As January camps go, the 2019 edition invited significantly more scrutiny than any other in recent memory. It was elevated even when you compare it to two years ago, when Bruce Arena was returning for his second go-round and attempting to kick-start what would ultimately be a failed effort to qualify for the World Cup.
This year, you had a manager (Gregg Berhalter) making his first foray into the international game. With that, there were questions about how he would go about implementing his style, the extent to which he would duplicate what he did when he was managing the Columbus Crew, and what players would emerge from the camp with their reputations enhanced. (After all, there are always a few.)
More than anything, Berhalter and the players assembled were there to learn, and suffice to say, plenty of data points were on display for observers of the U.S. men's team over the past month.
Here's what stood out.
1. Berhalter's tactical plan is taking root
Throughout January, Berhalter indicated that when it came to his tactical approach, there would be some familiar elements from his time at Columbus but some new wrinkles as well. Berhalter proved true to his word in friendlies against Panama and Costa Rica.
There was an emphasis on flank play and against Costa Rica on Saturday, the likes of Paul Arriola and Jonathan Lewis excelled. But there was an added wrinkle of having right-back Nick Lima tuck inside next to whatever holding midfielder happened to be on the field that day. What ensued was a 4-4-2 when the U.S. was defending in its own half, and almost a 3-2-4-1 when possession was gained.
Lima's positioning when the U.S. had the ball also provided an extra body in midfield to help win possession back when the ball turned over. It also allowed Lima to jump into the attack when the opportunity presented itself. He had a highlight-reel sequence against Panama that saw him win the ball with a perfectly timed tackle and then deliver a pinpoint cross for Walker Zimmerman to head home. Against Costa Rica, Lima nearly bagged a goal when he hit the post with blast from outside the box.
Defensively, there was nothing fancy as the U.S. looked rock-solid in both outings.
Given that the U.S. appeared to be in stasis during the second half of 2018, the sight of Berhalter throwing out some tactical nuances is a welcome development. It will be interesting to see how things progress against tougher opponents.
2. New candidates for the first XI
The January camp didn't disappoint in terms of players emerging who could go on to play bigger roles in 2019. Lima, with his aggressive defending and sharp play in the attacking half, was arguably the month's biggest winner but he wasn't alone. The central defensive tandem of Aaron Long and Zimmerman was dependable throughout and while Matt Miazga is back getting playing time overseas -- this time with Reading -- the two put themselves in position to apply some pressure on the players in front of them.
At the moment, it seems unlikely that these performances will result in a seismic change to the U.S. starting XI when the March friendlies roll around. But progress at international level is usually made in incremental steps, not quantum leaps. At least now there is some depth that Berhalter will feel more comfortable calling on should the need arise.
3. There is creativity but it needs careful development
One of the concerns at the end of last year was the lack of creativity in the U.S. attack. While the quality of the opposition in the past two weeks wasn't as formidable as what the U.S. faced last year, Djordje Mihailovic and Sebastian Lletget showed flashes of the kind of skill that this team needs if they are to compete.
Mihailovic performed well against Panama, suffered through a brutal first half against Costa Rica and then, like the rest of his teammates, rebounded in the second before being subbed off in the 63rd minute. Mihailovic made way for Lletget, who was an absolute difference-maker against the Ticos, getting a goal and an assist.
Whether these players can push on to make bigger contributions will in large part depend on how they fare with their clubs. Mihailovic is still in the process of getting back to full strength following the torn ACL he sustained at the end of 2017. If he's given the keys to the Chicago Fire attack in 2019, he'll gain the kind of experience that can allow him to avoid the poor stretch he had in the first 45 against Costa Rica.
Lletget has long been a player in search of a dedicated position, and one would think his skill on the ball would land him an attack-minded role. But the LA Galaxy midfield remains crowded. If he can find a way to stay on the field in 2019, he may yet play a bigger role under Berhalter.
Meanwhile, Lewis showed how effective he could be coming off the bench but is another player who needs to earn more consistent playing time with this club. He only recorded 219 minutes last year with New York City FC; that will need to increase in order for him to make more headway with the national team.
4. U.S. needs to better handle the press
While Panama were fairly easy to play against in terms of moving the ball out from the back, Costa Rica troubled the U.S. plenty with some aggressive midfield play.
The U.S. midfield, Wil Trapp in particular, wasn't winning many midfield duels against the Ticos in the opening half. The good news is that the U.S. dealt with matters better after halftime. Whether that was due to Costa Rica getting tired, better play from the U.S., or some combination of the two is open to debate, but ultimately the home side carried much more of the play in the second half and were well worth the two goals scored.
Would the U.S. have played better against Costa Rica had Michael Bradley been on from the start? He certainly acquitted himself well against Panama though given the opponent, that should have been expected. Trapp, it must be said, was among those who upped his game in the second half vs. Costa Rica on Saturday, stretching the field with his long-range passing. Either way, how the U.S. fares against teams inclined to press will bear watching going forward.
5. There's reason for cautious optimism
Results of games at the conclusion of a January camp can invite false positives. In this case, the two opponents were far from full strength, but the same can be said of the U.S. team, and imagine the hue and cry if they had failed to prevail in both games.
It's also worth noting that the Berhalter era is still in its opening stages. As it should, the January camp served its purpose in terms of laying down a foundation regarding style, the environment and identifying some players who may have a future at the national team level.
Most important of all, there is now an eagerness to see how quickly Berhalter is able to impart his philosophy when most of the full team convenes in March for games against Ecuador and Chile.