With the June international window behind us and the inaugural Nations League trophy in hand, it is time to look forward to the ultimate prize, qualification for the 2022 World Cup. As this set of games was one of the few times we were able to see the first-choice and depth players under Gregg Berhalter, we have a much better understanding of where everyone stands on the depth chart, along with the overall team picture for qualifying. I will be breaking down my winners and losers at each position through the lens of Nations League and the ensuing friendly against Costa Rica. Remember, those three games were meant to replicate the three-match cadence of World Cup qualifying this fall, so each moment was important.
Winner: Ethan Horvath
This one is about as easy as it gets. Comes into a final against Mexico, makes several huge saves, and wins the game in his hometown on a monster penalty save. While I do not think he will pass Steffen for the starting role, it is comforting to know the team has such a rock in the #2 position, especially with the squad rotation that will inevitably come in the condensed qualifying windows.
Winner: John Brooks
Brooks established himself as the only locked-in starter at centerback. He was good positionally, did not make mistakes, and brought a level of intensity in both Nations League matches that the U.S. sorely needed. His leadership as one of very few players with this team who has played in a World Cup will pay dividends.
Losers: The rest of the backline
Mark McKenzie is absolutely a winner for handling the racial abuse he received this last week, and he did well to recover after a disastrous start to the Mexico game. That said, both him and Tim Ream had a chance to earn the starting centerback spot next to Brooks, and neither stepped up and made it their own. They both looked shaky against a talented Mexico frontline and while they looked much better against Costa Rica, the Ticos had given up pretty early on.
Like the centerback position, there is still open competition at the fullback spot. Sergino Dest will likely start because he provides so much going forward, but he struggled to defend throughout the window. Berhalter tried a variety of options at the other fullback position, including Antonee Robinson, Reggie Cannon, and Deandre Yedlin. All three did well, but no one stepped up to win a starting spot. They are all great options, but there will still be an open competition throughout the fall.
Losers: Central midfielders not named Weston McKennie and Kellyn Acosta
McKennie did not dazzle, but he was consistent and helped lead a well-organized midfield against Mexico. He also showed his set piece prowess, nabbing the regulation equalizer and setting up Gio Reyna's goal in the first half. He could be better, but I thought it was a fine performance from the young Juventus player. Acosta did not dazzle either, but he was consistent as a starter in the Mexico game, which is something the U.S. needs through the midfield. He and McKennie made a great pairing in front of the effectively five-man backline.
The other central midfielders struggled. Worst of all was Jackson Yueill, who looked out of sorts against a weak Honduras side. His performance starting in the semifinal earned him the bench in the championship, and he made a brief substitute appearance against Costa Rica. Despite the American's dominance by the time he subbed on, he struggled to find the game and was sloppy in possession.
Sebastin Lleget was average. He did not control the game against Honduras like he should have, but he was consistent against Costa Rica. Tyler Adams also had a good game against Costa Rica, but his back injury prevented him from getting many minutes in Nations League, which hurt his momentum and evaluation. Yunus Musah might be the biggest loser of all, as he missed out on Nations League despite many thinking he could be one of the best central midfielders in the pool. Berhalter said his fitness levels were not where they needed to be, which is disheartening for an 18-year-old who did not play much towards the end of the club season.
Winner: Christian Pulisic
While he did not dazzle anyone with his performances against Honduras and Mexico, big players set up in big moments, which is exactly what Pulisic did. He wore the captain's armband in the final and was every bit a captain as he was an emotional leader on the pitch who brought an intensity to the match. His top bins penalty kick is exactly what you need out of a superstar. While Pulisic may not be able to impact many matches in extraordinary ways due to the heightened attention given him by defenses, he is a proven winner who knows how to make things happen. As long as he continues to find moments of brilliance, the U.S. will be in great shape.
Winners: Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah
Aaronson and Weah are the back-ups for Pulisic and Gio Reyna on the wings, and both impressed throughout their various performances. Aaronson was my man of the match from the Costa Rica game, and Weah put in strong shifts as a substitute against Mexico and as a starter against Costa Rica. The condensed qualifying schedule means that squad rotation, especially through the midfield, will be imperative. Aaronson and Weah's abilities allow Berhalter to rest easy when he has to take Pulisic and Reyna out. While I think Pulisic and Reyna will remain the starters, it is always nice to have some strong competition from behind to keep them motivated, even if they are the stars of the team. Aaronson and Weah should provide that throughout the fall.
Winner: Josh Sargent
There has been a lot of talk about who starts at striker for the U.S., especially since Sargent has not had the goal scoring numbers to solidify his position. Despite his absence from the score sheet, I think he is starting to claim the spot as his own. Berhalter frequently spoke glowingly about Sargent's performances and how he buys in to the system he wants for his players. While Sargent may not be scoring the goals, Berhalter seems pleased with the way he facilitates the team's offense.
Winner: Gregg Berhalter
After McKennie scored the team's second goal against Mexico, he led the group over to Berhalter, wrapping him up at the center of a giant group hug. This speaks loudly to how much the players appreciate Berhalter and have bought into his system. Being the coach of the USMNT right now is as stressful as it gets because he will be fired the moment the team comes anywhere near not qualifying for the World Cup. Nations League proved that his team is on his side and can get the job done. He also proved that he has the tactical ability to propel his side to the next level. The three centerback lineup against Mexico was exactly what they needed and was executed well, and Berhalter deserves all the credit he can get for it.
Winners: USMNT fans and organization
From an organizational standpoint, these results help everyone breathe a collective sigh of relief with qualifiers on the horizon, knowing that these players are well-positioned to avoid a repeat of the 2018 nightmare. For the fans, they were treated to an instant classic against Mexico, and many of their anxieties went away as the team proved they could string together three good wins against Concacaf opponents. As a fan, there is nothing better than winning. U.S. fans got their fair share over this window and can now look forward to many more opportunities in the near future.
Winner: Salt Lake City
The USMNT returned to Utah for the first time since 2017, and 19,007 fans made the choice to skip the grand opening of the first ever Raising Cane's in Utah to attend the Costa Rica friendly. Rio Tinto Stadium was at full capacity for the first time since before the pandemic, and those who attended were treated to a performance much sweeter than the famous chicken chain's signature sauce. Having such a lively atmosphere demonstrated the fanbase's commitment to soccer, which is important as Real Salt Lake is still undergoing an ownership change.
Next up for the U.S. is the real deal, as World Cup qualifying begins in September. The Americans will start with a road game against the winner of the current El Salvador vs Saint Kitts and Nevis matchup, with El Salvador leading 4-0 on aggregate heading into the second leg. They will then have a home game against the winner of the Canada vs Haiti matchup, with Canada leading 1-0 on aggregate. The second leg of those matchups will be on Tuesday, June 15. Finally, they will have a road game against Honduras. It will be a busy week and a half in September, but the U.S. has the ability and confidence from this window to start off on the right foot.