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World Cup Eve

Looking ahead to Wales: Lineup questions, form, and the strengths of Wales

ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks ahead to Monday and outlines what are the questions that Berhalter faces in his starting XI as well as other key factors in the game. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
November 19, 2022
1:05 AM

THE UNITED STATES national team is on its final stretch of preparations ahead of Monday’s opener against Wales. The team’s final preparations in terms of lineups and tactics are being held close to the vest. Here are some issues, thoughts, and questions on the team heading into the big game

How are the players training and what are the big questions ahead of Monday? Let’s take a look.


How to play vs. Wales?


Any kind of shift in formation outside of the 4-3-3 seems unlikely. Yes, the U.S. team has used it before in big games – such as the 2021 Nations League win over Mexico. There are even reasons to see why the U.S. team used it before given that they have two fast fullbacks in Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson who are aggressive in getting forward.

But at this stage, it’s too late to use a formation like this at the World Cup. There are no tune-up friendlies, and the U.S. has never aggressively used this formation for a long stretch.

So, it’s the 4-3-3 in Qatar.

But there are so many open questions. If people think that how the team played in World Cup qualifying will have a huge correlation towards how Gregg Berhalter plans to play in the World Cup, the coach directly said there is a big difference.

“In my opinion, there is a difference between qualifying in CONCACAF and playing in the World Cup,” Berhalter said.

Let’s look at what we know and what is open.


What we know


Berhalter said Wales is the equivalent of a Premier League team. They are fast, technical, and strong. They also play with a ton of heart and intensity. That’s not going to be easy. It’s long since past the Gareth Bale Show. There are several players who can deliver for Wales.

Wales might not be terribly deep, but that doesn’t matter in the first game. For both Wales and the United States, the opening game holds the keys towards getting out of the group.

In terms of who the United States will start, Matt Turner should be expected in goal with Zack Steffen being cut.

At fullbacks, Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest are the top pairing although it has been a long time since Dest went a full 90. The Milan right back might need to be subbed out in the second half and there are defensive options like Shaq Moore available and there are offensive options too – like Joe Scally or DeAndre Yedlin.

We don’t know the central defense pairing but we know Walker Zimmerman is almost certainly going to be one of them.

In the midfield, Tyler Adams comes into the game playing the best form of his career. The remaining parts of the midfield are less clear.

The front line has Christian Pulisic as a lock starter at left wing but there are questions about the opposite wing and at center forward.


Who partners with Zimmerman?


There are three candidates to partner with Walker Zimmerman: Aaron Long, Cameron Carter-Vickers, and Tim Ream.

Zimmerman played twice with Long in September and the first option off the bench was Mark McKenzie. It’s probably a mistake to suggest that Berhalter was 100% dedicated to Long at this point. Two other central defenders had to withdraw from that camp due to injuries (Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards). At that point, Berhalter probably went with Long as much as he did because he wanted to develop chemistry with him and Zimmerman in light of losing two key central defenders.

Don’t discount the possibility that Zimmerman starts with Ream. There are a lot of reasons to suggest that he could be the guy. When Berhalter said that there is a difference between how the team plays in World Cup qualifying and how they play in the World Cup, that was a direct response to a question about Tim Ream.

The tone with which Berhalter has been talking about Ream now compared with as recently in September is completely different.

Berhalter on Ream on September 14 (after he was left off the Sept. roster): “He's been captaining the side [Fulham] and some of the things that we're looking for in our centerbacks is to play a high line, cover a lot of space behind them, be dominant in the air dominant on offensive end defensive set pieces, and that's not Tim’s strengths. But he's a guy that can help the team with the ball. He reads the game really well and is a very good player. In this particular camp we went with slightly different profiles and we'll give these guys an opportunity to see what they can do.”

Berhalter on Ream on November 9 (at the World Cup roster unveiling): “Now he's in the Premier League and he's a top performer for his team. It's really hard to ignore stuff like that. By the way, he's a guy who has been with us since day one. To me, all the pieces were aligned for me to bring him back into the squad…. based on what we're seeing and the level he's playing at, he's ready to play in a World Cup, for sure... When we go back to Tim, it's really not a difficult one. He's playing in the best league in the world and he's playing at a high level.”

Ream was playing well in the Premier League in September just as he was in November. What changed was not only that Ream kept up his form for another six weeks, but also that the others did not make their case. There are no new injuries to the central defense pool. In terms of club form, McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown are at the same as September. But what Berhalter saw in September played a role into bringing Ream back in. Yes, McKenzie didn’t impress off the bench and Palmer-Brown didn’t play. But the words about Ream have been very strong compared to other statements.

Carter-Vickers is in the mix, but he has spent far less time with the U.S. squad over the past four years compared with the other three players.

If it is Zimmerman and Ream partnership, it would not be as fast as Berhalter wants but perhaps he’s hoping other skills, such as experience and an overall understanding of the game, make up for it.


If not the MMA midfield, then what?


Berhalter has really utilized the “MMA” midfield (Musah, McKennie as dual No. 8’s and Tyler Adams as a No. 6) a lot when all the players are available. There is no reason to think that if these players can all start, Berhalter won’t go to it again.

One of the concerns over this team, however, is that whenever one of the MMA components can’t go, there has never been an effective way to replace it.

One of the better aspects of the team is that it is clear at the No. 6 position in terms of who starts and who backs up. If Tyler Adams can’t go, then it is Kellyn Acosta, and everything else stays the same. Literally no other position on the field is this clear in terms of starter/backup.

The backup No. 8 position has been a struggle the entire cycle. Option after option either hasn’t worked, worked initially before eventually fading, or fell through due to injuries. The list is long – Gianluca Busio, Eryk Williamson, Sebastian Lletget, Djordje Mihailovic, Jackson Yueill, Johnny Cardoso, Malik Tillman, Owen Otasowie, etc.

The problem right now is that we aren’t yet clear about the fitness or form of Weston McKennie. The Texan was injured recently at Juventus and wasn’t expected to be ready until the start of the tournament. But with no pre-World Cup friendlies, we don’t yet know how healthy he is. Also, if he is healthy, we don’t know how rusty he is. We saw in September that McKennie, when he is not sharp, can be sloppy.

This then raises the point of how the backup midfield options after MMA still aren’t clear at the World Cup. Luca de la Torre, has been a key backup in 2022, but he rarely plays at Celta Vigo and is not at 100%. We don’t know how much he will be able to give. Acosta can shift to a No. 8 but he is not nearly as good at the No. 8 with the U.S. team as he is at the No. 6. Cristian Roldan is also an option, but he has always been seen as a late-game sub option with this team.

The likely scenario probably indicates that Brenden Aaronson or Gio Reyna could be midfield options to backup McKennie or Musah. While both Aaronson and Reyna have played on the wings, Berhalter has plenty of coverage there with Tim Weah healthy.

An Aaronson and Musah midfield pairing as the two No. 8 players would be interesting but that would not be geared towards possession. Both players have an instinct to attack defenders immediately off the dribble. It would be relentless, but it would not be a possession approach.  Reyna shifting to the midfield with Musah would also boast a lot of attack, but Reyna’s stamina would be put to the test as he has only returned to full fitness inside of the past month.


Who starts at right wing?


If the MMA midfield is ready to go and if Christian Pulisic starts at left wing, then at right wing there are three very good options: Tim Weah, Gio Reyna, and Brenden Aaronson. All three are good players who can make an impact. This is a very difficult decision.

The other question on the right side is playing in front of Sergino Dest in the back. If Dest is pushing forward, which winger seems more likely to work with that both to combine with Dest but also to provide defensive coverage?

Weah has typically been key starter the past year, but this came when Reyna was out injured. Coming into the World Cup, Weah has only recently been able to start for Lille (inside of the past month) and he has been playing mostly as a right wingback. Weah has size and strength that could really fit into the international game.

I think Reyna’s attacking ability and overall talent is going to be too tough for Berhalter to leave out of the starting XI. This could change for the England game, but I think Reyna has been both healthier and overall sharper during the season.

Aaronson seems like a super sub at both wing and in the midfield where his intense dribbling can run at tired legs.


Who starts up top?


The three options at the No. 9 center forward position are Josh Sargent, Jesus Ferreira, and Haji Wright. During the roster reveal, Berhalter made a key point that Sargent playing in England could see him be familiar with the style of most of the Wales team.

Ferreira meanwhile is a different forward to likes to drift back into the midfield and make players. This might not be the style Berhalter is looking for against Wales. Haji Wright is also a good option, but he has spent far less time with the squad than Ferreira or Sargent.

Reading between the tea leaves, Sargent seems to be the leading contender to start but this is also a decision that can go either way.

If Sargent does start, it would mark an impressive turnaround for Sargent who played his way off the team after last September’s opening round of qualifiers but to forced his way back onto the team after impressing in the Championship.


Form of the players


A big takeaway from this week in training is that the U.S. team is prepared to be able to give a look that is truly unique. At no point in this cycle has Musah, Reyna, Pulisic, Dest, Adams, McKennie, and Robinson been able to be on the field at the same time. Most of the time, at least one of the core has been missing and, often, some were still battling injuries.

This is the healthiest and closest to full-strength the U.S. team has been this cycle, and it all has come together right at the World Cup

"It's been a while since we've had all of our best available guys possible,” Gio Reyna said this week. “But yeah, I think it all came together at the right time. And yeah, we're ready to show everyone the talent that we have. And at this point finally put it together."


Wales awaits


Adams was the most insightful player this week in breaking down what he has noticed from Wales. He has said that the team as already watched a lot of video on Wales already and the players are already realizing what they have to be aware of during the game.

What Adams stressed was that the U.S. team was particularly away of the counter-attack threat that Wales poses with space down the flanks. He also draws parallels to the concerns he shares with the U.S. team and with Leeds.

“Their style of play is very distinctive,” Adams said. “We watched a lot of video on them already. We're very familiar with their attacking players and the threat that they bring. A lot of times when you play against teams that that counter, people think that you need to give yourself more space and drop off a little bit deeper to defend the spaces in behind. But for me and especially the way that we play at Leeds and here, we're very aggressive and more attacking with the ball. So, our defenders sometimes are going to have to be put in situations where they're going to have to defend one against one and you have to be comfortable in those situations. For our defenders, I think they're already very focused on that.

“Gregg has already spoken about it, that the rest of attack, as we call it, when we have the ball, we're already thinking about which defender or which attackers are threat and what poses the biggest threat,” he added. “The spaces that we need to defend in behind. And we know Wales is good at that, so we have to counteract that for sure.”

Part of the concern of this approach against Wales could be Sergino Dest and his defensive approach. Dest is not a great 1v1 defender and it has also been a long time since he has played 90 minutes. If the U.S. team can get a lead in this one, would Berhalter then be more inclined to get Shaq Moore into the game for his defending?

Either way, the U.S. team is going to need to avoid having its defenders isolated in 1v1 situation against pacey forwards and wingers. The key to that is going to be limiting the turnovers in the midfielders. If U.S. team is as sloppy as they were in September, they’re going to be in for a very long day.

But the good news is that the team is mostly in good form. The biggest question mark right now is Weston McKennie. If he is playing well, the U.S. team’s chances are significantly improved against Wales.

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