The US men’s national team’s World Cup opener is looming, and as much good news as head coach Gregg Berhalter has gotten lately in terms of the health and form of key players, some weighty matters remain unsettled in the run-up to Monday’s Group B clash vs. Wales (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo).
Here’s a quick overview.
One of the big tells that a massive match is nigh: Tight lips in front of the microphones. With the nation’s first World Cup bow in eight years just a few days away, meaningful information about the squad is getting harder to glean, even as U.S. Soccer holds media availabilities with Berhalter and his players in Doha, Qatar on a near-daily basis.
Veteran journalist Grant Wahl noted one such moment during Tim Weah’s media roundtable on Tuesday, where the usually laid-back attacker clammed up when asked if he’d gotten any reps at the No. 9 position as opposed to his usual deployment on the right wing, kicking the query in the direction of his coach.
Maybe it’s nothing. Berhalter has in-form specialist 9s at his disposal like Josh Sargent and Haji Wright, and spent much of the last few weeks working daily with Jesús Ferreira during the USMNT’s October fitness camp for MLSers at FC Dallas’ Toyota Soccer Center. He’s also said in the past that he much prefers Weah out wide.
But if Berhalter considers Weah, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna all ready to start and wants to fit them all on the pitch at the same time without asking any of them to shoulder a midfielder’s defensive duties, shifting Weah to the center of the trident would be one way to do it.
McKennie is in many ways this team’s heart and soul, an influential personality and – on his day – a game-breaker in the final third with his aerial ability and late runs into the penalty box. Yet his World Cup run-in wasn’t exactly ideal. He strained a quadriceps muscle with Juventus last month, didn’t make it onto any of their recent gameday rosters and was one of the last USMNTers to arrive in Doha, on Monday.
“I think it’s going really well, from everything we heard,” said Berhalter, perhaps a bit cagily, of McKennie’s recovery on Monday. “He’s been training, trained with [Juventus] yesterday, wasn’t in the squad but we expect him to be fully in training … with Wes, we’re going to look at him tomorrow, we expect him to be OK, but we’ll see.”
The original timetable seemed to give the FC Dallas academy product enough time to be fit for Wales, though he mentioned feeling the injury a bit when speaking to media after the US roster reveal event via video conference on Nov. 9.
“I'm not traveling with the team today, we have a game at Verona [the following day], just because I felt a little bit today,” said McKennie. “But tomorrow I should be out trying to pass the ball and long balls, just little final knick-knacks and final touches just to make sure I'm fully 100% and ready to touch the ground running by the time the first game comes, and by the time I fly Monday to meet up with the boys.”
Given the mileage he and the USMNT’s other No. 8s are asked to clock, it would be a risk to start him on Monday without full confidence he’s fit to play an hour or more. Then consider that his likely replacement, Luca de la Torre, is finishing up his recovery from a muscular issue of his own – “my guess would be he wouldn't be 90 minutes fit on game one, and he's a guy we're going to have to ramp up during the tournament,” said Berhalter of LDLT last week.
So if Berhalter elects to play it safe with McKennie, we’ll have to see whether he makes a formation tweak from the usual 4-3-3 to more of a 4-2-3-1 (which he might well do even if McKennie does start), and how he plugs the midfielder’s spot, perhaps by fielding Reyna, Pulisic or Brenden Aaronson as a central attacking mid in the latter shape.
Reporters generally get to glimpse just the first 15 minutes of national teams’ training sessions before being ushered out of the venue, to keep secure even the slightest tidbits of confidential info. A red flag flashed fleetingly just the same at Tuesday’s practice at Al-Gharafa Stadium: The sight of Dest working apart from the main group, wearing running shoes rather than cleats.
“Load management” was the official explanation. Given his limited playing time (375 minutes across Serie A and UEFA Champions League action) for AC Milan this fall, that suggests – as we speculated last week – his adductor issue could limit to at least some extent the amount of physical exertion he can provide over the next month. It helps explain why Berhalter included so many right-back options in his squad, and raises real doubts about Dest’s readiness to start vs. Wales.
Does that open the door for the likes of Joe Scally or Brazil 2014 veteran DeAndre Yedlin to get the nod on Monday? Would Dest’s flair on the ball and attacking mindset be better suited for a super-sub role? Or maybe his minutes are being rationed on the training pitch so that they don’t have to be on game day. Whatever the case, it’s something to watch in the coming days.