Friday, July 1, 2022

USMNT’s unanswered questions: Has Jesus Ferreira locked down the starting striker spot?

The United States men’s national team will play their final match of the summer on Tuesday when they visit El Salvador in Concacaf Nations League play. With more questions than answers five months before the 2022 FIFA World Cup begins, here are five pressing issues facing Gregg Berhalter and what I think are the most correct answers at this moment. 

Question 1: Is Jesus Ferreira striker No. 1?

Answer: Yes, but kind of by default. There is no bigger hole in this team than at striker, and that includes the center back position. At the World Cup, the U.S. will face teams in England, Wales and Iran who have much better options at striker. Yes, even Iran. The striker woes have been going on for years, ever since the best days of Jozy Altidore. Everybody seemed to think the problem was solved when Ricardo Pepi was tearing up MLS, but he’s not even on the squad at the moment as he looks to rest up ahead of what will be an important fall for the Augsburg man. Pepi has as many goals as you and I do since mid-October, Jordan Pefok was wasteful in his chances, and that has led us to Jesus Ferreira getting his chance. His precision in front of goal had been way off, but he did come through last time out with four goals, tying a team record. That was against a team in Grenada made up of some semi-professionals and some guys who have second jobs, so that must be taken with a grain of salt. But, his ability to pick up teammates and his recent goal-scoring form will help his case. At the moment, he’s the frontrunner, but all of that can change in an instant.

Question 2: Where do you play Brenden Aaronson? 

Answer: Brenden Aaronson’s versatility is key to this team, and it’s a luxury. Gregg Berhalter can toss him on the wing or put him inside, and if I’m the coach, I’m putting Aaronson in the middle and benching Yunus Musah. No offense to Musah, really. Look, I’m a Valencia supporter and have watched almost all of his matches. He’s a fine talent, but he is raw and has a long way to go. His ability to get by defenders, especially when dropping deep, is helpful, but it’s countered by the moments where he gets lost in attack. Personally, I’d get Tyler Adams to sit deep, Weston McKennie to be close to him as an outlet, and then Aaronson at attacking mid to look for the space. 

Question 3: Which is the ideal center back pairing?

Answer: On paper, it’s Walker Zimmerman and Chris Richards. But, you have to be around to earn your spot, and injuries have kept Richards from making the statement he wants. I think he’s far and away the best center back prospect this country has, but we are running out of time for him to make an impression. He’ll get his shot, but if I have to pick from the guys who are available now, I’m taking Zimmerman and Cameron Carter-Vickers. I’m not saying that with the most confidence, but I just think Carter-Vickers’ experience at Celtic gives him in the edge. Zimmerman has been a first-choice center back for Berhalter and has paid his dues. If he’s healthy, he likely starts at the World Cup. I’m not certain we see John Brooks again with this team unless he finds his form at a new club. I would feel good about a Zimmerman-Richards pairing in Qatar, but anything other than that will leave me uneasy, with Carter-Vickers being my next choice. 

Question 4: Who are the key midfield reserves?

Answer: Assuming the midfield is Adams, McKennie, and Musah, then the key reserves need to be three different types of players — one defensive, one possession-based, and one creator. This team lacks a direct replacement for Adams on the defensive end, and the one I would pick is Johnny Cardoso. He hasn’t sniffed the national team in a while though, and no other option oozes confidence. For McKennie, it’s likely Kellyn Acosta, somebody who can do a bit on both ends, though to a much lower degree. And when it comes to a creator, it would be Luca de la Torre, who I would start over Musah. The issue with this midfield is the youth and lack of veterans, but on the plus side, the minutes they get will foster their development. But there will be a ton of growing pains against more established teams, so they’ve got a lot of room to grow before Qatar. The midfield is in a decent spot, but it’s time to cement the core and the reserves to play for what’s ahead.

Question 5: Who is the goalkeeper?

Answer: I get that Berhalter loves Zack Steffen because of their Columbus Crew days, and he’s so familiar with him and believes in his ability. But the answer, right now, is Matt Turner. He’s playing more, he’s in better form, and he’s in better health. When he moves to Arsenal this summer, it will be interesting to see what kind of minutes he actually gets. If he’s just the League Cup man and playing once a month, there will be reasons to be concerned. I think Steffen moves on loan to try and get minutes, but I think Turner is just the better player at the moment. It’s a two-horse race, and Turner is leading the pack in terms of performance. But don’t be shocked if it is Steffen in the end due to the familiarity with Berhalter. 

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