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The Value of the USMNT’s Toughest Pre–World Cup Test

The remaining four opponents before Qatar 2022 are unlikely to pose the same kind of challenge Uruguay can, resulting in a useful learning exercise.

Hours after the American men finally filled in their full World Cup schedule, they faced what should be their stiffest test before departing for Qatar. 

Thirteenth-ranked Uruguay isn’t exactly comparable to England, Iran or Wales, the three teams the U.S. will meet in November (Wales beat Ukraine earlier Sunday in a playoff to claim the last Group B berth). But La Celeste are deep, talented and brimming with pedigree. After negotiating a schedule that’s featured a relentless and relatively repetitive series of Concacaf rivals, the Americans were eager to challenge themselves against a World Cup-caliber foe. Even though Sunday evening’s contest in Kansas City was a friendly, the first 10 minutes alone—during which the hosts were under considerable pressure—demonstrated the potential value of the experience.

“It's going to be amazing. I mean, a lot of us are young and we're still getting that experience against these high-level teams,” U.S. winger Tim Weah said before the match. “It’s what I’ve always dreamed of, playing at such a high level against the best.”

Tim Weah and the USMNT draw Uruguay

Weah and the USMNT played Uruguay to a 0-0 draw.

The result, which mattered less than the novel opposition and 90-minute journey at Children’s Mercy Park, was a 0-0 draw. Either team could’ve won. But both were wasteful or unlucky near goal, and so neither did. Although the score will become a footnote, the youthful U.S. will hope it acquired a bit of useful seasoning against a top-tier opponent. Meanwhile, coach Gregg Berhalter collected some additional info on several World Cup candidates.

The American who may have done the most for his Qatar prospects on Sunday was goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who long had been considered a distant No. 3 behind Zack Steffen and Matt Turner. The 2021 MLS Cup MVP was invited to this month’s camp only because Steffen withdrew for family reasons. 

Berhalter will have three keepers in the English Premier League beginning in August: Steffen (Manchester City), Turner (Arsenal) and Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest). But none is expected to play regularly. Johnson, however, is a stalwart at New York City FC and, in his first U.S. start in more than two years, he impressed on Sunday with three saves and a shutout. In the 63rd minute, Johnson was able to get his right leg to a point-blank shot by Uruguay’s Mathías Olivera, thwarting one of Uruguay’s best looks of the game.

Sean Johnson makes a save for the USMNT vs. Uruguay

Johnson was steady in goal for the U.S., making three saves.

Elsewhere, the value of center back Walker Zimmerman’s reliability and distribution was highlighted, as was the indispensability of left back Antonee Robinson. Sidelined for the first hour of the game because of an illness, Robinson watched as 19-year-old Joe Scally, making just his second U.S. appearance, struggled in his first senior start. Midfielder Yunus Musah had another strong match alongside Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, while Weah and Christian Pulisic (earning his 50th cap) were active and occasionally productive on the wings. Berhalter’s vexing striker conundrum remains unsolved, however, as both Jesús Ferreira and Haji Wright went scoreless.

As the only two No. 9s on the current U.S. roster, Ferreira and Wright will get additional chances as the team moves into the second half of its June camp. Goals scored from here on out may not mean as much, however. When they gathered in Cincinnati last week, the Americans had six matches remaining before leaving for Qatar: friendlies against Morocco and Uruguay, Concacaf Nations League contests against Grenada (Friday in Austin, Texas) and at El Salvador (June 14) and then, in late September, two more exhibitions in Europe against Asian sides.

La Celeste represented the best of that lot. In fact, Uruguay arguably is the most talented team the U.S. has played since Berhalter leaned into his youth movement toward the end of 2020. The pandemic, compressed qualifying schedule and Nations League events in Europe and Concacaf have made scheduling friendlies beyond regional borders difficult. Since Berhalter took over, the U.S. has now played just four times against teams in FIFA’s top 15 other than Mexico (toss the ranking out when those overly familiar rivals meet). And only the 2-1 loss to Switzerland in May 2021 and then Sunday’s game against Uruguay came recently. 

USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter vs. Uruguay

Berhalter and the U.S. have two more matches in the June international window.

Morocco, ranked 24th, is among the top teams from Africa but not a World Cup contender and not blessed with an abundance of the sort of players who feature for Uruguay (the U.S. dispatched Morocco, 3-0, on Wednesday). La Celeste coach Diego Alonso, who was Inter Miami’s first manager, started just one man from the side that routed Mexico last week but still was able to deploy the likes of legendary defenders Diego Godín and Martín Cáceres, goalkeeper Fernando Muslera and striker Darwin Núñez, a rising star at Benfica. In the second half, Alonso was then able to bring on forward Edinson Cavani (Manchester United) and midfielders Federico Valverde (Real Madrid) and Matías Vecino (Inter Milan) off the bench (he also used a seventh sub, which confused U.S. coaches and officials who believed the friendly limit was six).

This U.S. squad, which is still getting its international bearings, hasn’t faced a collection of players like that.

“It’s still about the pressure we put on ourselves,” Berhalter said Saturday. “There was a lot of talk before the [Morocco] game about us wanting to set our standard against World Cup opponents, and its going to be the same type of theme [against Uruguay].”

Joe Scally defends for the USMNT vs. Uruguay

Scally (29), was targeted frequently by Uruguay on a day he made his first U.S. start.

The standard wasn’t high from kickoff at Children’s Mercy Park, where the U.S. took about 10 minutes to get its bearings. Uruguay attacked Scally’s side repeatedly, and the Borussia Mönchengladbach player needed some time to adjust to a more conservative approach. For most of the rest of the first hour, however—before the subs changed the game’s complexion—the U.S. was on the front foot. The connection between the midfield and forwards was there, and Ferreira had two good chances to lift the U.S. in front.

The FC Dallas product, who’s MLS’s co-leading scorer, has been relatively effective in his six U.S. appearances this year at combining with teammates and finding space in the penalty area. He’s savvy and energetic, and he’s getting chances and then getting shots off. That’s half the battle. But the other half is finishing, and that isn’t happening. He was stymied a couple times against Morocco and then against Uruguay, he sent a 19th-minute shot straight into Muslera before heading over the bar (on a high cross from DeAndre Yedlin) a couple minutes later.

Wright, who scored from the penalty spot against Morocco, relieved Ferreira in the 61st minute but wasn’t much of a factor as the game became more choppy and disjointed. Uruguay was the better team in the closing moments and probably should’ve scored the winner in stoppage time. An unselfish Núñez slipped a square pass to Cavani on the break, but the ball deflected slightly off U.S. center back Erik Palmer-Brown. Cavani then missed the wide-open goal.

Issues in goal and up front certainly will occupy Berhalter’s mind as the World Cup approaches. Those five and a half months will pass quickly. Only four games remain, and while neither goals nor obvious solutions came out of Sunday’s game, he’ll hope the experience of playing a team like Uruguay will pay dividends when the U.S. takes the field against Gareth Bale and Wales on Nov. 21.

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