CINCINNATI — It wasn’t just fans of the U.S. men’s soccer team who were waiting to see the squad’s top players clash with a big-time opponent. The players themselves had been waiting, too. On Wednesday night, everyone from both groups got a nice treat.
A U.S. starting lineup that featured attacking stars Christian Pulisic, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson and Yunus Musah looked very good against Morocco, delivering two attractive goals in the first half of a 3-0 win before 19,512 fans at TQL Stadium.
Aaronson scored the opener in the 26th minute, with a highlight-reel assist from Pulisic.
The Hershey native deftly trapped a long pass from Walker Zimmerman, then uncorked some nifty dribbling to send two Moroccan defenders to the deck, as Aaronson sprinted toward him. Pulisic laid off a pass, and the Medford native had the net open for the finish.
“It was magical of Christian,” Aaronson said. “And for him to be selfless like he was and to give me the ball and to score it, it was great.”
Pulisic was amusingly nonchalant about the play.
“I guess for you guys it might not be easy,” he told the crowd of reporters in front of him, “but it’s what I’ve done my whole life. ... It’s a touch that I expect myself to make, but yeah, maybe not for everyone.”
The moment was a nice bit of supporting evidence for U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter’s decision to start Aaronson in a central midfield role instead of on the left wing. With Weston McKennie not yet in starting shape, moving Aaronson to the middle allowed for both him and Pulisic to start.
Aaronson put in plenty of work elsewhere on the field, too: 47 touches, 28-of-31 passing, 9 duels won, 4 recoveries and 2 tackles.
“I was impressed, I really was,” Berhalter said. “I thought he gave us energy, he gave us bite, he won some good duels. To arrive in the penalty box like that on Christian’s play that he ends up scoring on, it shows great effort and tenacity.”
Weah doubled the lead in the 32nd with a 20-yard rip that brought even the Morocco fans in the stands to their feet. (And there were a lot of them, excited to cheer on the Atlas Lions’ first visit to the U.S. in 16 years.)
Not everything was perfect. Morocco had an 11-7 shots edge at halftime, and Matt Turner had already made five of his eight saves on the night. But the good elements outweighed the bad, and Berhalter could make a trio of pre-planned halftime subs with confidence.
The most notable arrival was Haji Wright, who replaced Jesús Ferreira at striker. Ferreira had an open shot snuffed out by Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou right before halftime, and now it was Wright’s turn to enter the U.S. team’s competition at the spot.
Wright came in with an interesting pedigree. He was a big-time U.S. youth team prospect when he rose through the Los Angeles Galaxy’s academy, then spent a year at the reincarnated lower-league New York Cosmos in 2015. His moves to the Cosmos and then Germany’s Schalke in 2016 brought much acclaim, but no great success.
Six years and four more clubs later, things finally went right for Wright this season. He scored 15 goals in 35 games for Turkey’s Antalyaspor, and earned a long-awaited reunion with former U.S. youth teammates Pulisic and McKennie.
Wright nearly scored four minutes into his senior debut, sprung with a great pass from Aaronson. But he shot right at Bonou.
His goal instead came in the 64th minute from the penalty spot, after Pulisic was upended by Achraf Hakimi’s hip-check. Pulisic went to the spot first, and stood there while Bonou, Hakimi and Romain Saïss all drew yellow cards for complaining to Salvadoran referee Ismael Cornejo.
After the ruckus settled down, Pulisic surprisingly gave the ball to Wright -- who admitted after the game that he asked for the opportunity. Wright struck a confident shot down the middle, and as he celebrated on the field, McKennie led the celebrations on the bench.
Wright said he was “really grateful” for Pulisic’s favor, and felt the same about the night overall.
“It’s been an amazing ride up to here, and I know I just felt amazing to make my debut for the national team,” he said.
Berhalter praised Pulisic for showing “how selfless the leaders are on this team, desperately wanting him [Wright] to succeed.”
Soon after his unofficial assist, Pulisic departed for newcomer Malik Tillman, who earned a nice ovation as he made his U.S. debut. The 20-year-old German-American can play multiple positions in the attack, and it soon became clear that his first assignment would be left wing. Not only did he sub in for Pulisic, but McKennie entered for Aaronson.
Although Tillman only played 25 minutes, Berhalter liked what he saw.
“Malik Tillman showed why he was so highly regarded in our program, because of his technical ability and his ability to unbalance defenders,” he said.
Morocco had a penalty kick in the 76th, given rather generously after Joe Scally trod on Soufiane Rahimi’s left foot and Rahimi made the most of it. But karma got a word in when Selim Amallah slammed his shot off the crossbar.