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Nations League Preview

The USMNT is heading into this March window riding a high tide. There are numerous Americans starting and contributing heavily to club success in top 5 leagues. There are a few players missing out due to injury, but for the most part this is a very healthy window. This iteration of the baby eagles will come into camp hungry for another trophy, and looking to prepare for the looming challenge of Copa America. This rising tide is buoyed by standout performances this season from Christian Pulisic (12 goals and 8 assists), Jedi Robinson (locking down the left side for Fulham while offering attacking threat), and Weston Mckennie (locking down a MID role for Juventus). Individually the baby eagles are growing at their own respective pace, but there are high expectations for the group heading into the Nations League semi-finals. The USMNT will face Jamaica on Thursday March 21st and if they advance, there will be a final against Panama/Mexico on March 24th. The Jamaica squad going into the March 21st fixture is severely limited by notable missing starters in Michail Antonio, Leon Bailey, and Demarai Grey. This window offers an excellent opportunity for the baby eagles to prepare for this summer's COPA America, where they will be challenged in many different ways.  

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One of the most prevalent debates in the US soccer community is the overall importance of current club form, overall player fitness, and tactical importance to the overall process of team selection. Areas on the pitch where this becomes a hot topic are the starting striker, center-backs, wingers, and midfield. In essence, this covers every aspect of the pitch for the current USMNT squad. Berhalter has his work cut out balancing these three different factors, especially with a continual dialogue from sections of fans that adamantly want him to be replaced. As with any manager Berhalter values certain players (Weah, Adams, and Miles Robinson) for what they bring to his specific system and style of play. All of these players are not in the best club form, due to injuries and a lack of playing time, which raises the stakes when deciding who needs to get time with the national team. Berhalter will have to carefully manage the pulse of the team in order to maximize the results on the pitch while also working to nurture the confidence of specific members of the squad. Being the manager of a football club is a thankless job but it does feel that Gregg is at an important point in his second tenure with the USMNT. Crashing out of the Nations League with a poor performance or putting in a very disappointing effort in Copa America in the summer could leave him on thin ice. We hope that Berhalter finds the best manner to balance all of these competing variables for it will be to the detriment of this golden generation if he is unable to. 

There’s a couple players coming into camp that are putting in great club performance’s week in and week out. The most in form players heading into this camp are: Christian Pulisic, Jedi Robinson, Weston Mckennie, Haji Wright, and Chris Richards. The PSV boys (Pepi, Dest, and Tilman) are also having a great season sitting comfortably at the top of their table. We also have Tyler Adams back in the fold. While Adams has his boots back on grass he finds himself currently looking over his shoulder at the looming shadow of Johnny Cardosa, who has taken off running at Real Betis. The DM position in the US midfield is going to be a highly contested position over the next couple years with these two as the competition for midfield roles continues to increase. While there are many positives coming into this March camp, there are some looming negatives as we go into this iteration of the USMNT as will be missing a pair of key contributors in Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest. Sargent picked up an injury for Norwich right before this international window, and he is easily one of the most in form players, for the USMNT and for all of the English Championship, heading into this matchup with 13 goals in 18 appearances for Norwich. Dest is suspended for the semi-final against Jamaica for his outburst against Traindad, but will be available for the final if the US advance. 

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One of the big question marks around this team is who SHOULD start on the right wing as there are a multitude of paths in which Berhalter can go with this specific iteration of the squad. If he wants to put out a side with the intention of pressing and disrupting Jamaica, start Aaronson. If he wants to put a player out there that offers more match control, start Malik Tilman. This is not the best use of Tilman’s skillset, but it does offer something different to the squad. What Berhalter most likely will do is start Tim Weah on the right wing. As we all know, Berhalter does have a specific fascination of playing wingers with pace that can get in behind to cross the ball into the box. Weah comes into camp on a rough stretch of club form, he’s struggled to get minutes at Juventus. The flashes of brilliance he shows for the USMNT have not translated to a club level yet. It’s an odd thing because in moments he appears to be an elite striker of the ball and technically superior to most other players, but the end product has not translated in his club career. 

Another big question surrounding this team is the most optimal CB pairing. Hopefully it’s only a pairing, and GGG doesn’t surprise us with a back three. That would be a disaster because this limits the attacking potential of the tactical set up by removing an attacking player, with spots in these positions already highly contested, and replaces the attacking role with a more defensive minded replacement. The most in form CB at the moment is Chris Richards. He appears to have locked down a starting spot in Palace's refreshed tactical system that includes a back three under newly appointed manager Oliver Glasner. After playing part of the season as a DM and LB, he’s shown that he deserves to be on the pitch with Premier League players, even if he is required to play out of position. The big question is who gets paired with Chris Richards and at the moment it seems that GGG's preference is to start Miles Robinson alongside Richards. Tim Ream has a lot of question marks after falling out of form with Fulham. Robinson does bring an elite physical preference to the table, but is lacking with the ability to offer control from the backline. This would not be the worst solution, but in our opinion an in form Mark Mckenzie does offer more than Robinson. 

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On the opposing end of the pitch, Christian Pulisic is coming into this March camp with arguably the best form of his club career. The move to Milan has arguably been one of the best transfers in Serie A this season. With a change of scenery and moving away from the blue side of London, the footballing world is beginning to see the player that we have always known he truly is. He’s currently sitting on 12 goals and 8 assists across all competitions and perhaps more importantly there is a specific degree of confidence and edge that is evident in Pulisic’s game this season that had been lacking at a club level going all the way back to Project Restart in 2020. We’ve seen flashes of confidence over the last couple years, but nothing near as sustained and consistent as this year for Milan. The ability has always been there, but it is wonderful to see him find a place where he is valued, appreciated, and allowed to play freely. 

We’re going to get in front of the narrative that Gio’s career is over, Forest has been a terrible loan, but he will recover. The decision was always a questionable one with Morgan Gibbs-White being Forest’s best player while sharing the same position as Gio. Missing out on key minutes will damage his potential growth as a player, but it doesn’t mean he won’t eventually turn into a world class player. We all know how the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. During Pulisic’s time at Chelsea, he had seasons where he languished on the bench and played out of position. Pulisic should serve as an example on how finding a great home can rejuvenate a career in the matter of a few matches. Gio has to be clinical in looking for his next landing spot, if he does not end up staying in the black and yellow of Dortmund. In our opinion we firmly believe that getting starting minutes, as part of a fluid attacking team in a league that will challenge him, should be the ultimate goal over the summer. Even last year when he was being used sparingly in Dortmund as a super sub, we saw the level he can reach. This is not siloed to club form as last summer in the Nations League Gio demonstrated just how effective he can be when played correctly for this USMNT squad.  

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This Nations League tournament is a pivotal step in the maturation and development of this USMNT squad preparing for Copa America, and even more so, the 2026 World Cup. Any knockout match this team plays in preparation for 2026 has the utmost importance. This generation of players are slowly growing into their prime years and the continued development of this squad as a collective is important for a deep tournament run with the 2026 World Cup being hosted on home soil. When it comes down to it the margins are so thin, and this team has to develop the ability to manage games against elite competition. Putting in dominating performances for a full 90 minutes, especially against inferior opponents, is a box this US team has not consistently checked. The mentality and killer instinct is somewhere in this team. It’s popped up on occasions, primarily against a weakened Mexico side, but we need it consistently. With one of the best rosters in recent memory, hopefully this US team will take care of business and take a positive step forward on their path towards Copa America and perhaps most importantly the World Cup in 2026.

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