A month ago on Sunday, the United States men’s national team lost 2-0 to Japan, and their World Cup prospects looked alarming. He managed just two shots on target and zero goals in his last two games before flying to Qatar. Its players seemed unenthusiastic, and its ill-adapted coach, and its ineffective system, and…among a fan base justly predisposed to pessimism, fatalistic attitudes took hold.
But this week, a month away from the quadrennial tournament, the very stars who engendered the optimism in the first place have slowly, gradually, somewhat quietly rekindled it.
Christian Pulisic played his best football of the season on Wednesday for Chelsea. Weston McKennie played his Friday for Juventus, and scored his first Serie A goal since January.
And then, on Saturday, Gio Reyna announced his return from his latest injury scare: with a cathartic goal for Borussia Dortmund.
Reyna is arguably the most technical player the United States has ever produced. He is one of the most talented teenagers in world football. And yet, he has had little impact for the USMNT over the past year as he has battled maddening injury after maddening injury.
It seemed to be finally, definitely return in September, but then left the national team’s last friendly before the World Cup with a muscle strain that had brought him down time and time again. After almost a month of caution, however, he returned to Dortmund’s starting line-up on Saturday and immediately made an impact again. The goal was his first in the Bundesliga in 421 days, and as he slipped on the turf and collapsed in apparent relief, those more than 400 days of unfathomable frustration overwhelmed him.
Reyna could, in her day, be the chief designer of the USMNT. But in an ideal scenario, he probably wouldn’t even start in Qatar. And the different pieces of this ideal scenario are – knock on wood — stand on tiptoe.
Pulisic is expected to start on the left, and despite still not starting at Chelsea, he looked as sharp and confident in 30 minutes on Wednesday as he has for some time. He slid past the defenders and landed a few shots from 20 yards. His movement was smart and his decision-making sound.
Tim Weah, meanwhile, was USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s first-choice starter on the right wing. His frankness and determination give the American attack a balance and verticality that it otherwise lacks.
Weah was out in September and for the first two months of the club’s season as he recovered from a foot injury. The concern persisted that he himself would not be in time for Qatar. But in his second game back, in just 25 minutes of play last week, he delivered two assists and allayed fears.
Another important element of the US offense is McKennie, an elite aerial threat and engine that can propel the USMNT from the vanguard of a three-man midfield. He had started slowly and sporadically at Juventus after a pre-season shoulder injury. But he helped Juve to a victory on Friday with his best performance of the season so far.
And he got his goal, of course, with his head.
Elsewhere in Europe, Brenden Aaronson continues to impress at Leeds. Goalkeeper Matt Turner has not conceded a goal without a penalty in four Europa League starts at Arsenal. Yunus Musah is back in Valencia’s starting XI, Antonee Robinson is back at Fulham and Sergiño Dest is at AC Milan on Saturday.
Josh Sargent’s push continued in Norwich, and Ricardo Pepi is scoring almost a goal a game in the Netherlands, and suddenly, surprisingly, everything seems to be falling into place at the perfect time.
Of course, club form doesn’t automatically translate to the national team. Systems, roles and teammates can disrupt or facilitate rhythm. But international football, more than any other type of football, is a player-driven game – as long as Berhalter allows it. The most important indicator of World Cup performance will be the performance of two dozen American players in the month leading up to the USMNT opener on Nov. 21. And this month got off to a remarkably refreshing start.
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