USMNT Will Face Some Difficult Tests in Group B
By Jaden Dakwa – LA Soccer Press
Tournament History & Current Ranking:
FIFA Men’s World Ranking: 16
World Cup Appearances: 11
Best Finish: Semi-Finals (1930)
The last goal the U.S Men’s National Team scored was on June 14th, 2022.
The fact that the USMNT hasn’t scored a goal in slightly over six months is somewhat alarming, but in fairness, they’ve only played two other matches since that muddy, intense, and physical encounter against El Salvador in the CONCACAF Nations League.
Jordan Morris’ equalizer at the outset of stoppage time against El Salvador tied the match at 1-1. This may be one of the stark rationales as to why he was selected for the 2022 World Cup squad and was on the team’s plane to Qatar. Head coach Gregg Berhalter likely views him as a viable option to score more goals late in matches if called upon. There are some fans who would likely oppose Gregg Berhalter’s choice. The name Ricardo Pepi has rung throughout many circles as someone whose absence feels unjustified.
Since the failure to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, there has been an addition of young talent in the midfield and the attack. When looking at the USMNT roster, some may never have expected the creation and scoring of goals to be a potential question mark heading into the World Cup.
The lack of chances created could be a possible area of current concern. The two matches since the match against El Salvador were, a 2-0 loss on September 23rd, in which the USMNT was thoroughly outclassed by Japan. And, a scoreless draw against Saudi Arabia on September 27th that was bereft of anything noteworthy occuring in the match.
If anything could perhaps quiet those question marks to some degree, it would be that the incoming generation of players do seem to have a sense of bravery about them. They certainly appear willing to keep fighting when their backs are against the wall.
In fact, this was truly evident in the match against El Salvador in June. The entire squad seemed ready for a typical hotly contested CONCACAF battle in San Salvador, El Salvador on a night with torrential rain in the middle of the summer. Tyler Adams, Brendan Aaronson, Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic, Haji Wright, Timothy Weah, Weston McKinnie all featured in the match and put forth valiant efforts.
The player who assisted Jordan Morris’ goal in that match, Luca de la Torre, has also been selected for the squad traveling to the World Cup. He sustained a muscle injury to his left leg in late October while playing with his respective club team, Celta Vigo. Since then, his place in the squad seemed to be hanging in the balance.
This group of players plus the addition of an in-form Josh Sargent will be pivotal to U.S’ fortunes in the World Cup. Head coach Gregg Berhalter will need to get his midfield and attack firing. It could end up being the difference between an early exit or a fairytale run.
The opening match of the team’s World Cup campaign against Wales on November 21st will be pivotal. If the U.S were to leave that match without any points, it could leave the team in a difficult position to get out of the group. The second match day will feature an England team that will likely provide a different test. Without getting points against Wales, there is the possibility that this U.S team could head into the final matchday against Iran with no points in hand.
Conversely, a win on the opening match day could open the door to a dream start to the tournament. Perhaps, it would be enough to kickstart momentum to notch a victory against England, and close out the group in first place. Although England are front runners to finish first in the group, the U.S has the potential to come in first place.
There does seem to be some level of depth in every position. Some may definitely oppose that statement and point to the striker position as an area of concern. In terms of the defense and the midfield there is some talent and depth through the squad. Although, the talent may not be regarded as elite amongst the world’s best it is certainly sufficient.
It is enough to make it out of the group and perhaps make a deep run in the tournament.
Here is what a potential starting XI could look like on the opening day of the tournament:
Projected Starting XI vs Wales: Turner (GK), Robinson, Long, Zimmerman, Dest, Adams, Musah, McKinnie, Pulisic, Sargent, Reyna
Possible X-Factor: Brenden Aaronson
Brenden Aaronson could play a pivotal role for the team throughout the tournament. He may not end up starting every match, but he could likely receive a sizable amount of playing time. His versatility is extremely useful for the U.S Men’s National Team. Aaronson can play as an attacking midfielder or as a winger. Recently, he was featured in both positions for the team being deployed as a right winger or a midfielder. Aaronson carries the ball well and is dynamic with his off the ball movement. He has the ability to drop deep to receive the ball and beat his man. His lightning pace can hurt defenders and off the ball he is extremely willing to help the team defend. He is tenacious when he is pressing the ball and can cover vast amounts of distance on the pitch due to his stamina. The goal he scored for his club team Leeds United against Chelsea earlier in the Premier League is a brilliant depiction of this.
Aaronson is a perfect fit for how Berhalter wants to play.
Berthalter’s style of play has come into question to some extent. Despite the critics, this style of play certainly yielded positive outcomes in some matches the USMNT has played. Berhalter prefers his players to press and win the ball back in good areas to attack. The 49-year-old has an emphasis on making his team more focused on possession and taking up good positions in the final third. Many in the football world call this ‘positional play’ which is a model used throughout football by coaches such as Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, and Mikel Arteta. The model focuses on players positioning themselves in certain zones of the pitch to create numerical advantages and take up dangerous positions.
Berhalter usually wants to play through his wingers and in wide areas. His wingers are undoubtedly talented, but should not be relied upon solely to create attacking production. It can be risky to focus on keeping possession without much incisiveness. There will have to be a good level of chance creation from the central midfielders as well. An over reliance on the wingers could lead to hopeful crosses sprung into the box without much to show for it. This approach would simply put more pressure on a striker to finish off opportunities and half chances coming into the box. Only reinforcing a position that some already perceive as not having enough depth.
Once again, it is important to note one aspect that USMNT’s younger generation of talent does seem to have — bravery. Tyler Adams and Weston McKinnie seem to have bags of this quality. Their contributions will be pivotal if they can link play, keep the ball effectively, and create chances from deeper positions. When Berhalter’s system clicks there does seem to be a level of seamlessness from the whole team. In full flow, you can see an energetic team that can create chances from multiple zones in the attacking third and midfield. This prevents Christian Pulisic from dropping deeper to try and pick up the ball in an effort to create.
Pulisic with more room to operate out wide or space to roam in half spaces on the left hand side becomes more difficult to play. The Chelsea star then has options whether to dribble at defenders, drop deep to pick up the ball, or to make runs in behind. Berhalter has tinkered with his midfield shape to give Pulisic more room to operate. He has tried to shift midfielders deeper or in the case of Weston McKinnie he has attempted to slightly shift his position towards the right.
This will be the first World Cup for Pulisic since he broke onto the scene at the international level in 2016. He is one of the few players who had involvement in the debacle which resulted in not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Now he will captain a team that is basically completely new compared to five years ago.
Pulisic or ‘Captain America’ as he is fondly regarded, is now the leader of this new era of players. A few heroic performances could prove to the world that we have the potential to exceed expectations.
The U.S squad has the potential to make a long run in this tournament. All the stars would certainly need to align for a fairytale run. And, securing a result on November 21st in the opening group match against Wales would be a great start.
Photo Courtesy of Getty Images
Dakwa holds a BS in Journalism from Elon University. He writes about North Carolina professional soccer for L.A. Soccer Press. Follow him at @JDakwa on Twitter.