National Writer: Charles Boehm

Almost time: USA enter Japan duel with 180 minutes before the World Cup

Jesus Ferreira USMNT

Two members of the US men’s national team, Christian Pulisic and Johnny Cardoso, marked birthdays this week as the squad gathered in Germany ahead of Friday’s friendly vs. Japan at Merkur Spielarena in Düsseldorf (8:25 am ET | ESPN, TUDN, UniMas, ESPN+).

Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie gave reporters a glimpse into their group’s camaraderie as they explained the protocol for such commemorations in Thursday’s matchday-1 press conference.

“As far as the celebration of birthdays, we always have a ritual. The chef always makes a cake, brings it out, we sing, we make him do a speech,” said McKennie, one of the team’s more charismatic presences. “Actually, Johnny gave a good speech.”

Adams, his midfield colleague and teammate since adolescence with the youth national teams, picked up the thread.

“Christian, we didn’t celebrate Christian’s birthday,” noted the New York Red Bulls academy product. “It was the day before the camp. We wished him happy birthday, and he can buy himself whatever he wants.”

Even Pulisic, the face of the program and its most accomplished player – and apparently best-compensated, by the sound of it – doesn’t get spared from the banter.

“Yeah, I’m not wasting my money on him,” wisecracked McKennie. “He’s buying me a gift!”

Key questions remain

With just 180 minutes of match action between now and FIFA’s roster deadline for the 2022 World Cup, many questions swirl around the USMNT at present.

Injuries have robbed coach Gregg Berhalter of several likely or potential starters, especially in central defense, and the history of physical fragility carried by some of his most talented contributors ensures that the topic will remain an ongoing concern. That includes Yunus Musah, the wunderkind box-to-box midfielder with the most unique skill set in the player pool.

There’s still not an unquestioned first-choice goalkeeper. And something similar can be said of the striker spot, where an ensemble cast combined to score relatively few goals during qualifying – and arguably the most in-form option, Bundesliga standout Jordan Pefok, didn’t even make this month’s roster.

The coaching staff is surely keen to sort out solutions to all this and more against the Samurai Blue, as well as in Tuesday’s friendly vs. Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain. But the togetherness they’ve cultivated over this World Cup cycle seems to have infused the USMNT with levels of unity and belief that may matter more to Berhalter in the big picture.

“We have a really good group of guys and they're all easy to talk to, easy to get along with, and they get along with each other really well,” the former Columbus Crew manager said on Thursday.

Team approach

Their hope is that even when key faces are missing or unavailable, or the team finds itself up against a wall, as is quite likely to be the case for significant stretches in Qatar against the likes of Group B foes Wales, England and Iran, that the journey to this point has created a collective much greater than the sum of its parts.

Which would be no small sum, considering that this is widely considered both the youngest and possibly most talented group the United States has ever sent to a men’s World Cup. And several of them have known one another since middle school or thereabouts.

“One of the things, as far as me and Tyler, have learned about each other is that he does all the running and I do all the playing. No, I’m just kidding!” said McKennie, flashing another trademark smile. “But I think just us being together for as long as we have and knowing each other for so long, we've, I think, developed a relationship that we know each other's tendencies, we know each other's abilities, we know each other's strengths and weaknesses and how to cover for one another.

“Many of the guys that are coming in that may have not been with the group so long, we've played with them or against them at some point in our lives, in our careers. Say for instance, Luca de la Torre, [who] maybe came on a little bit later into the national team, me and Tyler have been playing with him since we were 14, 15 years old. So I think whoever comes in, we have some sort of familiarity with each player.”

Evaluation time

Understandably, fans and pundits are already debating decisions like leaving out Pefok, or whether to start Jesus Ferreira vs. Josh Sargent up top instead. Or if Brenden Aaronson should be slotted into a No. 8 role alongside McKennie instead of on the right wing, to make sure the Leeds United standout is on the pitch given other flank options like Gio Reyna, Malik Tillman or Paul Arriola. Or whether anyone else in the player pool can replicate what Antonee "Jedi" Robinson has brought to the left back position, with Sam Vines looking to impress.

As important as those finer points of Berhalter’s roster and lineup selection are, Adams suggested that Berhalter’s overarching concepts reduce the extent of adaptation when changes become inevitable, as they already are.

“One of the keys to our team is our depth. You already see, based off of the players that are here, all of them can play at any given moment, they can really offer something different,” said the holding midfielder. “We have a system, and although, yeah, we have individual quality all over the field and [roster spots] one through 26, there's all different types of qualities, when you come into the system, you have to know your role and you have to know your job on the day and for who we’re playing against.”

One of Asia’s elite sides for a quarter-century and counting, Japan have qualified for seven consecutive World Cups and this autumn must chart a course out of a ferocious Group E alongside Germany, Spain and Costa Rica. Their technical, up-tempo blend of possession and pressing will undoubtedly ask difficult questions of the USMNT on both sides of the ball.

That leads to useful lessons for the players, and data points for Berhalter as he mulls his final roster decisions.

“We're trying to put together the best possible team that can perform at our best levels at the World Cup. And for that, we pick players that fit the way we want to play and the way we are, and our team culture. And so there's not one easy answer for that,” said the coach.

“We take the decisions very seriously. We deliberate continuously. And we feel bad for guys and happy for other guys. It's an emotional process where we care for each and every one of our players in our player pool. Every player that's ever stepped on the field or stepped on a training field for us since we've been involved in 2019, we care for. And they're never easy conversations. But in the end, we're trying to do what we feel is best for the team – and the team is always going to be the most important thing.”