By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
Every game was played on a knife’s edge. Accumulating points was everything. It had to be that way: The USMNT didn’t accomplish their goal until the final day of the Octogonal, securing their spot at the biggest event in sports for the first time since 2014.
Now, as the U.S. team reconvenes in Cincinnati ahead of four June matches — a friendly on Wednesday against Morocco, another Sunday versus fellow Qatar 2022 participant Uruguay, and a pair of CONCACAF Nations League games with Grenada and El Salvador — the aim is a little bit different.
Sure, the Americans want to win all four. But U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter also needs to use his penultimate and longest get-together with his full-strength squad before November’s World Cup to see new faces and stress-test new tactics. With competing priorities, it’s a balancing act.
“The experience of playing against two World Cup opponents is going be important for us,” Berhalter said Tuesday. “We’re gonna really have to compete in those games and see where we stack up. But within that, there’s going to be time periods in those games where we have to test new players.
“We’re going to make substitutes no matter what the score line is. We’re not going to play everyone 90 minutes to hang on to a 1-0 lead. It’s just unrealistic at this stage. We can’t do that. We don’t have enough time on the back end to be able to do that. So that’s one of the compromises.”
Managing the workload of the team’s top players is also imperative. Europe-based standouts Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson just completed long and grueling seasons overseas. Weston McKennie, who just returned from the broken left foot he suffered in March playing for Juventus in the Champions League, still isn’t fit enough to play much more than 20 minutes on Wednesday, per Berhalter.
At the same time, this is by no means a vacation.
“We have to take this camp very seriously,” Pulisic said during a roundtable with reporters at the team’s hotel. “There’s not a lot of time we’re going to be together [before Qatar].”
For a headliner and World Cup roster lock like Pulisic, this camp is about fine-tuning details.
“I think what we want to do is potentially have a couple of options of how we might line up or how exactly we want to play, just little tweaks,” Pulisic said. “We use the same preparation going into all of the games, as far as the video, looking over the opponent. It’s not incredibly different.”
For other players, this could be their last chance to show Berhalter that they deserve to be on the World Cup roster. After this camp, the U.S. will play just twice more before the main event, a pair of games against to-be-announced teams in Europe in September. Only a few spots are up for grabs, but injuries to several regulars have opened the door to new faces this month.
With Miles Robinson (Achilles tear) out, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown will audition at center back. With Barcelona‘s Sergiño Dest (hamstring) sidelined, there is fierce competition at right back, with veterans DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon and youngster Joe Scally vying for what will probably be an understudy role in Qatar.
Left back is wide open after starter Antonee “Jedi” Robinson. A glaring hole remains at striker, with Jesus Ferreira and newcomer Haji Wright the only center forwards called in this month. Then there’s Bayern Munich prospect Malik Tillman, a 20-year-old attacker who petitioned FIFA to change his international allegiance from Germany to the U.S. last month. The switch was approved on Tuesday:
By all accounts, Tillman has impressed so far.
“He’s shown a lot of quality in training, very good understanding of the game, very good first touch and awareness around the penalty box,” Berhalter said of Tillman. “That’s been great to see.”
As desperate as they are to prove their worth, the players on the bubble have to strike a delicate balance between putting their best foot forward as individuals while still fitting in with the rest of the squad, both on and off the field.
“Of course you want to show your best,” winger Paul Arriola said. “But the main thing is the collective. It’s not necessarily about going out there and scoring two or three goals by yourself. If that happens, I’m going to be crying of happiness. But at the same time, I want to be part of the team. I want to make sure I’m doing the right things to help the team succeed.”
While the preparation for the June games is similar to qualifying, the first two foes the U.S will meet this month present a different and welcome challenge. Between a travel-limiting pandemic, two Gold Cups and World Cup qualifying, the USMNT haven’t faced many foes from outside their own region since Berhalter’s first camp in early 2019.
“I feel like we’ve played CONCACAF teams for the past two years,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “Now we finally get the opportunity to test ourselves against World Cup opponents, and that’s really good. A lot of the guys we’re playing against [Morocco and Uruguay] play at top teams in Europe. We finally get to test and see if what we’re doing works.”
They have little time to waste.
“I think a lot of things people don’t understand about national teams is you’re usually only together for about 10 days at a time, so it is really hard to build that chemistry,” Yedlin said. “Any time you do get a chance to get together, it’s massive.”
Especially with a World Cup now fewer than six months away.
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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