By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
CINCINNATI — The U.S. Men’s National Team are going to the World Cup in November, so now all manager Gregg Berhalter has to do is figure out whom he’s bringing with him to Qatar.
On Wednesday, the USMNT beat fellow World Cup entrant Morocco 3-0 at TQL Stadium. It was a good performance by the U.S., which controlled the match and created a number of chances against a solid defense.
And it was the first game of an interesting stretch in June, which includes playing another World Cup team, Uruguay, on Sunday in Kansas City, followed by two Nations League games against Grenada on June 10 in Austin and a road game against El Salvador on June 14.
While these matches are pretty low-stakes and not against the top teams in the world by any stretch, they are nonetheless opportunities for Berhalter to keep experimenting and tweaking his lineups to get good looks at players trying to make the 23-man roster (though FIFA could expand the roster size to 26 players sometime before November).
These matches are also a chance for players to prove themselves — and many did Wednesday, including Aaron Long, who started at center back, Reggie Cannon, who played a full 90 minutes at right back, and Jesus Ferreira, who had some good scoring chances up top. Berhalter made multiple pre-planned substitutions, which included getting Joe Scally, Haji Wright and Malik Tillman in the game to earn their first USMNT caps.
This month is also an important time for the team to keep building camaraderie since the players don’t get together that often.
“We’re getting together as a group, which is obviously huge,” defender DeAndre Yedlin said earlier this week. “A lot of things that people don’t understand about national team is you’re getting together for about 10 days at a time, so it’s really hard to build that chemistry. So any time you do get a chance to get together, it’s massive.
“That’s the main thing is just continue to build together, continue to get this group of players together, and the more we are together, the stronger we’ll be in November.”
With that, here are three thoughts from Wednesday’s match.
Pulisic showing selflessness, leadership
Christian Pulisic might not have been happy with the fan turnout in Cincinnati — he called the fans out on the postgame broadcast, telling ESPN he was “not particularly happy with the amount of Americans here tonight, if I’m being completely honest” — but he can certainly be happy about his own performance.
Everybody talks about Pulisic’s talent, finesse and ball control. And all those things were on display against Morocco.
In the 26th minute, Walker Zimmerman sent a long ball downfield that Pulisic controlled perfectly before cutting the ball back, faking out two defenders and passing the ball off to a streaking Brenden Aaronson, who finished with his left foot.
“It was magical,” said Aaronson, who wasn’t with the team last camp, when it qualified for the World Cup. “For him to be selfless like he was and give me the ball and score, it was great.”
Pulisic could have taken the shot himself, but he said he thought a Moroccan defender was close and might bite if he cut it back. Asked how difficult that kind of first touch is to make, Pulisic simply explained that he has been doing that forever.
“I’ve been training like this my whole life,” he said. “So for me, it’s a touch that I expected myself to make.”
That might be, but his ability to take the touch and control the ball at such a high speed is “what separates really good players from great players,” Berhalter said.
Later, Pulisic was hip-checked in the penalty box and drew a foul. While it looked like he would take the penalty kick, he played the decoy and handed the ball to Wright, his former teammate from the 2015 U17 World Cup. Wright nailed the shot, scoring a goal in his first senior national team cap.
“I think he had a really strong performance, but it’s more than the actions on the field,” Berhalter said of Pulisic. “It’s the intensity in the warm-up that he showed, the selflessness of giving Haji the penalty kick in that moment and not needing the spotlight, not needing to score the goal and wanting to put his teammate in a great position.
“And that’s Christian. When you have leaders like that, you’re lucky.”
Developing chemistry at center back
On May 7, Atlanta United captain Miles Robinson ruptured his Achilles in a match against the Chicago Fire. While he had been looking like a lock to start for the USMNT in the World Cup, his trip to Qatar now is likely a no-go.
Who replaces Robinson will be an important decision for Berhalter. On Wednesday, he went with Long, who earned his first start for the USMNT since March 2021. Long actually ruptured his Achilles about a year ago and only returned during the March window, making two substitute appearances in the Americans’ 0-0 draw at Mexico and 5-1 win over Panama. Long played a full 90 minutes Wednesday, the first half with Zimmerman and the second half with Cameron Carter-Vickers.
“I’m really happy for him to get back into the fold,” Zimmerman said. “It’s been a little while, and I’m proud of him for all the work he’s done to this point. I thought he was very solid. It’s always a pleasure playing with him because I know that he’s gonna [compete] on every single challenge.
“I’m surprised we keep our voices because we’re yelling at each other the entire time.”
Communication is incredibly important at that position, and it’s an added benefit that Zimmerman and Long have a good rapport and clicked so quickly.
“We’ve played a lot of games together,” Zimmerman said. “We have a group that’s very close, and especially at center back, it’s nice when you have that friendship off the field as well. That makes it all the more special to play alongside him. We want to make each other look better, and we want to make each other have good performances.”
Turner stakes claim in goal
The U.S. goalkeeping situation is in a bit of an uncertain state at the moment. Last week, Zack Steffen withdrew from camp for family reasons, which provided an opportunity for Turner to start in goal on Wednesday.
Matt Turner, who made his USMNT debut last July, earned the nod over Sean Johnson, who was called in to replace Steffen on this training camp roster, and Ethan Horvath, who did not dress for the game.
Turner missed the March window due to a foot injury — Steffen started those games — but said Wednesday that he was feeling good.
“Very strong, very solid,” Zimmerman said of Turner’s performance. “It’s been a little while for him coming back from the foot injury, so he’s only had about five games in New England, but he just has a composure back there.
“I know he would like to take a couple of the balls back and try and keep the ball a little bit more when we’re building out, but I thought in terms of his shot stopping, cleanliness, he had some really good touches on some difficult balls that were played back to him. So it’s a great performance to build on.”
Turner, who said he didn’t have any pain in his feet, doesn’t know yet if Berhalter will start him against Uruguay on Sunday.
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” was published in spring 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
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