For the first time in 2021, the United States men's national team played matches in Europe, giving head coach Gregg Berhalter access to most of his first-choice starting lineup.
While Weston McKennie missed the camp with a slight injury, Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, Sergino Dest, Giovanni Reyna, Daryl Dike, Josh Sargent, newly committed Yunus Musah and more joined for the 4-1 win against Jamaica on Thursday and 2-1 victory versus Northern Ireland on Sunday.
Despite the results, the Americans were not great against either team. They struggled to get on track in the first match and needed a deflected Reyna effort to get on the scoreboard in the second. But the team showed progress and a growing understanding of how to play together, especially notable considering how little time (none, in some cases) the guys had spent together.
There's a packed scheduled going forward, and Berhalter will need multiple rosters. He'll have more options to consider after the past 180 minutes. Here are the winners and losers of the USMNT's international friendlies.
Winner: Christian Pulisic and Sergino Dest on the left
Against Jamaica, Christian Pulisic took the field for the Americans for the first time in 526 days. He wasn't great—for stretches he was trying to do too much—but he was in uniform. That's a win. And there were moments and flashes where he looked like the dynamic Pulisic he's been. He captained the squad versus Northern Ireland, showing more of the same before drawing a penalty on a broken play and converting in the second half.
Dest, meanwhile, lined up at left fullback against the Reggae Boyz, was the best player on the field and took matters into his own hands in the 34th minute:
Berhalter found something by putting two of his most creative players on the same side, combining with each other. Both Pulisic and Dest can beat defenders off the dribble, both see the game well and move into space, and both can unlock an opponent and change a game in an instant. Together, they are more potent.
The issue is that neither one particularly plays on the other end. Pulisic doesn't always track back, and Dest doesn't really do defensive things:
Against most of CONCACAF, that lack of defensive prowess won't matter, but it's not ideal when the level of competition increases.
Loser: Antonee Robinson
"The Dest at Left Back in Games Where the Americans Will Have Most of the Ball" scenario is going to need a more concise name. DALBIGWTAWHMOTB, perhaps? Regardless, that will be most of World Cup qualifying, which means Dest might keep getting starts—and means Robinson could have his chances to see the field limited.
Berhalter tapped the Fulham man in the second match, and he put in an average performance. It could, and should, have been better. Robinson hit a poor cross in the seventh minute that would have led to a goal. He bungled a breakaway in stoppage time. Across two games, Robinson showed what he needed to, and nothing more.
Elsewhere, the continued emergence of the Colorado Rapids' Sam Vines means Robinson has more competition for the left-back job. And Vines, who gained prominence in MLS for his ability to stop attackers, is a better pure defender than Robinson, so he could get the call in matches where Berhalter needs a defense-first mentality.
Winner: Sebastian Lletget
With Jordan Morris injured, Lletget and Aaron Long are the players in Major League Soccer most likely to start an important game. That's a fun distinction. The Los Angeles Galaxy star tallied two against Jamaica, solidifying his place as a player who does everything well and understands the role he's asked to play.
Lletget won't be a superstar. He is a guy with positional awareness, a bit of attacking flair and a surprising amount of defensive bite.
He could, however, work on his set-piece delivery. Get it over the first man!
Loser: Zack Steffen
With the U.S. dominating the ball, the Manchester City backup didn't have much to do. Both Jamaica and Northern Ireland put just three shots on net. While Steffen made a nice save on Shayne Lavery's low effort in the second match, he needed to do better on Jamal Lowe's tally against Jamaica:
Steffen's distribution was also lacking in both matches, missing on a number of long passes and looking nervy in possession.
While there's nothing he could have done to prevent Niall McGinn's laser, Steffen appeared, not unreasonably, like a guy who hasn't played a ton of soccer.
Winner: John Brooks
John Brooks is so good. Early in the match against Jamaica when his teammates were scuffling and flubbing their first touches, Brooks stood in the back, calmly serving as an outlet, breaking lines with his passing, and generally looking like the biggest and baddest adult on the field.
If untimely injuries hadn't limited Brooks to just 40 caps for the United States since 2013, we'd talk about him as one of the best center backs ever to wear the red, white and blue. Instead, he's that guy who scored against Ghana in Brazil.
Winner: Gregg Berhalter
Truth be told, the American manager won the week even before the games kicked off. In December 2018, he took over a program that was reeling from the epic failure to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. Morale was the lowest it had been in a long time.
A little more than two years later, the program is on an upswing. There are smiles at training camp; the players seem happy and committed. It's a place guys want to be.
"They welcomed me really well. In the end, we played two games really well and also had fun," Musah, who chose the U.S. over England, where he played his youth ball, told ESPN's Jeff Carlisle.
Questions remain: Can Berhalter put players in position to maximize their skill sets? Is he a flexible enough coach to succeed in the international game? Will his system work with the limited time a national team coach has with his players?
But his first priority was reestablishing some faith in the American program, and that's been a success.