Well, the wait to see a full-strength U.S. men’s national team will have to go on for just a little bit longer. With the injury withdrawal of Christian Pulisic, the USMNT will be without its best player for the team’s second game of 2020.
However, while Pulisic’s absence will remove one key puzzle piece from Gregg Berhalter’s starting XI, this squad still represents the closest thing to an American A-Team that we’ve seen in quite some time.
The U.S. will take on Wales on Thursday in the team’s first match since February’s win over Costa Rica but, for virtually every member of this squad, this gathering is their first in almost exactly a year.
Of the players in the squad, only Sebastian Lletget, Reggie Cannon and Uly Llanez have earned caps in 2020, with this team of European-based stars gathering for the first time since November 2019.
Weston McKennie is here, having moved to Juventus this summer. So too is Sergino Dest, now a Barcelona regular. Tyler Adams is back for the first time in over a year-and-a-half, and now a Champions League quarter-final goalscorer, while Zack Steffen has featured for Manchester City since last starring in a USMNT uniform.
However, while the return of most of the team’s stars is cause for excitement, so too is the arrival of a talented crop of newcomers. Gio Reyna leads a group of 10 uncapped players, which also includes Valencia starlet Yunus Musah and Sebastian Soto, recently a target of Chile.
The combination of big names and talented newcomers gives Berhalter plenty of options, even without Pulisic. The Chelsea star’s withdrawal leaves the USMNT without a penciled-in starter, but that could be great news for several players fighting for spots in the attack.
Here’s a look at several ways that Berhalter can have the USMNT line up on Thursday…
McKennie and Adams together again
Berhalter finally has his midfield. Well, most of it at least. It’s been a year-and-a-half since we’ve seen McKennie and Adams together in a USMNT midfield, and much has changed in that year-and-a-half.
Adams has grown into a regular for RB Leipzig, a legitimate Bundesliga contender, while McKennie is now starting behind Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus. If all goes to plan, these two will play in the U.S. midfield for years to come, and it’s been too long since Berhalter has been able to pair them together.
The third spot next to them, on the other hand, is fairly open. Sebastian Lletget is a fine option, both stylistically and experience-wise and, to put it bluntly, the LA Galaxy star didn’t fly all the way from LAX to Wales to sit on the bench.
Richie Ledezma and Johnny Cardoso are also options, but the latter, in particular, would be a good bet to replace Adams as the No.6 later in the match.
At fullback, there’s quite a position battle shaping up, which is an absolutely wild concept considering the USMNT’s struggles at the position in recent years.
Dest can be the Swiss Army knife, as he’s shown the ability to play on either side, while Cannon and Antonee Robinson are battling for minutes at right and left back, respectively. Let’s assume that each will get a start to show what they can do, so we’ll give Cannon the first go.
This team is the relatively safe option, and the most likely choice for Berhalter given the circumstances. It’s always tempting to go completely gung-ho with exciting players, and there are certainly benefits to throwing them in the deep end, but doing so in this friendly in these circumstances probably wouldn’t be the best use of this team’s time.
With most players not arriving until just a few days before the game, there is still an adjustment process going on for these newcomers. That process, for most of them, will take time. It takes time to learn how Berhalter wants to play and what their specific roles will be. And, with that in mind, the thought of Berhalter tossing them into the fire against a solid, veteran Wales team is unlikely.
Reyna at No.10
Reyna’s almost-certain USMNT debut is arguably the most exciting thing about this friendly, and the Borussia Dortmund star’s positioning is arguably the most interesting aspect of that debut.
The teenager has kicked off his first full season with Dortmund in two positions, as Reyna has featured out wide on the left and as a No.10 behind Erling Haaland. Now, even when he’s played out wide, Reyna has tended to drift inside to create.
He has the ability to beat players off the dribble and has also shown an ability to create that is far beyond his years. Reyna is a player that you want on the ball as often as possible and, when he does get the ball, he tends to make the correct decision with it.
However, while it is tempting to put Reyna centrally, Berhalter has hinted that he sees Reyna on the wing, at least initially. But could Pulisic’s absence change the plan, giving Berhalter reason to experiment?
If Reyna is deployed centrally, he’ll have plenty of cover behind him. McKennie and Adams should have no problem finding the energy to cover the midfield, giving Reyna freedom to roam, and a roaming Reyna would be a good thing for whoever’s in the attack.
Should the Dortmund star be deployed as a No. 10, that would open up a spot on the wing. Berhalter could turn to Llanez or even Nicholas Gioacchini (more on him later), but Konrad de la Fuente would be the fun option, even if he hasn’t quite broken through at Barca.
An experimental XI
This is the first USMNT game in far too long and, because of that, this game has an inflated sense of purpose. At the end of the day, though, this is a friendly, so why not treat it like one?
Thursday’s match with Wales is a tough test, yes, but it also presents an opportunity. One way to approach that opportunity would be to give the team’s regulars reps together.
The other way would be to do that against Panama, a CONCACAF foe that serves as a good benchmark ahead of World Cup qualifying. Instead of experimenting against Panama, Berhalter and the U.S. could use that game as a test run ahead of qualifiers, which would then make the Wales game the ‘why not?’ game.
Soto remains the most likely to start up top, with Josh Sargent withdrawn and Gioacchini still new to the U.S. program, but why can’t the Caen forward get the chance?
He sees himself as a striker, despite being able to play on the wing, and it’s likely we’ll see him get time as a No.9 at some point. Llanez is certainly another option in the attack, given the fact that he scored on his debut in February.
Musah, meanwhile, is the big one. You can’t say he isn’t in good form, having recently featured in Valencia’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid. And you can’t say a friendly against Wales will be any more pressure-packed than a clash with La Liga’s champions.
Despite his age, Musah may be ready for this and, even if he isn’t, it may be worth putting the dual-national in there anyway as a recruiting measure.
If the U.S. goes defensive, Cardoso gives the U.S. a presence as a No.6, allowing Adams and McKennie the ability to push forward a little bit to press when needed.
And, at centerback, Chris Richards could be given the chance to make his claim for a spot in Berhalter’s best XI. As things stand, John Brooks, when healthy, is the only lock, with Richards,Matt Miazga, Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman, Aaron Long, and Mark McKenzie all in the mix.
Richards has already featured for Bayern Munich this season and has been seen as one of the more promising players in the pool, and his introduction will come at some point during these two games.
Are we likely to see all of these newcomers involved? Almost certainly not, at least at the start. But, if Berhalter wants to shuffle the deck at some point, this is a team that would, at worst, be fun to watch.