The international break was once again a mixed bag for the United States men's national team. They had an epic 2-0 over heated rivals Mexico and then a drab 1-1 draw away at Jamaica. To break it all down CBS Sports analysts Roger Gonzalez, Chuck Booth and Mike Goodman take a look at the good and the bad from the past two matches.
Michael Goodman: Alright, another international break has come and gone. In some ways it felt like a microcosm of the United States men's national team experience. There was the incredible high of the second half against Mexico followed by the grinding mediocrity of an away draw in Jamaica. So I guess the place to start here is, what should we take away from these two games? Should we focus on beating Mexico for the third time in a calendar year? Is that indicative of a team turning the corner and heading in the right direction? Or is this just another case of two steps forward and one step back?
Chuck Booth: I think this break should be summed up as getting the amount of points expected but in the wrong order. If you told me ahead of time that the USMNT would pick up four points playing Mexico and Jamaica I'd take it and run. But as you'd assume that the draw would have been vs. Mexico, it's fair to feel a little disappointed not collecting six points.
Roger Gonzalez: I'm convinced it was a step forward. How could it not be when you had the team's most convincing performance under Berhalter in the 2-0 win over Mexico? The result at Jamaica isn't a step back as winning on the road, especially in Concacaf, is so challenging. A point on the road anywhere at this stage is something to be excited about, even if the play isn't all that great. I think the results have put this team on a sure path to the 2022 World Cup, and they've handled some massive challenges along the way. They still have to go to Mexico and Costa Rica, but USMNT fans can feel confident in them qualifying.
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MG: I think this kind of gets at the heart of the question here. From a qualification standpoint it's hard to be upset with where this team is right now. It's going to be very hard to mess up enough over the last six matches not to qualify for Qatar. But I think if we're talking about just the performance on the field it's trickier. Like part of what makes the Jamaica match so frustrating is that it comes right after we have that second half against Mexico that shows just how dominant this team can be sometimes.
And I guess part of this then gets down to individual players and tactics. This window the U.S. didn't get much of anything (barring a nice touch to set up Tim Weah's goal against Jamaica) out of Ricardo Pepi, a far cry from earlier this cycle when his clutch goals really rescued this team. He's only 18, so there are ups and downs to be expected. But is part of the inconsistency of the United States right now that they're relying pretty exclusively on him, at such a young age, to lead the attack. Should the side be looking at the broader set of options available?
CB: Yes and no haha. While Pepi didn't have a great second half, it also isn't his fault that he was isolated due to the midfield not being able to play through Jamaica's defensive setup. The elephant in the room is that without a midfield that includes both Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, the team can't create much. Adams needs space to turn and use his excellent vision to set up others but without driving runs from McKennie, teams can collapse on him. This isn't to say that Yunus Musah and Gianluca Busio won't be able to be helpful in that role soon, but McKennie is irreplaceable to this team at the moment. It doesn't matter who is up top if no one can help them get the ball in space.
RG: Yeah, I think Pepi's fine. It's true he hasn't scored a goal in over a month, and if he isn't called up to the team in December, or if he is and doesn't score, then he could be looking at a three-month goal drought entering the Jan. 27 game with El Salvador. That's not ideal, but it isn't something to worry about. I think he's continuing to do the little things well, and his passing has been quality as we saw with the assist to Weah against Jamaica. He's the No. 9 and is expected to score goals, but we have to remember he is young, inexperienced and has a lot of room to grow. I think, up to this point, Berhalter has to be thrilled with what he's seen, even though the statistics might not jump out.
MG: So, I definitely think optimism around Pepi long-term is warranted, but I also do wonder if the USMNT just has too much attacking talent to keep carrying Pepi given his limited ability to influence the match elsewhere on the field. If the U.S. can't get him the ball, there are other players who might work as strikers and could allow the side to cram more attacking talent on the field. In both matches this break Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah started as wingers. They've both spent some time with their club teams at striker, and I wonder if it might be worth trying to give them a spin in the middle at a national team level.
At some point there's just a question of how do you get all the attacking (but not necessarily naturally striker) talent on the field. Christian Pulisic came back this window and reminded us how important he is to the team, but we're still waiting on Borussia Dortmund's Gio Reyna. With Weah and Aaronson's emergence, is Reyna even still a guy we'd automatically slot in on the wing over them?
CB: This is a good problem to have with four wingers who all deserve to start but a healthy Pulisic and Reyna are still first choice. I'd wonder if Gregg Berhalter will either fiddle with Weah up top even though he has been more of a winger than a center-forward this year or play Reyna or Aaronson centrally. If it comes down to it though, Weah would be the most likely player to be benched of the four due to his ability to change the pace of a game as a substitute similar to what Pulisic did against Mexico.
RG: I think Reyna's the most talented player in the pool and a top talent, even more so than Pulisic. So, for me, he will rank as the top attacking player on this team, but that's in terms of potential. He has to stay healthy and contribute to play ahead of, say, a red-hot Tim Weah. I think Reyna can be, truly, a dominant attacking midfielder. Berhalter likes to put him on the right, but right now he is firmly behind Weah due to the Lille man's recent performances. Now, that's not to say Reyna doesn't return to the starting lineup in January. We all thought Matt Turner had won the goalkeeper job, after all.
MG: Turner vs. Zack Steffen is an argument I just don't have the fortitude to weigh in on, though I do have another personnel question in defense. It was interesting to me that Joe Scally didn't crack the field at right back with Dest out. Yedlin is the steady-handed vet at this point, and he was understandably trusted against Mexico, but was it a missed opportunity not to rotate him in and get him some minutes against Jamaica?
CB: I'd say yes. While you understand that Berhalter was trying to avoid a repeat of Panama with a young team losing after changing half the lineup it was clear pretty early that good Yedlin didn't make the trip to Kingston. Yedlin had a strong performance against Mexico and you don't want to change too much of the backline at once, so starting made sense. But when there was a need for anyone to push the ball forward to free Weah and Pepi, Scally should've been the second player called on after Pulisic.
While we can't be a fly on the wall in training to see how Scally did in this camp, following impressive Bundesliga appearances this feels like a missed opportunity.
MG: It does seem like we've kind of landed in a pretty good place here, much like the USMNT. The team is in good shape, but they aren't the finished product. To the extent they have problems, they're mostly about having a lot of talent and needing to figure out how to fit it all together. Do that and you get a lot more performances like the one against Mexico, and a legitimately high level competitive international team. Fail? Well, we all saw what sitting through that Jamaica match looked like.