My 3 Thoughts on USMNT-Uruguay
U.S. defense holds firm against Núñez and Cavani in a 0-0 tie against the best team the U.S. has faced all year
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The USMNT tied Uruguay 0-0 in a friendly between the two World Cup-bound teams on Sunday. Here are my three thoughts on the game:
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• The U.S. central defense held its own against the world’s most coveted young striker and 30 minutes of Edinson Cavani. Even without Cavani starting and missing Luis Suárez entirely, this Uruguay team was by a wide margin the toughest foe the U.S. has faced this year. Darwin Núñez, the 22-year-old Benfica striker, tore up the Champions League this season and is the top transfer target of Manchester United and other wealthy clubs. But the U.S. central defense of Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long (and Erik Palmer-Brown, his second-half replacement) did mostly well against Núñez and Cavani, keeping them from having a major influence on the game. Núñez did get free in on goal in the first half when a poor U.S. throw-in allowed him to get to the ball before Zimmerman, but Núñez made the wrong decision to pass the ball instead of shooting it. And Núñez 63rd-minute close-range shot was saved beautifully by Sean Johnson. Uruguay had another golden chance in stoppage time, but Núñez decided to drop off a pass to Cavani, who missed the chance. Long is still very much in audition mode for a starting centerback spot in the wake of Miles Robinson’s Achilles injury, but he did pretty well during the Morocco and Uruguay games. The main question here is whether Chris Richards (not in camp due to injury recovery) can make a good enough case for that spot at club level and in the U.S.’s two September friendlies. Personally, I think Richards should have a slight edge over Long to play alongside Zimmerman, but it’s clear that U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter really likes Long.
• The U.S. center-forward position continues to be an open battle. Jesús Ferreira played 61 minutes and remains Berhalter’s top choice for the spot, not least because of his mobility and ability to combine with other front-line players. Berhalter loves his expected goals stat, which reflects a player’s ability to put himself in positions to score, and Ferreira’s individual xG is higher than the other U.S. strikers. But at some point Ferreira is going to have to finish more of his chances, and once again he was unable to do that, failing to convert scoring opportunities in the 20th and 21st minutes. What’s more, Ferreira wasn’t great at holding the ball—an important skill facing high-pressure teams like Uruguay—and on several occasions managed only to get one touch before losing possession. The chance is there for Haji Wright to stake a claim to be the starter, but Wright was unable to do much in his half-hour on the field Sunday. Wright’s play is more in the mold of Jordan Pefok, which is to say his mobility isn’t quite what Ferreira’s is. That means Wright will have to bang in some goals to win over Berhalter. I’d like to see Wright get a starting opportunity against Grenada or El Salvador, even though those opponents won’t bring as much to the table as Uruguay and Morocco have done.
• I liked Christian Pulisic’s edginess and ability to release the ball quickly. Early on in World Cup qualifying, there were a number of occasions when it was clear that Pulisic didn’t totally trust his teammates. You could tell because he often tried to play “hero ball” and dribble through opposing teams when it would have been much better to pass the ball and continue an attacking threat. We didn’t see any of that from Pulisic on Sunday—or, for that matter, for a while now—and instead he has played more like he does with Chelsea, taking on defenders when he can and passing the ball when he should. I also like the harder edge Pulisic has showed with referees and opponents in games like Sunday’s. There’s nothing dirty about it, and I have often felt that this U.S. team has missed having some of that quality since the days of Jermaine Jones. Weston McKennie can provide that as well, and it was good to see him start and get 45 minutes on the field as he continues his full return from his broken foot.
What are your thoughts? You can join the discussion in the comments below.