CINCINNATI — In most World Cup years, the buzz around the tournament would be building to a crescendo right now. The U.S. men’s soccer team would play a few high-profile spring friendlies on home soil, drawing big crowds to watch the latest crop of stars, then head off to the biggest stage in soccer.
This time, things are different.
Because kickoff in Qatar isn’t until November, the games the U.S. men’s team will play this month are as close to the traditional send-off as fans will see. The first three contests are the last on home soil before the tournament, but neither the team nor anyone else is close to knowing what the final squad will be.
“I don’t think we’re there yet in terms of the buildup,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said in a news conference Tuesday afternoon. “I can guarantee you as we move into the fall, it’s going to ramp up in a big way. … Right now, I don’t think it’s there.”
The opening tune-up is Wednesday night against Morocco. It will be the first time in 15 games that the U.S. has played a team from outside Concacaf, and the last one was against Qatar when it was a guest at last year’s Gold Cup. There were seven more games against regional opponents before then.
“For sure, we got used to it,” U.S. midfield star Tyler Adams said. “When we play against Morocco and have the opportunity to play against guys like [Paris Saint-Germain’s Achraf] Hakimi and other talented players, you finally get to test and see if what we’re doing works. And I think that’s the best thing you can have.”
We already know Adams will start against Morocco, as Berhalter made the rare move of publicly giving his entire starting lineup to Univision in advance.
It will be Matt Turner in goal; Antonee “Jedi” Robinson, Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman and Reggie Cannon on the back line; Adams, Yunus Musah and Brenden Aaronson in central midfield; Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah on the wings; and Jesús Ferreira up front.
Aaronson playing in a central role will be a notable storyline. The Medford native has played there often at club level but usually plays on the wings with the national team.
Hakimi is Morocco’s biggest name, a teammate of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé in Paris. There’s also a trio of players from Spanish power Sevilla: goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, who was born in Montréal, and forwards Youssef En-Nesyri and Munir El Haddadi.
Elsewhere on the defense, captain Romain Saïss plays for England’s Wolverhampton Wanderers and has faced Pulisic multiple times. Saïss spoke highly of the Hershey native and the U.S. team.
“They have a team that’s made a lot of progress in recent years, and they have quality players,” Saïss said. “It’s a team that’s very dangerous because they have a lot of individual quality and a lot of speed in their game.”
Twenty-five of the 27 players on the squad were at Tuesday’s practice.
One of the absentees won’t be in town at all: CF Montréal midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, picked by many analysts as a potential breakout player this summer, injured an ankle in his last MLS game before he was to leave. He underwent a MRI on Monday, and the injury was deemed too severe for him to travel. No replacement was named.
The other goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, was on his way to town. He just helped Nottingham Forest, one of England’s grand old clubs, earn a return to the Premier League after 23 years in lower leagues.
The good news is star midfielder Weston McKennie, who’s been out injured for three months from the national team and Italian club Juventus, has been practicing. Berhalter said McKennie could play 20 minutes Wednesday.
McKennie said he feels good as he recovers from a broken foot but is not ready for a full game yet.
“One of my goals this camp is just to get back on a 90-minute game fitness level and to play completely without feeling anything,” he said. “It’s been a mentally hard path, but it’s been a good one so far.”
Also, versatile German-American attacker Malik Tillman has been cleared to play for the U.S. by FIFA after switching his nationality. Tillman, who turned 20 on May 28, was born in Germany to an American serviceman father and German mother. He plays for German power Bayern Munich and played for the U.S. under-15 team in 2016 before switching to Germany through the under-21 level. Now he is with the U.S. for good.
“He’s shown a lot of quality in training — very good understanding of the game, very good first touch, and awareness around the penalty box,” Berhalter said.
Final qualifiers on deck
A few hours before Wednesday’s U.S.-Morocco game, all eyes will be on Europe for the Scotland-Ukraine World Cup qualifying playoff game. It originally was scheduled for March but was delayed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and this will be Ukraine’s first game since the war started.
The winner will play Wales on Saturday, and the winner of that game will be the United States’ first opponent in the World Cup in November.
World Cup qualifying playoff schedule
Wednesday: Scotland vs. Ukraine, 2:45 p.m. (ESPN2, TUDN, ESPN+)
Saturday: Wales vs. Scotland-Ukraine winner, noon (ESPN2, TUDN, ESPN+)
June 7: United Arab Emirates vs. Australia at Al Rayyan, Qatar, 2 p.m. (Paramount+)
June 13: Peru vs. United Arab Emirates or Australia at Al Rayyan, Qatar, 2 p.m. (FS1, Telemundo, Universo)
June 14: Costa Rica vs. New Zealand at Al Rayyan, Qatar, 2 p.m. (FS2, Telemundo, Universo)
Upcoming U.S. game schedule
Wednesday: vs. Morocco at Cincinnati, friendly, 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2, UniMás, TUDN)
Saturday: vs. Uruguay at Kansas City, Kan., friendly, 5 p.m. (Fox29, Univision 65, TUDN,)
June 10: vs. Grenada at Austin, Texas, Concacaf Nations League, 10 p.m. (UniMás, TUDN, ESPN+)
June 14: at El Salvador, Concacaf Nations League, 10 p.m. (FS1, Univision 65, TUDN)