Analysis: Youthful leadership shone through in Cleveland for USMNT

USMNT Leadership
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Editorial (June 23, 2019) — The U.S. Men’s National Team knew it was the game that everyone would talk about. Once Trinidad and Tobago was drawn to be in the same grouping as the USMNT for the Gold Cup, the conversation started.

The Gold Cup the first competitive action for the USMNT since that fateful October night in Trinidad and Tobago. However, the Trinidadians weren’t first on the USMNT’s list. That didn’t mean the chatter was going to hold off. As soon as the groups were announced, there was little talk about Guyana and even Panama. Instead, the chatter was all about Trinidad.

However, for new players in the program, that chatter was going to be erased.

The talk about Trinidad and Tobago, and not qualifying for the World Cup, is never going to end. However, the beginning stages of healing and moving on has happened. On Saturday night, the United States delivered a whopping 6-0 victory over Trinidad.

Aaron Long is one of those new players that wants to eliminate the thought out of USMNT fans’ minds. Long is helping to mark a new wave of players entering the program. He made his eighth international appearance, starting at centerback alongside Walker Zimmerman. Long scored his first international goal, then followed it up with another.

“It’s an amazing feeling and it’s great to crack the game open like that,” Long said. “It was a pretty tight game at the moment. Really, it felt great and my celebration kind of indicated that.”

Old leadership helps, but also takes a back seat

With the new wave of players, that doesn’t mean it’s just young players roaming the pitch. Instead, players like Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are still getting minutes. Bradley has been part of the national team program since 2006 and is inching closer to making his 150th international appearance.

Bradley said after the match that no game is ever easy. It’s the experience Bradley has that’s invaluable to the U.S. Men’s National Team. Bradley’s presence helped to keep calm when only up by one goal at the half. He reassured his side that games like this are never, despite whomever the opponent is.

“Until you get the first goal, the second goal, they’re difficult games,” Bradley said. “The opponent is organized and very committed to closing things off and keeping space tight. They’re going to look to try to take certain balls and play quickly on the counter. You have to be patient, you can’t get frustrated and you have to continue to put plays together. You have to put football together. We did that. If you can get the first goal early, then maybe that breaks the game open a little earlier. It’s patience and continuing to do the things that help you break them down.”

Meanwhile, Bradley also noted that the group is fun to apart of. He’s not taking wearing the USMNT crest lightly. Bradley calls it an honor to still wear the crest with his long-term time on the national team.

“It’s something I continue to enjoy every chance I get,” Bradley said in the mixed zone. “The chance for this group to play at a competitive tournament is something we were all looking forward to. The first two games have been good, but they’re just the start. We understand that as the tournament goes on games get harder, things get more competitive and the level from everyone has to go up.”

Players in the middle are stepping up too

Another unspoken leader is Tim Ream.

Ream has been part of the national team program since 2010. However, his appearance number isn’t as high as it could be for his nine-year term in the national team. Ream was an on-again, off-again call up under Bob Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena. However, under Gregg Berhalter, he’s finding his niche — and learning to become a leader and guide the younger players.

“All these guys are really, really good players,” Ream said. “They are 20-years-old, 24, 25. They have a lot of experience themselves. Weston [McKennie] and Christian [Pulisic] play in two of the biggest league’s in the world, with the biggest teams. It’s really easy; they listen well. We don’t have to give them too much and they pick it up right away. That’s a credit to them. They’re all good players.”

As for his and the veteran’s leadership methods, Ream said it’s all about leading by example.

“We’re not big on getting into guys, but if we have to we let them know that the standard isn’t good enough,” he said. “It’s a change for me. I’ve been in the program now for almost eight years. I am an old hen compared to everyone else. But, I’m still feeling young, feeling good and happy to steer these guys in the right direction.”

Ream also has a solidified position under Berhalter, as he’s been slotted at left back.

“He has a very specific system,” Ream explained. “The left back doesn’t get high, far forward, as usual. You almost become a third centerback. It’s not too much of a transition and a difference. You get the ball a little higher up the field. My game is all about finding the right pass, picking players out and attacking forward. I’m used to that with my club in Fulham and that’s what I try to bring here.”

How are the younger guys growing?

Weston McKennie is taking leadership into his own hands by being more vocal. During a skirmish between Alvin Jones and Gyasi Zardes, who recorded a brace, McKennie went over to defend his teammate.

Zardes said that players need to have that edge.

“That’s my opinion, you need to have that edge,” Zardes said. “I didn’t like how the guy kicked the ball out by me when the whistle was blown. To know Weston had my back shows you our brotherhood.”

Meanwhile, Long said it was good to show that the team has each other’s backs.

“Weston ran over there to have Gyasi’s back, which is amazing. Our intensive level was pretty focused in. As we wore them down, the goals were going to come in. I don’t think that was any big spark.”

What’s Next for the USMNT?

The USMNT will close out the group stage of the Gold Cup with an attempt to go perfect. Right now, they lead the group with six points and 10 goals. Panama is right behind them with a goal differential of four, as they also have six points.

The two will battle for the top spot in Group D on Wednesday night.


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