National Writer: Charles Boehm

Tim Weah, Gio Reyna injury returns give USMNT hope before World Cup


We’re now just one month away from the US men’s national team's opening match at the 2022 World Cup, a date with Wales at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al-Rayyan.

That is, and will remain, the elephant in the room as Gregg Berhalter’s players do their best to catch his eye in the best ways possible with strong club performances. Let’s dive in.

USMNT subplot in Cincy’s upset win over RBNY

National-team observers couldn’t help but sit up and take notice of the opening match of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs on Saturday, where FC Cincinnati stunned the host New York Red Bulls with a 2-1 comeback win in their first-ever MLS postseason appearance, an Eastern Conference Round One battle.

That’s because the game-winning goal featured two characters in the ongoing USMNT melodrama. FCC striker Brandon Vazquez – he of the breakthrough season which, according to Gregg Berhalter, simply unfolded too late in the 2022 World Cup cycle for him to be added to the mix – blazed past RBNY center back Aaron Long, he of the inspiring comeback from a serious Achilles injury, an established Berhalter favorite who some allege has not justified that faith with his 2022 performances.

It’s savagely ironic to see the transition-obsessed Red Bulls get beaten by their own philosophy in that moment, and we can be confident that Vazquez did not overlook the poetic nature of the play. In fairness, it had been a quiet day for the San Diego native up to that point: He logged a modest 28 touches over the 90 minutes. But goals can drive narratives just like they change games.

Assist for Jordan Pefok vs. Gio Reyna’s BVB

The dream continues for USMNT missing man Jordan Pefok and Union Berlin. 

With 10 matches played, the Bundesliga’s lovable upstarts remain top of the table, still four points clear of Bayern Munich after Sunday’s 2-0 win over Borussia Dortmund. Those looking for signs of destiny or divine blessing around Die Eisernen could well point to the freakish nature of their opening goal, which was presented to Janik Haberer on a gilt-edged platter as Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel slipped and fell to botch a seemingly straightforward clearance under no pressure.

But Union were good value for their win, and Pefok played his part, flashing smart holdup play to lay off an inviting ball for Haberer to lace past Kobel from range to make it 2-0 after just 21 minutes. The Washington, D.C.-born striker saw relatively little of the ball overall, completing 5/8 passes, winning 3/6 aerial duels and making three defensive actions in 67 minutes before coming off with a leg injury that early reports suggest is not serious. 

Was Gregg Berhalter even watching? Well, we can probably say yes, at least in part. Because Gio Reyna played eight minutes off the bench for BVB, his second appearance of the week after logging about 20 minutes in Tuesday’s 1-1 UEFA Champions League draw, his first match action since limping out of the USMNT’s friendly vs. Saudi Arabia last month with his latest muscular issue. 

With another midweek fixture thanks to DFB-Pokal action on Wednesday, US fans will fervently hope Reyna keeps collecting minutes with no injury setbacks.

Josh Sargent scores again, tops Champo boot race

His Norwich City side couldn’t overcome a poor start that sentenced them to a 2-1 loss at Watford. But Sargent now stands alone atop the English Championship’s scoring chart thanks to a gorgeous strike that sparked a late Canaries rally and almost snatched them a point.

The St. Louis kid’s eighth goal of the campaign bore all the hallmarks of a confident, in-form attacker – smart movement on a flowing Norwich transition followed by tidy, purposeful touches and an excellently-placed finish just inside the near post, struck with nearly no backlift so as to give goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann little warning or hint.

Afterwards, Watford boss Slaven Bilic singled out Sargent for warm praise. 

“They can stretch you, Sargent and [Teemu] Pukki. Pukki didn't have a great game but every ball that goes to Pukki, even on the halfway line, you're like 'mayday!'” said the Croatian legend. “Sargent is an electric player. He reminds me of [Ryan] Giggs; pace, brave and everything. I like him.”

Norwich currently sit third in the table and on Tuesday will host Ethan Horvath and seventh-place Luton Town, who beat QPR 3-1 at the weekend. Horvath made four saves but was credited with a brutally unlucky own goal after an injury-time shot clanged off the crossbar, hit him and dribbled in.

Tim Weah, Yunus Musah back

Few USMNTers will be more closely watched in the final weeks before Qatar than Weah and Musah, arguably the two most gifted – and difficult to replace – members of the player pool, and lately injury-plagued. The good news is that both of them seem to be close to full speed after missing the September international window with knocks. 

Over the past week-plus, Weah came off the bench to make his first two league appearances of the season for Lille, first against Lens last weekend and then vs. Strasbourg on Friday.

He was key in the latter match, serving up an assist for his Canadian teammate Jonathan David and another to Remy Cabella as well to deliver a 3-0 away win for Les Dogues, who have now climbed to seventh place in Ligue 1. Both deliveries were low, driven balls from the right flank that may give us a hint as to why Berhalter has been so insistent on using Weah as his winger on that side.

Yunus Musah’s first LaLiga start for CF Valencia in over a month was a frustrating result for his team, who conceded a second-half equalizer to draw last-place Elche 2-2 at the Mestalla, but encouraging on an individual level. He completed 90% of his 21 passes, won 5/8 duels and made four tackles and four recoveries.

Defenders doing work: Ream, Robinson, Scally, Brooks

Over in the English Premier League, the USMNT’s Fulhamerica duo of Tim Ream and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson went the distance in the Cottagers’ 2-2 comeback draw vs. Bournemouth, completing 92% and 90% of their passes and posting 10 and five recoveries, respectively. 

It wasn’t a dominant or flawless outing for the two Yanks, per se, but a manifestation of their overall consistency and dependability as FFC live in midtable in their return to the Prem. Ream’s precision and experience in one of the toughest leagues on the planet are noteworthy considering that he seems to have fallen out of Berhalter’s USMNT plans after providing veteran leadership earlier in the coach’s tenure. 

Fulham’s Twitter account didn’t go so far as to @ the USMNT like Union Berlin’s did in regards to Pefok earlier in the year, but there was some subtext to this post:

Meanwhile, young fullback Joe Scally earned a full 90 for Borussia Mönchengladbach in their 2-2 draw at Wolfsburg, his third straight start since the international break. And USMNT exile John Brooks earned his first start for Benfica in their Taça de Portugal win over fourth-tier Caldas SC – though it took a penalty-kick shootout to vanquish the pesky upstarts after a 1-1 draw in open play.

That’s probably not quite enough to soften Berhalter’s heart, but the many Brooks backers among the USMNT faithful may find encouragement from him racking up some minutes.

Potpourri: Haji Wright, Malik Tillman back in the goals

Out in Turkey, Wright bagged a drought-breaking brace and was man of the match for Antalyaspor, his first goals since August, in their 3-2 loss to Alanyaspor:

It’s no coincidence that Wright’s club hasn’t won since August, either. They’re languishing in the Süper Lig relegation zone and are pretty clearly Haji-dependent, considering he’s scored 64% of their league goals (7 of 11). It’s a rather long shot at this point, but he might still have a chance to make the World Cup roster.

In Scotland, Tillman scored on an impressive solo dribble to help Rangers secure a 2-1 SPL win over Motherwell, a contribution accompanied by some diligent defensive work in the center of the park. His goal was pretty, even if Motherwell’s defenders may want to spend some time with the man in the mirror after their disinterested-looking reaction to his run.

Finally, Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams put in real shifts as Leeds United pushed EPL leaders Arsenal to the limit at Elland Road on Sunday. The Whites lost a tense match 1-0 as Bukayo Saka scored for the Gunners and Patrick Bamford missed the target on a second-half penalty kick that would have equalized. 

It’s cold comfort for a side that hasn’t won a league match since August, but Jesse Marsch’s LUFC were widely complimented for outplaying the Londoners most of the day.