"Tres a Cero": What We Learned from the U23 Match With Mexico
The US U23s looked effective (if not particularly slick) in front of a sparse crowd in Los Angeles against Mexico, overcoming a shaky first half and riding a bit of good luck en route to a deceptively convincing 3-0 scoreline. Since it's a youth match, there's a temptation to view the game as a collection of individual auditions for the senior team, but the fact this team aims to play in the Olympics next summer means we should also keep an eye on how they might look together. Here are my takeaways:
Jordan Morris is Not the Second Coming, and That's OK
The Univisión Deportes guys gave Morris the man of the match, which surprised me greatly. The goal he scored wasn't particularly elegant, more was the product of luck and opportunism than true skill. Twice when he was released on the break via through balls but his controlling touches were incredibly heavy and he knocked them well beyond his reach, killing off the chance. He didn't get overly involved in build up play. He's a long way from the finished product.
There is still plenty to love. He runs fast, hard, and unpredictably enough to cause a back line trouble at pretty much any given moment. He's fairly strong for his age and fights for loose balls. He's a tidy, reliable finisher. He has a bit of skill about him, clipping a nice ball over the top to Mario Rodriguez. He also has truly rare levels of hustle, and it's easy to see why Jürgen is such a fan: after stoppage time was over and a set piece had been deflected wide, he went after the ball in a dead sprint as if his life depended on it before the referee blew his whistle. That was after 93 minutes of running, when the score was 3-0, and the angle and distance meant it wasn't even likely to amount to anything. An early comparison that came to mind for me was a more-physical version of Jermain Defoe.
The revelation here was Mario Rodriguez, who was co-MOTM for me with Luis Gil. He slotted home a quality goal, muscled defenders off the ball repeatedly, displayed some top-class skill (such as almost bringing down that aforementioned lob that was about as difficult to control as they come), threw down some tricky moves, his movement was awesome, and he flashed some explosive athleticism that I hadn't noticed before such as in the 48th minute when he burst through the line to get a toe on a Luis Gil cross. He's also still a work in progress, but he could be the complete package as a forward, and in my book he moved from "in the mix" to "sure thing" on the likely 23 for Rio.
There Is Real Quality Through The Midfield
American soccer has long been stereotyped as a bunch of hardworking athletic players that are short on quality and polish. If you've been watching our young midfielders, that doesn't seem to be accurate anymore. Captain Luis Gil, marginalized at his club and seemingly at a developmental plateau, orchestrated an elegant passing display from the Stars and Stripes, keeping our side ticking over with quick precise passes and even contributing a touch of the spectacular with some showy through-balls and a couple telling crosses. He was a strong MOTM contender for me, and this performance is a really good sign that he may still have room for growth.
Benji Joya didn't get particularly good reviews after this match from other pundits but I still liked what I saw. He has unique passing range and a flair for the spectacular that seems fitting for his background in Meixcan football. I think what limited his contributions were the fact he was playing wide (and out of position), and ceded his most natural role to Gil. That's a solvable problem. Fatai Alashe is more in the traditional mold of American midfielders as a disciplined and athletic enforcer, but he's the other highlight of the night. After getting a goal in a late cameo against Bosnia, he's played the full 90 against Denmark and Mexico, forming a rugged wall that only allowed 1 goal in that time. As I talked about in my podcast, one of the biggest things he has going for him is the fact there simply aren't other true defensive midfielders in the US player pool anywhere near his age.
That doesn't even get into the absent names that will undoubtably be difference-makers in this group: Emerson Hyndman, Tommy Thompson, Gedion Zelalem, and Julian Green just to name a few. Don't sleep on Will Trapp, either. This is a position of huge strength. And it could get even stronger as Andi Herzog works out more options, which included Alejandro Guido who got the start against El Tri but came off early for injury. Jose Villareal came on in his place but spent just 15 minutes on the pitch before being replaced by Dan Metzger, also due to injury. I think all three have some potential, but none of them stood out to me on that night. One thing to note, however, is the US were comprehensively out-possessed, 63-37, and while some of that was a product of the scoreline, it seemed to clash a bit with my narrative of strength-in-midfield.
Lots of Questions for the Back Line Beyond Brooks and Yedlin
The two senior-team guys will be cornerstones in Rio, and that means that half of the back line equation has already been settled. Beyond that, there's a lot of decent players with some potential, but I've yet to see anyone distinguish themselves from the pack. Furthermore, they were worryingly shaky in the opening 45 minutes, leaving Cody Cropper exposed on more than one occasion.
Let's start with the center backs. Shane O'Neill, who is supposed to be a seasoned cornerstone, looked dreadful at times in this game. He wiffed on a challenge in the 31st minute and got his lunch eaten in the 65th. He also put back a really solid volley to Morris for the third, but it was an alarming display for a supposed mainstay. Christian Dean, who plays very little at the MLS level, looked quite a lot better as a substitute, commanding the air, tackling athletically on the ground, and playing with some confidence. He also emphatically buried a set piece in the back of the net for a sweet headed goal. Walker Zimmerman, the starting partner to O'Neill, was anonymous, and presided over that opening 45 of frailty. Dean may have a future, O'Neill may right the ship, but failing that, the US is going to have to count on a few young players developing beyond their years. Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, and Matt Miazga are all young even by the standards of this age group, but all three are mega-talented and could be major factors for the future. Right now, all three are on U20 duty given the upcoming World Cup at that level. If Herzog were to go a bit older, Will Packwood still seems to look the part for Birmingham City, but I can't think of anyone else worth a call.
The full-backs are in an even greater state of flux. Oscar Sorto and Dillon Serna started and looked fairly competent, although they bear some responsibility in the early jitters. Serna in particular looks like a really skilled player who hasn't quite found the ideal position and role yet. Both got forward a couple of times and put in some decent service but didn't work the offensive end with much distinction. Boyd Okwuonu and Juan Pablo Ocegueda both got trot outs later on when the lead was built up, and I hardly noticed their contrinbutions either. Certainly, no one stamped their passports for Brazil in 2016. Unlike the center-backs, however, it's unclear to whom they'll turn as alternatives beyond Yedlin. Kellyn Acosta wasn't called in but he plays regularly for FC Dallas (which the rest of the fullbacks would probably be envious of) and was a mainstay of recent U20 teams, but he's more of a midfielder than a defender.
The one part of the rear guard that got some solid answers Wednesday was between the posts. Cody Cropper, he of immense prior youth experience and a senior team call-up, looked the part of a solid keeper that can be counted on, if not necessarily a world-beater for the future. He made a rash decision in distribution once (in the 53rd) and reacted weirdly late to a 2nd minute point-blank effort, but was otherwise outstanding. GKs at the youth level can't always be counted on to make the "automatic" saves, but Cropper contributed both them and a few of the spectacular. I have no idea who is behind him on the depth chart, but he's got the number 1 job locked up at this point.
US Soccer Has A Philosophy, Top To Bottom
In my podcast and in my match preview, I argued that both the personnel and coaching applied to this U23 side made it fairly likely they'd run a system very similar to the 4-4-2 "Skinny Diamond" that the Klinsmann has utilized with the senior team, and exactly that came to pass against Mexico. The nominal wide midfielders were by trade central midfielders and asked to play that way too. They stayed predominantly tucked behind the forwards and inside the fullbacks rather than getting in around the back of the opposition defense. I think that will suit the player pool available at this level perfectly, since it doesn't have huge numbers of traditional wide players and has a weird glut of technically gifted passers. As I mentioned above, however, that didn't exactly translate into possession in this game in particular, though the guys who will really make it tick over weren't around. The one potential flaw of this approach at this level is the lack of true defensive midfielders beyond Fatai Alashe, but Will Trapp can easily be deputized in that position if tactical adjustments are made to allow chances to be developed deeper and forward runs a bit more conservative and concious of the counter attack.
The real benefit of sharing a tactical set up with the senior team is, of course, an easier conversion on the way up. National-side managers have to be massively more flexible than their club compatriots, since they can't simply buy and sell their player pool to get the skills they want, and that has been on show for the senior team ever since the World Cup. We've seen a 3-at-the-back look, traditional 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, and who knows what else. But when the Mexico friendly came for the senior team, lo and behold Klinsmann reverted back to World Cup ideas and went with that 4-4-2 skinny diamond, which features one true defensive midfielder, one true attacking central midfielder, and two wide midfielders who play like central ones. I think one of the reasons Klinsmann likes the look so much is not that his current personnel situation suits it so well (which it does), but also from how inherently flexible it is. The left midfield position can just as easily be filled by defensive midfielders, wingers, or attacking midfielders. Moreover, the compact setup means that each player can express themselves in the role they feel most comfortable with without ruining the "shape" of the formation that is so important to certain approaches.
Hopefully, this will help get the most out of this current youth group's glut of attacking midfielders, and sets them up for easy transitions up the ladder.