KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The United States men’s national soccer team said it wanted a tough test when it scheduled two World Cup-bound opponents for this international window. On Sunday, the U.S. got precisely that in a 0-0 draw with Uruguay.
It was a result that in some ways the U.S. was fortunate to walk away with. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson produced a superb reflex save from Mathias Olivera’s close range effort in the 63rd minute, and then the normally lethal Edinson Cavani squandered a clear opportunity in second-half stoppage time.
The U.S. had some chances, with Jesus Ferreira failing to convert a pair of first-half opportunities. But overall, while a draw was deserved given the balance of the game, it could easily have ended in a loss, one that would have snapped what is now a 25-game home unbeaten streak.
Ferreira’s failure to find the back of the net will do little to stop questions about who the team’s starting striker will be going forward. But this was a match in which Uruguay seemed to grind down the home side, and the U.S. attack fizzled as the game wore on.
Some of the U.S. team’s difficulties in attack were down to Uruguay’s quality. Later this year, La Celeste will take part in its sixth consecutive World Cup, and on this day, Uruguay lived up to its reputation as a defensively solid side.
The plethora of second-half changes didn’t do much to help fluidity either. The fact that Ferreira’s replacement, Haji Wright, touched the ball all of four times in 29 minutes of work speaks to the degree in which the U.S. attack struggled in the final third.
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So, while U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter called the performance an “A-plus effort from the group in tough conditions, warm conditions,” the Americans’ end product was lacking, as was the quality of the team’s set piece deliveries.
“We got the ball into really good positions and then just didn’t take advantage of that,” Berhalter said. “They blocked some crosses. We got some corners. The final pass was a bit off.”
It wasn’t a great day for some players hoping to state their case for more first-team minutes, either. Joe Scally struggled mightily with his defensive positioning in the first half and looked almost overwhelmed. He appeared a tad more comfortable after moving to his more customary right back position midway through the second half, and while he deserves credit for hanging in there, the search for a backup to presumed starting left back Antonee Robinson goes on.
Erik Palmer-Brown is another player fans are clamoring to get more playing time. But he came up second best on a couple of occasions, including one instance late when Diego Rossi surged past him and it was left to defender Walker Zimmerman to stifle the attack with a critical block of the former LAFC forward’s shot.
Berhalter seemed to be speaking for all of his recent call-ups when he said in relation to his forwards, “There were moments and we came up a little bit short, but we’ll keep working with these guys.” He added, “It’s just something to build on. That was the whole idea with team performance, individual performances. We wanted guys to set a baseline to now keep improving.”
Among the positives was that Weston McKennie made it through his 45-minute stint unscathed as he works his way back from a broken foot he sustained in February.
Another plus was the play of Yunus Musah. The Valencia midfielder has long brought something unique to the U.S. midfield through his ability to dribble the ball up field. But on this day, he utilized his range of passing to a greater degree, especially in linking up with Timothy Weah and DeAndre Yedlin on the right flank.
“Yunus is a guy that just blows me away at his age what he can do, crazy level of talent,” Berhalter said. “We need to work with Yunus on this final, the final product, the final pass, the finishing, because he has a huge ceiling.”
Defensively, the U.S. bent but didn’t break, and it seemed that whenever a mistake was made, a teammate was there to provide cover.
“I thought we stuck with their runs well,” Zimmerman said. “They have clever movement in the box. We had a couple plays where we had to slide and get in good positions to prevent them from good goal-scoring opportunities. So ultimately kept another zero against the quality opponent, so we can take that as a positive.”
And on those occasions when the back line didn’t come through, Johnson was there in goal to come to the rescue. It’s almost mind-boggling to think that Johnson has been involved in the national team program for 11 years. The fact that he now has just 10 caps shows the difficulty he has faced in trying to crack the U.S. lineup.
To be clear, Johnson is still battling it out to be the team’s third goalkeeper at the World Cup later this year, but he did his prospects no harm; and as the year progresses, he might end up being the only U.S. keeper getting steady playing time. Time will reveal the extent to which that counts for something.
“As a professional player who’s has been around the national team for a while, who’s been around this group for a while, the opportunity meant everything,” Johnson said. He later added, “Maintaining a good level, good form, good rhythm coming into these camps helps, definitely, so there’s a smooth transition to the game today.”
The current international window now enters a new phase, with a pair of CONCACAF Nations League games against Grenada and El Salvador coming up. The competition certainly won’t be as intense, but El Salvador proved to be a tough opponent during World Cup qualifying, and it should provide a decent enough test for those players still pushing to be a more consistent presence on the team.
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