For as much excitement as this batch of the USMNT has generated, most of that has been tempered by the fact that A) they’ve rarely actually played all that well together and B) they’ve rarely all been together and in anything near top form. There will be those, the most rose-colored glasses-adorned amongst us, who will use B to explain A. And that’s not necessarily wrong. But that’s also international football. Thanks to the grueling club schedule, of which the US is getting more and more the donkey end of, thanks to having more and more players plying their trade at the top level of Europe, it is a unique occasion indeed when any international side has its best 11 together and on song. This is why depth is paramount, and international tournaments/qualifying are more about survival than excellence. Don’t believe me, go and ask Italy about it right now as they stare down two playoff games just to get to Qatar (one possibly against Portugal) less than a year after winning Euro 2020(1).
And then even if you can get all of that to go right, you’re a ref on an off day or one missed chance away from having your ass bounced home for the next four years. ‘Tis a cruel mistress.
The US will learn this first hand when they get together in a couple weeks for their last three World Cup Qualifiers (we hope). Because they will be without Weston McKennie, who broke his foot a couple weeks ago in the Champions League for Juventus and was ruled out for the season by his manager, Massimiliano Allegri, a couple days ago. But this is nothing terribly new for the USMNT, who have had to go without Gio Reyna for basically all of qualifying, have seen McKennie suspended for two qualifiers, and have also been without Christian Pulisic at times, either due to injury or just watching him stumble and trip through some wonky form.
This is what you sign up for as an international side, especially one that wants to proclaim it deserves a seat at the top table of the game. Your best players are always one tackle or slip away from missing your next batch of qualifiers/all of your next tournament. Someone has to be ready to step into that breach, and someone has to be behind that guy too.
It’s certainly a loss. McKennie was playing perhaps the best soccer of his career for both club and country. He was probably the only American to come out of that detritus against Canada with any credit, and he opened the scoring in the Ice Bowl reenactment that Gregg Berhalter made everyone go through against Honduras. There were times in the last window when McKennie was the US’s only outlet, creatively.
Still, one has to ask if that was truly a good thing. The US hasn’t really benefitted too much when either McKennie or Pulisic have gone “hero ball,” though they’re about the only two in the squad capable of it. McKennie’s biggest strength is being the late-man into the box from midfield and his finishing ability, as well as his prowess for getting onto the end of things on set pieces. While McKennie being more comfortable on the ball in midfield is welcome, the US looks pretty stodgy when he tries to make everything happen at once. You can’t cross or feed a through ball to yourself, after all.
When the US midfield has truly hummed, it’s been with Tyler Adams as the deepest of the three breaking up play and shielding his defense, feeding to Yunus Musah to pass or dribble through the middle stages, with McKennie joining the forwards. There’s a sequence to it, almost. When McKennie takes on the dribbling past everyone/passing hub role, Musah tends to get a little lost.
Still, the US is facing its two biggest games in four years — at Mexico and home against Panama — and if they don’t get a win in either then they’ll almost certainly face a do-or-die match in Costa Rica, a place they haven’t won. Ever. So best to avoid that. And it would have been nice to have McKennie, playing on Europe’s biggest stage with the resulting experience, staring it down with his usual swagger.
So how will the US fill the gap? The likely answer is the most boring one, which is Kellyn Acosta will be placed in McKennie’s No. 8 role. Acosta comes with the benefit of some sublime free kick delivery, and when not asking him to be the sole defensive cover in midfield he’s better equipped for the role. However, Mexico and Panama aren’t likely to give him the four minutes of time and space he needs to comfortably possess the ball and pick a pass.
Someone who doesn’t need that much time and space is Luca de la Torre, the best player on the field against Honduras. Berhalter has been reluctant to try out LDLT previously, but he shined in St. Paul. The problem is how much stock one can put in a game where all the Hondurans wanted to do was go home, and were already perhaps the worst Honduras team seen in decades. Secondly, de la Torre’s skillset kind of echoes Musah’s, though in the cauldron of the Azteca it is not a bad idea to have as many guys as you can who are comfortable with the ball at their feet. Still, while both are excellent dribblers, neither get on the end of a lot in the opponent’s box.
The spicy option is to move either Pulisic or Brenden Aaronson inside to basically play a No. 10 role. Pulisic has rarely done this for Chelsea though, and has looked perhaps his best in recent weeks playing from the left. Berhalter will want to keep him there. Aaronson has been playing in the middle for Salzburg and looked good doing it. But Berhalter tried this early in qualifying with non-head turning results. And it would take balls a size that Berhalter has yet to display to deploy Aaronson in midfield in Mexico City with the intent of scoring and winning. It’s not that he shouldn’t, this Mexico side is there for the taking, and the US needs all the help with scoring it can get. But the pragmatic approach of using Acosta instead seems more likely. Some of this may depend on Reyna’s health as well as other wingers like Tim Weah staying upright too.
There are options, but McKennie’ flair for the dramatic and fuck-the-torpedoes attitude will be missed when the US needs to dig deeper than this squad has had to before. Then again, one or two supreme free kick deliveries from Acosta may make all the difference and book tickets to Qatar. Or book a ticket for my beer into the drywall. Nothing in between.