National Writer: Charles Boehm

What we learned from USMNT's Minnesota romp over Oman


The vibes were good, the goals were well-taken, the intensity and execution much elevated from Saturday's game with Uzbekistan… and the opponent was, on balance, pretty hapless.

Maybe Oman just suffered an off night. Perhaps the Uzbeks – who just stunned Mexico with an injury-time equalizer to snatch a 3-3 draw down in Atlanta – really are getting slandered by the FIFA rankings system that places them 74th in the world, one spot behind Oman. But the US men’s national team’s 4-0 win over their guests from Arabia at Allianz Field was lopsided enough to render balanced evaluations very difficult.

Nevertheless! Here’s a few observations from the USMNT’s second win from two in the September international window.

Big Mac: Still a main course

It’s been a weird year for Weston McKennie. After a solid World Cup campaign in Qatar, Juventus’ financial woes made him a saleable asset over the winter, leading to him parachuting into Leeds United to join his compatriots Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson for a relegation dogfight which… did not go well at all. Then he returned to Turin in the summer, seemingly guaranteed to be shipped out for whatever price could be mustered – yet he’s still wearing the black and white stripes, and has appeared in all three of their early Serie A matches.

It’s fair to say his tendency towards inconsistency has complicated his club career. Yet when you watch him on a night when he’s on song and feeling it, and Tuesday was most definitely one of those, the fluid ease and energy with which he deploys his all-around skillset remains jaw-dropping.

Here he logged 86 touches and completed 61/72 passes (85%), including two key passes and 15/18 long balls, most of them big switches of play that made Oman scramble over and over again to keep some semblance of a sturdy defensive shape, as well as three interceptions, five defensive actions and 11 recoveries. The FC Dallas academy alum was the straw that stirred the USMNT’s drink in St. Paul.

“We wanted to purposely go to one side, drag them over, and then we'd have two in midfield that [Oman’s] attacking midfielder would have a hard time dealing with and we’d be able to switch the ball,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter. “Weston was a key contributor to that, he saw the space and was able to take advantage of it.”

There’s a reason Berhalter pairs McKennie with Yunus Musah in his engine room every chance he gets, even with the latter not yet playing regularly for AC Milan. Their combined ground coverage, distribution and ball advancement is the heart and soul of the team at present, not to mention the engaging personalities they bring to the group.

Striking options at the No. 9 spot

From the moment he committed his international future to the United States, many among the USMNT fanbase wrote Folarin Balogun’s name in pen atop the USMNT striker depth chart for the next 10 years. And that may yet prove to be the case. But Ricardo Pepi is clearly intent on cultivating a competition for minutes at the tip of the spear.

As he did in Saturday's 3-0 victory, the FC Dallas homegrown product came off the bench in relief of Balogun and scored a classic marksman’s goal off an excellent low cross from New England Revolution fullback DeJuan Jones. It showcased the clever movement, quick shot release and ‘olfato del gol’ that powered Pepi’s rapid rise from gangly El Paso kid to rising USMNT star. He also set up McKennie for a great look at goal the midfielder clipped wide of the target with Omani goalkeeper Ibrahim Al-Mukhaini at his mercy.

“You always want your forwards scoring goals. I think our job as teammates and as coaches is to put them in positions to score goals,” said Berhalter postgame. “That's the important thing, and then leave it up to them, give them the quality to finish it off. But it's important that they both scored and as far as we see the competition, it's twofold, right? It's what they do for their clubs each and every week and what they do for us when they're in camp. Some of those are easy to measure because they're playing 90 minutes every week, and sometimes they're not, and it becomes complicated.”

Pepi now has six goals in six caps this year. He’s certainly doing his part, though he needs to carve out regular minutes at PSV Eindhoven this autumn. And no one should mistake this month’s version of Balogun – even with his clinical poacher’s finish for the opener – for the real deal. With a preseason injury and that transfer from Arsenal to AS Monaco late in the summer window, he’s clearly playing catchup in fitness and sharpness terms.

“I wanted to be here. I had a little injury in preseason, but I spoke to Gregg before camp and I told him I wanted to be a part of it,” Balogun told TNT in a postgame interview. “I'm just getting match fitness and it was nice to have a runout today and get a good result.”

Benja belongs

Inter Miami CF teenage homegrown sensation Benjamin Cremaschi made his USMNT debut off the bench in the second half, and while Oman had gotten run ragged by that point, he showed personality beyond his 18 years as he insistently stamped his name on the proceedings.

That’s a lovely passage of play after yet another big switch… from Jones’ clean first touch and slotted pass into the half-space… to Cremaschi’s movement, recognition and technique… to Kevin Paredes’ decisive off-ball running and excellent first-time delivery. The Miami starlet most definitely did not look out of place.

This appearance in no way limits the Argentine-American dual national’s options at international level. We can reasonably expect his Herons teammate Lionel Messi to exert some measure of influence in the Albiceleste direction. But the US seem to have made a positive impression with this month’s invite.

“We didn't talk about that,” said Berhalter when asked if he’d gained any sense of how Cremaschi is approaching the choice of national-team allegiance he must eventually make. “I guess we’ll have time to talk about it. To me it was about letting him see the environment, see the guys, getting to know the guys, know the coaches. His performance today did nothing to change my opinion: I think he's a highly, highly talented player, exciting potential, and I think he showed that today. So overall pleased with him.”

Bits and bobs

Brenden Aaronson isn’t everyone’s cup of tea; some dismiss him as too lightweight, too frenetic in the final third after so many years in high-pressing systems, too much of a tweener, caught between winger, second striker and free 8. But he just keeps earning USMNT minutes, regardless of who else is available to the coaching staff, because of his relentless work rate and hunger to attack.

“Brenden's a guy like, he's the security blanket for us,” said Berhalter. “He's a guy that we know we can put in and he gives the exact same effort every single time. And some games it's better than others, but it's never for lack of trying. And he's a fantastic player to coach, extremely coachable, great attitude, his teammates love him. And you really like when you give a player like that an opportunity and he takes advantage of it.”

No one in the current player pool can talk that talk like McKennie, and hats off to the engaging Texan for this sly roast of his elder counterpart DaMarcus Beasley on the TNT postgame show, dropping in a Couva reference to keep DMB on his toes:

Whatever lessons can be learned from this month’s opponents, it gets a TON more difficult when the USMNT gather again in October for Stateside matches vs. Germany and Ghana. Those two friendlies figure to show us a lot more about where this group really stands relative to the global elite they aspire to be part of.