Pulisic, Musah and winners and losers from the USMNT international break

Yunus Musah Christian Pulisic USMNT GFX
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From the highs of two friendly wins for the senior squad to the lows that come with Olympic failure, it was quite a week for American soccer

This international break was an eventful one for the U.S. men's national team.

While the senior team shone in victories over Jamaica and Northern Ireland, the U.S. Under-23s capitulated in Olympic qualifying, and they will now miss out on the competition for the third cycle running.

The Gold Cup, Nations League and, most importantly, World Cup qualification are still on the agenda in 2021.

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But who impressed for the USMNT over the past few days? And what needs more work?

Winner: Christian Pulisic

In the midst of a difficult spell at Chelsea under new coach Thomas Tuchel, Pulisic arrived at USMNT camp in need of some sort of spark.

The winger has been struggling at Stamford Bridge, in need of games and, most importantly, just a little bit of confidence.

He will head back to west London with both of those things in his back pocket as he played 135 minutes across the two games, scoring a much-needed goal against Northern Ireland in the process.

After a somewhat up-and-down performance against Jamaica, he played very well in Belfast, looking like the Pulisic of old.

He was dangerous when he had the ball, willing to try things and could have created one or two more goals on the day.

"That's where I want to be," Pulisic said. "I want to help lead this team, whatever way that is. Whether that's with the captain's armband or not, I hope I can always lead by example and be one of the hardest workers out there and that's always going to be my aim.

"If I do that I think the guys will see that and do the same. I'm always wanting to help lead this team."

The USMNT is a much better side when Pulisic is leading the way. And the hope is that he can take this momentum back with him to Chelsea as he looks to emerge as a vital piece to Tuchel's puzzle as well.

Loser: The Olympic team

U.S. U-23 gfx

Let us get the obvious loser out of the way early: this was a bad, bad tournament for the U.S. U23s

Throughout CONCACAF's Olympic qualifiers, the U.S. looked like a team devoid of confidence and creativity. They had one good half against the Dominican Republic, a ground out win over Costa Rica and a not-so-great performance against Mexico, which was excused at the time.

And then came the big one. Against Honduras, Jason Kreis' team was downright awful, and they were punished for it.

Now, their Olympic dream is dead as a talented group of American players will be unable to showcase themselves on the world's stage this summer.

That is bad news for everyone, including those that were watching on helplessly from Belfast. Once again, the U.S. failed at the youth level, and that has consequences.

For the players in that squad, their path towards the senior team just became even more difficult. The Olympics were a chance for players to prove themselves to Gregg Berhalter ahead of World Cup qualifying and, with that now gone, there are even fewer games on the schedule to make that claim.

For at least a while, the last impression some of these players will make will be that match against Honduras, and that is not the note you want to leave on.

The one big exception will be Jackson Yueill, the U.S. U23s captain that played every bit like the leader this team needed. He will slot right back into the USMNT midfield picture, and the same can be said for Sam Vines, a potential future candidate at left-back, as well as maybe even striker Jesus Ferreira.

For the rest of the squad, though, making a statement will only be that much harder.

Winners: Brenden Aaronson and Yunus Musah

Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie remain the USMNT's most important midfielders but, if this camp was any indication, Berhalter may have some selection decisions on his hands going forward.

Now officially a member of the USMNT for the long haul, Yunus Musah started both of the team's games this week, and the Valencia midfielder was impressive, establishing himself as the perfect connector in the center of the field.

Despite his age, Musah, who ranked 13th on Goal's 2021 NXGN list of football's best teenage talents, is already exactly what the U.S. needs.

The 18-year-old is extremely calm on the ball, makes himself available while under pressure and seemingly always makes the right play.

He has little experience of playing as a central midfielder in senior football as he is deployed on the wing for Valencia, but he already looks like a player that is ready for the big games when they do roll around.

And he is not the only one, as Brenden Aaronson also shone in his first camp since moving to Red Bull Salzburg this winter.

Brenden Aaronson USMNT GFX

The former Philadelphia Union star scored against Jamaica, finding the back of the net within minutes of coming on, and he backed that up with another strong effort against Northern Ireland.

With Musah, Adams and McKennie involved, Aaronson has a tough fight to get into the line-up ahead of him, but it does help that he is a different type of player than those aforementioned.

He can play as an advanced midfielder or on the wing, giving Berhalter some different options for different types of opposition.

"Playing winger is kind of new for me," Aaronson said, "but me and Greg were having some conversations in the beginning of camp about me playing out there and being ready to help out there. We talked and I feel comfortable with it

 I think [the Jamaica game] shows that I feel comfortable in that position coming off the wing, and going at a defender one-on-one. I really enjoy playing it

"I don't really know what I am, midfielder, winger doesn't matter. It's just good to have that kind of difference in your play, so, for me, it's just great playing."

Another player who impressed is Sebastian Lletget, the LA Galaxy midfielder who has been fantastic in his last handful of USMNT games.

He scored twice against Jamaica, and Berhalter's system does seemingly fit his skillset perfectly, but he will face heavy competition to get into the USMNT's best XI.

Regardless, you can never have too many good players, and it appears that the USMNT midfield has added a few more to the player pool.

Loser: Antonee Robinson

Putting Robinson in the loser category is a bit harsh. The Fulham defender performed to a passable level in his appearance against Northern Ireland, as he showed his ability to get forward and create in a wing-back role.

Robinson's problem, though, is that the player he is competing with outperformed him considerably.

When played on the left-hand side, Sergino Dest excelled as an inverted left back, combining well with Pulisic in the USMNT's win over Jamaica.

The Barcelona star was able to cut inside and create havoc against the Jamaica defense, even scoring his first international goal from long-range in the process.

And, with that performance, Dest opened up some questions. Is it better to play Dest on the left to allow Reggie Cannon to play on the right? Or does the U.S. go with Robinson on one side and Dest on the other, opting to use two defenders that are not exactly known for their defending?

For Robinson to truly make that left-back spot his own, he will need to show more than he did against Northern Ireland by adding a bit more crispness and a lot more end product to his game.

Winner: Tactical flexibility

Christian Pulisic USMNT GFX

For several years, Berhalter has been married to the 4-3-3. That made it all the more surprising when the U.S. emerged in a 3-4-3 to take on Northern Ireland.

On the surface, the formation is a natural fit for several players in the U.S. player pool. It allows Pulisic and Gio Reyna to cut inside while offering Dest and Robinson more freedom to push forward.

In different games with different situations, a three-at-the-back formation could come in handy, especially with different players rotating in and out of the line-up.

"I'm proud of the guys, the way they took in that information," Berhalter said. "I'm also happy the way they executed on it.

"And, when you think about it, another reason is, with Christian, their team plays a similar way. Sergino and Barcelona play a similar way, Antonee Robinson at Fulham plays as a wing-back, Gio played a similar position for Dortmund, so we thought that they would be reasonably comfortable playing that way."

He added:  "We think it's important for them to continue to challenge this group, and it was a good opportunity to do so."

While this tactical wrinkle is a good option to have, it is safe to assume that it will remain just that: an option. Given the depth in midfield, the U.S. will likely want to keep those players on the field as much as possible.

However, you never know what you will face in World Cup qualifying, so Berhalter will be happy to have seen his players thrive while playing in a different system.

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