What we learned from the U.S. men’s soccer team’s last home games before November’s World Cup
Jesús Ferreira, Haji Wright, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Malik Tillman have been among the headline names so far this summer. Here's a look at why.
AUSTIN, Texas — The U.S. men’s soccer team’s 5-0 demolition of overmatched Grenada on Friday in the Concacaf Nations League was the team’s last home game before this fall’s World Cup. Now there are just 270 minutes of soccer (plus stoppage time) for the Americans to play before the tournament kicks off in November in Qatar.
So it’s a good time to look at a few things we’ve learned so far this summer.
Jesús Ferreira is now the No. 1 story, for better and worse.
He started all three home games and played the entirety of Friday’s blowout, cementing his place atop Gregg Berhalter’s striker depth chart. But there’s a case to make that he shouldn’t have played so much because at a certain point that takes away minutes that are needed to evaluate other players at that position.
There’s also the none-too-small matter of his big-moment misses against Morocco and Uruguay, likely the best teams the U.S. will face before the Black Friday blockbuster against England. And yes, that includes the Americans’ first group stage opponent, Wales.
When the Grenada game kicked off, Ferreira’s critics were ready to pounce. They seized on his missing his first three scoring chances, all of which were good looks.
Late in the first half, Ferreira finally broke through. And he went on to score three more times, tying the record for the most goals by a U.S. men’s player in a game with four.
“Any time a player is under pressure, you look for how they respond,” Berhalter said afterward. “And no matter what the level of the opponent is, the player still has to perform.”
Ferreira admitted before and after the game that he’d been in a funk. This should have snapped him out of it.
“I talked to him to this afternoon, and I told him that we don’t judge him just based on goals,” Berhalter said. “And I’ve said that to you [the media] all along — he does a lot of other stuff that really helps this group be successful. I just said, ‘Go out there and relax, and play your game.’”
Ferreira certainly did that, but his critics still have some fuel. He shot 4-for-10 overall on the night, and you don’t get 10 chances against good teams. So how much can really be taken from pounding the world’s 170th-ranked men’s squad?
We won’t know the answer for a while.
Haji Wright clearly is in the race to go to Qatar, thanks to his close ties to U.S. teammates and the praise Berhalter has given him. Has he risen enough to overtake Ricardo Pepi or Jordan Pefok, the latter of whom has the best finisher’s touch in the striker pool?
Pepi was given this camp off to recover from a taxing first season in Europe, and Pefok is injured. We can suspect, though, that the U.S. World Cup team will probably only have two pure strikers on it — unless FIFA expands rosters to 26 players, as is currently being debated. Then the calculus changes.
We’ll learn more Tuesday, because Berhalter announced that Wright will start the Nations League game in El Salvador (10 p.m., FS1, UniMás, TUDN).
“He’ll have an opportunity, and that was the plan all along,” Berhalter said. “We wanted to give Jesús 90 minutes today and have Haji ready and fresh for Tuesday’s game.”
It will be a big moment for Wright and for Berhalter.
Even Berhalter’s critics can agree that Walker Zimmerman has earned the right to be a lock as one of the team’s starting centerbacks. The other starting spot and the bench places remain up for grabs.
Aaron Long is a candidate, as shown by his starting these last three games. Chris Richards would likely have taken some of that playing time had he not been injured, and a lot of observers think he’s the best choice to start next to Zimmerman.
Take note, though, of Cameron Carter-Vickers. After a few seasons in the European club wilderness, the son of 1983 NBA first-round pick Howard Carter just finished an outstanding campaign with Scottish champion Celtic. And after earning a place in the Scottish players’ union’s team of the year, Carter-Vickers earned something even more important.
Carter-Vickers was at Celtic on loan from Tottenham Hotspur. On Friday, Celtic bought him outright for $7.4 million. That’s a big vote of confidence. If he keeps playing regularly and well, he’ll be on the plane to Qatar.
“I’ve been on loan for the last few years now, kind of moving about,” Carter-Vickers said. “Which is not necessarily a bad thing — I’ve had some great experiences and learned a lot. But, yeah, it’s nice to have somewhere where I’m going to be settled for a few years, and try and kick on.”
Who else is in the mix? Erik Palmer-Brown for sure. He missed Friday’s game with a minor hamstring injury. Former Union stalwart Mark McKenzie could be too, but needs a strong start to the season at Belgium’s Genk.
Then, of course, there’s John Brooks. The 2014 World Cup hero seems to be on the outs with Berhalter, and that likely won’t change before November.
A game against Grenada in sweltering Texas heat probably wasn’t the main reason Malik Tillman chose to play for the United States. Still, it seemed reasonable to expect he’d play Friday, after playing 25 minutes against Morocco and not at all against Uruguay.
He did indeed, coming in at halftime for Weston McKennie. That put Tillman in a central midfield position, after he played on the left wing against Morocco. The 20-year-old from German powerhouse Bayern Munich was quietly effective in the middle. Fellow central midfielder Luca de la Torre — who has really raised his stock, by the way — liked what he saw.
“He’s definitely got quality,” de la Torre said. “He’s young, he plays for a really big club, he has a really kind of easy way with the ball.”
We’ll see if Tillman plays in El Salvador. Then the wait will begin to see if he plays more this season at Bayern.