Bullish? Nervous? Excited? Fatalistic? It’s natural to feel any number of emotions along that spectrum, and the week-to-week fortunes of the players who will wear the US kit in Qatar are inevitably central to that. So let’s try and break things down a little differently this week, by categorizing what’s worrisome and what’s encouraging among the USMNT player pool.
Good news! The goals are rolling in
Weston McKennie thumped home his second goal of the season for Juventus, a trademark set-piece header, as the Old Lady whipped Empoli 4-0 in Serie A action. The midfielder also played two key passes and won a bunch of aerial challenges in his 65 minutes on the pitch as rumors and reports of a January transfer swoop by Tottenham Hotspur percolate.
Gio Reyna made an emotional return to the scoresheet – and the starting lineup – as Borussia Dortmund dominated Stuttgart on Saturday.
In his first start of the season, the New York City FC academy alum worked the attacking left flank of a 4-2-3-1 shape and played three key passes in addition to his goal, a clinical angled strike tucked low inside the far post that sparked an understandably emotional reaction from the injury-plagued young’un.
And Ricardo Pepi can’t stop scoring in the Netherlands. He netted his sixth of the year for Groningen on Sunday, the opener in their big 4-2 Eredivisie win over second-place PSV, and also completed two key passes and 90% of his 20 passes overall. He’d already hit the net against Dordecht in a 3-0 midweek win in KNVB Beker (cup) play.
All this is highly welcome news for a national team which has intermittently struggled to score goals under Gregg Berhalter and needs to have as many fit and firing attacking options as possible next month.
Bad news! Key regulars are going through it
The “Leeds United States” project in England’s West Yorkshire has a couple of USMNT eggs in its basket, so Jesse Marsch’s struggles inevitably take a toll on the outlook for Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams. With their 3-2 weekend home loss to Fulham (Tim Ream and Antonee both went the full 90 minutes for the Cottagers), Leeds are now mired in a four-game losing skid, haven’t won a league match since August and sit in the relegation zone at 18th.
Aaronson continues to contribute bustling, creative performances in attacking midfield, especially considering he’s still a Premier League newbie. Yet the paucity of end product undermines his perception among the Whites faithful and reminds us all of how much responsibility has been piled on his young shoulders.
Something similar can be said of Adams’ work in holding midfield and now he’s hurt, missing out on Sunday’s loss due to a muscular issue said to be minor, but nevertheless unwelcome at this timely juncture. And Marsch himself is squarely on the hot seat, having received the dreaded vote of confidence heading into the Fulham match – and now LUFC face a daunting visit to Liverpool.
Down at FC Dallas, another important USMNT duo – Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira – crafted a dynamic attacking chemistry over the course of the MLS season, only for it to vanish in the central Texas wind on Sunday night as Austin FC rendered them ineffective and anonymous in their 2-1 Western Conference semifinal win.
Those two join the lengthening list of USMNTers whose club seasons are over and must now try to stay fit and sharp in the upcoming domestic training camp designed to bridge the gap to Qatar. Among core Berhalter call-ups, only Kellyn Acosta (LAFC) and Sean Johnson (NYCFC) are still in the hunt for MLS Cup.
Good news! The 'keepers are on the up
Speaking of SeanJohn, the longtime USMNT No. 3 has looked like a No. 1 in the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs. He posted a clean sheet in the Pigeons’ Round One dismissal of Inter Miami, then stepped it up a notch to stymie CF Montréal again and again in NYCFC’s 3-1 Eastern Conference Semifinal road win on Sunday, making seven saves, with close-range stops on Kei Kamara and Ismaël Koné particularly remarkable.
As we noted back in June, hardly anyone is talking about SeanJohn as a potential starter in Qatar, probably because Berhalter hasn’t shown much sign that HE views him that way. But if you look at experience, presence and shot-stopping, well, there’s a case to be made, plain and simple.
But Johnson wasn’t alone in his excellence this week. All four of the top USMNT GKs posted clean sheets this week.
Ethan Horvath blanked his fellow Yank Josh Sargent last Tuesday -- yes, literally on one first-half shot -- in Luton Town's 1-0 English Championship win over Norwich City. Matt Turner notched another shutout for Arsenal, his third in four appearances, in a 1-0 Europa League win over PSV. And Zack Steffen made four save to backstop a 0-0 Middlesbrough draw with Huddersfield, the same number he posted in their 4-1 defeat of Wigan at midweek.
So shelve your ‘keeper anxiety, at least for a few days!