Roster shuffle pays off for USMNT and Berhalter in pre-World Cup win over Morocco


Roster shuffle pays off for USMNT and Berhalter in pre-World Cup win over Morocco

CINCINNATI — With less than six months to go before the World Cup, Wednesday’s friendly against Morocco was the perfect time for US men’s national team manager Gregg Berhalter to venture a little into mad chemist mode, both in terms of roles and staff . There are times when such experiments can fly in the face of a manager. But this time Berhalter’s corrections largely paid off in the 3-0 win.

In terms of friendlies, this counted as an impressive win for the USA as Morocco are also tied at the World Cup. Nor was this a case of the Atlas Lions fielding an undermanned squad. While disgraced striker Hakim Ziyech was absent, nine of the 11 players on the pitch at TQL Stadium played in Morocco’s last World Cup qualifier and one of the relative newcomers was Azzedine Ounahi, who scored twice in the 4-1 second-leg win over Congo DR , who secured the ticket to Qatar.

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There have been questions about how USA would fare against such an opponent given their CONCACAF-heavy schedule – largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and participation in official competitions – over the past two and a half years. But even in some jagged moments of transition and a vulnerability to Morocco changing tactics, the USA were the better team that night and deserved their win.

However, the victory needs to be put into context. It was still a friendly and the result will mean nothing next November. Only football fans will remember the Americans’ 1-1 draw against France before the 2018 World Cup Les Bleus in the end won. This game is a means to an end of preparation, nothing more.

“I felt like the group went out and showed exactly how good we can be, but also vulnerable at times,” said Berhalter. “I think we’re very happy with the result. We still know we have to keep improving and that’s why this game was so good for us.”

To that end, one of Berhalter’s tweaks included placing Brenden Aaronson in a central midfield position, rather than his usual spot on the wing. The newly minted Leeds United midfielder was effective on both sides of the ball, scoring the first US goal in the 26th minute and also found some timely tackles. With FIFA possibly deciding to expand the World Cup squad to 26 players, versatility may not be as important as it used to be, but it still has value, and the fact that Aaronson looked just as comfortable in the middle as he did on the wing bodes well given the extra tactical creases Berhalter can throw at opponents.

With Aaronson in the middle, Yunus Musah dropped a little lower in support of Tyler Adams. Christian Pulisic found space wide and deep to concede the ball and then cut in centrally, allowing the USA to create some solid chances.

“We wanted to use it [Pulisic] and [Aaronson] in those positions to really hurt the opponent and then still have three guys high in the back row who could run behind them and hold theirs [back] five pinned back,” Berhalter said.

The starting centre-back pairing of Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman also looked solid and put out some fires, and Cameron Carter-Vickers was also effective when he came on as a half-time substitute. Long walked the distance and looked very mobile, which was a concern given his comeback from last year’s surgery to repair an Achilles tendon. They showed they could add to the attack as well, with Zimmerman’s lofted ball setting the table for Pulisic to knock Aaronson off.

Zimmerman said it was a combination of chemistry and eye contact that allowed the game to happen.

“I take a touch; I look up to see what my options are further down the box. I understand [Pulisic] look at me and change the tempo and right away I put my head down to hit it over the top,” he said. “It’s one of those things where you have to constantly work on your chemistry and I think we’ve got one good feeling for each other in that regard.”

The Americans were on the right track when Timothy Weah doubled the US team’s lead six minutes later with a long-range shot after a nine-pass sequence. Berhalter even found time to hand international debuts to defender Joe Scally (left back that night), forward Haji Wright and 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman, who had never set foot in the United States prior to this camp and his international affiliation from Germany.

But despite all the changes, Pulisic remains the focus of the US attack. He put in a lot of power on the first goal, deftly collecting Zimmerman’s pass, dodging two Moroccan defenders in play and putting the ball in the open net with the keeper tied to Aaronson. The assist was the 10th of his international career, allowing him to have double-digit goals and assists in 49 games, faster than any other American male. (Landon Donovan did this in 50 games.)

When asked how difficult it was to execute such a touch, Pulisic insisted it was no big deal.

“I think it might not be easy for you guys, but it’s what I’ve been doing since … I’ve been training my whole life,” he said. “It’s a touch I expect from myself, but yeah, maybe not for everyone.”

Berhalter was more ebullient.

“The players’ ability to control the ball at high speed and change direction with the ball at high speed is what really differentiates players at the next level and Cristian definitely has that,” said Berhalter.

Pulisic’s other notable contribution that night was handing the ball to former youth national team-mate Wright after Pulisic received a hip check from Achraf Hakimi and earned a penalty in the 61st minute. Pulisic said he was just trying to give Wright “a little bit of confidence,” but the gesture was appreciated.

“I asked him for it and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal in my first game and it’s a really great feeling,” said Wright.

The night was not without concerns. The United States looked vulnerable on the flanks, especially when Morocco switched attack points with long diagonal passes. This resulted in full-backs Reggie Cannon and Antonee Robinson being isolated and central defenders being forced into difficult decisions with late-arriving other help. With a better finish, Morocco could have been the ones to strike first.

“It was about how quickly we could release their outside defense,” said Berhalter. “In the first half, Hakimi had too much time on the ball and Antonee let go a little late. I think sometimes the defensive line was too deep, giving the opponent too much space and in the physical fights sometimes I think we were dominated in our backline and Aaron [Long] is a quality player and I think he will use this as a learning experience because it was a good opponent, a good striker, the guy has scored a lot of goals this year. And he got very physical, but for us it’s about team defence. Getting pressure on the ball makes it a lot easier for centre-backs.”

The game of the strikers is also scrutinized again and again. Berhalter expressed satisfaction with the performances of Wright and starter Jesus Ferreira, calling Ferreira a “pressing machine” and praising Wright’s ability to engage in offense, though his introduction coincided with a period. As Morocco tried to get back in the game. But both players failed to get clear looks on goal from open play, continuing a trend of US forwards doing the small things but not the biggest.

But the game on Wednesday marked the first steps in preparation. A game this Sunday against Uruguay in Kansas City, Kansas will show the team’s progress and the extent to which Berhalter continues to experiment.

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