For USMNT, World Cup stretch race begins with friendly against Morocco

CINCINNATI — Until a few days ago, Malik Tillman, a 20-year-old midfielder from Nuremberg, Germany, had never set foot on American soil.

In five and a half months, if things go as he hopes, he will represent the United States at the World Cup in Qatar.

As the world of international football enters a supposedly calm summer period, with the end of the European season and most players on too brief a break from their clubs, Tillman’s story offers a compelling counterpoint to any idea that the teams will be content to remain on hold until the tournament begins in late November.

National teams, after all, have just two more opportunities to come together before they leave for the World Cup – a few games this month and a second window of matches in September – and there is plenty to do. Squads must be formed. Tactics need to be refined. Players’ dreams will be realized or postponed. Lives will be changed.

One of them could be Tillman’s. This week he completed the change football allegiance to the United States, his father’s country of origin, to Germany, the country where he was born and where he is a rising prospect at Bayern Munich. Then he was thrust into action on Wednesday night, coming on as a 65th-minute substitute in the Americans’ imposing 3-0 win over Morocco in Cincinnati.

“It took me a long time to make the decision, but in the end I listened to what my heart was telling me,” said Tillman, one of three young players, with the striker from 24-year-old Haji Wright – who scored the United States’ third goal from a penalty kick – and 19-year-old left-back Joe Scally, who made his United States national team debut in the game. “I hope it’s the right decision. I’m happy to be here.”

For national team coaches around the world, the remaining training camp windows and the handful of exhibition games played there represent valuable time to introduce new ideas and refine those that have gotten them to this point. .

Coach Gregg Berhalter had plenty to celebrate on Wednesday. He praised Christian Pulisic, his captain and best player, who provided a sublime assist to Brenden Aaronson for the team’s first goal in the 26th minute and another assist, of sorts, for the third on the team, when he generously let Wright take the penalty he had won in the second half.

Tim Weah scored the team’s second goal, in the 32nd minute, with a thud 25 yards from goal that shimmered and deflected through the air and into the hands of the Moroccan keeper. (It was the team’s first goal from outside the box since March 2021, scoring a 44-goal streak from inside the penalty area, according to Opta Sports.)

“We talked before the game about establishing a baseline for this group of how we can perform against World Cup opponents,” said Berhalter, who tinkered throughout the game with some of the forms. and established tactics of the team. “I feel like the band came out and showed how good we can be.”

For individual players – like Tillman and others who are on the fringes of their national teams – these games are opportunities to make a positive impression, to get a coach’s attention, to gain his trust.

For teams and their fans, they can present one last moment, perhaps, to pause and dream. The agonizing struggle of qualification is over. The formidable melting pot of the World Cup is looming. Until November, everything seems possible.

“We don’t want to go to the World Cup thinking that we just want to be there,” said American midfielder Weston McKennie. “A good World Cup for anyone goes as far as possible, coming out of the group stage. A perfect World Cup is winning it.

“A lot of people say it’s far-fetched for us, but that’s the mentality we have. We want to compete. We want to win. And we want to go as far as possible.

For Tillman, who has played in several German national youth teams, the past week has been a whirlwind. He arrived in the United States late Friday evening. The next day, in front of his new teammates, he is offered a cake for his 20th birthday.

Berhalter, who secured Tillman’s commitment only a few weeks ago, delivered the cake to the player.

“Malik is coming with a bang, baby,” Berhalter said. “Happy Birthday dude!”

On Tuesday, Pulisic was tasked with telling the group that Tillman’s switch had been officially approved by football’s world governing body FIFA. This sparked another round of applause from the group.

Asked this week about his first impressions of the United States, Tillman smiled.

“It’s huge,” he said, drawing laughter from a room full of reporters. “Germany is a bit small.” Noting the sprawling streets he had seen in Cincinnati, he added, “It’s crazy.”

Amidst all the extracurricular activities, there have been actual on-field practice sessions, where Tillman has already impressed his coaches and teammates.

“He showed a lot of quality in training, a very good understanding of the game, a very good first touch and an awareness around the penalty area,” Berhalter said. “So that’s been great.”

Coaches at club level have tried to use Tillman as a striker, and while he hasn’t put off their experimentation too much, he sees himself as a midfielder in the mold of his favorite player, French star Paul Pogba: confident, fluid, versatile.

“In my mind I’m more of a 10 than a striker because I would say my strength is my vision, and as a striker you don’t need that in your game because the goal is almost everything. time in the back of your body,” Tillman said. “I like attacking the goal, seeing the goal in front of me.

Tillman said Berhalter told him he too saw him as a No. 10, a more creative role currently held by Pulisic, the current American No. 10. It was one of the points that persuaded him to move to the United States, Tillman said.

Berhalter’s main selling point, however, was telling Tillman he could potentially train for the World Cup this year – something that would have been impossible with Germany.

Of course, outside of a small core of players like Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams, no American player spot in Qatar is guaranteed. Anything can happen as they fight for places. Tillman knows it. Just like his teammates.

On the minds of many players, for example, was the fate of defender Miles Robinson, who was widely seen as a lock for World Cup training until last month when he ruptured left Achilles tendon while playing in MLS for his club, Atlanta United.

Robinson’s injury was a sudden reminder to American players of their own fragility. Defender Walker Zimmerman said he found himself letting injury worries seep into his mind.

“When you’re looking at your goals that are right in front of you and you’re always a little more hesitant, it’s hard to fight that, but you have to,” Zimmerman said.

Along with injury concerns, players have also expressed concerns this week about optimizing their situation with their clubs. For those who have signed, or could sign, with new clubs in the current European off-season, it has been necessary to weigh the long-term goals against the short-term practicalities of gaining immediate playing time at the club. approaching the World Cup.

Consider Aaronson, who was deployed in a central midfield role on Wednesday night. He fulfilled a personal dream of signing for a Premier League side when he joined Leeds United in May, but the move, he acknowledged, means he will have to fight for playing time again in a potentially more competitive situation. Sitting on the bench does not bode well for a player’s form.

“It’s definitely a risk,” he said, “but it was a risk I was willing to take.”

For now, there are spots up for grabs in the US depth chart.

Berhalter, for example, has no striker of choice. He did not name a starting goalkeeper. And he said he didn’t know who his left-back would be.

“I’m not sure if the question needs to be answered now, and why we have time,” Berhalter said of the goalkeeper job. “I think it’s time to let it all play out, and that’s the beauty of time in this case.”

Players like Tillman and others, however, know the clock is ticking.

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