that came along with it. Few were demanding a new coach ahead of the World Cup, given that post-World Cup coaching turnover presented an opportunity to cast a wide net in a coaching search.
But if that wide net is never going to be cast, then what's the purpose of taking so long on all fronts and sticking with a system that won't be kept? The overly defensive tactics are in part due to the players called in and available, but they also didn't put the U.S. in position to do much other than beat some relative minnows and be forced to defend against superior–on paper–sides. That doesn't sound like change, at all.
This group is calling out for Pulisic, a sprinkling of veterans
There's a desire among some to completely turn this team over to the untested crowd, and while that may work in Twitter arguments or while playing FIFA, it neglects to take into account a veteran spark and its potential to motivate and guide a young team. Not every player involved in the catastrophe in Couva is forever toxic. There's definitely a role for Jozy Altidore, who may still be the USA's best forward option until the very promising Josh Sargent is fully up to speed. Given the central midfield glut and the talent that needs time there, there's an argument to be made for moving on entirely from Michael Bradley. But on the flip side, is there really no purpose he can serve in a mentorship capacity for guys like Adams, Weston McKennie, Wil Trapp and Kellyn Acosta?
The biggest continued absence is that of Christian Pulisic. This group will never reach its potential without its most polished player. He's played 89 minutes for the national team since Trinidad, and they were relatively lifeless ones at the end of an exhausting year. His reintegration won't turn the U.S. into a top-10 team overnight, but it will go a long way toward finding a remedy for the attacking woes that have plagued the side, win or lose.
Julian Green has value
Perhaps Green's U.S. career story won't begin and end with the 2014 World Cup after all. It's hard to believe it's been four years since his shocking inclusion on the USA's World Cup roster, and he hasn't exactly enjoyed consistent growth since then. But the former Bayern Munich product is still just 23, and it's clear he brings some quality to the table.
His integration as a central figure, despite it being the result of McKennie's injury, had a direct impact on the USA's fortunes vs. Mexico, and it's well worth seeing what else he can do there against Colombia and Peru next month. The U.S. can ill-afford to become Pulisic-reliant again for another cycle. Depth is needed in the attacking midfield role, and Green may well have the chops to provide it.
Zack Steffen should remain the No. 1 GK for the foreseeable future
The question that is on its third manager now appears to be solved. Zack Steffen belongs in goal, until proven otherwise. Brad Guzan has had a fine season in Atlanta and has proven himself capable with the national team, but the timing isn't in his favor. He had the misfortune of playing in the time of Tim Howard and during the time of the missed World Cup. It's likely he'd have been the starter in Russia had the Americans made it. But–newsflash–they didn't, and the sometimes-cruel nature of international soccer can turn the page awfully quickly on a player in his 30s. Guzan is 34 right now. He'll be 38 come 2022. It's not ideal. Bill Hamid, provided he returns to top form now that he's back playing regularly with D.C. United, can make a case for himself at some point.
Meanwhile, Steffen is scratching the surface of his capabilities and absolutely looks the part. There was little he could do about Brazil's opener, and while his overly aggressive rush off the line vs. Mexico resulted in a handball outside the box, he absolutely fits the profile of what the U.S. should be seeking as it builds for the future. He's 23, has the talent, instincts and confidence of a No. 1 and deserves the job based on merit and potential. With the U.S. facing so many other questions, this is one that appears to have a simple answer.