US-eligible players put in work on both sides of the Atlantic this Labor Day weekend, perhaps mindful that summer is now unofficially over and the final sprint to this unprecedented autumn World Cup will unfold over the next two months.
Let’s start this week’s Qatar countdown roundup at the top: With the US men’s national team’s head coach himself.
Gregg Berhalter certainly knows what time it is. The USMNT boss did a media swing last week, including a lengthy sitdown with Extratime’s Andrew Wiebe – the full interview drops soon, in the meantime you can get a taste here.
Then he jetted across Europe to watch and visit with several of his players. Berhalter took in Glasgow’s Old Firm derby between Rangers (James Sands and Malik Tillman) and Celtic (Cameron Carter-Vickers) – notably, a photo of that quartet’s postgame dinner got segments of the blue side of the city mad online because their blind tribalism didn’t stop Sands and Tillman from breaking bread with their international teammate after Celtic’s 4-0 win:
Then he watched Reggie Cannon go 90 in Boavista’s 1-0 win over Paços de Ferreira in Portugal and witnessed Yunus Musah’s man-of-the-match display in Valencia’s 5-1 undressing of Getafe (more on that in a moment).
While his staff is watching everyone in the pool every weekend, those destinations give us a fleeting glimpse of what the coach has on his mind just days away from the September international window, which opens on Sept. 19 and for the United States features friendlies vs. Japan in Düsseldorf, Germany on Sept. 23 and vs. Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain on Sept. 27.
That, of course, is the last USMNT gathering before Qatar, and the last chance for players to show themselves before final roster decisions are announced on Nov. 9.
Few contributions will turn Berhalter’s head, or any other coach’s for that matter, like quality goals on big occasions. Josh Sargent is doing exactly that for Norwich City, who now sit second in the EFL Championship table in the wake of their 3-0 thumping of Coventry City. The numbers and the eye test agree: Sargent is one of the Champo’s elite attackers:
Sargent bagged the Canaries’ third, running his current hot streak to five goals in five games, and also assisted on another. Just as encouragingly, the kid from St. Louis was effective in a deeper, wider positional tasking, showing clever movement and understanding of space as well as a fluid chemistry with veteran striker Teemu Pukki, who was nominally the No. 9 but often interchanged with Sargent.
Up in Minnesota, Jesus Ferreira was a leading instigator of FC Dallas’ impressive and timely 3-0 road win over the Loons. Cheetah headed home the third of their jaw-dropping three goals in four minutes at Allianz Field to blow things wide open against one of their chief competitors for a spot in the top half of the Western Conference playoff bracket.
CFM got an early gut check when TFC surged out to a 2-0 lead mere minutes after kickoff at a raucous BMO Field. Thanks in no small part to Mihailovic’s inspiration, the Quebecois passed it with flying colors, goosing the throttle and leaving their rivals in the dust with four goals on either side of halftime, with his long-range bomb probably the pick of the litter:
There was real ferocity in the Chicago native’s performance, and he and his teammates had to be gleeful about sticking a long knife in Toronto’s flickering Audi MLS Cup Playoffs hopes. Montréal, for their part, clearly reside in the Eastern Conference elite alongside the Philadelphia Union and have every reason to feel bullish about their title prospects before Mihailovic moves on to AZ Alkmaar come winter.
His odds of making it to Qatar still look long, but we think he’s done enough to get a call-up this month.
- Ricardo Pepi (Groningen, Dutch Eredivisie)
- Sergino Dest (AC Milan, Italy's Serie A)
- John Brooks (Benfica, Portuguese Primeira Liga)
The World Cup’s timing surely had some impact on the prominent USMNT comings and goings in the final days of the summer transfer window.
Ricardo Pepi escaped his painful start to life in Augsburg, for the time being at least, via a season-long loan move to Groningen in the Netherlands. There he should be able to earn regular playing time and hopefully, from his perspective, get back to scoring again regularly. As rough as his first few months in the Bundesliga were, Pepi is still young, and like most strikers, lives and dies by goals, something he has a much better shot at racking up in the open attacking environs of the Eredivisie.
Sergino Dest moved from FC Barcelona, where Xavi Hernandez had made clear he was surplus to requirements, to AC Milan, a pretty good landing spot, all things considered.
He watched the Rossoneri’s Derby della Madonnina win over Inter from the bench and his outlook for minutes is hazy considering the quality players who are established ahead of him on the depth chart. But it’s a better situation than FCB, and we suspect Dest will be right in the thick of Berhalter’s Qatar plans no matter what – he’s just so uniquely, saucily skilled among the US player pool.
And John Brooks waited and got a good thing. After the German-American went without a club for weeks following his Wolfsburg exit, with some rumors even suggesting he was set to retire, he landed at Benfica in the window’s final hours, where he’ll be in the mix for a UEFA Champions League club.
It sure looks to us like the writing is on the wall regarding his prospects for a last-minute return to the USMNT fold – that writing being a large, blood-red ‘no’ – but if you take Berhalter at his word, then Brooks might just have a sliver of a chance for a second World Cup.
As good as Sargent and Mihailovic were, none shined more brightly this week than young Yunus Musah, who dished up two assists and ran the midfield show in Valencia’s La Liga rout of Getafe, making history on one of the final frontiers for US-eligible players.
Within hours, reports emerged suggesting that he, too, is on the radar of AC Milan, and that should be no great shock. Blessed with superb technique and a Rolls Royce motor, velvet-smooth on the ball and increasingly aware of how best to deploy his gifts in service of the team, Musah looks more than ever like a foundational piece for the USMNT. And as the program’s content ace Jeff Crandall notes, that’s exactly what he became this year:
Musah remains a teenager until his 20th birthday in late November, which makes his skill set all the more tantalizing. He’s a unicorn, and he’s already on course to be the most successful Yank ever in Spain’s top flight – in fact, I recently made the case for another outlet that he could even be the poster child for La Liga’s mission to make unprecedented inroads in the North American market. That’s how special he is.
Berhalter won’t be thrilled with developments on this front.
Antonee “Jedi” Robinson rolled his ankle in the first half of Fulham’s 2-1 loss to Tottenham, raising unwelcome questions about the USMNT’s seemingly permanently problematic left back spot. Strike Jordan Pefok was held out of Union Berlin’s 1-1 draw with Bayern Munich due to what’s being reported as a muscular issue, albeit a minor one.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen missed a third consecutive Middlesbrough match due to a knee injury (his club and country teammate Matthew Hoppe was on the bench for the 1-0 win over Lynden Gooch’s Sunderland, but did not play). It’s older news but should also be pointed out that Cristian Roldan is on the shelf for 4-6 weeks after the Seattle Sounders’ linchpin had to undergo surgery for a nagging athletic pubalgia problem.
More encouragingly, Tim Weah has resumed training with Lille ahead of schedule after a foot injury, while Gio Reyna came off the bench to play the final few minutes of Borussia Dortmund’s 1-0 home win over Hoffenheim.