The FIVE issues the USMNT will face at the World Cup in Qatar

A hole at center back, a lack of creativity and a massive burden on Christian Pulisic… the USMNT are BACK at the World Cup but it won’t be plain sailing – here are the five issues they’ll face in Qatar

  • The USMNT are back in the World Cup after missing the tournament in 2018
  • But there are some big issues facing Gregg Berhalter and the team in Qatar
  • Christian Pulisic’s form has been lukewarm for the national team in the last year
  • And there are weak spots in the roster which could spell trouble in Group B 
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  • Click here for all the latest World Cup 2022 news and updates

On November 21, the USMNT will play their first World Cup match in more than eight years. It’s been a scenic road back.

A missed World Cup in 2018, a remodeling of the squad and a different coach in Gregg Berhalter now sees a young, hungry group of players readying for Qatar alongside Wales, England and Iran in Group B.

But this team isn’t happy to merely be a part of the tournament to make up the numbers.

Gregg Berhalter has a host of issues to navigate as the USMNT’s World Cup journey begins

A core of European-based players including Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams means this group has some big-game nous and the belief that it could – and should – be making noise in Qatar.

Of course, that won’t be easy. Much of the squad lacks World Cup experience, and according to FIFA rankings, the USMNT have been placed in the most difficult group in the tournament.

There are certainly roadblocks standing in the way of a successful tournament for Berhalter’s men.

Here, takes a look at the issues the USMNT is staring down with the tournament just a month away.

Pressure on Pulisic

Though he has often played a rather peripheral role at Chelsea, Pulisic’s stature for the USMNT has been anything but since he made his debut in 2016.

The winger, when healthy of course, is the first name on Berhalter’s team sheet with a massive attacking burden placed on his shoulders. On the face of it, he’s delivered.

In 52 appearances for his country, he’s scored 21 goals and 10 assists, with his extra time penalty winner against Mexico in last year’s CONCACAF Nations League Final serving as a particular highlight.

Christian Pulisic has a massive attacking burden on his shoulders for the USMNT in Qatar

But his international performances have at times felt lukewarm over the past year.

He was blanked twice by qualification group winners Canada, and was also held in check by Costa Rica, Uruguay in a friendly, as well as El Salvador in the Nations League, failing to score against any of these teams.

Looking closer, four of his last seven goals have been penalties, and three of his five qualifying goals came in a rout vs. Panama. 

While Pulisic can’t be expected to produce in every single game, his status as the team’s talisman certainly increases the pressure to do so.

Pulisic will likely play opposite to either Brenden Aaronson or Tim Weah on the other flank, neither of whom are known as particularly prolific scorers despite their energy and verve.

In the center, it will likely be Jesus Ferreira who gets the nod at striker. The FC Dallas forward has 18 goals at the club level this season but is largely unproven at the international level.

Elsewhere, Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie have the ability to chip in with goals from midfield, though the former’s health is a constant question mark.

For the USMNT to thrive in this World Cup, Pulisic will have to meet a probably unfair individual level of expectations, and there’s evidence to show that he could fall short of that against Wales, England and Iran.

A question mark at center back 

When Miles Robinson ruptured his achilles on May 9, Berhalter’s plans were thrown into disarray.

Robinson and Walker Zimmerman emerged as the coach’s first-choice center backs during the qualification cycle, where the pair developed a strong partnership and helped the USMNT concede less than a goal per game throughout 14 matches.

If the MLS duo was not massively inspiring next to some the team’s European-based players, it was at least steady and familiar with one another.

That relationship, however, will not be seen in Qatar. 

Walker Zimmerman looks sure to start for the USMNT, but his partner is up in the air

Berhalter has leaned on the New York Red Bulls’ Aaron Long to partner Zimmerman since Robinson’s injury, starting him in each of the last six matches.

Four of those starts have come with Zimmerman, and the pair have also started a handful of other times together.

However, while there is some familiarity between the pair, it’s hard not to think there’s a drop off in quality from Robinson to Long.

The  center back admirably returned this season from an  achilles injury of his own, but has underwhelmed for the USMNT and was badly at fault for Brandon Vazquez’s winning goal for FC Cincinnati that dumped New York out of the playoffs.

Celtic’s Cameron-Carter Vickers, who’s made 11 appearances for the USMNT, would likely get the nod if not for Long, though he and Zimmerman have hardly played together.

Aaron Long has been given a chance to cement his spot in the XI but hasn’t convinced

They started just once together, in 2018, appearing in a back-three system that Berhalter has seldom used since.

Injuries strike nearly every team on the eve of a tournament, though Berhalter now has the unenviable task of rejigging at one of the game’s most important positions. 

Where will the creativity come from?

While the USMNT’s starting XI is mostly determined at this point (barring any late injuries), where the team will create chances within that XI is far more uncertain.

The team’s high press is designed to turn defense into offense at its best, but the lineup still projects to lack natural playmakers that can break down defenses.

Tyler Adams is an extremely promising talent at 23, but he’s earned a spot in the starting lineup because of his defensive work in the midfield rather than his offensive game. He’s far more destroyer than creator.

Weston McKennie certainly has a goal in him – he’s scored nine in 37 appearances for the USMNT – but his strengths lie far more in arriving in the box than pulling the strings.

His progressive passing and pass completion numbers are surprisingly poor compared to other midfielders. 

Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie aren’t known for their creativity in the middle of the park

 Yunus Musah is expected to start next to Adams and McKennie in midfield, and is the silkiest on the ball of the three.

The 19-year-old has become a favorite of USMNT fans with his ability to progress the ball and wriggle out of tight situations, but this is still ultimately a teenager with three assists at the senior level we’re talking about.

There was just one player who registered more than one assist for the national team in World Cup qualifying: left-back Antonee Robinson, who had three.

That’s a mark of the Fulham man’s drive going forward, but also the shortcomings of those around him.

Aside from Robinson, Pulisic will be counted on o play a large hand in the USMNT attack, while Reyna could perhaps be the wild card Berhalter needs to pull out results.

The New York native, as evidenced by his outrageous run against Mexico earlier this year, very well may be the most technically gifted player on the roster, though injuries have repeatedly made him unavailable for the Stars and Stripes.

Reyna had six assists in all competitions for Dortmund in 2020-21; he hasn’t reached those heights since, but there is a track record of creativity there that most of the projected roster can’t match.

His lingering fitness issues may keep him out of the starting XI, but don’t be surprised if he’s repeatedly called upon from the bench for some late-game inspiration, a la Jack Grealish at the Euros for England.

Form and fitness threaten the starting lineup

If the USMNT had everyone in their preferred XI fit and firing, you wouldn’t be blamed for having them as a dark horse in Qatar.

Problem is, that’s rarely the case with any team at the international level, and isn’t true of this group either.

Starting in defense, Miles Robinson’s absence won’t be the only problem facing this team.

With the MLS season over for the projected starting center back pairing of Long and Zimmerman, they’ll have more than a month between matches when they take the field against Wales on November 21.

Additionally, probable starting right-back Sergino Dest has barely played for AC Milan since a summer loan move there, and Antonee Robinson is not yet 100 percent after returning from an ankle injury.

Sergino Dest has hardly featured for AC Milan this season after joining via loan in the summer

‘I’m feeling OK. I’m still trying to get used to playing on one ankle, really,’ he told The Athletic this week. There is no natural/recognized back up to Robinson at left back if that injury crops up again before Qatar.

Elsewhere, Weah and Musah are both healthy now but missed the September camp through injury, while Gio Reyna left the friendly against Saudi Arabia with an injury.

We’d also be remiss if we didn’t mention the lack of playing time this season for Pulisic, who has started just two of 10 Chelsea league matches thus far and is lacking match sharpness.

In midfield, McKennie and Adams have both been regular starters for their clubs, while the USMNT’s forwards are actually a source of renewed optimism after huge question marks last season.

Ricardo Pepi and Josh Sargent, now in the Eredivisie and England’s Championship  respectively, are back to their scoring ways while Jordan Pefok has been impressive in the Bundesliga for Union Berlin.

But only two of those three are likely to join Ferreira on the plane.

Barring a catastrophic next few weeks, it seems like Berhalter will have most of his preferred options available to him.

Whether they’re able to play at their highest level, however, is an entirely different question.

Are they good enough?

For all of the self-belief that this USMNT squad has in itself, this is still an extremely young group with precious little World Cup experience.

And that precociousness will certainly be tested within a tricky Group B, as the draw was an unkind reward for the national team’s status in the second pot.

With players like Adams, Pulisic, McKennie and more playing high-level soccer in Europe, there’s a sense that this could be something of a Golden Generation for the team.

But a disappointing pair of results in the squad’s last two tune-up friendlies – a 2-0 loss to Japan and a 0-0 draw versus Saudi Arabia – was a rude awakening and a sign that this tournament may have come too soon for the team to make serious noise.

How does this team stack up to their group foes? The answer might be disappointing in late November.

Starting with the USMNT’s first match against Wales, there is a legitimate argument to be made that the Americans’ opponents will have the three best players on the pitch in Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies. 

Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have saved their best performances for Wales in recent years

Bale and Ramsey have not played regularly this season, but they’ve found a way to shine for Wales in the past amid rocky club form, and dismissing their ability would be foolish.

Furthermore, Dan James has exposed Premier League defenders at times with his blistering pace, so with respect to Long and Zimmerman, the prospect of him having his way with the US doesn’t seem so ridiculous.

The USMNT will view it as a game they should win, and they may well do so. But the margins are slimmer than they may appear. 

With England on tap in the second game, getting a result against Wales will be vital to the team’s hopes of making the knockout round.

While the first game is roughly a toss-up, England boast superior talent in almost every area of the field.

Harry Kane is one of the world’s best strikers, whatever combination of Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden and Bukayo Saka starts on the wing will be formidable, and the team’s defense will likely fare better than some of the hysterics would predict.

Phil Foden and Harry Kane will look to fire England to World Cup glory in Qatar next month

If there’s an area where the US could take control of this game, it’ll be in the midfield through Adams and McKennie, though Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham will present a sturdy challenge.

Finally, the USMNT will face Iran on November 29 in a game that should probably be considered the easiest of the three but could also amount to a must-win pending the results of the first two games.

Iran lack the household names of the other teams in the group but should not be overlooked.

‘Team Melli’ conceded just four goals in 10 qualifying matches and are typically a tough unit to break down, even if they haven’t scored much themselves at World Cups (just three goals in the last six group stage matches).

They came agonizingly close to making the knockouts of the 2018 tournament as they drew Portugal, and finished with four points in that group.

Unlike the games against Wales and England, the US may be expected to dominate possession vs. Iran, though trying to break down Carlos Quieroz’s side whilst needing a win would be an unenviable task for the Stars and Stripes.

Berhalter’s group is certainly not devoid of talent, but potential weak link positions like center-back, right-back and striker could doom the team’s hopes of advancing.

Starting on November 21, we’ll get a much clearer picture of the team’s quality. 

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