With just over a month before the United States men's national team resumes World Cup qualifying, the primary objective for Saturday's international friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina -- a 1-0 win in Carson, California -- was to keep the potential contributors for that window as sharp as possible.
The prospect of asking players like Walker Zimmerman, Ricardo Pepi, Kellyn Acosta or Matt Turner to step in to key matches at the end of January not having played in a meaningful game in more than two months is far from ideal. Playing an inexperienced Bosnian side never figured to really solve that issue, but it was at least something. Anyone who watched expecting to see something that resembled a competitive game did so with false hope. This was never going to be that. And that's totally fine.
The United States got to celebrate a nice moment at the end when debutant Cole Bassett, 20, of the Colorado Rapids scored the winning goal when he cleaned up the rebound of a shot from Jonathan Gomez, 18, who was also making his debut.
"Cole is the guy that [assistant coach] Anthony Hudson was urging to put on because of the impact he can make and the goals that he has in him," United States coach Gregg Berhalter said. "Cole is a guy that shows up and scores goals and we were seeing that during the week with his finishing ability, and he showed that again tonight."
The goal was a bright spot in an otherwise sludge of a game. Even before Amar Begic was sent off just before halftime, Bosnia was mostly content to sit back and force the United States to break it down. After going down to 10 men, there was even less willingness to send players forward.
"I think the worst thing that happened was that they got the red card," Berhalter said. "I thought we were in good shape, creating dangerous opportunities, maybe our defensive transition wasn't so good in that first phase, but good movements behind the line, good balls in the penalty box, we almost got a couple goals."
The United States' most dangerous attacking player was Jordan Morris, who was making his first appearance with the national team since 2019. After he missed most of the 2021 season with the Seattle Sounders after suffering a torn ACL while on loan with Swansea City in February, Berhalter said the staff had tepid expectations for where he would be at this point.
"He's getting there," Berhalter said. "What you see with Jordan is the speed, the ability to get behind the opponent's backline and we were pleasantly surprised with him in camp. I think our expectations were that he wasn't going to be as fit as he was and you see he's trying to work off that rust and he's doing a great job.
"The thing about Jordan is he's got a fantastic mindset. He really pushed hard this year to get to the point of getting called back in and I'm excited to see what he can do in January. Hopefully it ends up being with the qualifying team, but we'll see."
Morris scored five goals in his final five caps of the 2019 season for the USMNT and was on his way to being an important player in the squad before the injury setback. His speed and ability to add verticality to the game -- a trait Berhalter values -- is a welcome addition to the depth chart at winger, which has seen a number of contributors sidelined due to injury. The most recent addition to that list is Tim Weah, who will be out through the rest of the calendar year at Lille with a thigh injury.
If nothing else, Morris' pace and strength make him a suitable candidate for a role coming off the bench and he, more than anyone in this camp, improved his standing within the pool. As Berhalter alluded to, that doesn't necessarily mean he'll be with the team when qualifying resumes, but he there's a better chance of that happening than there was two months ago, when it wouldn't have seemed worth discussing as a possibility.
The USMNT finished 2021 at 17-2-3, which gives the team its most victories and best winning ratio (minimum five games) in a calendar year in history. Goalkeeper Matt Turner's clean sheet against Bosnia was his ninth of the year, breaking Kasey Keller's single-year record from 2005.
Under normal circumstances -- without World Cup qualifying to consider -- this friendly would have been played in January and served mainly to get eyes on younger players for an extended period of time. That still happened, just to a lesser degree. In addition to Bassett and Gomez, Atlanta United right-back Brooks Lennon, 24, and San Jose Earthquakes forward Cade Cowell, 18, were handed their first caps. The compact Bosnian defense didn't allow Cowell to play to his strength -- he's at his best using his speed in space -- but he certainly looked like he belonged after coming on in the 78th minute for Jesus Ferreira.
The team will reconvene on Jan. 6, and Berhalter said they will try to schedule some scrimmages ahead of the next qualifying window. The U.S. hosts El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio, on Jan. 27, plays Canada in Hamilton, Ontario, on Jan. 30, and hosts Honduras in Minneapolis on Feb. 2.