Yunus Musah's stellar debut highlights youthful USMNT's new level of competency and confidence
It was a remarkable sight: A young, United States men’s national team fairly dominating the semifinalists at the last European championship. And doing it with three teenaged debutants in the lineup, no less — two of whom were too young to vote in last week’s election.
It had been more than nine months since the USA’s national team game and a year since the European-based players were last available. Nonetheless, Gregg Berhalter’s side gave a mature and composed performance against Wales, controlling the ball and the tempo in a 0-0 friendly that was largely shorn of scoring chances — and injured star forward Christian Pulisic — but perhaps handed a moral victory to the American visitors.
The degree of difficulty in looking this coherent and tidy after just a few days of practice and a steady rain, to say nothing of the complications posed by the pandemic, was high. All the same, the Americans looked like a team that had been together for years, pressing cohesively and smoothly pinging their way out of trouble.
“I was proud because we had two days to work together, two abbreviated sessions,” Berhalter said after the game. “To know that and then to see what I saw today, I was pleased.”
That kind of confidence and competence would seem incompatible with the rampant inexperience in the American team. Sergino Dest, newly of FC Barcelona, was only making his fourth appearance but dazzled at right back, dancing on the ball and covering the entire length of the field. On the other flank, Antonee Robinson earned only his eighth cap. Midfielders Weston McKennie, now a Juventus player, and Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig, controlled the midfield like old hands, in spite of making only their 20th and 11th appearances, respectively.
Then, there were those teenagers in the starting lineup, making their highly anticipated debuts, playing the bulk of a match in which six new American national teamers were minted.
Yunus Musah leads USMNT teenagers’ dazzling debut
Konrad de la Fuente, the 19-year-old from Miami, played 71 minutes in spite of not making his senior team debut with Barca yet. Gio Reyna — who turns 18 on Friday, is the son of national team standout Claudio Reyna and already a regular at Borussia Dortmund — played 79 minutes. So did Yunus Musah, the 17-year-old Valencia midfielder who was born in New York City and spent the rest of his childhood in Italy and at the Arsenal academy.
De la Fuente had the Americans’ best chance when a weird Welsh pass arced back to him. He chested the ball down from less than 10 yards out and took a touch but sliced his finish well high.
“He had moments where you could see his real quality,” Berhalter said. “I like how he just hung in there. That was the type of game that he had to play, hanging in there.”
Reyna, starting on the right but naturally drifting inside as Dest overlapped, looked his usual technical self although his influence was somewhat limited. But his, too, was a solid debut, considering the tricky context.
“Gio showed real quality at times, he really did,” Berhalter said. “For him, it was the fluidity on the ball, getting in good positions that hurt the defense. Overall, a 17-year-old debuting — he didn’t look like that.”
But the standout was Musah, who has come from seemingly out of nowhere to slot right into the starting lineup in a midfield trio with McKennie and Adams. Musah’s performance belied his age and his eight senior team appearances with Valencia. He was steady and mature, calm on the ball, taking up room and covering space, a bruising physical presence.
very small thing, but…
how many midfielders do the USMNT have who can do what Yunus Musah did here – receive ball with opponent on back in defensive third, turn out, make semi-progressive pass – consistently?
heck, how many have they *ever* had? pic.twitter.com/WmmDH0GXSA
— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) November 12, 2020
“He showed real moments of quality on the ball, real composure for a 17-year-old getting the ball on a bouncy field,” Berhalter said. “Under pressure, he’s able to deal with it and move out of it. He worked really hard and hung in there.”
Three more players made their debuts in the second half in Johnny Cardoso, Nicholas Gioacchini and Owen Otasowie — aged 19, 20 and 19, respectively. By then, the Americans’ tempo and grip on the game had diminished somewhat.
“When they came into the game, it was a little bit difficult for them to make a big impact,” conceded Berhalter.
Even if the result was ultimately a stalemate, the match flashed so much American promise that it added credence to the growing hype surrounding an unprecedented crop of young talent.
“I think we have a very bright future,” said goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who captained the team.
There is a growing body of evidence to support that claim.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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