USA Men – More Than Potential Now?

In our last post we discussed the USA men and how talented they are and how young they are. After their 0-0 effort against Wales their potential was clearly present , but a combination of unfamiliarity , a passive system, and youth prevented them from turning that potential into a result.

Well, things have changed. Four days after meeting Wales, the squad played Panama in another friendly match. To be fair, it must be mentioned that the Panama side that played against the Americans was not as strong as the Panama team that qualified for the 2018  World Cup or that will compete next summer for another visit to the 2022 version of the same tournament.

Nevertheless, the Yanks turned in a effective performance in running past Panama 6-2. There were a number of reasons for that impressive result and yet, in some ways their overall performance was not as dominating as the score suggests. But, if the knock on the Americans against Wales was the failure to turn good play into goals, any list of criticisms of the team in this match won’t contain that one..

Coach Gregg Berhalter lined the team up in a similar fashion to the formation used against Wales, at least it seemed so on paper. As seen below, it appeared to be a 4/3/3 with a few personnel changes made to the starting lineup that competed against Wales. The midfield of Adams, McKennie and Musah remained the same and if fact, they played very much the same way as in the first match. In the back, John Brooks was replaced by Tim Ream. Ream has been a regular in the tough English Premier League for several years, currently toiling for Fulham. At 33, he is one of the oldest team members in the USA squad. He has been inconsistent with the USA but his experience looked to give him an edge in working with this young of a group. Sergino Dest switched sides, going to the left back and Reggie Cannon came in to the right back position that was occupied by Dest against Wales. Cannon went from Dallas in the MLS to Boavista in Portugal and has done a surprisingly good job there. His recent play justified a chance to show Berhalter what he could do with the national team. Cannon is 22, making him somewhat more of a veteran in this very youthful selection.

USA 4/3/3 vs Panama

But it was on the front line that the biggest change took place. Gio Reyna stayed on the right wing…supposedly. The left wing spot was occupied by Uly Llanez. Llanez fits the profile of the “new” USA team to a tee. First of all he is only 19 years old. He also plays in Europe, in the Netherlands to be specific. But a different player represented perhaps the biggest change that took place, and that was at the center forward spot. Against Wales the position was filled by Sebastian Lletget who plays as an attacking midfielder with the LA Galaxy of the MLS. He played the position as a withdrawn forward, linking with the midfield. This caused a lot of possession for the USA but few chances to score as the packed midfield did not use their ball control to get at the goal. Against Panama, Burkhalter went with Nico Gioacchini. Now, Nico is an interesting story. He was born in Missouri and spent time there and Washington DC as a youth where he stood out playing for several youth clubs. He then moved to Italy. As a 15 year old he was signed to Paris FC and in 2018 as an 18 yr old he moved to club Caen who play in the French second division. Last year he began lighting up that league and had scored enough goals to get Burkhalter’s attention. With Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent sidelined, Gioacchini represented one of the few players on the squad who go forward to the goal naturally. So, with Nico pushing forward, there was room for Reyna to play his Dortmund position –  supporting the forward line. As a result, the Yanks actually played a 4/4/2 diamond.

The 4/4/2 Diamond played by the USA vs Panama.

At the beginning of the match,it was apparent that both teams planned on being more aggressive than in the games they had played earlier. For Panama this was going to be a CONCACAF type match-meaning lots of gamesmanship – playing the ref, taking cheap shots, trying to get into the minds of the opponent. And a mix up between Miazga and Ream gave the Central Americans a rather shocking early lead. A long pass reached the Panamanian left back Alejandro Yearwood  who controlled it well and immediately hit an accurate cross to forward Jose Fijardo who was streaking diagonally across the American goal. Neither defender stayed with him and he ran between the two and glanced a header perfectly past Steffen.

And at that moment, this team established it’s credentials. It was a surprising lead that Panama had earned and many former USA teams would have never recovered from it. But this bunch, as young as they are, showed their maturity by remaining calm and settling into their game as if the goal had never been scored. 

The effect of Gioacchini pushing forward was very consequential as it gave Reyna space to work, to combine with the other midfielders and it gave the Panamanian backs a major headache as the American midfielders used that space to get into the attacking third. Sure enough ,just 10 minutes after their goal, Panama was forced to foul Musah as he broke past their midfielders and approached the penalty area. Reyna took the kick from 20 yds out and expertly put it past Panamanian keeper Mosquera into the bottom right of the goal. Reyna’s work with that space opened by Gioacchini’s running paid off a mere four minutes after scoring his goal. He gave Llanez an excellent pass to run onto and Uly fired a stinger at Mosquera who could only block the shot without holding it. The rebound went straight to Gioacchini who put it in. The shell-shocked Central Americans were still trying to settle themselves when the pressing Yanks earned a corner. The ball was partially cleared and went to Tyler Adams who was farther back behind the penalty area.. Adams hit a penetrating pass to McKennie who crossed it to the right post where Miazga (who had come up for the corner and hadn’t moved) was lurking. Miazga headed it back across the goal where guess who was waiting for it? Gioacchini, again looking for space in front of goal. He headed the ball past Mosquera who, by this time, must of felt like a kewpie doll at a shooting range. Three goals in eight minutes and the Americans were comfortably in front.

The USA midfield celebrates Reyna’s goal

The rest of the first half continued USA domination, possession and attacks although without adding to the scoring total. The second half proved similar, however the energy level of the Yanks dropped noticeably and Gioacchini missed a penalty which would have given him a hat trick. Half way through the second period both coaches began to make substitutions and the added speed and aggressiveness on Panama’s part forced another defensive error by the  American back line with Fijardo again getting between defenders. This time it was directly in front of the USA goal. Suddenly it was 3-2 and the result wasn’t as assured for the USA as it had seemed. But the goal seemed to wake up the Yanks, and energized the players who had just taken the field.

Four minutes after Fajardo’s goal, Sebastian Soto, who had replaced Gioacchini, headed in an excellent cross from Richie Ledezma, who had come in for Reyna, to settle the win for the Americans. This appeared to take the effort out of the Panamanians, but the Americans new to the match were just getting started. Sebastian Lletget had come in to his familiar attacking midfield position and he made an excellent run to the near post to nod in a cross from Cannon and ,amazingly enough, Soto scored again 4 minutes later to end the game on a high note for the USA.

So, what did USA fans gather from these two matches played by our young men? 1) This group is talented and markedly experienced despite their youth 2) Their overall talent will only get better when Pulisic and Sargent and a few MLS players join for meaningful action next spring and summer 3) There appears to be some depth, particularly in midfield 4) The newness of playing together can cause breakdowns, hopefully these will be fewer as the squad learns to play as a team 5) If this group can stay healthy and focused, the USA might have a men’s national team that can get to heights not reached before in our soccer history.  Only time will tell.





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