In the wake of an emotionally and physically demanding win against Mexico in the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League final on Sunday, the job wasn't completely done for the United States men's national soccer team. A final test against Costa Rica loomed to complete the scheduling exercise designed to mimic the compact World Cup qualifying windows the team will see this fall.
Using a heavily rotated starting lineup, as expected, the USMNT again turned in an encouraging performance for what's to come, dominating Costa Rica, 4-0, before a packed crowd at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Only central defenders Mark McKenzie and Tim Ream were holdovers from the lineup coach Gregg Berhalter started against Mexico, and while Costa Rica didn't field its strongest team, either, the talent gap between the teams was massive. That dynamic bodes well for the United States as qualifying approaches, because with three-game qualifying windows, every country in CONCACAF will be forced to go further down its depth chart than in previous cycles.
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"What I realized is that it's gonna take a group to get this done," Berhalter said of qualifying for the World Cup. "It's not going to take 11 starters; we need the whole group. And we showed that today and throughout the three games. Everyone except [third-string goalkeeper] David Ochoa got on the field; and that's what's going to be needed in World Cup qualifying."
Orlando City striker Daryl Dike, who spent the spring on loan at Barnsley in the English Championship, made a strong case for continued inclusion in the squad, scoring his first international goal and showcasing a physical presence that is unique within the national team pool. He started between wingers Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah, both of whom had brilliant moments on the ball, to create a dynamic front three that would trouble any back line in the region.
A well-timed run from Dike to get in behind Costa Rica's defense gave him a one-on-one opportunity with the keeper, and he calmly slotted it in the lower right corner to put the U.S. up 2-0 in the 42nd minute.
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Dike was not included on the Nations League roster, which indicated he is behind both Josh Sargent and Jordan Siebatcheu on the depth chart. Berhalter called his omission a difficult decision to make but came away pleased both with how the rotation worked out over the past week and how Dike performed against Costa Rica.
"The physical side of it was there; the movement in behind the backline was there," Berhalter said. "The only thing I would highlight is potentially the movement in the penalty box -- really attacking crosses and getting on the crosses. But Daryl's a young player, and he has a ton of room to grow and we're gonna be here and help him supporting him to get there."
Aaronson's rise since a standout showing at the MLS is Back Tournament last summer has been one of the most positive developments within U.S. Soccer of the last year. After helping guide the Philadelphia Union to the Supporters' Shield in Major League Soccer and earning a move to FC Salzburg, Aaronson has emerged as the clear backup to Christian Pulisic on the left wing. The 20-year-old scored the opening goal -- burying a close-range attempt after a shot from Dike was blocked in the eighth minute -- and he figures to play a key role during qualifying.
"I've learned a ton over the past 11 months," Aaronson said. "I've learned a ton with the coaching I've had and just playing the professional game. This is only my second year now of playing professional. So, it's been a crazy two years."
Daryl Dike and Brenden Aaronson proved that Gregg Berhalter has plenty of depth of talent in his USMNT squad. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Defensive midfielder Tyler Adams wore the captain's armband for the first time in his national team career as he made his return to the starting lineup. While Costa Rica lacked intensity from the opening minutes, Adams' presence at the base of midfielder -- both in and out of possession -- showed an obvious upgrade over any other player Berhalter has used in that role during his tenure. Adams was quick and decisive with the ball, worked to progress the ball forward and was, as usual, a terror while counterpressing and providing cover for the back line.
Adams' skillset meshed well with midfielder Yunus Musah, who didn't see minute in the Nations League but has continuously been one of the better American performers since first donning a U.S. uniform in November.
Berhalter said Musah didn't arrive in the best condition to compete in the Nations League after an extended spell of minimal playing time for Valencia to end the season.
"It's not easy to just throw guy on when you have a game plan and when you're trying to win," Berhalter said of Musah. "Having said that, we still believe in his talent. I think he showed tonight his talent, his line-breaking dribbling and composure on the ball. He's gonna be a fantastic player."
For most of the players who featured in the four games over the past 11 days, their next national team involvement will come in qualifying in the fall. However, others will get a chance to make their case at the Gold Cup beginning next month.
Euro 2020 is a showcase for the some of the most exciting players in world football, but imagine attempting to pick 11 of them to form a European team of all talents? As ESPN senior writer Mark Ogden discovered while selecting his pre-tournament best XI, the most difficult element of that particular challenge is deciding who to leave out, rather than which players to select.
So without spending limits or international quotas, what is the best XI from all 24 of the 26-man squads? Mark has played fantasy football to pick his team of the tournament before a ball has even been kicked. (And stay tuned for his tournament-ending XI to see how much things change over the coming month.)
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Goalkeeper: Manuel Neuer (Germany)
Euro 2020 is blessed with an array of outstanding goalkeepers, including Thibaut Courtois (Belgium), Rui Patricio (Portugal) and Kasper Schmeichel (Denmark), as well as rising stars such as Unai Simon (Spain) and Gianluigi Donnarumma (Italy). But even after more than a decade at the highest level, Germany's Neuer remains the best around.
With his consistency, physical skills and presence between the posts, the Bayern Munich No. 1 continues to keep Marc-Andre ter Stegen on the sidelines. Neuer has overcome injury issues to regain his status as the best in Europe, if not the world, and he will be a crucial factor for Germany if coach Joachim Low is to end his reign in charge with the country's first European title since 1996.
Neuer took goalkeeping to a new level during the past decade; and the likes of Alisson and Ederson, his two rivals as the world's best, both modelled their game on the 35-year-old's "sweeper keeper" mindset, which means he is starting attacks as much as he is stopping them. Germany are in a tough group alongside world champions France and European champions Portugal, but Neuer is a good reason to not write them off.
Right-back: Joao Cancelo (Portugal)
England, in particular, have an embarrassment of riches in this position, with manager Gareth Southgate able to choose from Kyle Walker, Reece James and Kieran Trippier. Trent Alexander-Arnold was a fourth right-back in the England squad, until the Liverpool defender was forced to withdraw with a thigh injury.
France right-back Benjamin Pavard is another strong contender for this position, with Bayern Munich teammate Joshua Kimmich also in the frame due to Low considering using the defensive midfielder in a right wing-back role.
But Portugal's Cancelo sneaks into this team because of his ability to be as effective going forward as he defensively. The Manchester City defender also can play on the left, and technically, he is the best right-back in the tournament.
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