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DOHA, Qatar. On Tuesday, six days before the US men’s team kicks off their 2022 FIFA World Cup, on the far side of the Thani bin Jassim Stadium, Christian Pulisic and Weston McKenny loitered before practice. Tim Weah and Gio Reyna kicked the warm-up lines. Tyler Adams, Serginho Dest, Brenden Aaronsohn and Yunus Musah relaxed their limbs.
They are all gearing up for the game that will begin to define their USMNT legacy on Monday (2pm ET, Fox/Telemundo) against Wales.
They also prepared to do something they had never done before: play the game at all.
By many estimates, they are among the top eight American players in men’s football. But they were never available at the same time. “It looks like we didn’t have this whole group of healthy guys at the same time,” Pulisic said on Wednesday, and he’s right. In fact, only once have any seven out of eight played in the same game. Injuries, the pandemic, and suspensions have interrupted their last three years on a rotating basis and made head coach Gregg Berhalter’s job difficult.
But it’s also easier in a way.
Berhalter rarely had to voluntarily keep two of the eight players in the starting lineup.
On Monday, when his eight stars are rushing to go, he will almost certainly do it.
Why Berhalter should start McKenny, Musa and Adams
Throughout World Cup qualification and beyond, Berhalter seemed to settle on his preferred starting line-up of 11, or at least the top six. Pulisic started on the left flank and Weah on the right, with Jesús Ferreira being the striker in between. McKenny will be a box-to-box midfielder; Musa would have been a ball player; and Adams would lead the pit bull in front of the back four in a well-practiced 4-3-3 formation that seemed to be designed for Qatar.
However, Berhalter developed these preferences, and Reina was largely unavailable.
The return of the 20-year-old footballer after a series of hellish injuries forced Berhalter to make decisions. Reyna, although young and seemingly fragile, is the most technically gifted USMNT player. He brings “swagger” and “quality,” goaltender Matt Turner said. He’s soft, but “when he gets on the field, he changes,” Turner added. “And then his change brings energy, quality and ability to everyone around him. For a small child, he is like a leader in a team. I don’t think he knows it yet, but I see it in him.”
“We need him in this team,” Pulisic added. “When he’s healthy, we’re better off.”
But they also need Weah, their most direct and vertical winger and one of their top scorers on the right. The other wing, of course, is Pulisic. McKenny may be the most powerful player in the USMNT and Musa the most indispensable. Of course they all have to start. So the question that remains unanswered is: where does Reina fit in?
And the usual notion of it ignores Aaronson, who has so far been the best of the eight stars at club level this season. Is there a place for it?
The temporary response may be dictated by two complicating factors: adversary and fitness.
A relatively obvious assumption in the US camp is that Wales will sit in one of the 5-3-2 or 3-4-1-2 options. It would be an oversimplification to say that they will defend and counterattack, but – well, that’s what they will do. The game will be neat rather than broken, more tactical than dynamic. And that’s the type of game that might require Reina. This is the type of game that the USMNT struggled without the Borussia Dortmund striker. This may require pushing through defenses or a daring, labyrinthine run through tight spaces. So maybe it makes sense to play Reina in the center as one of the three midfielders?
Maybe it makes sense to throw McKenny, who for all his talent is not the cleanest with the ball at his feet?
Or maybe it makes sense to forfeit Mousa, whose middle third promotion might be less necessary if Wales sit back and let the US push the ball past the midfield unopposed?
However, giving up McKenny would mean sacrificing an elite aerial threat and a proven player on the big stage.
Giving up Musa would mean leaving the midfield without a shot at the ball and without dribbling, which may not be needed, but it can be.
So the logical answer is in line with the fact that while both Reina and McKenny are available, neither is likely to be good for 90-minute games in a row. Reina, who has spoken this week about “weakening” himself from recurring hamstring problems this season, has yet to play a full 90. McKenny is recovering from a quadriceps injury he sustained in late October and said on Saturday he feels yourself “ready to go”. ”, but a full 90 in the first of three games in nine days would probably not be reasonable.
So Berhalter could and should have started his “MMA” midfield – McKenny, Musa, Adams – and then brought Reina off the bench at halftime, or at least within 60 minutes. For whom? Let the game dictate that part of the decision. In a desperate situation, Reina replaces McKenny. With an advantage, he replaces Pulisic or Weah, and Kellin Acosta closes the game for McKenny.
As for Aaronson, the Wales game won’t suit him; England’s game, four days later, will be. That’s when rotation and deviation from the proven norm will be expected.
Who starts as a USMNT striker and centre-back?
Ferreira, having not even played for almost a month and not scoring a goal for over two months, is a likely choice in the forefront. Josh Sargent should start as England.
A more interesting discussion takes place at the back, next to Walker Zimmerman.
Aaron Long has the most familiarity and cohesion with Zimmerman, and the most power in the air, but he is inadequate with the ball at his feet.
Cameron Carter-Vickers, meanwhile, has the most athleticism but very little USMNT experience.
Tim Rome is the most perfect, smart, skilled and experienced, but he is slow and can be defeated in outer space.
On the one hand, Ream’s left leg pass makes him an ideal candidate to break the mid-low block that many expect the US to face on Monday. But there is another side to this expectation, which Adams indirectly hinted at during a press conference this week.
“Their playing style is very distinctive, we’ve already seen a lot of videos of them,” Adams said of Wales. “Often when you play against teams that are counter-attacking, people think that you need to give yourself more space and step back a little deeper to protect the space in the back. But for me, and especially for the way we play at Leeds and here, we are very aggressive when we attack with the ball. So our defenders sometimes have to put themselves in situations where they have to defend one on one, and in such situations you need to feel comfortable.
He didn’t talk about staff. But the approach detailed by Adams can be dictated by staff. The Americans are committed to attack en masse. So they need a centre-back who can defend without being outnumbered. And in this department, in the transition, the ranking is probably this: 1. Carter-Vickers, 2. Long, 3. Ream.
On the other hand, they may also need a powerful presence that can physically match Gareth Bale and 6-foot-5 Welsh striker Kieffer Moore. In aerial duels, the rating is likely to be: 1. Long, 2. Rem, 3. Carter-Vickers, who is only 6 feet tall.
There is no easy answer; and maybe there is no good answer. It is completely incomprehensible what Berhalter relies on.
Predicted USMNT lineup vs. Wales
The only remaining issue, which Berhalter never tried but which surfaced in an interview this week, is one that fans have long drawn on virtual boards: Weah is a striker.
This would allow the USMNT to play Reina or Aaronsohn on the wing and bring together seven of their top eight players on the field for the first time.
The case against him is the one that Berhalter brought forward in June: “Most of the time [with his club, Weah] plays forward, next to him is another guy. He played in a 4-4-2 formation. And for us, he plays as a tall winger, he threatens the back line, he has chances, he gets into the box. So he has chances, we think forwards have them at times. So he’s valuable to us in this position on the flank. We really like the shape it is in and what it brings us. We considered him as a striker, I think, only in special situations when we need a certain quality.
Weah also prefers the wing. But on Tuesday he was asked if Berhalter piloted him as a center forward in training.
“Um,” Weah said, and then, after a short pause and a little reflection, he concluded, “I think he should tell you that.
Three strikers Pulisic-Weah-Reina/Aaronsson is quite within reason. But this is unlikely. Here’s our prediction for Monday – a squad with likely substitutions in brackets, which should, if all goes according to plan, score three points:
USA vs. Wales (4-3-3, back to front, right to left): Matt Turner; Sergino Dest (Shaq Moore), Walker Zimmerman, Tim Rome, Anthony Robinson; Tyler Adams, Yunus Musa, Weston McKenny (Kellin Acosta); Tim Weah (Brenden Aaronsohn), Jesus Ferreira (Josh Sargent), Christian Pulisic (Gio Reina).