Before a full weekend of action, Yanks Abroad takes a look at what are some of the burning questions and interesting stories that we’ll be following in our weekend viewing.
With most of the European leagues we cover back from the winter break, this weekend’s action offers a wealth of intriguing story-lines. Since it is likely the last full round of games before Gregg Berhalter drops the full USMNT roster for the upcoming qualifiers sometime towards the end of next week, this puts added significance on several players who are either beginning spells at new clubs, or trying to return from periods of inaction.
There are a lot of open question to examine for the multitude of Americans playing this weekend, so we’ll narrow it down to the five that are burning at the top of the list (with a few honorable mentions at the end).
Does Weston McKennie continue to build the momentum that’s established him as Juve’s most important player?
Weston McKennie is probably already the Yanks Abroad player of the season, even with almost half a season (and admittedly the most interesting part) left to play. There are all of the elements of a Hollywood drama: personal strife and drama, mistakes, punishment, redemption, overcoming adversity, and, most recently, a heartbreak that precedes the final, glorious battle.
Another way to put less dramatically it is that over the last few weeks, McKennie has established himself as the most consistently important player in the Juventus squad, but they have a lot of work to do.
Any lingering doubts of his supreme importance were put to rest on Wednesday night in their Supercoppa Italiana loss to Inter Milan, where he was his team’s best player over 120 minutes, scored their only goal of the game, and was almost universally recognized by the finicky Italian media for his superb play.
This only continues a trend that started to build steam in October, took hold in November, and continued in December and into the new year, despite the American’s short absence due to a minor knee injury.
At this point, Juventus as a team are still ailing, looking up to the four Champions League places from below, desperately needing to step on the gas. With one of their most important attackers, Federico Chiesa, out for the rest of the season, they are in a tough position to reach and maintain their place in the top four positions, to guarantee a place in next seasons’ Champions League, and avoid the financial disaster that would come with missing out.
Their home game against 14th-place Udinese on Saturday is exactly the sort of trap where they cannot slip up, as these are the winnable games for the taking that will, in the end, separate them from their direct competition Atalanta and Napoli. At this point, McKennie is the only consistent, and currently healthy contributor in front of their back line who has shown he can maintain the level to bring them to this standard.
Will any of the European-based USMNT front-line options stand out before Gregg Berhalter and his staff decide on call-ups?
As is typically the case for the USMNT, there are just as many questions surrounding the forward options as there are options. A large number of current or recent (or justifiably forgotten) contributors across Gregg Berhalter’s preferred front-three arrangement will take the field this coming weekend. Without going through all of the options (I wouldn’t want to live in a world where Norwich versus Everton is a weekend highlight), here is what could begin to provide some tiny amount of clarity, either on the short- or long-term.
Will Ricardo Pepi start or sub for Augsburg against Frankfurt on Sunday, and does he score? Pepi’s new team has been hugely supportive of their new record purchase, and it should also be said that he is a sure-fire call-up for Berhalter, and a likely starter no matter what happens – even though he hasn’t scored a goal since early-October.
However, Augsburg have slipped into the Bundesliga relegation places, and pressure is inevitably slowly mounting. Even if Pepi doesn’t produce any scoring output over the two games before the break, there won’t be any crisis, yet. However a confident Pepi coming off of a pair of strong Bundesliga performances heading into the three qualifiers is what we all want to see.
Does Daryl Dike start to push himself back into conversation during his debut at QPR on Saturday? Dike has been out of the picture since the Gold Cup last summer and will have to perform well over a longer period of time to move back up Berhalter’s priority list.
West Brom have targeted Saturday’s game at QPR as his debut for the team; whether it’s as a starter or sub is still a mystery. What isn’t a mystery is that if he delivers for the Baggies like they are expecting, Berhalter will have a difficult case excluding him from the team in spring and summer international windows.
Will Matthew Hoppe get an extended run-out in Mallorca’s Copa del Rey match versus Espanyol on Saturday? Hoppe made a surprising return to Mallorca’s bench last weekend for their game at Levante, and an even more surprising return to the field as they were searching for an equalizer.
Whether Mallorca wants to shop him for a loan move (in which case they have to play him, right?), see him as a useful attacking option (in which case they also have to play him, right?) or are still trying figure out his role in the team (in which case they definitely have to play him, right?) is unclear.
Saturday’s Copa del Rey game against fellow La Liga team Espanyol will go a long way to answer that. Nevertheless, similarly to Dike, he has a long road back to national team consideration, and any chance he might be given this weekend will only be a first step after a very long absence.
Will we get any clues about going on with Timothy Weah at Lille? The team has been extraordinarily tight-lipped about the American’s injury suffered late last year. Whether he’s nearing a return, for example on Sunday when they visit Olympique Marseille, or still out for an amount of time that will keep him out of contention for the impending call-up, is something we’ll likely not know until he magically appears on a roster list.
We’ll keep our eyes open this weekend, hoping for the best, but expecting less.
How will Christian Pulisic be used by Tuchel this weekend in their final chance to bite into Manchester City’s Prem lead?
The most skilled attacker for the USMNT has somehow become the most important defender for Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea…or so it’s seemed lately. After missing what seemed to be an eternity due to an injury, Pulisic has been a combination of a workhorse and a Swiss army knife for Tuchel. He’s played the full 90 minutes in their last five Premier League games dating back to mid-December, as well as another 58 minutes in one FA Cup start and just over 55 minutes in a pair of Carabao Cup games in the same span of time.
He’s played on the wing, he’s been a false-nine, he’s been atop the attack and, frequently, he’s been a wing-back. I think he was even in disguise as the ref in the first half against Brentford in December, but we’re still awaiting confirmation that it was really him.
Pulisic got a well-deserved rest on Wednesday night in Chelsea’s Carabao Cup second-leg win against Tottenham, a game where playing him would have only been an unnecessary risk of causing an injury due to sheer overwork. Saturday’s visit to the current Premiership leaders is a different story, and will test Tuchel’s newfound love for Pulisic as a wingback.
His night off on Wednesday makes a start against the Citehzens almost a certainty, one would hope, so the open question is how Tuchel plans to use him. Even though all but the German coach and his Chelsea squad would admit it, the title race is effectively over. Nevertheless, a win by the Blues would reduce the deficit to seven points with 16 games left to play. City might drop seven or eight points over their remaining games, and if Chelsea wins out, well, there’s always a chance.
Where will Tuchel play Pulisic on Saturday? Honestly, nobody, probably not even Tuchel, has a clue about that right now. Even with several absences, Chelsea has the abundance of quality to afford the luxury of playing the American at what is commonly accepted as his most effective role on the wing.
Sadly, the coach doesn’t seem to agree. Romelu Lukaku is back from the ledge, so at the very least, Pulisic won’t be used as center forward. Whether he’s lined up behind the Belgian, out wide, or a bit farther back, is a mystery that will be answered on Saturday.
Does Yunus Musah continue to be the Copa del Rey hero for Valencia?
We’ve already covered the dichotomy of this season so far for young Yunus Musah at Valencia in Spain, where he’s been mostly a forgotten man in La Liga, but a hero in the Copa del Rey. In Valencia’s three Cup games, he has scored two goals and set up another, with at least one man-of-the-match recognition from his team.
It seems as though his strong Cup play finally forced the hand of coach José Bordalás, who gave Musah the start against Real Madrid over the weekend, a 4-1 loss. That game didn’t go well, although it wasn’t more of a disaster for Musah than for any of his other teammates.
Valencia’s next outing is on Saturday, where once again, for the fourth time, they face a lower division foe, Atletico Baleares, in the round of 16 of the Copa del Rey. This is the situation where Musah has shined.
Given an almost identical situation to those three times, and having a well-rested Musah at his disposal, it would be an unexpected and undeserved blow to the 19 year-old midfielder if he not allowed to continue the run he has started.
Valencia have league games against Sevilla and Atletico Madrid in the six days following Saturday’s Cup outing, their final two before Musah certainly boards a flight across the Atlantic to join the USMNT.
It would probably be somewhat too optimistic to expect him to see a wealth of playing time in either or both of those games, which makes a strong, confidence-building outing this weekend, even against an overpowered third-division foe, important.
Is Venezia FC almost down for the count or do they have some gas left in the tank?
The Yanks Abroad feel-good story of the year is how plucky Venezia has exceeded expectations in their return to Serie A, with summer arrival Gianluca Busio becoming one of their most important players and previously-unheralded Tanner Tessmann also making huge strides.
The promise given by some major upsets (beating Roma, drawing Juventus) had them momentarily looking like a safe bet to secure a second straight season in Serie A, however the hard reality has kicked in as of late. They have not won in the league since November 21 – seven straight – and have had an increasing number of total stinkers during that time.
Salernitana and Genoa have been almost as poor during this span of time, and Cagliari have fared only slightly better, so they are still one point ahead of the relegation places.
Their chance to open 2022 with what could have been a momentum-building win over last-place Salernitana was cut out (or most likely delayed depending on likely legal battles) by Italy’s Covid crisis, which immediately threw them into a horrendously difficult run where they face all four of Serie A’s top-four teams over a span of five games in league and cup play.
The lone reprieve from this gauntlet is on Sunday, when they host fellow promoted team Empoli, who have done well for themselves, attaining a respectable 11th place. With Inter and Napoli to follow and a difficult trip to Torino after, this is most likely their only strong chance to take a necessary three points until they host Genoa in late-February.
A draw on Sunday will do little to help their cause, so unless they take all three points at home, they could find themselves with a tough upward climb to make very soon.
Is Joe Scally still an automatic starter for Borussia Mönchengladbach after his short absence, and with his competition in the back line (Stefan Lainer/Luca Netz) playing well? (vs. Leverkusen, Saturday)
Will KV Oostende winter arrival Kyle Duncan debut for his new Belgian team? (vs. SV Zulte Waregem Saturday)
Does Middelsbrough loan arrival Folarin Balogun immediately impress for his temporary new Championship team? (vs. Reading, Saturday)
Missed the cut for technical reasons:
Does Gio Reyna return for BVB on Friday versus Freiburg? Nope!
Does Bryan Reynolds debut for his new loan team <still unconfirmed> versus Standard Liege on Saturday? If the involved parties ever get off their behinds and make this rumored deal actually happen, maybe it makes next week’s list.
Will Sergiño Dest fire Barcelona to victory in their Supercopa de España final against Athletic Bilbao on Sunday? Not in our current universe. As rumors would have it, the delayed release of the upcoming Marvel movie “Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” is really due to the producers axing a plot line where Barcelona wins any trophies at all this season, since it was considered too shocking and unbelievable by horrified test audiences.