Three players (and a tactic) under the microscope for USMNT

Nicholas Mendola
NBC Sports

It’s becoming pretty clear that what the public wants to see from the United States men’s national team is not necessarily in lockstep with what Gregg Berhalter wants to see from the squad (aside from obviously goals and wins, which have both been in short supply).

He made this pretty clear last month, for better or for worse, when he defended his side’s myriad errors in playing out of the back against Mexico. He’d made it clear over a longer period of time, too, with the continued call-ups for a certain subset of players who have been poor for club and/or country.

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That happens with a lot of managers, and we still love Berhalter’s ability to squeeze something good out of lesser materials as he did with the Columbus Crew. While we admit to not being particular high on the manager’s squad selection, he shouldn’t have problems over the course of the two month’s CONCACAF Nations League matches with Canada and Cuba.

If he does, well, we’re going to be having a different conversation. And to be frank, that didn’t seem like anything worth worrying about just a few short months ago. Berhalter had been overrun by Tata Martino and Mexico in the Gold Cup Final, but honestly did a decent job in marshaling his men toward a result (Jozy Altidore atypically missed a big chance to score on the night).

Everyone’s allowed to make mistakes, but last month’s remarkably poor performance against Mexico rolling into a match versus Uruguay’s B-Team which was rescued by an increasingly impressive winger named Jordan Morris (‘Member him?).

But Cuba and Canada present two very different challenges for the United States over the next eight days. Cuba is the type of side the U.S. should boss 95 percent of the time, with bad fortunate possibly contributing to the occasional draw.

The attackers are going to be under pressure to produce this month, due to the fact that they, well, won’t be likely to face

Cuba has only one player on its roster playing outside of the Caribbean and Central America, and that’s USL striker Luis Paradela (who just came to Reno with the notable status as the first Cuban to play in the U.S. without defecting).

Canada presents a big threat to the U.S. back line, but its defenders should not be a match for a Christian Pulisic-led attack.

This is a week for the attackers.

Disclaimer: You won’t see us putting Christian Pulisic on this list for numerous reasons despite his status as an on-again, off-again lineup member for Chelsea. There is no doubting his acumen as a USMNT player and little reason to expect he’ll be anything but fantastic against these CONCACAF foes. If for whatever reason he isn’t a freed being against Cuba, or is rested, the chance to out-duel fellow CONCACAF phenom Alphonso Davies would be something he’d embrace even if he was going 90 on a religious basis for Frank Lampard.

1. Josh Sargent — Jozy Altidore’s latest injury has expedited the need for another CONCACAF killer, perhaps a new one. With Timothy Weah also injured, Sargent is the one.

Make no mistake about it: These games are not even in the ball park of “make or break” for the 19-year-old, who has started Werder Bremen’s last three Bundesliga matches.  Bremen coach Florian Kohfeldt has opted for five different formations this season, deploying Sargent as a right wing four times and center forward twice.

But a strong showing or two could conceivably cement Sargent’s status as the top striker in the program.  Playing at a high level with Christian Pulisic amongst others would also help, because chemistry will be key in World Cup qualifying and Sargent can make a statement with his boss under pressure and both Altidore and Weah on the sidelines.

Sargent should have every opportunity to feature against Cuba and Canada, and we may see Berhalter put the teen in the lineup against Cuba on Friday and let his performance determine whether he keeps his place or sees Gyasi Zardes return to the fold against Canada.

2. Corey Baird — The Real Salt Lake man would be on the fringes of the national team picture under a lot of coaches, but Berhalter has liked what he’s seen from the 23-year-old. Baird started Berhalter’s first USMNT friendlies and is still in the fold. He’s come into club form heading into the last two international breaks, and is now called up for the fourth separate camp.

He’s gotta find a goal or standout cameo at the minimum, especially considering the players (Altidore, Weah) who will soon return to the fold. Baird has a goal and an assist from the left wing over his past two RSL matches as the club snapped out of its doldrums ahead of the playoffs.

3. Tyler Boyd — What a year it’s been for the one-time New Zealand striker, who took a loan to Turkey with both hands and earned a permanent transfer for a Champions League club and a new international registry.

Boyd is having fits and starts with Besiktas, and it’s fair to say that’s also been the case for the USMNT. He scored a pair of goals on his Gold Cup debut against Grenada, but was kept on the bench for the semifinals and final.

We’re not going to pretend that we see every Besiktas match, but the metrics for Boyd’s early performances have not been good. To be fair, no one had been playing that well for the 12th place side before they beat first place Alanyaspor at the weekend. The bad news is that Boyd was stapled to the bench, as he was three days prior when Besiktas lost to Wolves in the Europa League.

Like Christian Pulisic at Chelsea, this camp can be a welcome chance for Boyd to unleash his tools. Cuba is a bit easier to break down than Wolves or Trabzonspor.

BONUS. Playing out of the back — Gregg Berhalter bristled when asked about his side’s poor play against the Mexican press and his stubbornness in sticking with the attack all the way through a brutal loss to a rival.

If his men can’t do it against Cuba, forget about it.

This is going to be an under-the-radar test for Berhalter, who has continuously opted to use a mauler of a center back (Aaron Long) who is a heck of a tackler but lacking in the passing department. With Matt Miazga back in the fold and the chance to pair him with either Tim Ream or Miles Robinson, behind Michael Bradley, what will Berhalter choose and how well will it work?

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