One of the many complications of a winter World Cup, though far down the list, is the death of the pre-tournament friendly. Normally, teams get together for a couple weeks after the domestic season and then get two or three ramp-ups before the tourney starts to establish rapport, try some new formations and players, and really look like a team. It was fine to read too much into those games, because you were actually watching national teams come together.
With the World Cup in Qatar being fist-fucked into the middle of the calendar, we don’t get that. These two friendlies for every team around this weekend is it. And then there’s seven weeks, and the tournament launches basically from a standing start. These kinds of friendlies, dropped right into the club season, are hard to judge. Players get only a couple practices together, they’re still carrying physical and mental weight from whatever’s going on with their clubs, and they still have plenty of big matches to come immediately after. It would not be a shock if some players just see this as a quick break from the suffocating demands the schedule will be right up until Qatar.
So how much to take out of the USMNT’s ass-waxing at the hands of Japan is hard to gauge. It’s definitely not good. And there are definite questions to ask. But the US also had some players who clearly weren’t all that interested (though that’s been an issue in games that did matter too), and you’d at least like to think that when it’s Wales on the other side of the field come November 21st that the Yanks will be at full attention.
Perhaps the biggest question to come out of Friday’s beer barf of an effort is that the US was just so helpless against an organized, dedicated press. Both Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long looked like they’d had bad oysters when trying to pass the ball, and the midfielders they were passing too looked no more comfortable taking touches under severe pressure. The US desperately missed Yunus Musah, who has become perhaps their most important player, who thrives under pressure and can weave his way out of trouble with his immaculate touch and dribbling.
Musah is also the link to Weston McKennie, who remains something of a mystery for the US. McKennie was way too far from his midfield cohorts against Japan, and when he did get the ball he was a turnover vending machine. Which isn’t a surprise, because McKennie isn’t really all that good with the ball at his feet anywhere other than the opposing penalty area. When Musah is in midfield, he links Tyler Adams, the deepest midfielder, to McKennie, the sharp end of the midfield triangle. Luca de la Torre, when on form, can do a reasonable impression of Musah, but he’s barely playing for Celta Vigo these days.
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Without Musah, McKennie is just kind of this weird anomaly. According to FBRef.com, McKennie ranks in the 14th percentile for passing among midfielders. His pass completion percentage is in the 28th. Progressive passes he’s in the 16th. Pressures? 34th. Tackles? 27th. What McKennie does at a world class level for a midfielder is score, and take touches in the attacking penalty area. And these are important things! His value at set-pieces, a priceless outlet in a short tournament like the World Cup where developing understanding and chemistry to create attacking fluidity is rare, can’t be overstated. It’s just that he doesn’t really do anything else. He’s basically the soccer version of a chucker…just a really, really good one.
But you have to get to the attacking areas first. And McKennie doesn’t really help a team do that. When faced with a team pressing high, McKennie’s touch is too loose and inconsistent, his eye for a pass or ability to complete it is pretty rocky, and he also can’t be counted on to work all that hard to get the ball back. It can leave the USMNT outnumbered badly in midfield. This is why Juventus have usually played McKennie as part of a midfield four, and put him as close to the strikers as they can. Let him do what he does well and not even worry about the other stuff.
That won’t fly for the US, who are committed to a 4-3-3. Luckily for them, they may not see many pressing teams come Qatar. Wales don’t press. Under Carlos Quieroz, Iran may not cross the halfway line. A team that has most of the ball and is trying to break down a bunkered-in defense is the best time to have McKennie, who pops up in the box in places a defense can’t find him and links with the strikers well.
What they’ll see against England… well, who knows? It’s likely they’ll still try and act like the favorite and big bad of the group against the US, but you never know when Gareth Southgate is going to turtle. Still, McKennie trying to take touches around the halfway line while Declan Rice or Jude Bellingham are harassing him…”urpy” would be the word.
We’ll see if Gregg Berhalter has the stones to rotate out of the Adams-Musah-McKennie midfield that’s always been the first choice when all are healthy. But knowing what your players can and can’t do and what fits and what doesn’t is a key to a tournament run. We know what McKennie can and can’t do. Act accordingly.