For better or for worse, the September international window is over, and it’s nothing but club soccer for the US men’s national team player pool from here until Gregg Berhalter makes his final roster decisions in the final days before the 2022 World Cup begins in November.
“What I told them was, these next weeks, use them to prepare, go back to your clubs, play your games, get strong, get fit,” said the coach of his message to the USMNT after last month’s twin bill of dour friendly performances, “and come to Qatar with an open mindset and the idea that we want to compete there.”
Those words are likely to be ringing in the players’ ears for the next few weeks. Here’s a sampling of their weekend fortunes.
Regular consumers of USMNT content will know quite well no Yank draws more discourse with his every move than Pulisic. His thus-far meager minutes with Chelsea this year will continue to be a subject of feverish scrutiny in the run-up to Qatar, and he logged a modest six minutes off the bench at Crystal Palace on Saturday after starting for the national team in last Tuesday’s 0-0 draw vs. Saudi Arabia.
But he sure did make the most of these!
With the game tied at 1-1, CP10 embarked on a quick, slashing dribble from the left touchline on the stroke of full time before slotting a short pass to Conor Gallagher, who evaded a defender with a nasty little shimmy and laced a dipping drive past Vicente Guaita to bank a 2-1 CFC victory. (Chris Richards did not make Palace’s gameday squad as the center back recovers from the knock that kept him out of the USMNT’s September camp.)
It’s the first direct goal involvement of the club season for Pulisic, who has still started just one match for Chelsea. And it provides food for thought for new boss Graham Potter, who notably said he’s judging the Pennsylvanian on the here and now rather than what happened before his arrival.
“Really positive,” said Potter of his interactions with Pulisic. “He's an intelligent guy, articulate, knows how to express himself. My conversation with him has been good and positive, I'm not going to judge anybody on what has happened in the past, I'm going to make my own mind up. Football hopefully decides.”
Oh, and amidst all this, Pulisic was featured in People magazine, and one of the largest sports newspapers in Italy has reported he could move to Sergino Dest’s AC Milan – who’ll meet Chelsea in UEFA Champions League action on Wednesday – as early as the January window, in a swap deal for hot-topic striker Rafael Leão.
Pulisic’s longtime YNT and MNT colleague notched his first helper of the 2022-23 club campaign as well, dropping a perfect cross onto the head of Dusan Vlahovic to effectively clinch the full three points for Juventus in what would be a 3-0 Serie A away win over Bologna.
He made this delivery look easy, though it’s not.
The result steadies the Old Lady after the shocking 1-0 loss to Monza before the international break, and offers a set of positive data points for McKennie, who started, tabbed 39 touches and passed at a 76% clip before making way for Juan Cuadrado at the hour mark.
Currently seventh in the league table, Juve host Maccabi Haifa in UEFA Champions League play at midweek before a massive clash with Milan on Saturday.
Maybe all he needed was a fresh start and a change of scenery. Or perhaps the El Paso native has been fortified by a steady diet of Groningen’s beloved local delicacy eierbal (Scotch egg), or the Netherlands’ famous cheeses.
Whatever it is, Pepi is loving the Dutch life.
The FC Dallas product scored his second goal in as many games for Groningen, hustling and scrambling to net a fine solo strike as consolation in Saturday’s 4-1 loss to Alkmaar. He’s now posted 2g/1a in his first 191 Eredivisie minutes (two starts, one sub appearance) after arriving on loan from Augsburg.
Starved for service amid a bland team display, Pepi’s USMNT start vs. the Saudis showed us relatively little. But Berhalter has made clear he not only likes the young frontrunner, but considers him a central hero of World Cup qualifying, so as long as he keeps doing numbers, he’ll probably remain in the Qatar conversation.
The good news: Steffen started a second consecutive match for Middlesbrough over the weekend.
The bad news: The goalkeeper couldn’t keep Boro from falling 1-0 to bottom-dwelling Coventry City, their fifth loss of the English Championship campaign and the prelude for manager Chris Wilder’s firing, as it dropped MFC into the relegation zone just months after they finished seventh and nearly made the promotion playoffs last season.
Steffen made three saves against Coventry, but had what we’ll call a walkabout moment he might easily have gotten punished for. And we’ll leave it up to the readers to debate whether he should’ve been expected to do anything more on Viktor Gyökeres’ lung-bursting breakaway winner.
In the bigger picture, it’s not hard to feel nervous about the potential effects of Wilder’s departure on Steffen’s fortunes at Boro. The coach brought the USMNT ‘keeper in on loan from Manchester City and was generally a confident backer of the Columbus Crew product, who reportedly gained assurances of regular playing time as part of the season-long move.
Some of those assurances may well be set in stone, though new managers almost always arrive with a measure of freedom to make their own evaluations and act thusly, so we’ll see if Steffen has to win his spot anew.
Beyond the productivity mentioned above, it was generally a goal-shy weekend for USMNTers both at home and abroad.
Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams started as per usual for Jesse Marsch’s Leeds United [States] as the West Yorkshire club played its first match in a month thanks to the international break and postponements around the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But goals were unusually scarce at Elland Road, as Aston Villa managed the game cleverly and benefited from a Luis Sinisterra red card just minutes into the second half of a 0-0 final.
Further south in the Premier League, Tim Ream – whose USMNT stock rose in absentia in the last camp – and Fulham got blown out 4-1 at home by Newcastle United (who rode a brace from Atlanta United alum Miguel Almiron). That was ugly, but at least Cottagers and Yanks alike got some welcome news in the return of Antonee “Jedi” Robinson to the training ground as he heals an ankle injury.
That’s bigger news than it might’ve been a fortnight ago, considering how much the USMNT could’ve used the left back vs. Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, a USMNT regular hoisted some hardware out in heat-wave-sizzled Portland on Sunday, as Kellyn Acosta helped LAFC win the 2022 Supporters' Shield with a dramatic late win over the Timbers on national network television.
Acosta went the full 90 as usual and assisted on Carlos Vela's trademark opener, one of two key passes by the midfielder, who completed 69% of his 26 passes and was active on the defensive side of a riveting encounter.