It’s not often that one gets to assess members of the U.S. men’s national team in both a USMNT game and a full slate of top-level European club matches over a three-day span, but that was the situation in which we found ourselves over the weekend.
While Gregg Berhalter’s historically young U.S. side was busy beating a solid Costa Rica squad 1-0 on Saturday in Carson, California, most of Berhalter’s regulars were doing their day jobs against the world best thousands of miles and an ocean away. As comfortable as the kids looked — seven players made their senior international debuts in the friendly — alongside more established teammates such as Sebastian Lletget and Aaron Long, it’s important not to get carried away. We’ll find out what they’re really made of when Olympic qualifying commences next month.
Still, there was lots to glean from the happenings on both sides of the pond. Let’s jump right in.
USMNT players trending up
F Jesus Ferreira, FC Dallas (MLS)
A day after getting clearance from FIFA to play against Costa Rica, Ferreira, 19, started up top in his debut and while he didn’t score, he displayed the instincts and intelligence that helped him burst onto the scene with FCD last season. “I thought he was excellent,” Berhalter said.
Takeaway: While Uly Llanez — more on him in a minute — got the headlines, Ferreira is probably closer to becoming a senior team regular given the USMNT’s dearth of depth at forward. But while Ferreira will have a chance to cement himself within Berhalter’s team later this year, look for him to lead the line for the U-23s in the nearer-term.
M/F Ulysses Llanez, Wolfsburg (Germany)
The 18-year-old showed off his quality and self belief in Saturday’s friendly against Costa Rica, stepping up to the penalty spot in his debut to score the Americans’ lone goal. “He plays with confidence,” Berhalter said of Llanez. “Even in the beginning of the game, you didn’t see nerves.”
Takeaway: Let’s first not forget that, unlike Gio Reyna at Borussia Dortmund, Wolfsburg made Llanez available to the USMNT only after determining that he’s still not quite ready to compete for minutes in the Bundesliga. That said, for a player pool sorely lacking creativity, Llanez more than lived up to his reputation as a special talent.
While he remains firmly behind Christian Pulisic and Jordan Morris on the wings on the varsity’s depth chart for now, he’s suddenly in the conversation. And Llanez’s mature performance against an experienced Ticos side should certainly be enough to convince U.S. under-23 coach Jason Kreis to consider him for a key role during Olympic qualifying.
D/M Weston McKennie, Schalke (Germany)
After missing three matches because of a shoulder injury, McKennie returned to the field last weekend against Bayern Munich and went the full 90 minutes Saturday in a scoreless draw with Hertha Berlin.
Takeaway: Still just 21, McKennie continues to be a key player for coach David Wagner when healthy; the Texan lined up at right midfield in Berlin after playing center back and in his natural central midfield role earlier in the campaign.
M/F Duane Holmes, Derby County (England)
Holmes has a goal and three assists in his last four matches in the English second tier, and he took home Man of the Match honors in Friday’s 4-0 win over Stoke City.
Takeaway: Without being asked, Berhalter mentioned Holmes before the Costa Rica match as a potential invitee in March, when several regular senior teamers will be with the U-23s. “There’s a whole other group of players that maybe haven’t been exposed a lot to the men’s team that we can bring in,” Berhalter said. “It could be a good time to get him back involved.”
D Sergino Dest, Ajax (Netherlands)
Dest turned in perhaps his most complete game yet for Ajax Sunday in a 1-0 win over fellow Dutch power PSV Eindhoven.
Takeaway: The versatile, two-footed, 19-year-old fullback continues to improve in his first season with Ajax’s senior squad, having logged more than 2,000 minutes across all competitions so far.
D DeAndre Yedlin, Newcastle (England)
After missing three Premier League games plus an FA Cup fixture because of a hand injury, Yedlin has started Newcastle’s last two matches.
Takeaway: Even if he continues to play, Yedlin might find it hard to unseat Reggie Cannon — who has emerged as one of Berhalter’s most dependable players — at right back for the U.S. If so, don’t be surprised to see Yedlin in a more advanced role in the March friendlies versus Wales and the Netherlands.
D Sam Vines, Colorado Rapids (MLS)
Just 20, the left back acquitted himself well in his debut against a quality opponent.
Takeaway: Considering how difficult the position has been to fill historically for the U.S., the performance bodes well for Vines’ future chances with both the U.S. U-23s and the senior squad.
D Matt Polster, Rangers (Scotland)
The former Chicago Fire defender — who earned his only cap in 2018 — recently broke into Rangers’ lineup, starting the Glasgow giant’s last three league games.
Takeaway: Last week, Berhalter confirmed that the 26-year-old is on his radar. “I’ve spoken to Matt a number of times,” said the coach, who lauded Polster’s ability to play both center or right back, which is important given the program’s depth at the latter. “I wish some of those guys were lefties,” Berhalter joked. He was only half-kidding.
USMNT players trending down
M/F Christian Pulisic, Chelsea (England)
Not only did Pulisic [muscle injury] not return from his month-long layoff for Saturday’s 2-2 thriller against Leicester City, Chelsea manager Frank Lampard announced Monday that the 21-year-old star had suffered a setback.
Takeaway: The Blues don’t play again until Feb. 17, when Manchester United travels to London, so there’s no need to hurry Pulisic back again. From a USMNT perspective, while Pulisic’s nagging injuries continue to be a concern, the silver lining is that the Americans’ most irreplaceable player won’t be burnt out down the stretch and into the summer.
D John Brooks, Wolfsburg (Germany)
The national team’s most experienced central defender has been on the bench for Wolfsburg’s last two games.
Takeaway: Manager Oliver Glasner wasn’t happy with Brooks’ performance in a 3-1 loss to Cologne on Jan 18. Robin Knoche has since replaced the 27-year-old in Glasner’s lineup, including Sunday’s 4-2 win at Paderborn. Not good for Brooks, it’s true, but not insurmountable so long as he takes advantage whenever his next opportunity comes.
D Antonee Robinson, Wigan (England)
Robinson appeared poised to jump from one of the worst teams in England’s second division to seven-time European champion AC Milan, but the deal collapsed at the final hurdle.
Takeaway: It’s a severe personal blow for Robinson, who had already traveled to Italy and taken his physical before things went sideways. It’s possible that the Rossoneri make another approach this summer, but Robinson will have to make sure that the disappointment doesn’t manifest itself on the field.
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