Week kickoff

Analysis: USMNT youth fall, Cardoso & Sargent make waves, Gioacchini to transfer, & More

ASN is here to belatedly kickoff your week as Brian Sciaretta writes up his thoughts on the young USMNT squad dropping a 1-0 decision to Slovenia, a busy weekend for Yanks abroad and Nicholas Gioacchini looking set to return to Europe. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 22, 2024
2:10 PM

IT WAS an eventful weekend in American soccer. Americans abroad had some really nice moments, especially from Johnny Cardoso and Josh Sargent. MLS is completely into preseason and the U.S. national team opened 2024 with a lackluster but still productive 1-0 loss to Slovenia where 13 players made their debut.

So with all that to cover, let’s start with U.S. team.


USMNT fall to Slovenia


There are a lot of familiar complaints about January camp. Yes, it doesn’t fall on an international date, so key players aren’t available. Yes, it’s during the start of MLS preseason, so players are rusty. Yes, the players often rarely play together and there is often a complete lack of chemistry.

That doesn't mean it’s not worthwhile. For one, most top young players begin their careers domestically and it’s good to identify them and keep them involved. There are also key backup positions on the USMNT that need to be filled and there will be injuries and drops in form (while others can raise their game).

Also, almost all of the first-choice national team players are at a similar age within two years of each other. At some point they will all likely exit the national team at a similar time. Esmir Bajraktarevic was one of the players who made his debut, and he will still be U-23 eligible when Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie turn 30.

But finally, this is an Olympic year and the U.S. U-23 team is still trying to find ways to prepare. This camp was a big part of that preparation (an overwhelming majority of the midfielders and forwards in this camp were U-23 eligible and the backline contained some overage options).

The U.S. team lost to Slovenia 1-0 and that wasn’t a great result. There were some moments where the team played well.  The U.S. team completed 695 passes to Slovenia’s 273 and the Americans had a 68-32% possession edge. The U.S. team also outshot Slovenia 15-9.

So where did it all go wrong? First, the Slovenians had a better defensive chemistry where they were excellent playing in a compact style. They were able to pick and choose their moments to attack meaningfully and that helped them in the counterattack which led to their only goal.


But the U.S. team was thrown off when the game became physical. Slovenia committed 18 fouls in the game (compared to the U.S. team’s seven). The U.S. wanted to play an open and free flowing game, Slovenia shut that down and the U.S. team had no answer.

Finally, the U.S. team did not execute its final passing well to set up killer chances. This is credit to Slovenia’s defense and the U.S. team largely being in preseason form. You could tell this was not close to midseason form – when the Olympics will take place.

But that doesn’t mean it was all bad.

Who impressed?

Esmir Bajraktarevic is very young and will hopefully see 2024 move him into being a regular starter for the Revolution. But he’s good and skillful. When he entered the game in the 61st minute, he was sharp and aggressive.

Aidan Morris wasn’t perfect, but still helped the U.S. team control possession. He was 99/108 in passing including 6/8 in long balls. He had 17 passes into the final third. He was 3/3 in tackles and was very busy with 128 touches. For being in preseason form, that’s all good.

Jack McGlynn has a lot of skill with the ball, the question has always been with his athleticism. But still, he was sharp when coming off the bench to create a few chances and keep the pressure up.

Timothy Tillman also enjoyed a nice day where he kept the pressure up on Slovenia with 67/69 in passing while also moving well.


There were some other players who were decent – such as Bernard Kamungo, Diego Luna, Duncan McGuire, and John Tolkin – who didn’t stand out and weren’t bad. These players are still strongly in the mix for the Olympic team.


Lineup questions


Friendlies such as this have a different objective for Gregg Berhalter. It is more like a preseason game than even a typical friendly. Getting a proper evaluation of the players is most important, even if they’re all in preseason form themselves.

The entire backline was not Olympic eligible and that is probably okay in central defense given that is where at least one but probably two of the overage options will be used. The U-23 pool is just not good in central defense. Miles Robinson might emerge as an overage option and he brings a veteran presence. To build off that, James Sands not getting into the game was also surprising given his USMNT experience and his versatility. On paper, he checks a lot of boxes to be an overage option.

But there were some decisions that surprised me.


First, in goal the decision to start Patrick Schulte over Drake Callender was surprising. Yes, Schulte is Olympic eligible and should make that team. But the USMNT is not set at goalkeeper, so the U-23 element is not as important. Schulte will still have chances in upcoming U-23 camps in March in June but this was the only chance to get Callender a real international game. Plus, if Turner gets injured – wouldn’t it be better to have all of the backups ready? No one knows what to expect from Zack Steffen or Ethan Horvath at the moment.

Starting Brian White over Duncan McGuire is also just as curious. One should respect White’s output in recent seasons, but McGuire is young and is the best U-23 No. 9 right now (considering Ricardo Pepi and Folarin Balogun to be full national team players).

Finally, the substitutes all generally performed well – especially Bajraktarevic, McGlynn, Tolkin, etc. Could these substitutes have been made earlier? Perhaps the start of the half?

Regardless, the game was mostly forgettable. It wasn’t a worthless exercise, despite the loss, and there is more to this camp than just the final friendly. There was over 10 days of training and a scrimmage against River Plate. If the staff learned about the players, then it was fine.


Cardoso debuts for Betis


It was only a matter of time before Johnny Cardoso made his debut for Real Betis, but the USMNT midfielder was given the opportunity to start on Sunday at home against Barcelona. It was a good sign of confidence from manager Manuel Pellegrini.

Barcelona ended up winning the game 4-2 but Cardoso played 73 minutes and he left the game with the score 2-2. The verdict was very positive considering that this was both his club, league, and European debut. He had a couple of moments where he lost possession, but his passing was steady (23/24) and he did not look out of place at all. For someone who only joined the club this month, it was very promising and he should continue to play a lot.

Betis is in ninth place and is four points out of sixth (which is the line for European play).


Sargent on the rise


Josh Sargent continues to play well in his return from a serious injury and the USMNT forward opened the scoring for Norwich on Saturday in a 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion. Sargent’s 13th minute goal showed a lot of promise with a great first touch, outstanding movement, and a quality finish. The movement is, perhaps, the most important thing given it shows that he is completely beyond the injury.

This was Sargent’s fifth goal in 435 Championship minutes. He is the next player up to put pressure on both Ricardo Pepi and Folarin Balogun, who have been the two USMNT forwards for 2023.


Also in this game, Daryl Dike came into the game in the 77th minute (four minutes after Sargent left). He also continues his comeback and is moving well. It is only a matter of time before he starts hitting the back of the net again.

Dike and Sargent seem like excellent overage Olympic picks if Berhalter sticks with Balogun or Pepi for the Copa America. It’s also fair to mention that Balogun hasn’t played well at all the past two months and Pepi’s minutes are still limited. It gives Berhalter a tough decision to make.


Tough day for Richards


On Saturday, Chris Richards played a full 90 in defense for Crystal Palace and had a tough game in a 5-0 loss to Arsenal in a London Derby. It was refreshing to see Richards out of the midfield, but this was a game where Arsenal was just much better and Richards was beaten on two decisive corners.

It still remains a good recent stretch of months for Richards who showed his versatility in the midfield and his ability to read the game nicely. He’s a good player who had a bad game. It’s also fair to say he didn’t lose this game for Palace. Arsenal was always going to win this game.

The goal here for Richards is to put it behind him, train well, and have a big rebound performance in his next game. He can’t afford for his next game to be bad.


Slonina with a clean sheet?


In a relegation six pointer, Gaga Slonina did a great job to give AS Eupen a chance to win over Molenbeek. Both teams came into this game having lost their last four Belgian First Division games.

But Eupen had a big 1-0 lead when the game was abandoned in the 85th minute due to the crowd throwing smoke bombs. The last five minutes will be played on Wednesday.

But for Slonina, he is five minutes away from a big shutout win. This is even more important given that last-place Kortrijk found a way to upset Standard Liege and keep the heat on the bottom-third teams.

Slonina and Patrick Schulte are likely in a competition to be the U.S. Olympic starter. A lot of Slonina’s case will be made in his performance down the stretch for Eupen and where he goes on loan next season.


PSV no longer perfect


On Sunday, one of the more surprising results is that PSV is no longer perfect Eredivisie. After a perfect run of 17 wins in 17 games, PSV played Utrecht to a 1-1 draw away. As a result, PSV now has 52 points from 18 games, which makes for a 10 point lead on second place Feyenoord.

As is the norm, Sergino Dest and Malik Tillman both started for PSV while Ricardo Pepi came into the game late and played the final five minutes plus stoppage time. Dest picked up an assist on PSV’s opening goal in the seventh minute.

But credit to Utrecht, they didn’t try to out possess PSV. Instead, they tried to hit PSV on counterattacks and tried to break up the flow of the game with fouls (Utrecht had 18 fouls in this game compared to five for PSV). PSV was clearly thrown off and was outshot 17-13 despite a 57-43% possession edge.

While Dest had a nice moment in the assist, he also lost the ball on the counterattack that led to Utrecht’s goal. So it was a mixed outing for Dest.

While he never touched the ball, Taylor Booth pressured Dest when he tripped and lost possession. That was really important for Booth as he had really fallen out of favor with Utrecht in recent months but surprisingly got the start in this game.

As for Booth, he was not involved a lot (8/12 in passing in 67 minutes) but made the most of it when he was. He was 3/3 in dribbles and was 4/6 in winning his ground duels.

Booth is in a push right now to make the U.S. Olympic team. With that roster set at 18 players, no one is a lock. He will need to continue to have efforts like this.

Tillman was once again decent and steady in this game although no one on PSV will be terribly happy with the performance.

Pepi is still in the same position. He’s done well in limited minutes and he should remain with the U.S. national team, but what if Sargent continues to tear it up?


Cowell and Vazquez Liga MX debut


The past weekend saw two Americans make club debuts in Liga MX after both were part of high profile transfers.

Cade Cowell, 20, played the final 27 minutes for Chivas in a 1-0 loss to Tigres. He missed a dangerous but difficult shot in the 71st minute but then also set up a really nice chance in the 83rd minute.

For Cowell, it was a good opportunity for him to get his feet wet and he is still getting to know a lot about his teammates as he only recently joined. The key for him will be a hot start. He needs to produce quickly because there will be a lot of pressure from local fans, media, and teammates to deliver. He is not a Mexican international and has not really grown up with the Mexican culture. At Chivas, some will be skeptical of him. Production is the only thing that can erase that.

For Brandon Vazquez, his debut for Monterrey was not that stressful as he played the last 21 minutes to see out a 2-0 away win over Santos Laguna. He was fine, but it was a good place to make a debut as the club had its foot off the gas pedal when he came into the game, unlike Cowell who was pushing for an equalizer.

Transfers to the big clubs in Mexico are a big deal and there is a lot of pressure. Cowell has more question marks but it’s not easy for Vazquez as a $7+ million transfer will demand production in big games.


Yanks feature in Juve win


Juventus comfortably defeated Lecce 3-0 on the road on Sunday. The win moves Juve temporarily into first place of Serie A (although second place Inter Milan has played one fewer game and is only one point behind). Juve is rolling now and has five Serie A wins in a row and they haven’t lost in 16 league games.

Weston McKennie is enjoying his finest season as a professional and he was really solid in this game. Juventus’ second goal was essentially McKennie’s goal as the Texan headed a ball in the 68th minute that was going in. Just before it crossed the line, Dusan Vlahovic got a piece of it for him to be credited with the goal.

Tim Weah
came into the game in the 57th minute and was decent down the stretch. But Weah continues to play whenever healthy and the big story is if Filip Kosti? is transferred it could be a sign that the club believes Weah is ready to fill that big role.

Like McKennie, it is taking time for Weah to learn a new position, in a new demanding new club, under a sophisticated new manager. He’s getting there.


Milan wins big comeback


Christian Pulisic started for AC Milan on Sunday and played 75 minutes away against Udinese. He was subbed out with Milan down 2-1 and was not on the field for a dramatic ending where Milan scored two late goals to win it. Yunus Musah was a stoppage time sub and only had three touches and was 1/2 in passing. The game was marred by racist chants from Udinese supporters towards Milan’s Mike Maignan.

Pulisic was playing well and it’s too bad he missed out on the comeback, but he looked either tired or that he took a knock during the game. Regardless, Pulisic has had such a good season that it doesn’t mean he’s close to losing a starting spot.

As for Musah, he’s still in the process of coming back from a few weeks off with muscle fatigue that he’s likely having his minutes managed. It’s still been a positive season for him.


Pefok scores again in Gladbach loss


Jordan Pefok is red hot and he scored again for Borussia Monchengladbach but it wasn’t enough to help his team get a result as they fell to Augsburg 2-1. That loss sent them to 13th place.

Pefok now has five goals in his last five games for M’Gladbach in all competitions. What’s funny about Pefok is that his goals are typically ugly. Last week it was when he unexpectedly saw a shot off the post fall to him and he stuck out his leg for a goal. This week he was able to score in a scramble following a corner kick.

Pefok might not play the beautiful game, but it is effective enough despite Gladbach’s struggles. The big question about Pefok is regarding his USMNT chances. It’s just hard to see him passing the people on the depth chart he would need to pass – Balogun, Pepi, Sargent, Wright, Dike, Vazquez. Even if Pefok is the next in line, that puts him at No. 7.

Joe Scally played all 90 minutes and had 101 touches in the loss for Gladbach. He was strong in winning his duels and he drew seven fouls. But offensively, he did not create that much. This wasn’t a good result for M’Gladbach who won’t be threatened with relegation but are just subpar.


Gioacchini transferring to Como


It is expected that St. Louis City forward Nicholas Gioacchini will complete his transfer to Como of Serie B soon. It's a nice move for a player who has made some smart decisions with his career. After a tough run in France with Montpellier, he came back to the United States and reset his career. Initially, it didn't work out with Orlando but his subsequent move to St. Louis was great and he went on to score 10 goals in 32 MLS games.

But in doing that, he was able to attract interest for a move to Como in Italy. Gioacchini has dreamed of playing in Italy and now will have that chance and Como currently sits second in Serie B.

Gioacchini is still only 23 and has made some smart moves to get his career back on track. He has found a way to get playing time and succeed. He will now get to be a key part of a promotion race and Como is spending real money to bring him in, so he will get that chance.

Will he return to the U.S. national team? The No. 9 position is crowded but if Gioacchini can play as a hybrid winger, he has a chance. But it will require success at Como for awhile. Perhaps he could be an overage option for the U-23 team?



Other thoughts


I continue to be impressed and amazed with FC Heidenheim this season. No one thought they had any chance of surviving, but they are picking off results here and there where they might easily survive. Frank Schmitt has been their manager since 2007 and he has done a phenomenal job for years with this team. On Saturday it was a 1-1 draw with Wolfsburg on Saturday.

Lennard Maloney started for Heidenheim and was strong in his physical, defensive role again. I don’t know if he’ll be a regular with the USMNT because he has such a limited and specific role that is not really part of the USMNT system. But he is thriving in that role with Heidenheim.

Kevin Paredes played the final 28 minutes for Wolfsburg but didn’t do much in another disappointing result.

Gio Reyna played the last 16 minutes for Borussia Dortmund in a 4-0 win over Cologne. Every game could be his last for BVB as all he is doing now is getting garbage minutes.

Pellegrino Matarazzo and Hoffenheim have lost their last three games. The most recent was a terrible 3-2 loss to Darmstadt. Meanwhile, the American manager seems to not be interested in John Brooks a the moment as Brooks did not play.

After a dazzling performance midweek in the Copa del Rey win, Luca de la Torre started for Celta Vigo in a 1-0 loss at home to Real Sociedad. De la Torre nearly scored another backheel goal before he was subbed out in the 76th minute. He’s confident but Celta Vigo needs to be careful as they’re only two points clear of the relegation zone.

Matt Turner is being criticized again after Nottingham Forest’s 3-2 loss away to Brentford. The argument is that he should have set up a wall better when Forest conceded a decisive free kick goal. It’s harsh, but that’s what comes in the Premier League when you’re drifting into a relegation zone.

Similarly, Auston Trusty was pretty good for Sheffield United in a 2-2 draw with West Ham. He featured at left back in a four-man backline and played 80 minutes. He wasn’t on the field for United’s late equalizer and the dramatic scenes that followed. Trusty probably will go down with Sheffield United after a likely relegation, but he’s still advancing his career nicely.

It was a weekend to forget for the Yanks in Serie B. Gianluca Busio scored again but Venezia dropped a tough 4-2 decision to Cosenza. The team's defense has been imploding and it has conceded 14 goals in its last five games (and seven in their last two games). Tanner Tessmann and Busio have had nice seasons, but it's promotion or bust for those two.

Palermo defeated Modena 4-2 and Kristoffer Lund went 75 minutes but left with the score 2-2. Meanwhile, Andrija Novakovich and Lecco remain in the relegation playoff positions following a 3-1 loss at home to Pisa. Novakovich went the distance in the result.

Aside form Slonina’s potential win, it was a bad weekend for the Yanks in Belgium. Both Bryan Reynolds and Griffin Yow struggled in a 3-0 loss away to Club Brugge. Marlon Fossey didn’t do much for Standard Liege in a brutal 1-0 loss at home to last-place Kortrijk. Mark McKenzie and Genk played to a lackluster 1-1 draw at home to Cercle Brugge.

One shoutout that is necessary is to Kahveh Zahiroleslam, 21, who scored for St. Truiden in a tough 2-1 loss to leaders Union SG. It was his second goal of the season but he is playing well. Could he get a look with the U.S. U-23 team in 2024? Does he prefer to play for Iran? Either way, the Yale University product is opening doors.

In the Championship, Reggie Cannon had a very nice outing for Queens Park Rangers in a 2-0 win over Millwall. He's doing well and wants to return to the USMNT, but he still needs an extended run with QPR and must avoid relegation to League One.

Haji Wright continued to miss time with his injury and was not part of Coventry's 2-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday. The same was true for Duane Holmes who wasn't part of struggling Preston North End's squad in a 2-1 loss to Leeds United.

Aside from the PSV-Utrecht game, the rest of the weekend was rough for Americans in the Eredivisie. Zach Booth played the final 24 minutes for Volendam in a 1-1 draw at Heracles. Volendam remains in the relegation zone. Agustin Anello wasn't in the squad for Sparta Rotterdam in a 2-0 loss at home to Go Ahead Eagles. Anthony Fontana was also not part of PEC Zwolle in a 2-2 draw with AZ.

In the Round of 32 in the Coupe de France, Folarin Balogun went the distance for Monaco in a 3-1 away win over Rodez. Balogun has had a tough going the past two months. Emmanuel Sabbi entered the game in the 40th minute due to injury for Le Havre in a 1-0 win over Chateauroux.

In the Greek Super League, Joe Efford played the last 9 minutes for PAS Giannina in 2-0 loss at home to Panserraikos. PAS Giannina is even on points for last place. Caleb Stanko played the last five minutes for Lamia in a 4-1 win over Kifsia.  

Post a comment