Neither Gio Reyna nor Christian Pulisic has played soccer publicly since appearing for the United States men’s national team last month in World Cup qualifiers, which is why they won’t be available for this month’s World Cup qualifiers.
Pulisic injured his ankle in a victory at Honduras. Reyna pulled a hamstring in a draw at El Salvador. The USMNT is deeper than it once was, but it’s not an ideal situation for any team to enter essential competition without its two most gifted players. Pulisic is a Champions League winner who slammed home the winning penalty for the U.S. in this past summer’s CONCACAF Nations League title game. Reyna already has earned nine caps — and scored four goals — and has made 50 appearances for Bundesliga contender Borussia Dortmund though he still is a month shy of his 19th birthday.
“Obviously, missing players like Gio and Christian, that affects the team,” midfielder Tyler Adams told reporters Monday. “They’re creative players. They’re dynamic players. But when you look at the squad and the depth of the squad, we’ve always had that next-man-up mentality. To see faces like these coming in, where guys are playing week-in, week-out for their clubs, it’s great to see.”
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So which guys, of the 26 on the roster, will be most important in covering for the absence of the USMNT’s two most forceful and inventive offensive players in games against Jamaica (Thursday in Austin), at Panama (Sunday) and against Costa Rica (Oct. 13 in Columbus)?
Here are the three who’ll matter most.
3. Tyler Adams
- Position: Midfielder
- Club: RB Leipzig (Germany)
- Age: 22
He will not take the place of either, but lacking the attacking ability of Reyna and Pulisic means the U.S. must be as steady as possible. That’s Adams’ specialty. He went the distance in all three games in the first CONCACAF qualifying window in September, and we saw how genuinely important he was at the heart of midfield when coach Gregg Berhalter tried to use him as a right back in the first half of the third game, against Honduras. That was the worst half of soccer the U.S. played in those three games. When he was returned to his natural position in midfield, the team responded by scoring four goals and conceding none.
Adams plays a deep role, for the most part. He is not a true destroyer in the Javier Mascherano mold, but he covers ground and keeps the ball flowing in the best possible direction for the USMNT. He is the most natural leader the team has, as well.
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“Last camp was a great experience for us all — for a lot of us the first taste of what World Cup qualifying was going to be like,” Adams said. “The most important thing coming into this camp now is to take each and every game, game-by-game. Not focus on saying, ‘OK, let’s get nine points.’ Let’s focus on each game and what we need to do in order to win each game. I think that’s going to set us up for the best success.”
2. Yunus Musah
- Position: Midfielder
- Club: Valencia (Spain)
- Age: 18
For his club team in Spain’s La Liga, Musah has made a majority of his appearances in a wide role. In a start Saturday against Cadiz, he played on the right of a 4-4-2 formation and went 84 minutes in a 0-0 draw.
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Berhalter, though, said Musah is playing wide because that’s what his club needs. The U.S. intends to play him more centrally, where he’ll be expected to fill the creative attacking void left by Pulisic. The USMNT scored only one goal in its first 180 minutes of qualifying, so it can use whatever ideas Musah can provide.
“With his ability to break lines dribbling, with his mobility, I think he’s a good option to have in central midfield,” Berhalter said.
1. Brenden Aaronson
- Position: Midfielder
- Club: RB Salzburg (Austria)
- Age: 20
After just 10 appearances with the USMNT, Aaronson has established himself as one of the most productive and versatile players in the pool. He can be used as an attacking midfielder, as a wide midfielder or as a wide forward in a 4-3-3 formation. He has been able to contribute, as well, from both the left and the right.
In 10 appearances for the U.S., he already has scored five times. He contributed the only goal in the 1-1 draw against Canada in the September window, on a move he started with a tough challenge near midfield and finished by staying aware near the top of the box and making himself available to tap in Antonee Robinson’s perfect cross (watch video below). He earned an assist for Salzburg in a weekend league match with a grounded cross that either of two teammates might have slammed in.
Aaronson plays hard, runs hard and always tries to remain dangerous.
The USMNT will need all of his talents to remain in prime shape over the next week to move closer to qualifying for Qatar 2022.