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Not all matches are created equally; a friendly in soccer can very often be overlooked. The history of exhibition games in other sports may lead the casual fan to believe that a friendly in soccer is just that.
In a span of five days, the US Men's National team hosted two exhibition matches vs. top South American competition; which to a team riding a new identity is very much needed for self-evaluation.
1 Nation, 1 Team is the new slogan; unity will be required at all levels to fulfill that.
The moment in which things happen in life isn't always predictable. In the sports realm, that truth holds much more weight with the uncertainty behind the day to day happenings within that world. After being named the new manager in December, Gregg Berhalter's timing couldn't have come at a better time. A team searching for an identity, not from a talent standpoint but more from a tactical aspect as skill and youth is spread all around this roster.I love what he brings to the USMNT as he isn't afraid to experiment and put players where he truly believes he can get the best of them. Undefeated in his first four games as manager (3-0-1), the impressive number has to be 289, the minutes the team went without conceding a goal under Berhalter before finally surrendering one to Chile.
I mentioned the youthfulness of this current roster and that's something you hear with a voice of optimism when looking at the present state of the National Team. 26 years, 7 days was the average age of the starting eleven vs. Chile. The average age on the last US squad to qualify for the World Cup in 2014 was 27 years-296 days, over a 1.5-year-old difference. But what stands out from that team are some of the leaders were much older at that moment with DaMarcus Beasley, Jermaine Jones, and Clint Dempsey all in their early 30's.
The Golden Child
Speaking of youth, Christian Pulisic became the fastest USMNT player to reach ten goals at 20 years, 189 days. The party was short lived as a right quad injury forced him to leave the game, but not before leaving an imprint on the scoreboard. When he was on the field, things seem to operate more fluidly as his first touch and ability to turn up the field and go is what motors this team. The German Bundesliga has served him well as you can see how it reflects in his game play. He loves to get the ball in space and make defenders chase, sometimes hurting his final touch. Chelsea agreed to pay Dortmund 64 million euros for the American phenom but loaned him back to the German side for the remainder of the season. A move to the English Premier League might be best for Pulisic but staying on the field is still a significant concern. He's been limited this season after tearing a calf muscle late last year and a then a thigh injury in February. Berhalter has shown some concern over the reoccurring injuries, ''I think you look into the why, and you do an inquiry as to why it's happening, and you make adjustments,'' Berhalter said. "I think he's at a top club and going to a top club. We have very high-level medical personnel on our side, and we'll get it right.''
Passing the Test
In Berhalter's first few matches the team faced off vs. Panama and Costa Rica, netting five goals and keeping two clean sheets in the process. Many wanted to see a bigger sample size against perhaps slightly better competition. The CONMEBOL is known for a more physical type of play, and the tactics teams bring combined with the number of foreign players and skill sets are a step ahead of the CONCACAF. Ecuador is currently ranked 58th in the FIFA world rankings while Chile is 13th in the world. Against Ecuador, the game plan would be different as they faced a team they knew they could take possession from and ended up doing just that dominating 62% of the ball while having five goal attempts compared to the South American's 38% with one shot on goal. The USMNT would go on to win 1-0.The next test came with a quick turnaround facing a tough Chilean squad that brings a pressing style of football. They press high and make your defenders play out from the back or clear it turning over possession frequently. The US was out dominated on ball possession 34-66%, but much of that was expected with the manager making seven changes. In the press conference, Berhalter expressed the confidence gained in his players to be able to adapt quickly and learn to play with each other with different tactics and minimal practices in between.
Overall, with the feel and attitude, the manager had in the post-game conference, I consider the overall performance in the two matches a success. Not only on the scoreboard, which won't be remembered but more of the ability to play vs. tougher opponents in short periods, something that will come in handy in International tournaments where you have to adapt to foes in short periods of time. The team still lacks some things I would like to see slightly different, for example vs. Chile much of the balls were played out wide down the flanks, mostly the left side but I notice a lack of size outside of a couple of players to play that way so often. Operating this way, Gyasi Zardez was forced to make runs into the box while having to beat multiple defenders to the spot through the air, on balls that never got there. Resulting in wasted energy on pointless runs.
After the match, both coaches and players were exhausted in the locker rooms. Many commented on the first half taking a ton of energy from both teams explaining why the 2nd half was so close and tight leading to minimal scoring chances.
I love where this team seems to be headed at the moment. Change is sometimes needed to bring out the best of peoples abilities, with Berhalter, I believe we got just that.
With a new season on the horizon, the Astros have high hopes for 2024 after coming just one game shy of being in the World Series for three consecutive seasons.
If Houston wants to get back to the Fall Classic in 2024, they're going to have to rely on their pitching. Owner Jim Crane believes the club has 8 starting pitchers when Luis Garcia and Lance McCullers Jr. return mid-season.
Which allows several of the starters to move to the bullpen and provide even more depth. Add those guys to Bryan Abreu, Ryan Pressly, and Josh Hader and you have a recipe for success.
Check out the video above as ESPN Houston's Jeremy Branham goes through the entire staff and makes his case for the Astros having the best pitching staff in baseball.
You can listen to The Killer B's with Jeremy Branham and Joel Blank every weekday on ESPN 97.5 & 92.5 from 3 pm - 6 pm!