Americans abroad analysis
A look at what's next after McKennie's injury, Pulisic's rise, Reyna's outlook, Horvath and more
February 23, 2022
TUESDAY WAS A very tough day for Americans abroad and the United States national team. Yes, there was some very positive news in that Gio Reyna’s injury was revealed not to be serious, Christian Pulisic scored in the Champions League, and Ethan Horvath posted a clean sheet in a rare start. But the injury to Weston McKennie overshadowed everything because it couldn’t have come at worse time for all parties.
Here are some thoughts on everything
McKennie injured in Juventus draw
In the first leg of Tuesday’s Champions League round of 16 knockout between Villarreal, the score was 1-1 in Spain. Just minutes after coming into the game, Villarrreal’s Ecuadorian left back Pervis Estupinan made a harsh tackle on Weston McKennie in the 80th minute. McKennie was injured on the play and was forced to come off. The incident was not even carded.
Following the game, reports surfaced that the injury to McKennie was serious – a break of a metatarsal bone in his left foot. It’s an injury that, best case, will sideline him a few months. These injuries, however, can be tricky to heal and it will take McKennie time to get back on the field.
Juventus and USMNT midfielder Weston McKennie has suffered the rupture of 2d and 3d metatarsal of his left foot, after tonight injury vs Villarreal. ?????????? #UCL @CBSSportsGolazo— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) February 22, 2022
Bad news for Juventus and United States national team.
This is terrible news for Mckennie and it hits Juventus hard, and the United States national team even harder. For Juventus, they are still alive in the Champions League knockouts and Tuesday’s result has them in a good spot to advance to the quarterfinals. After a slow start in Serie A, Juventus has been climbing and, while the table is still tight, it is in a great position to at least finish in the top four and return to the Champions League in 2022/23.
What does this mean for the USMNT?
The United States national team is hit the hardest and replacing McKennie is going to be exceptionally hard. There are few players anywhere who do what he does. As Juventus boss Max Allegri said on Monday, he is an attacking midfielder who gives you something different. Gregg Berhalter himself said that Mckennie brings energy to the team.
What makes Mckennie unique is a combination of 1) dribbling ability, 2) finishing, 3) energy 4) and a willingness/eagerness to get involved with the gritty side of the game. That last part is key. McKennie is offensive, but he seeks out duels to win them, he forces turnovers, he plays physically, and he gets back into defensive shape quickly once out of position.
When the USMNT doesn’t have Mckennie, Berhalter has to make a lot of changes. Looking at the player pool, the USMNT is thin for its back-up No. 8 players.
Luca de la Torre impressed in the last window, but it was against a Honduras team that had already given up. He’s good, he deserves the chance, and will be part of the crew that fills in for McKennie. The fact that Berhalter named him as the coach’s man of the match puts him in the mix. But there is also the physicality issue. De la Torre struggled with Fulham because of the physical nature of the game in England. These demands are not the same in Holland. Concacaf isn’t pretty soccer, but it is rough soccer.
Yunus Musah typically starts with McKennie but, while smooth with the ball, his defense and finishing is not close to McKennie.
Kellyn Acosta is typically a back-up to Tyler Adams (and Adams is playing on a yellow card coming into March), not Weston McKennie. Acosta can handle the physical side of the game well. He can also hit set piece balls better than McKennie. But he doesn’t provide the dribbling aspect nearly as well and he’s not the aerial threat that Mckennie is.
Gianluca Busio is a versatile midfielder who can play anywhere. But the physical side of the game is challenging for him with his small frame. He’s improved in Italy, but Busio and McKennie couldn’t be any more different. Busio is a good player, but starting him means that the U.S. team has to place completely different.
Finding the back-up No. 8 has been tough for Berhalter, and other options are on their way – but aren’t there yet. Tanner Tessmann’s minutes in Serie A with Venezia are inconsistent but their on the rise. He will be emerging at some point. Paxton Pomykal took time in 2021 to readjust past his wave of injuries and in 2022 he will look to return to that level of being a top prospect. Eryk Williamson was part of the Gold Cup-winning team last summer and was on a better path than most realized. His ACL tear stopped that progress, but he will be back inside of the next two months.
For now, the options are most likely to come from Musah, Acosta, Busio, and de la Torre. This assumes Adams is behind them. If he picks up a yellow and is suspended, Acosta moves into the Adams role and the other three fill the void.
There is some good news for the U.S. team that will help alleviate the loss. Gio Reyna’s injury isn’t serious, and he should be back with Dortmund in two weeks. That puts him back in the mix for the March window and his return should help with the creativity the team needed with or without McKennie.
The U.S. should have more options that can attack effectively in the midfield. Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, and Christian Pulisic are three players who have been operating on the wings, but all have the capability to play centrally. Reyna and Aaronson play there for their clubs and Aaronson’s incredible engine could make for an interesting cover for McKennie on both sides of the ball.
It now comes down to how Berhalter wants to play.
A more defensive approach would have Adams and Acosta in back of either Reyna, Aaronson, or Pulisic – but probably not Musah because Adams, Acosta, and Musah simply doesn’t have the offensive bite.
A more offensive approach would have Adams in back of either Musah/Busio/de la Torre (probably de la Torre) along with either Reyna/Aaronson/Pulisic.
Adams getting suspended really limits the defensive options in the midfield. Acosta would need to step in and Aaronson begins to look far more attractive in the midfield to make use of his motor to play both offense and defense.
I am sure Berhalter is still digesting the difficult news of losing McKennie for the critical March qualifiers. This is the most important period of his career and one that will help to define him as a coach.
The United States is set to take on its toughest three qualifiers with trips to two places it has never won - Mexico City and San Jose. Sandwiched between those trips is a game against a Panama team that is performing very well and is extremely motivated.
My guess is that for the first game against Mexico at Azteca, you’ll have a midfield lineup of Adams, Acosta, and Aaronson. It’s more defensive, but that’s needed against Mexico. Acosta has had a lot of success against Mexico in his career. Aaronson gives the motor to press and play defense. Then you can likely have Pulisic and Reyna on the wings (as Reyna’s return will have been recent). Players like Weah and Morris are good sub options off the bench.
It's far from ideal. The loss of McKennie is big. But the U.S. team and Berhalter will have to think through solutions to book a team to Qatar.
Good news on Reyna’s injury
One bit of good news Gregg Berhalter received on Tuesday is that Gio Reyna’s injury is not considered serious. Reyna was subbed out in the 30th minute of Borussia Dortmund’s 6-1 win over Borussia Monchengladbach on Sunday. Reyna left the game in tears.
On Tuesday, Borussia Dortmund said they expect Reyna to return in two weeks. That would peg him for a March 8th comeback.
It doesn’t really affect Borussia Dortmund that much. They’re used to playing without Reyna this season and they’re almost certainly going to finish in second place with or without the American playmaker.
For the U.S. team, it’s huge news as they need more top players in light of the news that Weston McKennie is out. Reyna will be able to give Berhalter options either on the wing or in the attacking midfield.
Pulisic stars in Chelsea win
Christian Pulisic on Tuesday looked like vintage Christian Pulisic with his performance against Lille in the first leg of its Champions League Round of 16 knockout.
His best moment came in the 63rd minute when was the finisher on a lethal Chelsea counter attack. Lille made a turnover in their attacking final third, Chelsea’s players knew where to be a quick counter attack. The first pass was short, but immediately seven Lille players were behind the ball.
Lille was guilty of not getting into defensive shape quicky and paid the price. N'Golo Kante run had Lille on their heels and the Frenchman played Pulisic into the box and the American finished for a 2-0 lead.
Pulisic!! 2-0 from Chelsea. I love how Chelsea makes Lille pay for a turnover despite it happening in Lille’s attacking third. Ruthless stuff from Chelsea - great finish from Pulisic but this was a team goal that showed speed and quick decision-making pic.twitter.com/HEdyINhXNJ— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) February 22, 2022
The game ended 2-0 and Chelsea is now in command to advance. Pulisic had himself a game that reminded everyone just how good he is. He was dangerous all day with his dribbles and won 7/10 of his ground duels. When he has space to operate, he’s very difficult to stop.
On another matter, Tim Weah did not get off the bench for Lille (on his 22nd birthday) and his minutes have been limited since his return from injury in late July – just before the window.
Horvath posts cleansheet
With Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Brice Samba picking up a direct red card in a recent 2-2 draw with Stoke City, American goalkeeper Ethan Horvath was given the rare opportunity to start on Tuesday against Preston North End. It was his first appearance since September 15 when he made a mistake leading to a Middlesbrough goal in a 2-0 loss.
Horvath ended up making four saves en route to a 0-0 clean sheet draw. Nottingham Forest manager Steve Cooper had very positive things to say about Horvath following the match.
“He looked strong. They had a lot of corners, but he looked a real presence in there. He made good decisions, whether to catch or whether to punch. And his distribution was excellent as well. Credit to him. He deserved the opportunity. He works so hard, comes in on his days off, and is a really positive guy. He deserves to have the opportunity to play, and to play as well as he did.”
Otasowie plans next move?
One of the sadder stories regarding American players in Europe has been Owen Otasowie who transferred to Club Brugge from Wolves for nearly $5 million last summer. The move has been a total bust so far as Otasowie has not appeared once for Brugge’s first team. He’s been given permission to return home to England in hopes that it would get him more focused. Earlier this month, it was reported that Otasowie has not been on Brugge’s training ground in weeks.
Now there is a report that Otasowie is trying to negotiate with various MLS clubs. It is not yet known the degree of interest any team would have.
Owen Otasowie was given time at Brugge to negotiate with a number of MLS teams.— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) February 23, 2022
- My take: at this point, seems like it would take a very patient team. Otasowie is high risk/high reward. If it’s a loan, it’d need to have an option to buy for the efforthttps://t.co/T2wJ9IGsXX
Unfortunately, anything seems like a long shot right now. MLS has a salary cap and there is a risk with taking Otasowie into a team because if he busts out, it hits the salary cap. Plus, Brugge will try to recoup at least some of their investment with any subsequent move.