I Can’t Wait To See The USMNT Get Meaningfully Tested

The United States Men’s National Team, fielding a lumpy approximation of their best XI, efficiently deboned Morocco on Wednesday in Cincinnati. As a summer friendly before a winter World Cup, the match was technically meaningless, though as one of the team’s last six matches before Qatar, the 3-0 win was a useful opportunity for the coaching staff to tinker with new tactics and judge borderline players. ahead of a roster cut decision. The team’s performance itself was impressive, and any fan who’s become attuned to the finer points of Berhalterball would mark it out as one of the most cohesive displays from the team this year, despite the absence of a number of key starters.

That same fan would also probably welcome a respite from four years of endlessly playing the same dozen or so CONCACAF opponents. The USMNT has been startlingly region-locked since Gregg Berhalter took over and the program made its youthful pivot: two Gold Cups, the entirety of the Nations League, a grueling World Cup qualification process, and a pandemic-induced Western Hemisphere-centric approach to friendly matches. Before the Morocco game, the USMNT had not played an African opponent in nearly five years. Since the start of 2020, they have only played four non-CONCACAF opponents, none of whom they faced with the A-team. Morocco is a good African team who is going to the World Cup, which made them a perfect matchup for a relatively penned-in USMNT. The 3-0 win showed this team’s mettle in a way that is not possible in the process of beating, say, Panama.

It also highlighted how little we actually know about the USMNT’s quality against the best teams in the world, as this group simply has yet to be tested by any of them. This version of the USMNT is one with ambitions, one stocked with a Champions League winner and a bunch of players on very good club teams. It’s a version that should necessarily be judged not by how well they do against Costa Rica in their five annual matchups, but by how they stack up against the world’s elite. You don’t get any points for more efficiently dispatching Honduras and taking it to Mexico at the Azteca, since this reframing of the team’s ambition is all about shedding their provincial tendencies. It is not their fault that they haven’t been able to play one of the best 10 teams in the world, on account of said pandemic, though after watching the USMNT’s Morocco performance, I came away equally enthused with the ruthlessness of the win and bummed out that we still have to wait until Thanksgiving to see them step to England.

The win itself shouldn’t be ignored here. Morocco fielded a strong lineup, headlined by PSG right back Achraf Hakimi, yet the USMNT forced their style on the game. Berhalter tweaked the backline to a hybrid three- and four-man backline, with Reggie Cannon acting as a third center back and Antonee Robinson given the space to fly up the field. Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams effectively pressed and ran as well as they usually do, and Christian Pulisic was consistently given the ball in space with options in front of him. Pulisic was clearly itching to play for the USMNT again, and he used his freedom to remarkable effect, drawing a penalty, nearly scoring at least one goal, and setting up the USMNT opener with some jawdropping control. The last time he played for the national team, he and his teammates slammed the door shut in Panama’s face in front of a seething mass of USMNT die-hards, so I understand his postgame callout of his team’s supporters. Also, I don’t really care at all, since US Soccer bears more blame than the fans, and imperfect turnout for a Wednesday evening game in June in Cincinnati seems like a dubious piece of data to build a coherent take around. That shit is boring, unlike this nutty piece of play from Pulisic to set up the game’s first goal.

Tim Weah scored the second goal of the game six minutes later (it was also a banger), and the USMNT coasted in for comfortable win. Joe Scally, Haji Wright, and Bayern Munich’s Malik Tillman were among those who got some burn in the second half, as Berhalter tried to get some more data to inform his decision on who gets to go to Qatar. Matt Turner made some nice saves, and Brenden Aaronson moved back into the midfield to great effect. The team looked sick, is my point, and now all I really want to see is how well they stack up against a team that will not let them dictate the tempo and control the ball so easily. The USMNT is set up to counterpress and make space with their athletic midfield, but that strategic fulcrum can’t be meaningfully tested until they play a truly elite team. We’ll have to wait until Black Friday, but that chance is coming.

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