You don’t have to like facts and you don’t have to kill the messenger.
These are this author’s warnings ahead of this post, which assesses the five things to watch most closely in September’s US men’s national team friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
[ MORE: Japan vs USMNT preview ]
With red-hot Jordan Pefok surprisingly left out of this roster, already raised ones are threatening to leave the forehead, so a reminder:
Gregg Berhalter’s choices are what we’re looking at here, not what a single author might do (Jordan Pefok, John Brooks, Tim Ream, and Djordje Mihailovic would really like to have one specific person’s take).
So read on as we cover the stats from the last two World Cup warm-ups as the precious tournament approaches in full force.
What does Christian Pulisic look like (in shape and face)?
Basically, Christian Pulisic is too good for CONCACAF. He’s also too good to be a part-time player at the moment, which he is at Chelsea.
The intense USMNT forward has a permanent chip on his shoulder and should feel unleashed as one of the squad’s hot spots.
The fact that the modifier “one of” is included even in a discussion of a player who was – and perhaps is – the talent of the program’s generation shows how golden the growth of young players in the program has been; Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson are among the talents who continue to rise but have not yet reached their limits.
[ MORE: Ranking the 2022 World Cup kits ]
So who is (as of Sunday) 24-year-old Pulisic at the moment and what is his state of mind? Is his 177 of 900 Chelsea minutes played this season down to poor management or has his form in training earned him credit?
Pulisic is yet to score or assist for Chelsea this season, but he has not seen such a dip in his USMNT career. He has 21 goals and 12 assists in 51 caps and it’s not just CONCACAF dominance, although the new Nations League calendar dictates that recent games have been played against regional opponents; Pulisic had two assists in the 3-0 win over Morocco and scored in the 2-1 away win against Northern Ireland.
The American’s game and body language will be read as many times as his Roy Kent commercial has aired on TV, which is fitting as this time of a World Cup cycle definitely has enough of it Pressure-pressure-pressure-pressure.
How hot are Matt Turner and the goalies?
Some would say the Arsenal backup goalie was already No. 1 on the USMNT goalie depth chart, but Zack Steffen’s injury woes made the first shirt a win if it wasn’t already.
The 28-year-old gymnast has 18 caps for the United States and, when healthy, has been the first choice for his last three World Cup qualifiers. He has started every other game since his return to international friendlies in June and the Nations League clean sheets against Morocco and Grenada.
He has been second-choice to Aaron Ramsdale since joining from Arsenal, but Turner made his debut for the Gunners and the Europa League with a 2-1 win over Zürich in Switzerland.
With that, Turner now enters September camp as the clear No. 1 among the current call-ups, ahead of Luton Town’s Ethan Horvath and NYCFC’s Sean Johnson.
It’s also an important camp for Horvath as it feels inevitable that Johnson has secured quiet third goalkeeper status. Johnson is five years older than Turner and six years older than Horvath and Steffen, and Berhalter had plenty of praise for the veteran. Horvath was good for the Hatters in the Football League Championship, but what if Steffen is healthy and there’s only one spot left after Turner and Johnson?
Does the dry spell in Germany and Spain end?
Some will dismiss this question as football’s rich status in the United States certainly brings many games to US soil, presenting limited opportunities to perform outside of the United States
But the Yanks are winless in six straight games and have drawn El Salvador, Mexico and Jamaica while losing to Costa Rica, Canada and Panama since a 4-1 win over Honduras San Pedro Sula on September 8, 2021.
Factor in the fact that this window’s friendlies are against strong, hungry teams from Asia preparing for the World Cup and you have all the makings of proper testing.
Japan beat South Korea in July and Ghana in June. Losses to Brazil and Tunisia show they can be beaten, but Japan have victories over many World Cup contenders in their rear-view mirrors. Austria and Saudi Arabia have taken just three points from Japan in World Cup qualifiers (the Saudis won 1-0 in Jeddah).
Captain Maya Yoshia is not the only household name in Japan’s squad, with Arsenal’s Takehiro Tomiyasu, Monaco’s Takumi MInamino, Eintracht Frankfurt’s Daichi Kamada and Real Sociedad’s Takefuso Kubo sitting behind dangerous Celtic forwards Kyogo Furuhashi and Daizen Maeda.
As for Saudi Arabia, it went 13W-4D-1N in qualifying and in the game a lot of of 1-0 games, including Spain’s recent friendly defeats by Colombia and Venezuela. The team will also feel at home in Murcia, where they have played these games and will play against Ecuador four days before the clash with Berhalter side.
Simply put, these are tough tests for the USMNT. Berhalter’s team is No. 14 in the FIFA rankings and No. 23 in the Elo rating.
Here’s where they settle alongside their September and World Cup group stage opponents:
- England 5/12
- USMNT 14/23
- Wales 19/22
- Iran 22/25
- Japan 24/29
- Saudi Arabia 53/59
Who, if anyone, can crash the roster party?
We’ve got a pretty good read of the definitive and extremely probable numbers when it comes to the Qatar squad.
First, let’s use a few superficial metrics. Who Was Used In The Official US Soccer Shirt Reveal Video? And who was included in the Panini World Cup 2022 collectible sticker book?
Sticker Book: Turner, Steffen, Dest, Long, Richards, A. Robinson, Yedlin, Zimmerman, Aaronson, Acosta, Adams, McKennie, Musah, Ferreira, Pepi, Pulisic, Reyna, Weah
Jersey Reveal: Adams, Aaronson, Pulisic, A. Robinson, Long, McKennie, Zimmerman, Dest, Richards, Weah, Acosta, Ferreira, Musah, Arriola, Reyna, Long, De La Torre, Yedlin, Morris, Carter-Vickers, Tillman.
Who can crash the party?
Josh Sargent, Johnny Cardoso, Joe Scally, Erik Palmer-Brown, Mark McKenzie, Reggie Cannon, Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson are all on the list this month and not in the above categories. McKenzie, Palmer-Brown and Cardoso have only been called up through injuries so this is a huge opportunity for them.
Where is the focus currently?
Injuries aside, we’re sure Pulisic, Aaronson, Arriola, Ferreira, Weah and Reyna are all set for Qatar.
Doesn’t leave room for too many others, does it?
While position pools are often emptied by also-rans so close to a tournament, the fascinating thing about the USMNT’s forward ranks is that not only is the center forward’s starting spot still in play, but it could come from someone who isn’t even in it now .
This is Jordan Pefok, who will be dominating the discussions anyway, but will literally cast his shadow over them if any of the following players fail to seal their own deal.
Ricardo Pepi made two brilliant appearances for Groningen, stepping into the window alongside Josh Sargent as a now-in-form and ultra-bright prospect at some points during his tenure.
Jordan Morris is a tried and tested commodity, but Arriola’s apparent favorite status means Berhalter would keep a great many like-minded people on the field. That said, Aaronson and Morris being in that camp means the September group plus Weah could very well be the Group.