Much of the focus around the U.S. men's national team's first Concacaf Nations League matches appears to be centered on who isn't there–specifically one 18-year-old dual-national–and which key players are and aren't performing at the club level.
Yes, it's true that Sergiño Dest hasn't yet made his international decision. Jozy Altidore is hurt–again–at a time of urgency for the U.S. Tyler Adams and Tim Weah remain sidelined for club and country. John Brooks is still MIA. Many core U-20 and U-23 players are instead at the Olympic qualifying preparation camp instead of getting competitive, senior-team exposure. Christian Pulisic is still fighting for consistent minutes after an uneven start to life at Chelsea.
But there's more to keep an eye on vs. Cuba Friday night in Washington, D.C., and Canada next Tuesday in Toronto. Between the awaited return of a key piece on the right side, the potential for one young forward to take a step forward and the continuation of Gregg Berhalter's plan being put in motion, there's plenty to focus on as the Americans start life in a new regional competition.
Here's a closer look, two years to the day that the USMNT's world came crashing down:
YEDLIN'S RETURN AND WHAT IT MEANS
Given how little he's played for both Newcastle and the U.S. in the last six months, it's easy to forget how much of a contributor DeAndre Yedlin can be at his full potential.
Yedlin returned to action for Newcastle in a 90-minute stint vs. Manchester United before the international break, completing his comeback after groin surgery shelved him for half a year and caused him to miss the Gold Cup.
Being shoehorned into a role on the wing appears to have been a fleeting proposition. Back when Adams appeared to be the ideal solution for Berhalter in his vision for what he wants a right back to be, Yedlin was going to be pushed forward.
''He's not going to be in the back," Berhalter said in March. "He's going to be forward at the top of the penalty box or he's going to be combining in wide areas. And that's right in his skill set.''
Some six months later, with Adams still injured and Yedlin finally fit, the tune has changed a bit.
"We consider him a right back. We also know he can play wing back," Berhalter said from training camp this week.
Wherever he plays, the U.S. is getting a player who finally feels like he's getting back to being himself. He said he played through the pain for 18 months prior to having surgery–"about two years that there was something not right"–and is pain free. Berhalter said he had a similar injury in his playing career, so he understood the extent of what Yedlin was going through.
"The idea is to get your quality players back in and around the team. DeAndre is a quality player. We've been with him through this process, it's been frustrating," Berhalter said.
"I know it's a frustrating injury. Everything you do you feel it. We're happy DeAndre got [the surgery] done. We think in the long term this is going to help him."
Now it's a matter of how much Yedlin can contribute this soon, where it happens on the field and if he's able to unseat the likes of Reggie Cannon, who has quietly been a bright spot at right back in his brief time with the U.S. At 26, Yedlin is one of the older and more experienced players on the squad, and it's easy to forget how dynamic of a player he can be going forward given how long he's been hampered.
"Personally for me, obviously it's nice to be back," said Yedlin, who acknowledged the confidence that came with going the distance vs. Man United. "Obviously I have to be a bit cautious, because it's one of my first games back. I've played one 90-minute game in five months, so there's obviously things that come along with that. Through the week I'll just be looking after myself more carefully.
"To have in the back of my head that I can make it that long now is a good feeling for me."
Getting Yedlin a 45- or 60-minute runout vs. Cuba to get him ready to tangle with the likes of Alphonso Davies and Canada would sure make plenty sense.
IS IT SARGENT'S TIME?
Altidore's absence opens a gaping hole atop the U.S. formation. Plenty expect that spot to be filled by Gyasi Zardes, who has Berhalter's confidence and support, even if the same isn't true for the loudest section of the U.S. supporter base. But there's another option fighting for the vacated minutes.
Josh Sargent, Werder Bremen's 19-year-old forward, could find himself in the limelight after fighting his way into more regular minutes at his Bundesliga club. Sargent has appeared in six of Werder Bremen's seven league games (four starts) and has a goal to his name after a summer in which he was unceremoniously left off the Gold Cup roster and not considered for the U-20 World Cup. He channeled his energy into Werder Bremen preseason, and the returns have been positive, though not overwhelmingly impressive.
"I think he has gained confidence," Berhalter said. "They've been playing him sometimes in the wing and different positions.
"For Josh it's just a matter of two things: him getting rest, him being fresh in his mind and then him attacking. Him saying 'O.K., I want something. How am I going to go about getting it.' I really liked his mindset going into preseason, and I think he was ready to attack and go for a position in the team."
Now it's all about him doing that with his national team. Plenty would like to see Sargent being given the keys up top, given his potential to succeed there for the next decade, but Berhalter has made it clear that nothing will be gift-wrapped for him, and when given the chance vs. St. Louis last month, he wasn't exactly a showstopper. How he's utilized in the next couple of games will be telling of his progress in his manager's mind. Berhalter indicated Thursday that Sargent would be in the XI vs. Cuba. That's a good start.
NEXT STEPS OF THE PROCESS
Fans are probably over hearing about the continued emphasis on the U.S. playing a certain way–results be damned!–with an eye on the bigger picture. It's tough to stomach watching mistakes being made playing out of the back. It's even tougher for those who have forked over their hard-earned money to witness it in person. But that's the way it's going to be, and for the players subjected to it for months and those who are still in the early stages of grasping it, the process will get another test under competitive circumstances.
"I've really only spent one camp in it, so I'm still learning it and learning the ropes and just going over video and stuff," Yedlin said. "It's a system that we're obviously going to have to do a lot of training on. It's tough because we only have 10 days ... it's also a very intricate system. But once we've got it and we've got the players in consistently and are doing the same things every camp, it'll be a system that's tough to beat and I think we have the personnel to play that system."
Summed up in the immortal words of Sam Hinkie: Trust the process.
FIRST AWAY GAME
It's crazy to think that in the 10 months that Berhalter has been U.S. manager, the Americans haven't played a match away from U.S. soil. The entirety of the Gold Cup and the friendlies sandwiching it (the U.S. has gone 8-4-2 in that time) were played at home–though fan support in the two losses vs. Mexico may have replicated an away atmosphere.
Tuesday's match at Canada, where the U.S. should fully be expected to win, will provide a different set of circumstances. Canada has been hell-bent on taking the U.S. down a peg, and with precious points in the FIFA rankings at stake for the Canadians–the top six in Concacaf as of next June will appear in the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal under new confederation rules, and Canada currently sits in seventh–the U.S. will be facing a team motivated on multiple fronts. It's not the type of test that will dictate where the U.S. stands on the global landscape, but it's a step forward from the consequence-less friendlies at home.
There are also the table stakes that come along with it. Canada already has six points after sweeping Cuba, and a win over the U.S. could all but end the Americans' chances at reaching the semifinals next year. Such are the margins for error in a three-team group round robin.