With the three added spots approved by FIFA for this World Cup, it could become a bit easier to pick the USMNT squad, that is if Gregg Berhalter decides to use all 26 roster spots.
Back in 2002, I was a surprise inclusion. Not many people would have thought I would make the roster, let alone start the first match of the World Cup against Portugal, so you never know who will prove to be a key player. Still, one player we all can agree on that will not be a surprise come November is Brenden Aaronson. Mr. Silky himself.
The only question surrounding his role is whether he’d be better coming off the bench or getting the start with the USMNT in Group B play. In my opinion, the guy must start.
A unique type of talent
I remember watching Brenden play for the first time back in 2020 in the MLS bubble when he was with Philadelphia Union. His nonstop movement and attacking ability caught my eye straight away. Not every play went perfectly, but his desire to just keep going at you was impressive.
Fast forward two years, and he is now enjoying a brilliant start to his Premier League campaign with Leeds United as arguably the most in-form USMNT player we have currently (Union Berlin’s Jordan Pefok has to be in that conversation as well). Granted, the USMNT have a lot of injury concerns at the moment, but you cannot argue the fact that he will be a key player in Qatar. Could he be the most important? I’m not so sure, but more on that in a minute.
The intensity that is required in a World Cup these days is far more demanding than it was in 2002 and Aaronson seems to make that part look easy. Mix that with the quickness and quality he has on the ball, and you cannot leave him out of the starting XI.
He can play any position in the attacking front line, as well as the No. 10 role. The friendly match we saw against Morocco on June 1, a 3-0 win, solidified that. He was clean with his passing, linking up well with his front players.
We already know about his work ethic and commitment he puts into every match, but I have to admit I was a bit skeptical about how he would do through the middle of the park. Any doubt I had was put to rest after that performance.
Taking the EPL by storm
Playing in the English Premier League is only going to further Aaronson’s development for the better. It is the best league in the world, in my opinion, and he is competing every day, not only with his teammates, but with the rest of the league to show why Leeds paid around $30 million for his services.
He is at a great club, one with a lot of history in English football, and one that suits his style to a T. He has a manager in Jesse Marsch who believes in him, trusts him, and will give him opportunities to succeed. Jesse has not wasted any time in playing him from the start in his first two matches at Leeds United, but why would he? Aaronson has gained a ton of experience playing in big games over the past couple years, from World Cup Qualifying to Champions League matches with RB Salzburg. He doesn’t shy away from a challenge and having that kind of mentality at a young age (21) is rare.
We all have heard the saying “he just needs time to adapt to the Premier League,” which is true in a lot of cases. With Aaronson, however, it seems the bigger the stakes, the better he plays.
Another big factor that plays a part in him settling in England so quickly is having American teammate and New York Red Bulls product Tyler Adams there as well. Going to a new club in another country during an important World Cup year can be tricky, but for a young player to have a teammate that you know well and can vibe with off the pitch is underrated.
Thinking back on my career, I had an American teammate in every club I played at outside of the US, including Lee Nguyen (PSV), Claudio Reyna (Manchester City), Maurice Edu (Rangers), Steve Cherundolo (Hannover 96) and Michael Orozco (Puebla). Not every situation for me worked on the pitch, but off it, it helped tremendously.
So, will Aaronson be the key USMNT player in Qatar?
With how great Brenden has been playing as of late, to me it remains that the most important player in Qatar must be Christian Pulisic.
He will most likely wear the captain’s armband and we need to have an in-form and confident Christian in the World Cup. He is a fighter, and all the players look up to him. He is not getting the playing time at Chelsea for him to reach the levels that we have seen in the past, but he is a guy that on his day can win a game for you. Hopefully that changes.
We’ve had other great players with that killer instinct in the attacking third in World Cups; Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey come to mind. This time around? It has to be Pulisic.
From the interviews I have seen of Christian after qualifying for the World Cup, I can tell he is hungry and mad excited for Qatar. We need to score goals and Pulisic has shown he can score on the biggest of stages. Now comes an even bigger test: representing your country at the highest level possible in our sport. Can he do it at the World Cup? My answer is, undoubtedly, yes.
That big game vs. England
If you look at one specific game that is circled on everyone’s calendar that the USMNT will play in the group stage in Qatar, all the hype will be around the match against England on Nov. 25, their second in Group B.
I can imagine all the players, especially the ones that play in the Premier League, will be up for this one. Will it be an advantage to have six players that play in the EPL? Maybe. What I can say is that those players will be full of confidence going up against opponents they see every week. They will know their tendencies and individually how the English players like to play. Mentally, I wouldn’t expect any lack of concentration as they will want to do well and have some bragging rights when they go back to their respective clubs. It is a great matchup for the US. England have never beaten us in a World Cup match in two tries… hopefully that run continues.
There are only three short months left before the USMNT begin their World Cup journey. With the short amount of time that Berhalter will have with his full squad before the first match, form and consistency at club level are essential.
We all know that a lot of decision-making will depend on injuries heading into the final months, but when you look at this core group of players, I can’t help but be optimistic. Aaronson and Pulisic will take a lot of the headlines. The bottom line is that they both need to be on the pitch, and they both need to perform.