The USMNT begins what is likely their early send-off tour for the World Cup on Wednesday evening, when they host top African qualifiers Morocco in Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium.
With September’s international window – the last before the start of the festivities in Qatar – likely to see Gregg Berhalter’s team suiting up in Europe, the trio of upcoming games on American soil in June are almost certain to be the last moments in front of a friendly home crowd.
The first of these three games, which precede a trip to El Salvador, is against a surprisingly tough Morocco squad, who were top finishers in African qualification, having gone undefeated in their eight games.
In fact, Morocco’s domination went far beyond their impressive record of six wins and a pair of draws, culminating in their 5-2 dismantling of Congo over two legs in the final round. In their eight total games in qualification, they outscored their opponents by a 25-3 margin, with two of those three conceded goals coming in the final pair of games.
This will present a tough test for Berhalter’s squad, who have at times struggled for cohesion and, more critically, for goals when playing against well-organized opponents during CONCACAF qualification.
While the result of Wednesday’s game has little bearing aside from pride and a slight bump or dip in the now-meaningless FIFA ranking, it will be a test of how the Americans will perform against an unfamiliar, yet high-quality team, the likes of which they will have to eventually face in Qatar.
Berhalter was able to call in a strong, yet incomplete squad of players for these four games, and it is one which has many questions still to be answered at nearly every position on the field.
While the preferred group of wing players on the edges of his front-three – Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Paul Arriola – are all available and fully healthy, key absences in nearly every other area of the field will force the coach to try out new options and combinations.
The most amount of print has been dedicated to the USMNT’s endless search for a consistently effective #9 between the wings, after none of the previously attempted options have managed to stay consistent and healthy for more than a couple games.
Currently in the hot-seat in this position are Haji Wright, who came on strongly in Turkey in the spring, and Jesus Ferreira, who is putting up MVP-like numbers so far in MLS, and has shown promise in his previous call-ups during qualification.
In the midfield, the prefer “MMA” combination of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams has also suffered from injuries and a general lack of playing time in the last few months of their respective domestic seasons.
McKennie finally returned to the field for Juventus in the last minutes of their Serie A finale, and has been training in Cincinnati. While he is expected to play on Wednesday, Berhalter clarified in his pre-game comments that he will not start, and would play for a maximum of 20 minutes.
Adams and Musah have remained healthy, but have seen a decrease of playing time towards the end of their domestic campaigns, perhaps a more acute issue for the latter, who was too often left out completely for Valencia, or used as a garbage-time substitute in La Liga play.
While this would have created a perfect opening for Montreal’s Djordje Mihailovic, who was initially called in after a hot start in MLS, to make a case, he was an unfortunate late scratch from the squad due to an ankle injury.
It will be interesting to see how new addition Malik Tillman, whose paperwork to switch from Germany to the USMNT was just approved today by FIFA, will be deployed by Berhalter, as he has lined up across the midfield as well as up front in club play.
In the defense, Berhalter has already announced that Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long will form the starting partnership in central defense on Wednesday, with Long stepping in for Miles Robinson after the Atlanta star ruptured his Achilles in MLS play.
The position remains largely in flux, however, with Cameron Carter-Vickers and Erik Palmer-Brown both trying to push their way into a regular spot, and Chris certain to be in the mix when he returns from injury.
On the flanks, Sergiño Dest’s absence through injury will give several contenders for backup on the right, namely Reggie Cannon, Joe Scally and DeAndre Yedlin, their shot to stake a claim. Similarly, Scally and George Bello will be looking to impress if and when given the chance cover for presumptive starting left-back Antonee Robinson.
The keeper position is also decidedly less settled than several months ago, with no clear-cut #1 stepping forward. Zack Steffen’s absence has opened the door to Sean Johnson, who enters the camp on a hot streak that includes six straight shut-outs for NYCFC, although it was confirmed in Berhalter’s pre-game comments that Matt Turner will start over Johnson and Ethan Horvath.
While only preparing for their second World Cup appearance this century, Morocco has a surprising amount of starpower, and will test Berhalter’s men from start to finish. They would be stronger had Pulisic’s Chelsea teammate Hakim Ziyech not fallen out with coach and retired early, however still have a number of top players across the field.
This includes PSG star defender Achraf Hakimi, Sevilla starting striker Youssef En-Nesyri, on-loan Marseille attacking midfielder Amine Harit, new FC Bayern right back Noussair Mazraoui, and a number of other players scattered throughout Europe’s top leagues.
Their defense has been key in their success, and could feature two of Hakimi, Mazraoui or Watford defender Adam Masina as outside wingbacks, with a middle three of Nayef Aguerd, Samy Mmaee and team captain Romain Saïss.
The game kicks off at 7:30pm Eastern time at TQL stadium in Cincinnati.