Gregg Berhalter's debut as U.S. national team coach went about as well as he could have hoped. Not just because of the three-goal victory, and shutout in the 3-0 win against Panama, but because of how a young group looked comfortable and confident playing in a new system they were still in the process of learning.
The USMNT created chances, and though the Americans missed several of them in the first half, the fact so many of them came, and kept coming in the second half, was a testament to how well the group had taken to Berhalter's system. That offensive production, coupled with a strong defensive performance, made it a good overall result to build on as Berhalter looks to put his stamp on the program.
It was a good night for new faces, led by Djordje Mihailovic and Nick Lima, but also for the team's longest-serving player, Michael Bradley, who showed that he is still very much a player who will have a part to play in the new World Cup qualifying cycle.
Here are five takeaways from the USMNT win against Panama:
Promising debut for Mihailovic
When the talk out of the January camp emerged that Mihailovic was one of its real revelations, it was unclear just how ready he was to step in and make that camp success translate into an actual game. The Chicago Fire midfielder responded by putting in a stellar first appearance, scoring a goal and impressing in a 61-minute appearance.
Mihailovic showed a good feel for sliding into dangerous positions, particularly on the counterattack, and his late run on his goal was a good example of the smart movement he boasts at such a young age. Stylistically he is a different kind of player than can be found in the rest of the player pool, which is currently overstocked with box-to-box and defensive midfielders. He has attacking midfielder qualities that are scarce in the USMNT pool, which gives him a good chance of developing a place in Berhalter's plans.
Bradley brings balance to Berhalter's midfield
How would Michael Bradley fit into Gregg Berhalter's plans? That was a key question heading into 2019, and Sunday showed us Bradley looking extremely comfortable in the deep-lying midfield role, where he was able to connect the defense to the attack and provide a steady outlet for his teammates throughout the match. Berhalter's system calls on big defensive efforts from everyone around Bradley, allowing the veteran midfielder to focus on being a facilitator, and letting him pick his spots as a defensive stopper.
Time will tell how Bradley will fit in with the USMNT pool's other midfielders, namely Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. The dynamic Bundesliga duo is seen as the future of the USMNT, but Berhalter's challenge will be figuring out if he can fit all three together in central midfield, or if Adams and McKennie are ready to beat out Bradley for starting roles. The 31-year-old isn't ready to give up his spot just yet, and with how comfortable he looked on Sunday, it's easy to see him becoming a regular under Berhalter, even when the team is at full strength.
Lima is an intriguing right back
None of the seven players who made their USMNT debuts on Sunday had a better showing than Lima, who was outstanding in a right back role that also saw him sliding into midfield at times while handling responsibilities that far exceeded anything he had seen before as a professional. Lima took on the difficult role like a veteran, showing very solid defensive qualities and real game intelligence to feel out his role and handle the attacking side of things effectively.
Though it was just his first cap, his showing makes you wonder what his ceiling might be under Berhalter. DeAndre Yedlin is currently the first-choice option at right back for the USMNT, but the second spot on the depth chart is wide open, and if Lima can continue to develop, he could be the fullback who starts to put pressure on Yedlin at a position the Newcastle defender has called his own for the better part of three years.
Long emerges as a leader and strengthens his case to start
When the USMNT squad for Sunday's match was announced, it was generally assumed that Michael Bradley would be the captain, what with his 142 caps, more than the rest of the team combined. Gregg Berhalter had other ideas, deciding to give the honor to Aaron Long, the reigning MLS defender of the year, and a player who impressed Berhalter with his leadership qualities.
Long turned in a strong shift in central defense, helping the USMNT post a shutout, and adding more momentum to his candidacy for a regular starting role when the full-strength USMNT comes together in March. Right now John Brooks is the one central defender who could be considered a lock starter when healthy, but Matt Miazga's struggles have left the door wide open for the other center back spot. Long is looking more and more like a good bet to get the call when the full team comes together in March.
Sparse crowd another attendance black eye for USMNT
The calm before the calm. Not saying it’s a ghost town for the 2019 #USMNT opener but I felt like Will Smith wandering an empty Times Square in I Am Legend when I walked in. pic.twitter.com/vDJRfuqHds— Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) January 28, 2019
Drawing small crowds for January friendlies isn't a new phenomenon, but Sunday's sparse crowd at State Farm Stadium was embarrassing even by those standards.
It was the latest in a long-lasting trend of U.S. home friendlies that are either poorly attended or attended more by opposing fans than USMNT fans. Complaints about high ticket prices and lack of marketing has dogged U.S. Soccer's handling of friendlies for several years, but prices for tickets to Sunday's friendly weren't exorbitant.
The fact it was a low-profile opponent, and the fact it was a USMNT squad without European-based players, didn't help drive interest in the match, but it is still a safe bet that the same friendly would have drawn significantly better in some other markets.
Ultimately, Glendale was chosen for its convenient location relative to the USMNT's home base for its January camp in Chula Vista, California. While that is understandable, the decision to play Sunday's friendly in a cavernous NFL stadium was silly when drawing more than 10,000 was always going to be difficult.