The U.S. men's national team completed its September window with two shutout victories, first a 3-0 win over Uzbekistan and then a 4-0 win over Oman. The 7-0 combined scoreline reflects well but the best thing that could be said is that the U.S. team improved in the second game following a lackluster opener against Uzbekistan.
This camp marked Gregg Berhalter’s return for the first time since the 2022 World Cup. This camp had the feel that it was the start of the 2026 cycle, but it was more the start of preparations for the 2024 Copa America, which will offer the U.S. team (assuming it qualifies) a rare opportunity to participate in a major tournament outside of the World Cup that is not limited to Concacaf.
The September roster contained mostly the usual suspects, but also some new faces. With the U.S. U-23 team ready to begin play, some players could shift there to prepare for the Olympics next summer. Of course, the next window's competition will be much tougher as Germany and Ghana arrive for friendlies in mid-October. The lessons learned from this camp will be tested. Here are some takeaways from the September window.
McKennie had the best camp
Over both games, Weston McKennie (top photo) had the best camp. In each game, he was instrumental in the buildup of at least one goal and he set up several other good chances. But beyond that, his diagonal passing against Oman was deadly accurate and he was a huge reason why the U.S. team was able to move the ball from side to side to wear Oman down. In total, he was 15/18 in his long-range passing of 35+ yards. If McKennie can continue to play like that, it will pay huge dividends.
One of the big reasons for success against Oman is that the U.S. team constantly and effectively switched the point of attack. Left back Kristoffer Lund had 85 touches over 90 minutes against Oman. Meanwhile, the two right backs (Sergino Dest and DeJuan Jones) combined for 88 touches. That presents a clear picture that the U.S. team was comfortable going down either side of the field and it made Oman chase the game over a big area. In the second half, the U.S. team’s scoring chances were becoming increasingly dangerous, with three goals in the final 30 minutes.
Cutback on the turnovers
The big problem for the U.S. team in the win over Uzbekistan were the sloppy turnovers and inconsistent transitional defending. The two go hand in hand. Berhalter stressed that they needed to clean this up against Oman, and that happened in a significant way. The U.S. team was methodical in its passing and Oman was very limited in the opportunities to counterattack. The concern is that future opponents will be far more ruthless.
The good news for the U.S. team is that the players can play a clean game and not be sloppy. Yes, Germany will force more turnovers, but the USA can still eliminate the careless mistakes.
The USA played without injured Tyler Adams. There were several counterattacks from Uzbekistan where it seemed obvious the U.S. team missed a defensive presence in the middle of the field, in front of the backline. It’s always been an open question who backs up Adams and it remains unsettled.
Center back pairing: unsettled
Berhalter said after the win over Oman that he gave the “game ball” to both central defenders, Miles Robinson and Chris Richards, because he felt the defended very well whenever Oman tried to aggressively attack or counterattack. If transitional defense was a problem against Uzbekistan, Berhalter felt Robinson and Richards helped fix it against Oman.
Despite Berhalter's accolades, the central defense seems unsettled.
The pool of central defenders appears set but the pecking order is not established among the group that includes Richards, Robinson, Tim Ream, Mark McKenzie, Walker Zimmerman, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Auston Trusty, Matt Miazga, Erik Palmer-Brown, and maybe John Brooks.
For big games, it would be hard to predict the top centerback pairing and some players face important questions. Richards had a solid window but there is no getting around the questions over his consistency due to his lack of minutes at Crystal Palace. Ream is aging well, but he will soon be 36 and it remains unclear how much longer he can remain at a high level.
Leaving this camp, the central defense is full of options without a clear order.
Center forward: OK, for now
Throughout all of 2022, the center forward position was a huge concern for the national team. Josh Sargent fell off the radar. Ricardo Pepi was struggling and went nearly 12 months without scoring leading up to the World Cup. Berhalter did not seem interested in Brandon Vazquez or Jordan Pefok, despite the latter's hot start to the Bundesliga season. Jesus Ferreira played the position in a different way. Daryl Dike was injured. Haji Wright only emerged late. In the end, Berhalter took Sargent, Wright and Ferreira but even after the World Cup, the position wasn’t settled.
There's now more comfort in the position with Folarin Balogun and Pepi having good years. Balogun’s commitment to the team has brought some clarity. But nothing is written in stone. Pepi has delivered for the team in 2023 but he is likely only going to see limited minutes at PSV if Luuk de Jong is fit. If Pepi continues to sit, or go cold with the U.S. team, that could open the door for others – most likely Sargent when he returns to health, Wright, or Vazquez, who seems poised for a move to Europe this winter.
For Balogun, the issue with this team is chemistry. He is still a step behind in being on the same page as his teammates – or vice versa. Berhalter noted in the press conference after the Oman win that Balogun made several important runs that were not picked up. It’s still a work in progress, but having Balogun fully integrated will stabilize the front six of the national team. Given his importance to Monaco — the club paid for a reported $32 million for him on the heels his 21-goal 2022-23 Ligue 1 season for Reims though he is, like Pepi at PSV, a backup behind a hot (but aging) striker in Wissam Ben Yedder — and his encouraging performances with the national team, he’s going to have a long leash on the starting position.
For players like Matt Turner, Christian Pulisic, Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Dest and McKennie this camp was about getting them back with Berhalter for the first time in 2023. For others, it was more of an evaluation. Here are some thoughts on them.
Lund: The Palermo left back made his first appearance with the United States at any level after switching his representation from his native Denmark. Berhalter said this was an opportunity for him to claim the backup left-footed option.
After Oman, Berhalter said this was an important first step. Lund is Olympic eligible but will probably continue to get USMNT call-ups. His 100 minutes during this window were good, not great. He showed promise but will also face competition in the months/years ahead from other Olympic age-eligible left-footed left backs like Caleb Wiley and John Tolkin.
Benja Cremaschi: The Inter Miami teenager has shown a lot of potential this season. He looked nervous in his first cap and misplayed a few passes before helping create a pair of chances. Certainly, there are dual national issues at play with him. When everyone is healthy, it becomes difficult to squeeze him onto a USMNT roster. It will be a decision for Berhalter. How highly does he rate Cremaschi? Would Cremaschi be willing to play with the U.S. U-23 team or would that push him to Argentina’s U-20 team? He may also be influenced by his Argentine Inter Miami coach Tata Martino and teammate Lionel Messi.
Tanner Tessman and Kevin Paredes: These two players are likely good enough for the USMNT right now. Tessmann is impressing with Venezia and is an integral player. Paredes is the first offensive sub for Wolfsburg. With the Olympic team, they would be starters and leaders. It will be a decision for Berhalter over keeping them as backups or shifting them to the U-23s where they start.
Malik Tillman (photo above): Now at PSV, Tillman had a decent camp. He drew a penalty against Uzbekistan and was smooth with the ball against Oman. His lack of minutes at PSV could hurt him with the U.S. team when Gio Reyna returns or if players like Cremaschi, Paxten Aaronson, or other attacking midfielders continue to break out.
Jones: The athletic Revolution outside back was sharp against Oman after joining the team as a late replacement for Joe Scally. While he plays as a left back for New England, Berhalter might be inclined to look for left-footed options. But the right-footed Jones is also comfortable on the right side. He is behind Dest and Scally now, but an injury or other factors could push him into the top two.
Cade Cowell: He didn’t play in these games, which likely will push him into the Olympic team.
Ethan Horvath: He has long been a USMNT backup but he is in a perilous position with the team given his dire club situation, where he is completely out of the picture at Nottingham Forest. He earned a shutout against Oman, but he is in a position to be overtaken by Drake Callender in the months ahead.
Photos: Jeremy Olson/ISI Photos