Having secured their spot in the men’s World Cup in March, the U.S. men’s national team is in a bit of a lull. But! The World Cup is in 200 days. The U.S. will play in it and these will be the biggest games for men’s soccer in this country in nearly a decade.
Here are a few things the team has to do before November.
1. GET HEALTHY
It’s an obvious point, but it takes precedent over all other to-dos. Antonee Robinson has reportedly been struggling with one of his knees. Matt Turner is just back from a hairline fracture in his foot. Christian Pulisic is a non-stop injury worry, though the sparing minutes he’s received lately from Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea seem to have helped. Weston McKennie, Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest are completely out of action and have been for weeks.
Reyna in particular is a worry here. He’s faced setback after setback with his hamstrings and will have to count the 2021-22 season with Dortmund as a lost year. Reyna needs to get back to physical stability before November, if possible, and given he’s very arguably the U.S.’s most talented player, this is mission critical.
2. BACK TO SQUARE ONE AT GOALKEEPER
Zack Steffen has not been good enough to keep a starting spot for the USMNT.
In the fall, he may find himself starting week-in, week-out rather than racking up gaffes in occasional cup matches for Manchester City. If that happens, he could reclaim the No. 1 spot for the United States. But until then, Matt Turner and Ethan Horvath should be given a full chance to unseat him. It’s worth mentioning that this situation is ripe for Gregg Berhalter stubbornness. Steffen is a former player of his at the Columbus Crew – and Berhalter has repeatedly stuck with struggling players and given them minutes well beyond the optimal, even those who never played for him at club level. His loyalty to his selections will be tested here and it’s important that either more be demanded of Steffen or that he lose the job.
3. GIVE THE FIRST-CHOICE TEAM REPS AS AN ATTACKING UNIT
Establishing a strong defensive foundation is something Berhalter should be proud of – and it’s something that fans can be grateful for. But with a few notable exceptions (the beatdown of Panama in Orlando comes to mind), the U.S. attack has often sputtered, especially when Tim Weah is not on the field. Reyna started only once in all of World Cup qualifying and Pulisic also missed his share of minutes with injury. Those two — along with McKennie and Yunus Musah in midfield and Antonee Robinson and Dest attacking from the fullback positions — need opportunities to play together and learn how to collectively generate chances and goals.
4. SETTLE ON STRIKERS
Berhalter is as powerless to solve this as the rest of us are. The United States just doesn’t have an obvious first-choice No. 9. The manager may have identified his center forwards in Jesus Ferreira and Ricardo Pepi, and you couldn’t blame him for settling on those two given the absence of other clear-cut options. The two youngsters, who came up in the FC Dallas academy, can both play with their feet and hit clever passes, which makes them a good fit for what Berhalter wants to do. Ferreira is better at creating, but doesn’t have Pepi’s physical profile. Jordan Pefok, the other striker called up in March, continues to bang in goals for BSC Young Boys in the Swiss League, but has appeared to be a slight downgrade (yes, the sample size is small) at striker for the USMNT.
The friendlies and Nations League matches in June are good opportunities to bring in a larger group of strikers and give them a chance to earn a ticket to the World Cup. Haji Wright, whose highlight reel of goals this season in Turkey is a delight, and Pefok should be called in and evaluated.
Josh Sargent, though he’s done nothing to deserve it other than to play in a good league, could also use a look. He’s a hard worker who is good at linking in the attack, and, as we like to say on the Scuffed Podcast, could always turn the corner next weekend.
5. CALL UP JOHN BROOKS
Bring the 29-year-old left center back home. For reasons that may not emerge until Brooks’ retirement from the national team, Berhalter has not called him up since September. There is a sporting rationale: the long-legged Brooks is not quick and he can struggle when asked to defend in space. A manager that prizes mobility in his center backs may not prefer that, which is fair. But Brooks is the best passing defender in the American player pool, he’s strong in the air and in duels and he’s not a helpless defender.
The U.S. may need him for specific moments at the World Cup, even if he’s not necessarily first-choice. It would be a shame if that first half in San Pedro Sula in September was the last we see of Brooks with the USMNT. This is the savvy veteran Bundesliga player who collapsed face-first into the turf in disbelief after heading the U.S. past Ghana at the 2014 World Cup. Surely some mutually beneficial arrangement can be made.
6. FIND A BACKUP LEFT BACK
Berhalter has heaped minutes onto Antonee Robinson’s plate since that embarrassing team display in Panama City in October. Again, can’t blame him. It’s likely Jedi will play every minute at the World Cup as well, if he’s healthy and avoids yellow card suspension. Still, it would be useful to have a competent, confident backup.
I don’t have any great suggestions other than to pray for George Bello’s continued progress as a player at Arminia Bielefeld, where he’ll presumably be given a lot of responsibility in the 2. Bundesliga starting in the fall. But DaJuan Jones and even Sam Vines are in the mix. Perhaps Jonathan Gomez will make massive strides over the summer and break into the Real Sociedad first team. Probably not, but perhaps.
7. IDENTIFY DEPTH IN CENTRAL MIDFIELD
Under Berhalter, the U.S. plays a three-man midfield with Tyler Adams sitting deep as the No. 6 with two No. 8s, or box-to-box midfielders, ahead of him. McKennie and Musah have been the first two names on the teamsheet there and will likely continue to be going forward. But Luca de la Torre, a 23-year-old playing in the Netherlands, showed well in the home stretch of qualifying and could challenge Musah.
After those three, the competition is wide open. Gianluca Busio, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta and Cristian Roldan have all gotten chances in those No. 8 spots, but none of those players have truly differentiated themselves (though Acosta is the undisputed backup to Adams at the No. 6).
There are players on the fringe who could earn a look in June, including German-American dual national Tim Tillman at Greuther Furth, Paxton Pomykal at FC Dallas, and maybe even Alex Mendez, who helped Vizela stay up in the Portuguese top flight for the first time since 1984.
8. SCHEDULE GOOD FRIENDLIES IN SEPTEMBER
Given how packed the European schedule is with the UEFA Nations League during the September international window, the administrative mettle of the U.S. Soccer Federation will be tested. There have been Argentina rumors. Great. Love that for September. How about Brazil, too?
Adam Belz is the host of the Scuffed Podcast.