ASN article: USMNT – Morocco preview: important game for players building cases for Qatar

The USMNT will open their four-game June schedule on Wednesday night with a friendly against Morocco. ASN’s Brian Sciaretta gives you an in-depth guide what to look for with the U.S. team. 


Brian Sciaretta


May 31, 2022

5:00 PM

THE UNITED STATES national team is assembled in Cincinnati ahead of Wednesday night’s friendly against Morocco. The game kicks off a series of four June games for the team that will give Gregg Berhalter an important look at his team and player pool.

By this point, the pool is pretty well known and while it is possible for some players outside the pool to make a late push, there is only the September window before qualifying. Yes, the 26-player roster would perhaps open the door for a player way outside the mix, but it would be tough.

You can take this roster plus Zack Steffen and Djordje Mihailovic who had to withdraw, and then add on the known injured and absent players (like those who were coming off their first full European season after leaving an MLS team therefore having no break in over a year) and you know the pool. Players such as Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna, Chris Richards, Gianluca Busio, Sam Vines, Ricardo Pepi, Josh Sargent, Richard Ledezma, Tim Ream, and Daryl Dike. When you combine all those players, that has a good chance of making up almost all of the World Cup team – if not all of it.

Every one of these games moving forward is an important time of a limited period to look at new players – including against Morocco. Berhalter said he will substitute players regularly to look at new players.

Here are some thoughts ahead of the game against Morocco.


McKennie’s status


Without question, Weston McKennie remains key to the United States national team. He was able to play the final 20 minutes for Juventus in its season finale but he has missed a lot of time since his broken metatarsal in February. Berhalter said he hope to get McKennie into a position where he can start one of the final two games of this run – which would come in the Nations League. But he insists that he is being careful with him.

“The goal of our camp is to get him in position where he can start a game and play extended minutes right now. What we’re dealing with is maybe he can play 20 minutes tomorrow. We’ve been looking at his training load, and we’ve really been building him up. He’s had an intensive last four days and tomorrow be the fifth day. So we want to be mindful of his minutes making sure that he’s recovered and moving the right direction. But he’s looked good on the field.”

With the injuries that the U.S. team has had with so many key players, managing McKennie with a cautious approach is the right way to handle this. It will be interesting to see how he does off the bench, even if that is a role he is not used to playing for the United States.


Backline’s chemistry


Central defense is going to be very interesting to observe because while it seems like the team has been building and progressing in recent years, central defense is a bit behind.

Consider this, there are four central defenders on this roster in Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown, and Cameron Carter-Vickers. None of those four players participated in the Nations League final rounds last summer, the Gold Cup knockouts, or the first window of World Cup qualifying. Only Walker Zimmerman has started a game for the U.S. team over the last 16 months. There is no way to expect that the chemistry there should be strong.

Yes, the injuries to Miles Robinson and Chris Richards have affected the team. Richards should be back this summer. But the U.S. team hasn’t built much from many of the expected core of John Brooks, MarK McKenzie, James Sands, or Tim Ream.

Both Palmer-Brown and Carter-Vickers are coming off strong seasons and both have known each other for a long time (teammates at the 2015 U-20 World Cup now seven years ago). There time will come.

But Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman will start this game against Morocco. Zimmerman has been a leader of the team throughout most the cycle (even wearing the captain’s armband at times) but it will mark Long’s first start since his Achilles injury in early 2021.

It’s a competitive group with a lot of competition for open spots.

The fullback options are more known. Antonee Robinson is the first choice starting left back. Right back is less clear after Dest. Yedlin brings veteran experience and Cannon also has 24 caps. What is more telling about Cannon, if he plays in this game, is how he moves forward. At the club level, Cannon shifted positions to playing outside central defense in Boavista’s three-man backline.


The midfield


Berhalter stacked his roster with more attacking options including attacking midfielders, wingers, and forwards. That is why there wasn’t a need to bring in a replacement for Mihailovic.

In the more withdrawn midfield positions, Tyler Adams is a set starter at the No. 6 although Kellyn Acosta will also see time as he is the only real backup at that position. Yunus Musah as a more two-way option is also firmly within the team despite his young age. McKennie is only a sub.

The other three midfielders all have questions that Berhalter hopes will be answered in the coming days.

Luca de la Torre played well for the U.S. team in the winter and spring World Cup qualifiers. But his form at Heracles dropped off significantly the past two months. Heracles was relegated out of the Eredivsie and the team had many problems, but de la Torre was part of the mess. He now arrives in camp not playing well so how will he respond?

Malik Tillman was recently approved by FIFA after he submitted his one-time switch to play for the United States after representing Germany at the youth level. But it’s the question of first-team minutes and where Tillman really stands at this point in his career. He’s promising and Bayern Munich is one of the best clubs in the world, but almost all of his minutes are at the youth levels and there are reports he will go out on loan next season. It becomes very difficult to predict without first team minutes so this camp will give Berhalter his first glimpse as to whether or not he’s one for Qatar, or one possibly for next cycle.

Cristian Roldan has been with the national team for a long time and his role has been mostly as a veteran sub. Even at last summer’s Gold Cup when many first team players were out, Roldan was behind other midfielders such as Eryk Williamson and Gianluca Busio for starting positions. But has been decent off the bench. But on top of all this, he’s playing the best soccer of his life so far in 2022. He was a big reason why Seattle won the CONCACAF Champions League and his performances against Leon, MLS-cup champs NYCFC (the best team in the league at the moment), and Pumas have all been great. He will probably still be a sub option but still comes in with more momentum to make an impact.


Aaronson in the midfield


On a separate note, Berhalter said that Brenden Aaronson was going to play centrally as an attacking midfielder as opposed to a winger. It makes sense with Gio Reyna injured, McKennie not yet seen as ready to start, and with all the wings playing well that Aaronson would get a look in the midfield.

This is a position he has almost always played at the club level either with Philadelphia or with Salzburg (and likely will be at Leeds too). At Salzburg he played the position in the typical Red Bull style with a ton of running and pressing. Will that work with the U.S. team? It remains to be seen but Aaronson has a lot to gain in these games playing that position. He’s a lock to make the World Cup roster can he find symmetry playing the same role with his club as he will with the national team. In addition to be a solid presser, how well will he connect with the other midfielders and the front line?


The Frontline


The frontline team has questions in terms of which players will carry success over to the national team but the big takeaway is that each attacking player listed is playing well. It’s a great position for the team.

Consider this:

Christian Pulisic: Played a lot for Chelsea in the second half of the title. Had solid goals and assistes per minute ratio despite the criticism from the fans.

Brenden Aaronson: will be tried as a midfielder but won the Austrian Bundesliga and earned a $31 million transfer to Leed United in the Premier League.

Tim Weah: Came on strong at the end of the season with Lille scoring in his last two games, including a brace in the finale.

Jordan Morris: Won the CONCACAF Champions League and looks beyond his ACL tear last year. Was instrumental in the wins over Leon, NYCFC, and Pumas to help Seattle to the regional title. Scored in the most recent Sounders game.

Paul Arriola: Has been playing some of the best soccer of his career to start the season with FC Dallas. He has goals in his last five games and so far in 2022 he has seven goals, three assists in just 1079 minutes.

Jesus Ferreira: tied for the scoring lead in MLS with nine goals.

Haji Wright: Finished the Turkish season with 14 goals including a nine goals/nine games run that ended in the second to last game of the season. Without question, he played his way onto this roster to earn this chance after struggling for years in Europe.

So the frontline on paper is in good shape. Expectations should be that this team can score goals if the midfielders can get them the ball into the attacking third. But having that translate from paper to reality will be big goal for Berhalter.


Overall thoughts vs. Morocco

The opportunity to play against a World Cup caliber opponent is huge. Morocco will be taking this game seriously as they have to prepare for a group that contains Belgium, Canada, and Croatia.

Youssef En-Nesyri, 25, will be a tough player for the team to stop defensively. The Sevilla attacker has scored 12 goals in 45 games for Morocco although his 2021/22 season at the club saw his goal scoring fall to just five compared to 18 goals the season before.

Morocco has a lot of players who play for Champions League caliber clubs. Noussair Mazraoui has been a mainstay at Ajax and will join Bayern Munich next season. It also marks an interesting return to the Moroccan team as his relationship with head coach Vahid Halilhodži? has not been great and he refused an invitation to play with the team during the March window for World Cup qualifiers.

But Morocco will be a tough opponent and for the United States this is about testing players individually and developing chemistry. The game will probably lack flow at times given the preplanned substitutions but the players should be heavily motivated to all build their case for a World Cup roster spot and playing meaningful minutes in Qatar.