It probably was the most eagerly anticipated friendly in American soccer history and although the result—a 0-0 draw with Wales—didn’t inspire, the potential of this young U.S. national team was evident during much of a rainy night in Swansea.
Coach Gregg Berhalter’s side hadn’t played in 285 days—it was early February—and the program’s highly-regarded contingent of young, European-based players hadn’t been in camp for a year. Finally together this week in Wales, they then had only two full days of training ahead of Thursday’s exhibition against the 20th-ranked Welsh.
“It’s all about expectations,” Berhalter said before the match. “What I’m expecting [Thursday] is a team that will go out there and compete, a team that will go out there and hopefully execute some of the concepts. I don’t think it's going to be a complete performance. I’m not expecting that. But I’m still expecting to see some things that we’ve worked on.”
And that’s what he got. The USA dominated the first half, held off Wales in the second and looked like a team with a lot of talent that has room to grow.
Next Monday’s match against Panama will reveal a bit more. Meantime, here are three thoughts from Thursday’s tie:
Lots of storylines but no goals
There was plenty to watch as a few U.S. youngsters made their eagerly anticipated debuts and several other important players returned after significant absences. Every touch, turn and pass, especially those made with precision and confidence, seemed to portend bigger and better things to come.
But scoring chances were at a premium. With Josh Sargent and Jozy Altidore not in camp, Berhalter played without a traditional striker, instead installing the LA Galaxy’s Sebastien Lletget in the middle of a front three. Berhalter hoped Lletget would be able to bring teammates into the attack, that fellow forwards would run in behind the Welsh defense and the outside backs would add width. It rarely happened that way.
Lacking a real target, the U.S. midfielders weren't able to do much with the possession they created, and the interchange and flow required to create chances using a false nine probably required more than the scant training time Berhalter had available. Konrad de la Fuente missed on the Americans’ best chance of the game in the 33rd minute (see below) and Wales had a couple looks at goal in the second half, forcing a good kick save from Zack Steffen on the hour mark.
"There were a couple attacks that you could recognize as U.S. men's national team attacks, but not enough–not nearly enough," Berhalter said following the game. "It's about the principles. We’re still learning the principles. We're still learning some of the main areas how we want to hurt the opponent, how we want to take advantage of the opponent's weakness, and in this game I don’t think we did that enough. Sometimes, if you noticed, the spacing got jumbled up. Guys were on top of each other. It was too compact at times."
The weather didn’t help, and the game wound up lurching toward a 0-0 ending. The USA may have deserved a bit more but couldn’t complain much after failing to threaten the Welsh goal when it had the momentum.
Decent debut for young trio
Among the 10 players eligible to make their debut Thursday, Berhalter started three of them: midfielder Yunus Musah and forwards Giovanni Reyna and De la Fuente. Their combined age: 53. None looked out of place, and all had moments to build on heading into the Panama game and a busy, and crucial, 2021.
Reyna’s start, coming a day before his 18th birthday, was no surprise and was long-awaited. Already a rising star at Borussia Dortmund and the son of two former U.S. internationals, he’s been on this trajectory for a while and would’ve been part of the March matches canceled at the onset of the pandemic. Instead, forced to wait until Thursday, he showed about as well as one could expect a teenage debutant to show.
Starting as the right forward in Berhalter’s 4-3-3, Reyna often came inside as right back Sergiño Dest stayed wide. Reyna also didn’t have a traditional striker to service like he has at Dortmund. As a result, it didn’t always seem like Reyna was as plugged in as he would’ve liked. He did have a nice run with the ball in the 20th minute, but he was dispossessed near the penalty area before he was able to pass it off. But when the ball did come Reyna’s way, there didn’t seem to be nerves or caution. He shifted left in the second half and had a bit more space to take players on. Wherever he was, his first instinct was to confront defenders and create, which is what Berhalter wanted.
"He showed real quality at times. He really did," Berhalter said of Reyna. "Overall a 17-year-old debuting, he didn’t look like that. From that standpoint it was solid."
The inclusions of De la Fuente, 19, and Musah, 17, were slightly more unexpected. The former doesn’t play regularly at Barcelona, and the latter arrived in camp only Tuesday and had never spent any time in the program. In the first half, left forward De la Fuente was the closest thing the USA had to a striker, even though Lletget played more centrally. Teammates played high, long passes for De la Fuente on a couple of occasions, and in the 33rd he had the Americans’ best chance of the match. A poor back pass by Wales midfielder Dylan Levitt fell right for De la Fuente, who chested it down at the six-yard line before blasting his half-volley over the crossbar.
"He had moments where you could see his real quality," Berhalter said. Defensively the pressing, releasing to the center back, was really good at times and overall, I like how he just hung in there. That was the type of game that he had to play, hanging in there, and I think he did O.K."
Musah was slotted into midfield alongside Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams and performed well, showing off his ability to turn and dribble in tight spaces, relieve pressure and knock the opposition off balance with powerful runs. Thursday’s cap doesn’t tie Musah, a Valencia midfielder, permanently to the USA. The New York City native remains eligible for England, where he’s captained junior youth national teams, as well as Italy and Ghana.
"He showed real moments of quality on the ball, real composure for a 17-year-old, getting the ball on a bouncy field a little bit," the manager said of Musah. "Under pressure he's able to deal with it and move out of it. I think he was maybe lacking a little bit of the final movement, final ball, that we know he can do. But overall [he] worked really hard and hung in there."
In the second half, as the substitutes flowed (each team was permitted six), midfielder Johnny Cardoso, forward Nicholas Gioacchini and forward Owen Otasowie earned their maiden caps as well.
American midfield in command
With Christian Pulisic (hamstring) unavailable and Welsh star Gareth Bale rested ahead of Wales’s UEFA Nations League games, Thursday’s game was missing its two biggest names. Instead, the spotlight was snagged by the young American midfield. The game’s pace and flow were determined largely by Adams, McKennie and Musah, who controlled possession and limited the hosts’ opportunities going forward. Before fatigue, weather and substitutions left the game a bit frayed in the second half, the American trio defined the match. Only the speed of Wales forward Rabbi Matondo appeared to cause the U.S. any concern, as the U.S. press was consistent and effective.
Adams, who played in front of the back four and dropped a bit deeper when the U.S. outside backs, Dest and Antonee Robinson, got forward, was excellent on and off the ball. It was his first game with the national team since March 2019, and he played right back that day. But he’s pretty clearly Berhalter’s No. 6 from now on. Adams’ vision and composure were first rate and he didn’t miss on a single pass inside the U.S. half. McKennie played further forward, was sturdy on the dribble and offered everything you’d want out of a box-to-box player, popping up in advantageous positions, advancing the ball and looking for teammates with short and long passes. He wasn’t as involved defensively, but he didn’t need to be as the Americans controlled possession, especially in the first half.
"When you start looking at the numbers and think about how we made Wales play at home and what they resorted to doing, I think that's impressive," Berhalter said. "They had really low passing percentage, passing accuracy. We had a large share of possession, and it shows these guys are confident. And that has an effect on the opponent."
Musah didn’t look like a 17-year-old first-timer. He was confident, excellent in possession and with his passing, and he was a good compliment to his more experienced teammates. He showed enough to suggest that Berhalter and his colleagues need to do everything in their power to secure Musah’s permanent services.
"When you see those three guys in midfield, it's amazing," Berhalter said. "It's amazing how much ground they can cover, how dynamic they are. ... It was something to behold today."