Cincinnati – With less than six months to go before the World Cup kicks off, Wednesday’s friendly against Morocco was the perfect time for US men’s national team manager Greg Berhalter to venture a bit into the crazy chemist’s position in terms of roles and staffing. There are times when such experiences can explode in a manager’s face. But on this occasion, Berhalter’s adjustments largely paid off in a 3-0 win.
As friends go, this is a great victory for the USA since Morocco is also heading towards the World Cup. This wasn’t the case where the Atlas Lions were giving a weak side either. While unsupported striker Hakim Ziyech missed, nine of the 11 players on the field played at TQL Stadium in the Morocco World Cup qualifier final, and one of the relative starters, Azzedine Unahi, scored twice in the 4-1 match. The return leg was defeated by the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which decided the first-leg ticket to Qatar.
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There have been questions about how the US would handle such a discount given its heavy schedule in the CONCACAF region – largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and participation in official competitions – over the past two and a half years. But even in the midst of some difficult moments of transition and Morocco’s susceptibility to turning point of attack, the United States was the better side of the night, and deserved its victory.
Having said that, winning should be put into context. She was still friendly and the result would mean nothing in November. Only football fanatics remember the 1-1 draw with France before the 2018 World Cup glaucoma It ended up winning. This game is a means to an end in terms of preparation, and nothing more.
“I felt like the group came out and showed exactly how we can be good but at times vulnerable,” Berhalter said. “For us, I think we are very happy with the result. We still know we need to keep improving, which is why this match was very good for us.”
To this end, Berhalter’s adjustments have included deploying Brenden Aaronson at the center of the midfield rather than his usual position on the wing. The new Leeds United midfielder was instrumental on both sides of the ball, scoring the first American goal in the 26th minute and getting some timely tackles too. With FIFA possibly deciding to expand the World Cup roster to 26 players, versatility may not be as important as it once was, but it’s still valuable, and the fact that Aaronson looked as comfortable in the middle as he did on the wing. It bodes well given the additional tactical wrinkles Berhalter can throw at opponents.
With Aaronson in the middle, Younes Moussa fell a little deeper to support Tyler Adams. Christian Pulisic found a wide and deep space to collect the ball and then cut it in the middle, and the USA created some solid chances as a result.
“We wanted to use [Pulisic] And the [Aaronson] in those positions to really hurt the opponent and then you still have three guys in the back line who can run after them and keep them [back] Berhalter said five of them are attached to the back.
The central defender duo of Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman also looked solid, putting out some fires, and Cameron Carter Vickers was also instrumental when he came on in the first half. He walked a long distance and seemed quite mobile, which is a concern given his return from surgery last year to repair his Achilles tendon. They showed they could contribute in attack too, with Zimmermann’s lofty ball setting the table for Pulisic to lift Aaronson.
Zimmerman said it was a combination of chemistry and eye contact that allowed the play to unfold.
“I touch; I look up to see in the field what my options are. I see [Pulisic] Look at me and change my pace, and immediately I put my head down to hit him hard. “It’s one of those things that you have to constantly work on your chemistry and I think we have a good feeling for each other in that regard.”
When Timothy Wah doubled Team USA’s lead six minutes later with a blast from distance after a series of nine passes, the Americans were on their way. Berhalter even found time to hand international debuts to defender Joe Scully (tonight’s left back), striker Hagg Wright and 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman, who had never set foot in the United States before this camp and changed his international player. Affiliation from Germany.
But for all modifications, Pulisic remains the focal point of the American offensive. He did a lot of the heavy lifting on the first goal by deftly collecting a Zimmermann pass, avoiding two Moroccan defenders in play, and with the goalkeeper committed to him, squared the ball to Aaronson to finish in an open net. The assist was the tenth of his international career, which allowed him to reach double figures in goals and make 49 appearances, faster than any other American man. (Landon Donovan has done so in 50 games.)
When asked how difficult it was to implement a touch like that, Pulisic insisted it wasn’t a big deal.
He said, “I guess it might not be easy for you guys, but that’s what I’ve done since then… I’ve been training for this my whole life.” “It’s a touch I expect to make but yeah, maybe not for everyone.”
Berhalter was more open.
“The players’ ability to control the ball at high speed and change direction at high speed with the ball is what separates the players at the next level, and Christian definitely has that,” Berhalter said.
Pulisic’s other noteworthy contribution that night was handing the ball to former young international teammate Wright after Pulisic checked the hip from Achraf Hakimi and awarded a penalty in the 61st minute. Pulisic said he was just trying to give Wright “a little bit of confidence”, But this gesture was appreciated.
“I asked him to, and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal, in my first game, and that feels really great,” Wright said.
The night was not without her fears. The US looked weak on the wings, especially when Morocco used long diagonal passes to change the attacking point. This alienated outside full-backs Reggie Cannon and Anthony Robinson and forced the central defender to make tough choices with help arriving late. With a better finish, Morocco could have been the first hit.
“It was about how fast we can shoot the winger,” Berhalter said. “In the first half, Hakimi had a lot of time on the ball and Anthony was a little behind on the shot, I think sometimes the back line was too deep, he gave the opponent a lot of space and in the physical fights, I think sometimes we controlled our backline. [Long] He’s a quality player and I think he’s going to use this as a learning experience because he’s been a good opponent, a good striker, and the player has scored a lot of goals this year. And he’s got a physical goal for us in terms of defending the team. Pressing the ball makes it easier for the central defender.”
The attackers’ play continues to gain attention. Berhalter was pleased with Wright’s performance and apprentice Jesus Ferreira, calling Ferreira a “pressing machine” and praising Wright’s ability to engage in attack, even though his introduction coincided with a period. When Morocco made an attempt to get back into the game. But both players failed to turn some glaring looks at the goal from open play, and continued in the direction that the American forwards are doing the little things but not the bigger thing.
But Wednesday’s match was the first step in preparation. Sunday’s showdown against Uruguay in Kansas City, Kansas will reveal how far the team has progressed, and how much Berhalter continues to experiment.