As the US Men’s National Team prepares for their first World Cup since 2014, the program is arguably in its’ best position in recent memory. There are high expectations for the next decade of United States soccer internationally, and the 2022 World Cup is the first opportunity to show the positive steps the team has made.
Heading into the World Cup the USMNT is playing a series of friendlies and CONCACAF Nations League matches this summer. The early results over the last week have been good. The US defeated fellow World Cup-qualifier Morocco 3-0 in their first match of the summer and followed that with a draw against Uruguay, the 13th ranked team in the FIFA World Rankings.
With the World Cup approaching, there are a few key decisions for Gregg Berhalter and his staff to make before the United States’ highly anticipated return to the World Cup.
As recently as last year, the team selection for the first team at the World Cup seemed pretty obvious for Gregg Berhalter. There was a key group of emerging talent, especially at certain positions, that were the obvious choices to earn most of the playing time at the tournament. This was especially true in the midfield, where Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie were the clear midfield trio assuming they were all healthy and able to play.
The last 12-15 months have made team selection at certain positions more difficult. Which is no more clear than in the midfield and at forward. Christian Pulisic will, and should, start every game he possibly can on the left-wing. The Chelsea forward is one of the most talented players in the national team’s history and remains a premier young player in Europe at the club level despite some recent struggles at Chelsea.
Outside of Pulisic, the competition to be a member of the starting XI has developed a lot of intensity. This is good since it will give Berhalter a lot of options based on form and health when the World Cup gets underway in November of this year.
At center forward there are still questions remaining, with it becoming clear over the last few months that Berhalter and his staff prefer Timothy Weah to play on the right side opposite of Pulisic. Jesus Ferreira, Daryl Dike, Ricardo Pepi, Matthew Hoppe, Haji Wright, Josh Sargent, and others have all competed to be the starting striker at the World Cup, but the competition there remains fierce. It is unclear who will start at the position when the US takes the field for their first game, or even who will board the plane to Qatar.
Elsewhere at the front Weah has emerged as one of the most reliable players for the United States, and the Lille forward figures to play a key role in the US’ trip to the World Cup. Brendan Aaronson has also broken out at both the club and international level over the last year. The 21-year-old had an impressive European debut at FC Salzburg, appearing in the Austrian Bundesliga and in the Champions League.
As Aaronson moves to the Premier League and Leeds United, he’s also become a key piece for the national team. Giovanni Reyna has suffered from injuries over the last several months, and in the intervening time, Aaronson has seen his role within the national team increase.
The emergence of Aaronson has created a tough choice in team selection for Gregg Berhalter. Assuming Weah, Reyna, and Aaronson are all available when the US takes the field in December, it is possible that only two of the three will be able to start. It ultimately comes down to the system Berhalter chooses to implement.
If Berhalter places an attacking-minded player in the heart of midfield, he could put all three players on the field at once. Weah could still play as a striker in the United States’ system, with Reyna or Aaronson on the right side of the field opposite Pulisic and the other playing as a No.10.
However, that may only move the team selection difficulties to the midfield, where Yunus Musah has, like Aaronson, started to cement himself within the team. With England, one of the best attacking teams in the world, joining the United States in Group B at the World Cup, the positional and strategic options Berhalter now has available to him could be key. It is possible that the United States could go with a more defensive midfield strategy, pairing Musah and McKennie in the center of midfield, with Tyler Adams playing behind them in front of the back line.
Across the back line, there still remains a competition, especially in the center of the field. Miles Robinson, who was likely to be at least one of the two starting center backs for the US this winter, suffered an Achilles injury earlier this year that will likely cause him to miss the World Cup. As a result, one of the biggest focuses of this summer and fall will be organizing the defense for the United States this winter.
Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman have started alongside each other in each of the first two friendlies this summer, with the pair helping the United States to back-to-back clean sheets. Chris Richards, John Brooks, and Cameron Carter-Vickers are other options for Berhalter, among others, although Richards is missing the first set of games this summer due to an injury and Brooks has not appeared in an international match since September of last year.
Berhalter’s Strategy at the World Cup
The United States has consistently used a 4-3-3 during Berhalter’s time in charge of the national team, and it seems like that is the system that the United States will use at the World Cup. The tough decisions made in the starting lineup will leave the coaching staff with a group of bench players that is both talented and deep.
As a result, Berhalter will be able to adapt to his opponents and the situation within each game at the tournament. If the starting lineup includes both Reyna and Aaronson, Berhalter would most likely have Musah available to enter the game to change the structure of the team and adapt to situations when the team needs a more defensive posture, and the same is true in reverse if Musah starts and one of Reyna or Aaronson, or another forward, is available as a substitute.
The depth and options available to Berhalter could be key as the United States enters one of the most anticipated eras in its’ soccer history. Over the summer the matches the team plays will allow the defensive players to gain more experience playing with each other after the unexpected changes to that part of the lineup, and allow the coaching staff to reinforce the system and tactics for the team this November and December.
2022 should be an exciting World Cup for the United States, and provide a glimpse into the future of United States soccer in the decade to come.