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What Comes Next for the USMNT After Nations League Euphoria

Posted by 
Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
 14 days ago

Where do you go from that?

If you're the U.S. men's national team, the most literal answer is roughly 500 miles and one state to the west. While the mission for this current camp was accomplished with Sunday night's Concacaf Nations League final win over Mexico, the job isn't fully done. One more match remains before U.S. players go their separate ways—some to hard-earned vacations, others back to their MLS clubs—with a friendly vs. Costa Rica looming Wednesday night at Real Salt Lake's Rio Tinto Stadium.

The point of this window, as U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter has said multiple times, has been to mimic the cadence of World Cup qualifying. The May 30 friendly vs. Switzerland was meant to represent a club match for players overseas before their transatlantic flight for a qualifier a few days later. The two Nations League games, then, represented the first two games of a three-game window (qualifying has been compressed due to the pandemic, so teams will be playing three matches instead of the more customary two during multiple international breaks beginning in September), leaving the showdown vs. Los Ticos, the fourth-place finisher in the Nations League after a pair of penalty-kick shootout defeats, to be the third.

It's not possible for everything to be an exact dress rehearsal. Not every qualifier is going to feature the same intensity, drama and overall absurdity of Sunday night's extra-time thriller, and there's due to be some sort of an emotional hangover on Wednesday night—not to mention expected squad rotation—the same kind that might not ultimately be found in between qualifiers.

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Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Still, though, Christian Pulisic, whose powerful extra-time penalty kick was the difference vs. Mexico, put it in the most simple yet appropriate terms in his postmatch interview with CBS.

"We still have a long way to go, but we’re happy with this," the U.S. captain on the night said.

And he's right. Nobody is going to want to look back at a World Cup cycle and point to a Nations League title as the crowning achievement. They will, however, want to point to it as the moment that served as the launchpad, the moment that the U.S. beat Mexico for just the second time ever in a competitive final (2-6-0) to cultivate a sense of confidence and belief that served a young core well going forward.

It was far from a perfect night. After conceding after 62 seconds, how could it have been? The margins, at times, were as thin as the offside call on Héctor Moreno (upon VAR review), that prevented Mexico from taking a 2–0 lead in the 24th minute. Both sides benefited from VAR decisions that yielded penalties in extra time, and the U.S., for all of the euphoria generated on the evening, wound up having the lion's share of its best chances come off set plays. There's room for improvement and honest assessment of what did and did not work. But you can't teach or replicate the sense of unity that is formed after a win like that, which makes Sunday's exercise so invaluable for the program. Often, grueling regional rivalries devolve from tactical showdowns into battles of attrition, and coming out on the right end will always be a reference point, especially for such a young group that's building its own identity.

Among the questions that will be answered in time:

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Isaiah J. Downing/USA TODAY Sports

Just how bad is Zack Steffen's leg injury?

The U.S. No. 1 goalkeeper was forced out in the 68th minute after a non-contact injury, requiring help to limp off the field. Fortunately for the U.S., backup Ethan Horvath was an absolute rock in goal despite coming in cold, with the Denver-area native not putting a foot wrong and coming up with the penalty save on Andrés Guardado in stoppage time of extra time to preserve the win. The way the entire U.S. team raced to celebrate with Horvath at the final whistle was reminiscent of when a hockey team darts straight for the goalie after winning the Stanley Cup. Horvath earned every bit of the dap with which he was showered, and the U.S. can feel more confident going forward with him in goal if Steffen is out with a long-term injury. The heroic performance came at a perfect time for Horvath, who is out of contract at Club Brugge. In addition to winning the U.S. a trophy, he might have made himself some money, too.

Where was Yunus Musah?

Musah is still technically not cap-tied after remaining unused through both Nations League matches. Perhaps the tight nature of both matches prevented Berhalter from turning to a relatively new player to the program, but the U.S., with an allotment of six substitutes in both matches, could have put any looming possibility that he would reconsider his commitment to bed by getting him on the field, even for a second. There is no known imminent threat that would indicate that is an option, and Musah's posting of a photo hugging the Nations League trophy would suggest he's mighty happy being part of this bunch.

There has also been no indication that his absence was due to anything but a coach's decision. But Musah being the only field player on the 23-man roster to not see the field in either game (third-string goalkeeper David Ochoa was the only other to not play), was a head-scratching element that became a bit of an afterthought due to the nature of the victory.

Who will play vs. Costa Rica?

If learning how to win important matches is one skill, then learning how to avoid a letdown immediately after is another, and that's what the U.S.'s chief challenge will be Wednesday night in a match that otherwise has no stakes. The squad can grow by a couple of players for the match, with Daryl Dike and Bryan Reynolds now available for selection after traveling with the team throughout this camp. Nations League rosters were capped at 23 and locked in from the start. Friendlies have a bit more leeway—and qualifiers will, too. While only a certain amount will be available for matchday selection, the pool of players for each match is theoretically infinite.

If this game is truly meant to replicate the third qualifier in the sequence of a window, though, then mass squad rotation would be out of the question, at least in theory. But there's also the very real consideration and worry of overworking players like Pulisic, Weston McKennie and others who just completed tough European club seasons, and there's also the chance to give some of the other players in camp a runout against an opponent they may have the chance to face down the line. There's also the ability to continue refining and testing out the three-man back line that did not fare so well Sunday night without the same kind of competitive consequences if things don't work out.

There's clearly less pressure going into this match, and its ramifications won't be as meaningful, but after everything the team has been through the last few days, ending on a high note would be preferred.

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Who will be part of the Gold Cup squad?

It's long been expected that this was the last "A Team" gathering of the U.S. before World Cup qualifying begins in the fall. The Gold Cup runs right up against preseason for Europe-based players, and, besides, they need a break at some point.

MLS-based midfielders Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget and Jackson Yueill are good bets to feature after being part of this experience, while Berhalter name-checked two center backs, Atlanta United's Miles Robinson and Nashville SC's Walker Zimmerman, at the start of the current camp as MLS-based players he'd want to see. Given how the center back competition remains pretty wide open beyond John Brooks, and given how there's no telling when Aaron Long will be back or in what shape he'll be when he does return from his Achilles tear, there's ample opportunity to be had.

Dike, if he doesn't go back abroad, would be a great bet to play a leading role in the attack, while the return of Paul Arriola after his recent injury spell should be expected as well.

Regardless, it will be a mostly different crew—one looking to make its own history with a final win vs. Mexico, should the tournament unfold as such.