In its first competitive matches since the World Cup, the United States men's national team beat Grenada (7-1) and El Salvador (1-0) to advance to the semifinals of the CONCACAF Nations League in June in Las Vegas. Given the sizable talent discrepancy in both matches, two wins was the overwhelming expectation, but it was still a valuable pair of games as the team begins the new World Cup cycle in earnest.
It was mostly a first-choice, European-based roster for interim coach Anthony Hudson, who is shepherding the team until a permanent replacement is found. Here is a stock report from the past week:
Winner: Ricardo Pepi
"El Tren" is back on track. Pepi's omission from the World Cup squad was the most-talked-about roster decision prior to -- and throughout -- the tournament. It was justified in the sense that his form in the previous year, for club and country, had lagged, but the lack of clearly superior alternatives made it logical to second guess. Now, after scoring three goals in two games -- including a beautifully chipped finish just after coming on against El Salvador -- he probably deserves to be atop the USMNT striker depth chart. This is especially true considering his form in the Eredivisie, where he has scored nine goals in 21 matches despite playing for a team, Groningen, in the relegation zone.
With the obvious qualify-of-opponent caveats, this was close to an ideal window for Pepi. He made an immediate impact twice (he scored four minutes into the Grenada game), all three goals came in different ways, and he'll return to his club with the confidence that comes with success. For Pepi, the next couple of months could be pivotal. He'll undoubtedly be on the move at the end of the season, at which point he needs to land at a club that best suits his development.
Loser: MLS attacking players
Yes, Jordan Morris scored four goals on Saturday and is leading the MLS Golden Boot race, but as players like Alejandro Zendejas and Taylor Booth enter the picture, his opportunities with the national team will be scarcer. Even more so for Paul Arriola. Both players are 28 years old. They are what they are: good players, but not ones with the potential to raise the talent floor. And that is what the next year should be about: building depth to help the U.S. compete at the highest level. Jesus Ferreira isn't quite in the same boat. At 22, he still can develop, but doesn't have the upside of a player like Pepi and without former coach Gregg Berhalter, he lost an important advocate.
Winner: The recruitment office
OK, there isn't really a recruitment office, but the most dominant storyline during the past week has been about a player without a single U.S. cap to his name. That player, of course, is Folarin Balogun, the U.S.-eligible Arsenal striker on loan at Stade de Reims in Ligue 1. Between his social media activity, comments from England manager Gareth Southgate (and England's striker depth chart) and cautious feedback from sources, the idea Balogun could commit his international future to the U.S. is no longer a pipe dream. In fact, it seems like the likely outcome.
U.S. Soccer's recruitment pitch is obvious: Play for us and there is a clear path to be the starting striker for the host nation in a World Cup. It's an opportunity few players have ever received in the history of the sport and one that would result in significant endorsement opportunities.
It's a strong pitch. It's even stronger when lined up side by side with Southgate's comments, in which he listed all the other players who deserved to be called in ahead of Balogun for England. Meanwhile, U.S. fans are doing their part on social media bombarding Balogun with a flood of star-spangled adulation. What's impressive here is that the U.S. recruitment effort is happening despite there being no sporting director and an interim head coach. And it comes on the heels of Zendejas' commitment over Mexico weeks earlier and his subsequent strong performances.
Loser: Daryl Dike
After a long absence stemming from injury, Dike was back in the squad, and while that was a positive development, he didn't deliver the type for performances that would ensure he would immediately be back with the team. Dike's evaluation must be done through the same level-of-opposition filter, too. If he wasn't dominant against El Salvador and Grenada, where does that set expectations against better teams? It wasn't all bad -- he definitely had his moments -- but this window feels like a missed opportunity for him. That's especially true considering how Pepi played, that all three World Cup strikers (Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright) weren't in camp and the possible addition of Balogun.
Winner: Gio Reyna
With all of the off-field nonsense that Reyna has been attached to in the past few months -- most of it through no fault of his own -- this always figured to be an important window for Reyna. First of all: Would he be called in? Would he even want to be called in? They were fair questions, but there's nothing to indicate either he or the federation seriously considered them. Getting on the field was the best way to move forward, and he did. And not only that, he did so in a new role for this team, playing in central midfield.
"We wanted to put him in a position where we felt it was his strongest position, where he could be the most successful," Hudson said. It's hard not to read into those comments because Hudson was on Berhalter's staff as Reyna was used exclusively on the wing (and for 15 minutes at striker in the World Cup against the Netherlands).
The results in the new role were ... fine. He didn't impact the game in a way everyone knows he's capable of, but it was an exercise that needed to happen. The Yunus Musah-Weston McKennie-Tyler Adams midfield can be great, but the lack of goals during the past cycle was a glaring issue, and perhaps the most obvious solution has been to have a more creative player centrally. Reyna is by far the best option.
"He's had a really good week given the fact he is a young kid and he's been through a lot," Hudson said after the Grenada win.