By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Watching the U.S. men’s national team dismantle a quality, World Cup-bound Moroccan squad in its first match since punching its ticket to Qatar 2022 in March, one thing stood out beyond the eye-popping 3-0 result.
The USMNT played free.
We didn’t see much of that during the U.S.’s 14 World Cup qualifying games, which in retrospect makes sense. Though coach Gregg Berhalter and his players did their best to downplay it, the pressure on this undeniably talented — yet historically young and inexperienced — American side to make it back to sports’ grandest stage was nothing short of colossal following the failure to make it to the 2018 World Cup.
Now that their trip to this year’s event is booked, the U.S. is having fun. And they’re looking to build on that momentum in their next match, here on Sunday, against an even better team in Edinson Cavani-led Uruguay (5 p.m. ET, FOX).
“We’re still getting that experience against high-level teams, so playing a team like Uruguay that has a lot of stars is amazing,” said U.S winger Tim Weah, who scored (along with Brenden Aaronson and Haji Wright) in Wednesday’s win over Morocco.
“We’re going to go in there with full confidence,” added defender Erik Palmer-Brown. “It’s going to be an amazing feeling to go show what we can do against a quality opponent.”
Even without all-time top scorer Luis Suarez on the roster for this friendly, Uruguay is certainly that. La Celeste might even be the best team the U.S will face before the main event kicks off in November.
The Americans will round out this month’s four-match slate by facing relative minnows Grenada and El Salvador in the CONCACAF Nations League. Their final two tune-up matches, in September, haven’t yet been announced, but they are not expected to be against European or South American competition.
Uruguay boasts plenty of all-planet talent besides Manchester United striker Cavani, including the likes of Barcelona defender Ronald Araújo and midfielder Federico Valverde, who last week helped Real Madrid win the UEFA Champions League title.
FIFA’s 13th-ranked team will provide a stern challenge for a U.S. team that will make at least three lineup changes; Berhalter revealed Saturday that Sean Johnson will spell Matt Turner in goal, with veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin and central midfielder Weston McKennie replacing Reggie Cannon and Aaronson, respectively. Joe Scally could also come in at left back if Antonee “Jedi” Robinson can’t go; Robinson has a non-COVID-related illness that could impact his availability on Sunday.
Uruguay is coming off an impressive 3-0 win of their own. They routed Mexico in Glendale, Arizona on Thursday, with Cavani scoring twice. But they’re dangerous all over the field.
“I watched all of the highlights from that Mexico-Uruguay game,” Palmer-Brown said. “Mexico didn’t do bad, it was just a lot of transition moments. So I think that’s probably what we’ll be focusing on a lot, not getting caught out in transition.”
Diego Alonso can also carve up opposing defenses in other ways.
“We’ve seen a front six that’s very dynamic in the way that they join the attack and attack the penalty box and are able to finish,” said U.S. center back Aaron Long, who is coming off his first start for the U.S. since he ruptured his Achilles tendon 13 months ago. “They also have guys on the wings that are really dynamic 1v1, and in creating opportunities for the strikers, who are obviously great goalscorers.”
While Berhalter is rotating out his keeper and possibly both fullbacks for this game, he opted to keep the Long-Walker Zimmerman center back pairing intact rather than start Kansas City native Palmer-Brown, perhaps in part because of the chemistry Long has with Zimmerman dating to the 2019 Gold Cup. Sunday’s contest will tell us plenty about the duo’s ability to shut down the sort of strikers they’ll face this fall.
Still, seeing what newer and less-established players are capable of is also important this month. If Palmer-Brown doesn’t see time off the bench he surely will in the Nations League. Same goes for Scally. The U.S. used all six of its substitutes midweek and probably will again Sunday. Just back from a foot injury, Berhalter confirmed that McKennie won’t go more than 45 minutes.
Whoever plays, they’ll be up for it. Exhibition match or not, World Cup roster spots are at stake. Don’t get playing free confused with being comfortable. The pressure is still there, it’s just different than it was before. It will be at a whole new level in Qatar with the entire world watching.
“There’s something to be said for having to battle through the intensity of World Cup qualifiers — it’s a desperation type of feel,” Berhalter said. “This is what builds your character as a group. And it’s gonna ramp up again in terms of that type of pressure.
“There was a lot of talk before the [last] game about us wanting to set our standard against World Cup opponents, and it’s going to be the same type of theme” against Uruguay, Berhalter continued. “I think the ideal is that the guys can perform like that even in high-pressure situations. That’s something we just need to learn.”
With just a few more tune-ups left before Qatar, the Americans must be quick studies. It doesn’t sound like they’re burdened by the responsibility.
“It’s a huge test for us,” Long said of Sunday’s match.
“We can’t wait.”
One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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