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USMNT: 3 Questions Unanswered By the November 2020 Friendlies

by Bart Keeler

Every international friendly is an experiment of some sort. They are chances for the coach to collect data and draw conclusions. In November 2020, the United States men’s national team introduced at least 10 new variables to the experiment for the window, but what did these experiments yield?

Overall, it’s hard to come away from this set of matches and not feel optimistic about the future, but, after letting the dust—rather, the mud—from the contests against Wales and Panama, we need to temper the hype.

Yesterday, we looked at three questions the November 2020 friendlies answered for head coach Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT. Now, let’s explore three questions left unresolved during the matches against Wales and Panama.

1. Do we have a definitive starting striker?

Perhaps the most important question heading into November 2020 was if a young striker (read: Josh Sargent) could put themselves at the top of the depth chart. Unfortunately, this answer was unlikely to be answered when Josh Sargent had to withdraw from camp due to COVID-19 quarantine stipulations by his club Werder Bremen.

Berhalter did call up two legitimate, young, European-based strikers, though. Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto came into the camp in good form for their second-division clubs. Fans were eager to see these two play for the Red, White and Blue and watch what they could bring to the team.

Unfortunately, Berhalter wasted an opportunity to collect data on these two by starting Sebastian Lletget—a 28-year-old MLS midfielder—against Wales. Lletget’s 79 minutes playing a “False 9” role took away valuable time from either Gioacchini or Soto to learn Berhalter’s system.

In the second match, Gioacchini started and scored two goals in 77 minutes. Soto replaced Gioacchini and scored two goals in 13 minutes. It’s frustrating that Berhalter didn’t think either player deserved to start against Wales so we could see more from them.

Berhalter bears a lot of the blame for us not having an answer to this question. Even though Sargent didn’t make it to camp, Gioacchini or Soto could have emerged as contenders at the striker position had they been given more time on the field.

2. What is our best centerback pairing?

With three experienced centerbacks and one promising debutant coming into camp, Berhalter had an opportunity to look at four players who could solidify the backline ahead of the 2022 Concacaf World Cup Qualifiers starting in (hopefully) September 2021. Though Berhalter definitely conducted a good experiment in each match, the answers were not positive or conclusive.

Against Wales, John Brooks—a German Bundesliga starter—and Matt Miazga—currently in the Belgian first division—started and played the whole match together. The two definitely were instrumental in keeping an impotent Wales scoreless. Brooks and Miazga were influential passers from the back but, at times, looked a bit slow and definitely showed they could be undone by quick counter-attacks. Perhaps Brooks and Miazga are not an ideal CB pairing, as both are a bit lumbering at times, even if they’re good in the air and passing out of the back.

In the second match against Panama, Miazga started alongside Fulham’s Tim Ream. This pairing was even slower and less adept at transitional defense than the pair in the first match. Both of Panama’s goals came from quick-transition attacks and on both, the experienced centerbacks were slow to react and passive in defending the quick Jose Fajardo.

Looking ahead, John Brooks and Matt Miazga may be good starting CBs individually, but definitely not together. Alas, Tim Ream looks a bit too slow for the quick attackers in Concacaf. It seems Berhalter will need to continue to search for the right CB pairing ahead of 2021’s packed schedule.

3. Who is the second-choice goalkeeper?

Maybe this is just a pain point for me, but I’m not sold on Zack Steffen being the locked-in starting goalkeeper for the USMNT. He was anointed as the heir to the USMNT No. 1 shirt but has struggled to execute the Berhalter passing system. On top of that, he’s on the bench at Manchester City, even if it’s behind a superior goalkeeper at a big club.

In this camp, Ethan Horvath sat on the bench for the entirety of both matches. This, to me, felt like a wasted opportunity.

It’s risky to count on one goalkeeper for the three senior international tournaments awaiting the USMNT in 2021. Steffen cannot be expected to start and play in the Concacaf Nations League Finals, Gold Cup, and World Cup Qualifiers spanning June through September next year. Berhalter could have given Horvath at least 45 minutes this window to introduce him to the group and system. Horvath is undoubtedly the U.S. goalkeeper with the most experience in Europe, with more than 7,400 minutes in seven seasons in Europe. However, he has only one appearance for Berhalter.

Sure, MLS has some great goalkeepers who will be considered in the pool but Horvath should be examined more closely by Berhalter as the second-choice goalkeeper for the USMNT.

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