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USMNT analysis

Analysis: Cowell and Vazquez impress for the USMNT, but Serbia wins 2-1

The USMNT started a highly experimental lineup against Serbia and, unsprisingly, mistakes proved to be costly. But the game still gave interim manager Anthony Hudson and the U.S. staff a chance to evaluate players. ASN's Brian Sciaretta writes up his thoughts. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 26, 2023
4:00 AM

THE UNITED STATES national team opened its 2023 calendar year on Wednesday night with a 2-1 loss to Serbia in a friendly between two teams with highly experimental rosters. Despite the loss, the game was a worthwhile experience for the U.S. team that fielded a starting lineup with just one player, Walker Zimmerman, having more the cap. Seven players were uncapped and three had just one cap. Four of the players were eligible for the summer’s U-20 World Cup and several of the players are not regular starters with their clubs.

All that said, despite the loss, the U.S. team played well for stretches. It outshot Serbia 20-10 and had a 62-38 possession edge. San Jose Earthquakes and U.S. U-20 winger Cade Cowell himself hit the post twice and had two other shots narrowly miss the target. The U.S. had 237 completed passes in Serbia’s half compared with just 116 passes Serbia completed in the U.S. half.

But the U.S. team was undone by a pair of mistakes. After Brandon Vazquez opened the scoring for the U.S. team in the 29th minute, Serbia answered on a free kick in the 43rd minute. Paxton Pomykal committed a foul with a glancing touch, the wall fell apart on the ensuing free kick, and Gaga Slonina was beaten on the near post on Luka Ilic’s shot.

Serbia ended up taking the lead in the 46th minute on goal where the American’s inexperience was evident. Aidan Morris misplayed a highball into the backline. U.S. U-20 central defender Jalen Neal hesitated and gave the ball away to Veljko Simic who finished from close range.

The U.S. pressed in the second half and had the better of chances but set pieces (as has been a problem for the U.S. team over several years) and close-range finishing let them down.

Here are some thoughts.


It’s all about individual player evaluation


Games like these are not about the result. Many of these players are young , inexperienced, have been together for just a few days, and are in preseason. What is important is that they learn to enjoy and become hungry to play for the U.S. national team and they show a baseline of talent that suggest that they will be able to fit into the team’s future players – whoever the manager might be.

It’s also about laying the foundation for the Olympic team and given some elevated experiences to some of the U.S. U-20 players.

It’s not about developing combinations or even winning games. It’s about giving players enough minutes for them to gain valuable experiences and opportunities to be evaluated. Many players have used January camp to make inroads in their careers. 30 players have gone onto play in a World Cup and have club careers that standout both in MLS and in Europe.

From that perspective, here are my thoughts on some players who made impressions – either positive or negative – and why

Brandon Vazquez: Vazquez, 24, was one of the big winners in this game. After an 18 goal, 8 assist season to lead Cincinnati’s revival in 2022, Vazquez was not able to get a look with the U.S. team ahead of the World Cup – despite questions about the No. 9 position. In this game, he got the opportunity and scored an extremely impressive header to give the U.S. team a 1-0 lead. While he could have scored more, this goal was enough to ensure he stays in the mix in a forward pool that has an increasing number of options (like Daryl Dike’s return) but with no one seizing the job.

Cade Cowell
: The San Jose and U.S. U-20 winger was the most dangerous player in the game. He played 72 minutes. There are two ways to look at his performance. He had four excellent chances to score and came up empty. But he was also a handful to defend and is in preseason form. Midseason, the odds are extremely strong that he buries at least one of these chance. It’s still a performance which was mostly positive and should give him momentum heading into the season and the U-20 World Cup. If he does well, then it’s the Olympics, then it’s the U.S. team. He’s one for the future and he needs to continue to step up. But he’s a legitimate prospect if he continues to develop well.

Alejandro Zendejas: The Club America left-footed winger was one of the most anticipated arrivals in this camp given his strong year for Club America and his background playing for U.S. youth national teams, the full Mexico team, but still remaining eligible for both teams. He played 90 minutes and was mostly solid. His shooting and some of his final balls were way off. But he was dangerous in creating chances, drawing fouls, and winning duels in the midfield to create chances in transition. He was only released for this game and won’t play vs. Colombia. But he will exit this camp showing he should remain in the pool, if he wants.

Gaga Slonina: The Chicago Fire homegrown was sold to Chelsea in the offseason but looks to be the starter at the U-20 World Cup followed by the Olympic team. Still 18, he is extremely young for a goalkeeper but looks to be a genuine prospect. His first USMNT cap went well and it would be harsh to blame him for either of the goals. He looked confident at times and should grow even more with experience.

Jonathan Gomez: The Real Sociedad B player failed to connect on a few early passes but settled into a nice groove in the middle of the game getting forward and connecting with Cowell on the left side. His crossing wasn’t as sharp as he hoped but he was very active.

Julian Gressel: At age 29 at the start of a cycle, it is hard to see him having much of a future with the national team. Gressel struggled defensively but his assist in the 29th minute was beautiful.

DeJuan Jones: He replaced Gressel in the 62nd minute and brought a different element to the position. He had a very good debut as well and made several dangerous attacks to get behind the Serbian line.  

Jalen Neal: The U.S. U-20 central defender was mostly at fault for the second Serbian goal. He had a few nice plays here or there but he belongs on the U.S. U-20 team for now and he also needs to focus on making his Galaxy debut where he can grow into a role there.

Matthew Hoppe: The Middlesbrough forward managed just three touches and one completed pass in his 27 minutes on the field. Hoppe priority right now needs to be finding a club where he can get minutes and play well. If he does, then the U.S. U-23 team could be an option. But he’s had a tough 2022 and things must get better for him in 2023.

Aidan Morris: The defensive midfielder from Columbus was up and down, like just about everyone else who was in preseason. But overall, he acquitted himself well despite a misplayed ball on Serbia’s second goal. He was part of the build-up to three dangerous chances. He should remain in the U-23 pool from the start.

Paxton Pomykal: Had a sharp 20-25 minutes to start the game but faded later in the first half. Like many, it had a preseason feel for him.

Alan Sonora: the free agent is hoping this call-up leads to better offers for a new contract as his deal with Independiente ended in December. His best play in this game was in the 19th minute when he set up Cade Cowell for a shot. Otherwise, it was clear Sonora hasn’t played a game in months. It will be interesting to see how he holds up athletically when he is in a competitive game.

Eryk Williamson: A few poor touches when he first came on in the 57th minute, Williamson played better as the second half went on.

The veterans: None of the veterans particularly stood out – Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Kellyn Acosta – and there performances were mixed. But this camp is not a learning experience about them, but rather it is a camp where they are here for leadership on the field and off.


Looking ahead to Colombia


Colombia is going to be a much more difficult test for the U.S. team and the starting lineup will likely reflect that.

There is probably going to be more experience in the starting lineup compared with the Serbia game with the younger players gradually subbed into the game.

Look for Sean Johnson to start in goal while Zimmerman and Long could start together with one eventually getting replaced with Sam Rogers. John Tolkin will probably get the start at left back as he hasn’t been used yet. Right back will either be Gressel or Jones.

In midfield, Acosta and Williamson would probably be the best to start in two or three of the midfield positions. On the wings, Zendejas will not be available as he returns to Mexico. Emmanuel Sabbi or Paxten Aaronson could be used on the wing with Paul Arriola likely getting the nod.

While Vazquez impressed against Serbia, Jesus Ferreira wasn’t used against Serbia and he wasn’t brought in this camp not to play. But Ferreira was likely being saved for the game against his native Colombia (who his father represented at three Copa Americas) with Vazquez coming off the bench. The storylines with that are among the best in this camp. 

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