By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 11, 2023) US Soccer Players – The USMNT’s preparation for the 2026 World Cup takes a key step forward on Saturday when Gregg Berhalter’s team takes on Germany in East Hartford, Connecticut. The clash with the four-time world champions is an elite test for a core group of players steaming into a new cycle with dreams of World Cup glory on home soil in three years. On a crowded calendar, it’s also one of the few chances to do so ahead of next year’s US-hosted Copa America.
Part of the program for Berhalter and his staff is building a squad that can maximize its hard-won experience from the 2022 cycle. Depth is a significant factor in that quest, as is an ability to adjust from game to game and within matches. New approaches are being considered. An evolution is underway.
Assistant coach BJ Callaghan, in charge of the team when the US successfully defended their Concacaf Nations League title in June, connected the idea of depth and tactical evolution with something else this version of the USMNT has plenty of.
“I think a great strength of our entire group is our versatility and adaptability of a lot of our players,” Callaghan told media members on Monday. “I expect that we’re still going to be able to put these guys in positions that will help our team exploit some areas that we can vsGermany. I think as we’ve shown over time we have a lot of players who can play different roles in different positions and we’ll just continue to use that depth, because that’s what we view as one of our strengths.”
Callaghan’s comments on the squad’s ability to shift and morph in both personnel and position came in response to a question about the absence of PSV Eindhoven midfielder Malik Tillman due to injury. While it’s far from ideal for the group to be without a player of Tillman’s ability, Callaghan took the opportunity to suggest that USMNT is well-positioned to test other combinations in midfield and beyond.
Adding Heidenheim midfielder Lennard Maloney to the group helps with cover in a key area. Injuries to Tillman and Tyler Adams could affect how the technical staff balances the midfield against Germany on Saturday, and Ghana in Nashville next week.
Maloney did impressive work in that spot to help Heidenheim win promotion to the Bundesliga last season, and during the eight starts he has made for the club so far in 2023-24. Maloney’s position is clear and established, though Callaghan indicated that the newest addition to the group can play several variations of his position. That’s an important trait for fitting with the USMNT.
Others in the player pool also possess more fluid positional profiles. As the team prepares for this month’s friendlies, a handful of players will shift into different roles with the national team from those they are currently manning for their club sides.
Two of those are club teammates: Weston McKennie and Tim Weah. The American duo joined up at Juventus this summer when McKennie returned from a loan in England with Leeds United and Weah transferred from French side Lille. Firmly locked in as a wide forward in the USMNT’s usual 4-3-3 system during the last World Cup cycle, Weah arrived in Turin tipped to fill a wingback role in manager Massimilano Allegri’s 3-5-2.
After proving his ability to play in several places in Lille’s lineup during his time in France, Weah convinced Juventus he could change positions and play at a high level. It’s therefore no surprise that all of Weah’s minutes since the start of the Serie A season have come at wingback. It’s more surprising that McKennie has also spent time in the role.
McKennie started Juventus’s 2-0 win over Torino heading into the international window in his more natural central midfield position. Allegri seems to view his versatility as a useful trait to be mobilized. In the seven matches prior, McKennie manned the wingback position on Juventus’s right side in a platoon with Weah, regularly subbing out for him. As the USMNT evolves, possessing a roster of players who are comfortable changing positions gives the coaching staff more options.
With the return of Gio Reyna to the national team for the first time since the Concacaf Nations League finals, there’s a renewed discussion of how the team might use the talented 20-year-old. Reyna’s turn at an advanced midfield spot in the Nations League finals provided a tantalizing glimpse of another mode of play for the midfield. Callaghan addressed Reyna’s return and how the USMNT might use him before taking another opportunity to outline versatility across the squad.
“Integrating (Reyna) is the same way that we integrate a lot of our players,” he said. “We watch them weekly in their clubs. I think there’s a lot of guys that maybe play different positions with their clubs than when they play here. We think that’s a great strength. We think that’s a great strength in the group that we have adaptable and versatile players.”
Watching the USMNT player pool weekly with their club teams is a little easier these days, thanks to the number of players now playing together in leagues across Europe. McKennie and Weah aren’t the only American cohort lining up for a single club. Ricardo Pepi plays with Sergino Dest and Tillman at PSV. Christian Pulisic and Yunus Musah are teaming up to power AC Milan’s fine league start. Matt Turner’s move to Nottingham Forest united him with fellow goalkeeper Ethan Horvath.
Pulisic and Musah’s club partnership is paying dividends for AC Milan and often puts the two Americans on the same side of the formation together. That connection might be intriguing to the USMNT brain trust.
If the last World Cup cycle was about establishing an identity and building confidence in a group of talented, but inexperienced, players, the 2026 cycle is about constructing new levels on that foundation. Fresh faces like Maloney, striker Folarin Balogun, and fullback Kristoffer Lund add to a group that believes in its ability to push USMNT, and by extension American soccer as a whole, to new heights.
Photo by Imago via ZUMA Press – ISIPhotos.com