Christian Pulisic remains the U.S. men's national team's best player, and his absence loomed large over Thursday's clash with Wales. It was the USMNT's first true gathering in a year and, with Pulisic out of the picture, it certainly did feel like something was missing.
But while Pulisic is the USMNT's best player, he may not be the group's most important. That title may just lie with Tyler Adams or Weston McKennie, the centerpieces of a midfield unit that has rapidly become the USMNT's biggest strength.
In their first USMNT match together in a year and a half, Adams and McKennie showed once again why they are truly the heart and soul of the U.S. group in Thursday's 0-0 draw in Swansea.
Playing in his customary No.6 role, Adams led the USMNT in virtually every conceivable category in the first half: most touches, most passes, most tackles. If something was happening, Adams was almost certainly involved.
His signature moment, though, is one that the typical stats won't record. After blocking an attempt on goal deep inside his own half, Adams threw himself into a foot race all the way through to the Wales box.
It wasn't successful, with Adams then turning to his teammates and urging them to run forward. Even so, the tone was set, and Adams was the one setting it.
Adams may just be the most irreplaceable piece in Gregg Berhalter's puzzle. Those right-back experiments are long gone, and so should be any talk of someone like Michael Bradley, Wil Trapp or Jackson Yueill taking on the No.6 role. For the U.S. to play the way they want to play, Adams needs to be in the middle of the field.
He began the match alongside McKennie and newcomer Yunus Musah, and the trio worked well during their time together. All three had their moments, with McKennie's ability to drive the attack proving his biggest contribution.
Musah's strength and ability on the ball stood out as well. The Valencia star was one of the best players on the field throughout the first half, and there were several memorable sequences from the 17-year-old. One saw him shield a defender before beating him off the dribble, as Musah showed that his future may just be in central midfield, not on the wing.
But what was most impressive about this midfield performance was the pure confidence that radiated from all three. They were confident in each other, finding balance despite Musah's lack of USMNT experience.
And, perhaps just as importantly, they were confident in themselves, playing their own game in a system that was seemingly designed to highlight their strengths. McKennie and Musah did their thing and Adams did his, and it worked perfectly.
And that's not to diminish the efforts of some of their teammates. John Brooks showed his importance with his passing range, asserting himself once again as the best defender in the USMNT pool. And Gio Reyna, in his first USMNT start, showed flashes of the ability that has fans salivating over the idea of seeing him opposite Pulisic in the USMNT attack.
It was a match where the USMNT's biggest strengths were on display, particularly for the midfield to press as a unit and win the ball back. But it was also a match that showed the USMNT's biggest weakness: the lack of a true No.9.
On Thursday, Berhalter turned to Sebastian Lletget, the lone MLS call-up in the squad. A midfielder by trade, Lletget struggled in his false 9 role, by no fault of his own. It was an experiment, and it's safe to say that Lletget won't be starting up top again any time soon.
In camp, the U.S. has a number of other options; players like Sebastian Soto, Nicholas Gioacchini and Uly Llanez. Josh Sargent is also in that mix, even after he was forced to withdraw by his club.
Jozy Altidore and Gyasi Zardes, for all of their critics, will certainly be involved going forward as well. That battle remains wide open, with any number of contenders vying for the role.
The midfield, meanwhile, is seemingly locked up. Musah still must prove himself consistently to seal his spot, should he actually choose to remain with the U.S., but McKennie and Adams will be vital for the USMNT's hopes through 2022 and beyond.
Like Pulisic, you can write those two names in Sharpie on any team sheet. The U.S. has found two midfield stars that complement each other perfectly, and should do so for years to come.