Christian Pulisic (left) needs to be the best player on the field for the USA if the Americans want to do anything in World Cup. (Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)
I would like to think I received my soccer writing doctorate with a heavy emphasis on the greatest show on earth. I have written four books about the World Cup. I have watched the competition since 1978 (it was quite difficult way back then because games weren’t televised in the USA; they were shown in theaters and arenas). I also have covered eight World Cups (from 1986-2014). So I would like to think I know something about them while understanding the ebb and flow of the tournaments.
By Michael Lewis
To use that well known soccer adage, the U.S. men’s national team is between a rock and a hard place as the World Cup looms closer and closer every day.
After watching two rather disappointing performances against Japan (a 2-0 loss) and Saudi Arabia (a scoreless draw), it’s easy for any fan to be discouraged.
After all, it’s not like the USA played anyone favored to go a long way in Qatar.
The team needs more work together, much more work. Unfortunately, that is not going to happy prior to the World Cup because like most of the 32 teams, most European players will join their respective squads a week before the competition kicks off.
A week’s worth of training for any team is ridiculous, and another reminder of how preposterous FIFA allowing a winter World Cup to be held right smack in the middle of the season of some of the top leagues in the world.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter and his certainly has his work cut out for them, trying to figure out what can go right against Wales, England and Iran in Qatar.
I certainly don’t envy that task because there is so much to work on and so many worrisome things we witnessed in those two friendlies.
The center back tandem of Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long (especially the latter) did not acquit itself well. Long has struggled at times with the Red Bulls, as he has sat out a game here and there and not even played the full 90 minutes in others. I have more confidence in Zimmerman than I have in Long. The Achilles injury suffered by Miles Robinson earlier this year looms larger and larger as we get closed to Qatar.
Chris Richards would be an intriguing option if he was playing regularly with Crystal Palace.
And any fans clamoring for John Brooks to be on the squad, ah, no. The man who hasn’t been called into the USMNT in more than a year (since a 4-1 win at Honduras in World Cup qualifying on Sept. 9, 2021), isn’t the answer. He is far from being game fit, having played but two minutes for Benfica this season.
And it looks like Tim Ream, despite anchoring the backline for sixth-place Fulham in the English Premier League, seems to be out of the picture as well.
On the defensive flanks, there might be good news on the left side because Antonee Robinson has returned to training with Fulham. A fit and healthy Robinson would help the USMNT on both sides of the ball. Sam Vines, who struggled against Japan, and Joe Scally, who looked decent during his short spell vs. the Saudis, are vying for a roster spot on that side.
On the right side, Sergino Dest, who can play on the flip side, DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie appear to be the front runners. But if Dest doesn’t apply his attacking skills, that won’t cancel out his defensive deficiencies. Cannon played poorly against Japan before he was injured. Yedlin, who played at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, could be a safe bet.
The absence of Yunus Musah was a reminder of how much a force he has been in the midfield. Tyler Adams did not play up to his potential and Weston McKennie was downright disappointing. They’ve got to raise their game in Qatar or the USMNT will be three and out.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The midfield is the engine of the team. If a midfield plays well, whether it being an attacking force, winning first and second balls on a regular basis or possessing the ball well or in key situations, it can make up for deficiencies on the backline or the front line. Control the midfield and there is a good chance you will control the game.
Which brings us to the front line.
Christian Pulisic needs to be the best U.S. player on the pitch with dynamic runs with and without the ball. If he does that, the Americans will be able to get some scoring opportunities. Brenden Aaronson, Mr. Energy, just needs to be Mr. Aaronson.
When Gio Reyna is healthy, he can be an imposing player. When he is healthy.
Reyna was pulled a half hour into the Saudi draw and he won’t play for Borussia Dortmund this weekend or against Sevilla in the UCL on Tuesday as he will be sidelined with a strain. Will Reyna be healthy enough to be included on the squad? Will he be available to start or for long stretches, or will he a bench player for the second half?
Tim Weah, who has been sidelined with a sprained ankle, would be the perfect solution as a right winger, as he excelled during qualifying. His availability will come down to how much time he gets with Lille after he returns.
The No. 9 position is a mess. No one has gone out and grabbed it. Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent should be on the team. Ricardo Pepi has been a major disappointment for club and country and has not earned a spot, in this writer’s opinion.
Jordan Pefok, who has been ignored by Berhalter despite scoring three goals and assisting on three others for first-place Union Berlin in the Bundesliga, might not necessarily be the ultimate answer, but could give the USA a boost coming off the bench late in a match. He should have been brought in during the September window to get a look.
Berhalter is no magician; very few coaches are. But he needs to find a way during that week prior to the World Cup to mesh the team together.
One thing that I have learned from pre-World Cup form of teams over the years.
Sometimes it is difficult to decipher the tea leaves of warm-up matches. Some teams will look great prior to the competition and fall on their faces during it.
And vice versa.
I remember how much a 23-year-old Lionel Messi just reaching his prime and Argentina looking so impressive in the warm-up prior to South Africa 2010. So, what happened? The Argentines got off to a quick start, winning its opening four matches before they were routed by Germany, 4-0, in the quarterfinals.
So, sometimes pre-World Cup form can be deceiving on both sides of the issues.
And who knows what form Wales, England and Iran will be in?
Now, that doesn’t mean the USMNT will turn it around in some 50 days.
We just don’t know what we are going to get from the USA.
And that’s what scares me the most.