Young USMNT Flashes Its Ability to Bounce Back

The U.S. conceded early but roared back to close November camp with a largely convincing 6-2 win over Panama.
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We're going to find out a lot about the U.S. men's national team and its young core as it's put into new situations in the coming months and years. The question posed on Monday was, how might it respond to an early setback? The first bit of evidence: Mostly well.

The U.S. conceded an eighth-minute goal to Panama but answered with three goals in quick succession to take control of their friendly in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, en route to a 6-2 rout.

Gio Reyna scored the first goal of his senior international career on an 18th-minute free kick, and Nicholas Gioacchini added his first two U.S. goals in the 22nd and 26th minutes, turning a deficit into a commanding lead in short order. Sebastians Soto and Lletget combined to score three goals off the bench late, giving the U.S. a win to cap its November camp. This is the last time the European-based players will be made available to be called up until the next official FIFA window, in March 2021, and they'll surely walk away feeling confident after picking up the win–even if the second half was not entirely smooth sailing.

Here are three thoughts on the match:

A mostly good response

You never know how a young group will react to going down against a team to an early goal, especially when it's against the run of play. It could be a deflating moment. It wasn't for this U.S. side

To be fair, this Panama side was lacking some quality and knowhow that previous incarnations of Los Canaleros had, but that didn't stop Alejandro Yearwood and Jose Fajardo from taking advantage of some lax defending. Nobody closed down on Yearwood on the left flank, and Matt Miazga and Tim Ream offered too much space to their marks in the box, as Fajardo went up between them to redirect a header by Zack Steffen.  

The immediate response was immense. The U.S. pushed forward in waves, and Yunus Musah's dribble to the edge of the Panama box resulted in a free kick. Reyna curled in a low effort with the right side of the goal left gaping open, canceling out the opener 10 minutes later.

Four minutes after that Gioacchini pounced on a spilled rebound, and four minutes after that, the Caen forward finished off one of the best sequences of the match. Sergiño Dest cycled the ball around to Tyler Adams, who threaded a through ball to the end line, where Weston McKennie tracked it down. The Juventus midfielder crossed to the back post, Miazga headed it across goal and Gioacchini flashed to the goal mouth to head in his second. After playing without a recognized striker vs. Wales in Friday's 0-0 draw, the U.S. benefited from Gioacchini's presence on Monday. 

"I'm coming here not just to play well but to score goals and help the team win," Gioacchini said.

It's not as if everything was perfect after the lead was in hand. The U.S. let the guard down on its discipline at the start of the second half, with McKennie awfully fortunate to only see yellow for a two-footed, studs-up sliding challenge on Gabriel Torres. Moments after that, Gioacchini threw his forearm to a head on an aerial duel, seeing a yellow card as well. Ball possession became less secure, and Gioacchini missed a penalty kick with a chance to make it 4-1.

After the game had devolved into a series of substitutions, Fajardo sliced through Miazga and Ream to make it 3-2 Panama and give the upstart side a chance in the 79th minute. The U.S. responded well to conceding again, though, with Soto sandwiching Lletget's goal with two goals of his own on his debut (and with Richie Ledezma, his former Real Salt Lake academy teammate, assisting on both).

Manager Gregg Berhalter said he was pleased with the overall experience and was looking to see whether "we were going to buckle or would we hang in there" after the early concession. It was certainly more of the latter.

Center back audition comes up short

The starting spot next to John Brooks for the matches that matter appears to remain wide open. Miazga and Ream got the start, and while they didn't have a ton to do with the U.S. controlling much of the play, the times they were tested, they wilted.

That's less of a concern for Ream, who, at 33 and with an ample sample size of evidence, isn't likely to be considered as an anchor to build around for the present and future. But that's not the case for Miazga, who, at 25, should theoretically be hitting his stride. He failed to track Fajardo on the opening goal, nor did he leap for the cross, and he and Ream both called for an offside flag on Fajardo's second, failing to play until the whistle in a match where VAR was not available.

Miazga did have the assist on Gioacchini's second goal, and his distribution was mostly clean (58-for-62 passing), but the turn-off moments simply can't happen with any level of frequency. Perhaps more time under Vincent Kompany's wing at Anderlecht can iron out those issues.

As long as Brooks is healthy, he'll top the depth chart. As for who's behind him, it's a wide-open competition.

Give Musah whatever he wants

After two appearances, Yunus Musah appears to have the qualities that make his inclusion a must for the U.S. going forward. Prior to camp, Berhalter described the complementary skills he'd bring alongside Adams and McKennie and explained why he thought Musah would fit well as a central figure as opposed to on the wing, where he plays for Valencia. A reserve-laden Wales team and an inferior Panama side may not be the best litmus tests, but Musah looks every bit of the part nevertheless. The 17-year-old repeatedly looks to push forward, is brimming with confidence and is, as Berhalter envisioned, an ideal complement to the other midfield duo. 

Musah remains eligible for England, Italy and Ghana, and England, in particular should pose the biggest challenge for his international allegiance. He's represented (and captained) the Three Lions on the youth level, spent time coming through the Arsenal academy and remains on senior national team manager Gareth Southgate's radar. The U.S. can offer Musah what England cannot (or will not) right now, and that's first-team minutes. Depending on what Musah values for his own individual situation going forward, perhaps that's something that tips the scales in the USA's favor. Barring a verbal commitment, the soonest Musah can be officially cap-tied to the U.S. is in June's Concacaf Nations League final four. 

Reyna called Musah's choice a "personal decision" and wouldn't be drawn into commenting much further, but he did say that "it's wherever he feels closest to the heart. Hopefully it's here."

Added Berhalter: "It seems like he sees us as a pathway to continue to develop and play with a good young group. In the end, it's going to be him and his family that decide."