For the first time since a match back in February against Costa Rica, the United States Men’s National Team returned to the pitch with two friendlies against Wales and Panama. Both matches were played in Europe, with the Wales match taking place in Swansea and the Panama match at a small stadium in Wiener Neustadt, Austria (COVID-19 has continued its pause on matches within North America). With MLS players largely prevented from being selected due to playoff commitments, the matches highlighted the new, young, European-based generation that has excited and convinced fans of the USMNT that new highs are ahead.
The most notable absence from the U.S. squad was Christian Pulisic, who departed before the first match to return to rehabilitation with Chelsea after sustaining a slight hamstring injury during pre-match warmups in a Premier League match against Burnley.
With a host of debutantes and very little veteran presence, concentrated almost exclusively among the defense, a lack of chemistry was expected. These predictions proved prescient as the U.S. stumbled to a 0-0 draw at Liberty Stadium.
Starting against Wales alongside the sole-MLS player in the squad, Sebastian Lletget (currently playing for the LA Galaxy, who didn’t qualify for this season’s playoffs) were two debutants: Konrad De La Fuente of Barcelona and Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund. Reyna, who just turned 18 on Nov. 13, is one of the brightest talents in U.S. history, shining for Borussia Dortmund after matriculating through the New York City FC academy.
The two debutantes in attack were joined by a fellow new face: 17-year-old midfielder, Yunus Musah. Musah has impressed for Valencia and is eligible to play on behalf of the English, Italian and Ghanian national teams as well as the U.S. national team. Musah committing his future to the U.S. team, done automatically if he makes an appearance in a competitive match (a Concacaf competition or a World Cup Qualifier), would be a major recruiting coup for coach Gregg Berhalter, as Mensah has played for England’s youth national teams and has also been personally praised by England manager, Gareth Southgate.
Playing against a Wales side without stars Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, the U.S. struggled to find attacking chemistry among the debutants and the out of position Lletget. Konrad should have finished a volleyed chance, but the U.S. did appear solid at the back with Weston Mckinnie covering large swaths of the pitch with the engine that has impressed even the legendary Andrea Pirlo, his manager at Italian side, Juventus.
Nicholas Gioacchini, currently playing for SM Caen in France, came on late to make his debut against Wales, but shone in his first ever start as the team travelled to Austria to take on Panama, who famously qualified for the 2018 World Cup after the surprise U.S. loss against Trinidad and Tobago.
The starting XI against Panama was both the second-youngest team ever selected for the U.S (with Fulham’s 33-year-old Tim Ream driving up the average), and also the first solely European-based squad since a 2011 Gold Cup Quarterfinal against Jamaica.
The match started worryingly for the United States. José Fajardo scored an inch-perfect header to put Panama ahead, placing the ball past the statue-like Zach Steffen of Manchester City, playing netminder for the U.S. The Yanks responded quickly, with Mckinnie spearheading a series of moves that probed and prodded the Panamanian defense. A mazy run from Musah drew a free kick on the edge of the area that Gio Reyna put in the far corner, taking advantage of some questionable goalkeeping, to score his first goal for the U.S. senior side. Just four minutes later, the U.S scored again to take the lead as Gioacchini tapped in a rebound after a sharp shot from Ulysses Llanez. Gioacchini got his second after center-back Matt Miazga played a square header back across and found the poaching striker, who finished off the spectacular team goal.
Sergiño Dest impressed down the left flank, having switched from the right-side where he played against Wales. Dest showed off the pace and skillful dribbling that Berhalter was so thrilled about following Dest’s commitment to play on behalf of the United States, rather than the Netherlands.
Panama dominated possession early in the second half, before Boavista defender, Reggie Cannon, drew a penalty that Gioacchini failed to convert, much to the chagrin of Reyna. The U.S.’s lack of composure showed as Fajardo scored again for Panama to tighten the game, before two goals from debutante Sebastian Soto and one from Lletget put the game out of reach.
Overall, the two matches highlighted the abundance of youth talent Berhalter has at his disposal for the coming years. Against Panama, the attacking threat was clear as stellar dribbling and flashy passing set up goal after goal for a resounding 6-2 victory. However, after the disastrous qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup, worries about consistency and defensive solidity will continue until the U.S. Men’s National Team seizes upon its potential, banishes its demons, and secures qualification to the world’s biggest tournament: the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.