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 game-watching.
The international break just ended and the European-based Americans have had time to thaw out, board their planes and return to their teams. Some, such as Tyler Adams and Chris Richards, picked up injuries during the break and will likely need some time to recover.
We’ve almost forgotten about club play during the, at times emotionally-taxing last couple weeks, which in many ways mirrored the first qualifying trio of games in September (although that’s a different topic that one of our writers will brutally cover later).
Nevertheless, the odd timing of CONCACAF qualification in these odd Covid times meant the winter transfer window slammed shut for most of Europe while our attentions were turned to Columbus, Hamilton and St. Paul, with several Americans finding new (or temporarily new) homes in the last few days.
Which returning Americans will play this weekend?
The first weekend following an break is always a weird time for players returning from overseas. In some cases, they are back to a club with a new coach at the helm. In many more cases, they are dropped to the bench, particularly for Saturday games that are often barely 48 hours after they are back on European soil (and likely jet-lagged).
This break was even more odd than usual since, while an official FIFA window, most European-based players were not required to leave their teams, as UEFA qualification is on hiatus until the few play-off games in March.
This could very well tip the hands of some coaches to rest players who might have a chance at starting, in favor of those who had a relaxed last couple weeks, particularly those teams with fixture congestion in the near future.
A few stand out as particularly interesting, and might provide some degree of disappointment for American fans stateside hoping to watch their favorite Nats over breakfast or lunch.
Weston McKennie is likely the most important player for Juventus recently, and his impact on the field is even more important now that they will be integrating several new players into the fold following an active transfer window.
Yet, Sunday’s opponent Hellas Verona is hardly one that will need the team to be at their best, and they have a much more important, and tougher Coppa Italia Semifinal four days later against Sassuolo. McKennie will certainly be in uniform on Sunday, but Massimiliano Allegri could opt to protect his valuable asset for this game.
For Christian Pulisic, Chelsea coach Thomas Tuchel faces a similar situation, although with much more travel in the days ahead, and with Pulisic’s impact prior to the break not nearly close to McKennie’s for Juventus.
They host third-tier club Plymouth Argyle on Sunday in the FA Cup quarterfinal, a practical gimme match that they could likely win with their U23 side. Four days later, they will appear in the FIFA Club World Cup semifinal in Abu Dhabi.
Pulisic is not needed for Sunday’s match, so a start for the returning American would be a surprise.
These are only two examples of many, so we’ll also be watching to see how Ricardo Pepi (who apparently broke his nose while stateside), Reggie Cannon, Antonee Robinson, Mark McKenzie, Sergiño Dest, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre and Timothy Weah fare for playing time this weekend.
Will Christian Pulisic’s late goal against Honduras be a springboard for a Chelsea revival?
This is a bit redundant considering that I’ve just questioned whether he will even play this weekend. However if I momentarily violate the implicit rules set by the title of this article, and allow myself to ask a question about the midweek games, then we can also look ahead to Chelsea’s Wednesday Game in Abu Dhabi.
Pulisic has been at best capable for Chelsea and the US over his last few games, but scored a fantastic, opportunistic goal against Honduras in the final game on Wednesday night.
Pulisic is the type of player that thrives in spurts based on momentum and a perfect moment building his confidence, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that putting one away against even a poor (and frostbitten) Honduras opponent could be a turning point.
Again, it is questionable whether Tuchel puts him on the field against Plymouth Argyle on Saturday, especially since games against lower-league foes often turn into dangerous hack-fests. However it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
More interesting is the possibility of him facing off against Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal or Emirati champions Al Jazira Club on Wednesday. These teams are certainly quality in their respective domestic circuits, but still, this game is where Pulisic could build upon his moment of glory on Thursday night.
Does Giovanni Reyna make his glorious return to the field for Borussia Dortmund?
This is the question that has been on Americans’ minds seemingly since cavemen first discovered fire (I’m sure an anthropologist will correct the factual error I likely just made).
When will Gio be back?
Dortmund head coach Marco Rose teased his return in his public comments today, stating “Gio is back! Very cool! He really wants to be there, had another two good weeks of training. To see him back and have his quality back is just nice and important for us.”
Does this mean he will play on Sunday when Dortmund host Leverkusen in a potentially important second-versus-third battle? We certainly hope so, and will be hitting refresh on the game-tracker starting well before the 9:30am Eastern US time kickoff for this game.
Which of the new overseas transfers will debut?
Several transfers involving Americans not in the USMNT camp happened in the final days of the window. Here, we’ll ignore the transfers that happened earlier in January, where debuts already happened.
This essentially leaves us looking at the trio of Americans who joined Bundesliga teams; Justin Che, George Bello and Kevin Paredes.
In the case of Che, his Hoffenheim coach Sebastian Hoeneß already strongly indicated that he would not be thrown into the water in their Saturday trip to Mainz. They do have quite a few absences that could see him at least in uniform, but a start at this point is highly unlikely.
Concerning Kevin Paredes, he’s a young prospect who VfL Wolfsburg see as a long-term investment for their future (which might be in the 2. Bundesliga at the rate they’re going), so it’s understandable if his team is conservative with his initial playing time.
Then again, they have been utter disasters over the last three months, and head coach Florian Kohfeldt is utterly devoid of ideas on how to pull them out of their tailspin, so seeing the 18 year-old midfield talent already in uniform, and maybe in a substitute role on Sunday against last-place Fürth isn’t out of the question.
Bello might be the most lucky; Arminia Bielefeld head coach Frank Kramer was very positive about Bello so far in pre-game comments ahead of their visit from Borussia Mönchengladbach. His main competition in the backfield, Andres Andrade and Jacob Laursen, are likely out with injuries, so he could be forced into a quick starting role.
On the subject of Borussia Mönchengladbach….
Two weeks ago, I touched upon the situation of Gladbach phenom Joe Scally, who seems to be going through his first professional slump, and was subsequently left off of the USMNT roster.
Gladbach is visiting Bielefeld on Saturday, a team with which they are directly competing to avoid falling down into the relegation places (one point separates them at 12th and 14th place, with Bielefeld only two points ahead of the relegation playoff spot). They need a win, or at least a draw.
It was perhaps fortuitous that Scally remained with the Foals during the break, as it allowed him an extra week to work with his team, the coach, and try to get through any kinks in his game that might have built up from the constant pressure of (at least) weekly league, cup and international games over the last few months, disrupted by the short Christmas break (and likely trip overseas to eat some turkey with his family).
Predictions in the German media currently have Scally on the bench, with typical center back Ramy Bensebaini taking a left wingback role, and Stefan Lainer on the right.
Scally would be a more naturally fitting player on the left, with his recent direct competition Luca Netz also having a shout for the starting role.
Whether he starts, is called upon by head coach Adolf Hütter in a substitute role, and how well he does with the time on the field will be a strong indicator of what we can expect for his development over the next few weeks and months, heading into what many of us had previously assumed was a direct path to the final 23 called upon by Gregg Berhalter for Qatar.