US men’s soccer team is still a work in progress

Ulysses Llanez scored from the penalty spot, as the US defeated Costa Rica

It’s been a little over 12 months since Gregg Berhalter took the hot seat as the coach of the US men’s soccer team, after a five-year stint as head coach of MLS side, Columbus Crew.

In a recent poll among MLS and US soccer fans, the majority graded Berhalter’s tenure a ‘C’ when given a choice between A-F. That would suggest that while the 46-year-old isn’t pulling up trees, he’s certainly not doing a disastrous job either.

Certainly, the US’ most recent international friendly underlined that there was much to look forward to as a US soccer fan, but that no-one should expect success overnight. The US took on Costa Rica in a recent friendly, without their European-based stars. It was a great acid test for Berhalter’s young guns, who were coming up against a very streetwise, experienced Costa Rican outfit.

Encouragingly, it was a debutant that stole the show in the US’ narrow 1-0 victory, with 18-year-old wide man, Ulysses Llanez despatching a penalty to earn his country a win, paying tribute to NBA icon, Kobe Bryant, who was tragically killed in a helicopter crash. Ironically, Suarez now plies his soccer trade “across the pond” in Europe, having been cherry-picked by German side Wolfsburg from LA Galaxy’s second-string.

There were encouraging signs down the left flank all afternoon. Suarez shrugged off a heavy collision with Costa Rican keeper, Esteban Alvarado, to make his mark while linking up well with left-back Sam Vines, who enjoyed an excellent rookie season with the Colorado Rapids in 2019.

There was a good balance between youth and experience against Costa Rica

There was a sprinkling of experienced heads in the starting line-up, particularly in midfield where the likes of Paul Arriola and Sebastian Lletget offered several years of MLS expertise to their younger compatriots. Arriola has played 33 times for his country and has become a focal point for D.C. United’s attack in the last year or so. Meanwhile, Lletget’s flair and composure on the ball reinforces why English Premier League (EPL) outfit, West Ham United snapped him up for their academy way back in 2009.

Most American soccer fans shouldn’t expect to be lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in Doha come 2022. The sheer fact that the likes of Marathonbet have priced the USA as 100/1 outsiders, along with the Ukraine and Turkey, underlines where the US sit in the soccer hierarchy at present.

However, the US soccer team only has eyes on Olympic qualification now, as it bids to reach the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Many of the starting XI against Costa Rica are eligible for the 2020 Olympics and managed to dominate against a Costa Rican side full of older players well over the Olympic age.

The biggest disappointment of the Costa Rica friendly? The crowd. Staged in Los Angeles, the Southern Californians failed to get on board, with an official attendance of just 9,172. Questions have to be asked as to why U.S. Soccer didn’t choose to dish out free tickets to youngsters across the city in a bid to increase engagement. Despite the relatively tame atmosphere, Berhalter’s men got the job done and will be looking forward to the next 12 months in earnest.

U.S. Soccer makes a bold appointment in a backroom shake-up

Off the field, U.S. Soccer is also looking to redefine its backroom setup, with the recent appointment of former US striker, Brian McBride as the new general manager of the men’s team. The veteran of three World Cups, scoring goals in the top-flights of English and German football, as well as the MLS, it’s hoped that the well-respected 47-year-old will be able to “forge important relationships both internationally and here at home”, according to sporting director, Earnie Stewart.

There is a growing focus on youth development within U.S. Soccer.

McBride has spent the last seven years away from the nuts and bolts of professional soccer, working as a pundit and commentator, but has opted to work with U.S. Soccer to try and “build relationships with players and clubs that align with the philosophy and values” of the men’s national team.

Fostering that same mindset from the senior squad through to the U23s and the youth national teams will be another part of McBride’s remit, as the US seeks to become a soccer powerhouse in the next decade.