CINCINNATI — With the World Cup just under six months away, Wednesday’s friendly against Morocco was the perfect time for United States men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter to venture a little in mad chemist mode, both in terms of roles and personnel. 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 victory.
As the friendlies went on, it counted as an impressive win for the United States considering Morocco are also World Cup-bound. Nor was it a case of the Atlas Lions fielding an understaffed team. With underprivileged striker Hakim Ziyech absent, nine of the 11 players on the pitch at TQL Stadium played in Morocco’s final World Cup qualifier, and one of the relative debutants was Azzedine Ounahi, who scored twice. goals in the 4-1. victory in the second leg against DR Congo who clinched the ticket for Qatar.
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There had been questions about how the United States would fare against such an opponent given their busy CONCACAF schedule – largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and participation in official competitions – over the past two and a half years. But even amid erratic moments of transition and a susceptibility to Morocco changing their point of attack, the United States were the best team of the night and deserved their victory.
That said, the victory must be put into perspective. It was still a friendly game and the result won’t mean anything in November. Only football obsessives will remember the Americans’ 1-1 draw against France ahead of the 2018 World Cup which Blues ended up winning. This game is a means to an end in terms of preparation, and nothing more.
“I felt like the band came out and showed exactly how good but also vulnerable we can be at times,” Berhalter said. “For us, I think we’re very happy with the result. We always know we have to keep improving, and that’s why this game was so good for us.”
To that end, Berhalter’s adjustments included deploying Brenden Aaronson in a central midfield position instead of his usual wing location. Leeds United’s new midfielder was effective on both sides of the ball, scoring America’s first goal in the 26th minute and also getting some timely tackles. With FIFA possibly deciding to expand the World Cup rosters to 26 players, versatility may not be as important as it once was, but it still has value, and the fact that Aaronson had looking as comfortable in the middle as he was on the auspicious wing given the extra tactical ripples Berhalter can throw at his opponents.
With Aaronson at center, Yunus Musah dropped a little more to support Tyler Adams. Christian Pulisic found wide and deep space to collect the ball, then cut in the middle, and the United States created some solid chances.
“We wanted to use [Pulisic] and [Aaronson] in those positions to really hurt the opponent and still have three guys high on the back line who could run behind them and keep their [back] five pinned,” Berhalter said.
The starting centre-back duo of Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman also looked solid, putting out a few fires, and Cameron Carter-Vickers was also efficient when he came on at half-time. Long covered the distance and appeared very mobile, a concern given her return from surgery last year to repair an Achilles tendon. They showed they could contribute in attack too, with Zimmerman’s slicked ball setting the stage for Pulisic to hit Aaronson.
Zimmerman said it was a combination of chemistry and eye contact that kept the game going.
“I take a touch; I look up to see further down the pitch what my options are. I see [Pulisic] look at me and change your tune and immediately I lowered my head to hit it over it,” he said. “It’s one of those things that you have to constantly work on your chemistry and I think we have a good idea of each other in that regard.”
When Timothy Weah doubled Team USA’s lead six minutes later with a long shot after a nine-pass streak, the Americans were on their way. Berhalter even found time to make his international debuts for defender Joe Scally (at left-back tonight), striker Haji Wright and 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman, who had never set foot in the United States before this camp and change his international affiliation from Germany.
But despite all the modifications, Pulisic remained the focal point of the American attack. He put in a lot of hard work on the opening goal, deftly collecting Zimmerman’s pass, avoiding two Moroccan defenders on the play, and with the keeper engaged to him, feeding the ball to Aaronson to finish in an open net. The assist was the 10th of his international career, allowing him to double the number of goals and assists in 49 games, faster than any other American man. (Landon Donovan did it in 50 games.)
When asked how difficult it was to execute such a throw-in, Pulisic insisted it was no big deal.
“I guess for you it might not be easy, but that’s what I’ve been doing ever since…I’ve been training my whole life,” he said. “It’s a touch I expect to do but yeah, maybe not for everyone.”
Berhalter was more expansive.
“The players’ ability to control the ball at high speed and change direction with the ball at high speed is what really separates players at the top level, and Cristian definitely has that,” Berhalter said.
Pulisic’s other notable contribution on the night was handing the ball over to former youth international teammate Wright after Pulisic took a hip check from Achraf Hakimi and earned a penalty in the 61st minute. Pulisic said he was just trying to give Wright “some confidence”, but the gesture was appreciated.
“I asked him, and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal, in my first game, and it’s a really great feeling,” Wright said.
The night was not without worries. The United States looked vulnerable on the flanks, especially when Morocco used long diagonal passes to change the point of attack. This led to outside backs Reggie Cannon and Antonee Robinson being isolated and forcing centre-backs to make tough choices with other late assists. With a better finish, Morocco could have been the first to strike.
“It was about how quickly we could release their rear wing,” Berhalter said. “In the first half, Hakimi had too much time on the ball and Antonee was a bit behind, I think sometimes the back line was too deep, gave the opponent too much space and in physical battles, I sometimes think we were outplayed on our back line. And Aaron [Long] is a great quality player and I think he’s going to use that as a learning experience because he was a good opponent, a good striker, the guy has scored a ton of goals this year. And he’s become very physical, but for us it’s about defending the team. Getting pressure on the ball makes it much easier for centre-backs.”
The attacking game also continues to attract attention. Berhalter said he was pleased with the performances of Wright and starter Jesus Ferreira, calling Ferreira “a pressing machine” and praising Wright’s ability to get involved in offense, even though his introduction coincided with a period. When Morocco made an offer to get back into the game. But both players failed to convert some clear looks on goal from open play, continuing a trend of American forwards doing the little things but not the biggest thing.
Still, Wednesday’s game marked the first stages of preparation. A meeting this Sunday against Uruguay in Kansas City, Kansas will reveal the team’s progress and the extent to which Berhalter continues to experiment.