Roster wrinkles pay dividends for USMNT, Berhalter in pre-World Cup win over Morocco

CINCINNATI -- With a little less than six months to go until the World Cup, Wednesday's friendly against Morocco was the perfect time for U.S. men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter to venture a bit into mad-chemist mode both in terms of roles and personnel. There are times when such experiments can blow up in a manager's face. But on this occasion, Berhalter's tweaks largely paid off in a 3-0 win.

As friendlies go, this counted as an impressive victory for the U.S. given that Morocco is also World Cup-bound. This wasn't a case where the Atlas Lions were fielding an understrength side either. While out-of-favor forward Hakim Ziyech was absent, nine of the 11 players on the field at TQL Stadium played in Morocco's final World Cup qualifier, and one of the relative newbies was Azzedine Ounahi, scorer of two goals in the 4-1 second leg win over DR Congo that clinched the ticket to Qatar.

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There had been questions about how the U.S. would fare against such an opponent given its CONCACAF-heavy schedule -- largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic and taking part in official competitions -- over the past two-and-a-half years. But even amid some ragged moments in transition and a susceptibility to Morocco switching the point of attack, the U.S. was the better side on the night, and deserving of its victory.

That said, the win needs to be put in context. It was still a friendly and the result will mean nothing come November. Only soccer obsessives will recall the Americans' 1-1 draw with France prior to the 2018 World Cup that Les Bleus ended up winning. This game is a means to an end in terms of preparation, and nothing more.

"I felt like the group went out and showed exactly how good we can be but also at times vulnerable," Berhalter said. "For us, I think we're very happy with the result. We still know that we need to keep improving, and that's why this game was so good for us."

To that end, Berhalter's tweaks included Brenden Aaronson being deployed in a central midfield position instead of his usual slot on the wing. The newly-minted Leeds United midfielder was effective on both sides of the ball, scoring the first U.S. goal in the 26th minute and getting some timely tackles in as well. With FIFA possibly deciding to expand the World Cup rosters to 26 players, versatility might not be as important as it used to be, but it still has value, and the fact that Aaronson looked just as comfortable in the middle as he did on the wing bodes well given the additional tactical wrinkles Berhalter can throw at opponents.

With Aaronson in the center, Yunus Musah dropped a bit deeper in support of Tyler Adams. Christian Pulisic found space wide and deep to collect the ball and then cut in centrally, and the U.S. created some solid chances as a result.

"We wanted to use [Pulisic] and [Aaronson] in those positions to really hurt the opponent and then still have three guys high on the back line that could be running behind them and keeping their [back] five pinned back," Berhalter said.

The starting center back pairing of Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman looked solid as well, putting out a few fires, and Cameron Carter-Vickers was effective as well when he came on at halftime. Long went the distance and looked plenty mobile, a concern given his comeback from last year's surgery to repair an Achilles tendon. They showed they could contribute to the attack as well, with Zimmerman's lofted ball setting the table for Pulisic to tee up Aaronson.

Zimmerman said it was a combination of chemistry and eye contact that allowed the play to come off.

"I take a touch; I look up to see further down the field what are my options. I see [Pulisic] look at me and change pace and immediately I put my head down to strike it over the top," he said. "It's one of those things that you've got to constantly work on your chemistry and I think we have a good feel for each other in that regard."

When Timothy Weah doubled the U.S. team's lead six minutes later with a blast from distance following a nine-pass sequence, the Americans were on their way. Berhalter even found time to hand international debuts to defender Joe Scally (at left back on this night), forward Haji Wright and 20-year-old midfielder Malik Tillman, who had never set foot in the U.S. prior to this camp and changing his international affiliation from Germany.

But for all of the alterations, Pulisic remains the focal point of the U.S. attack. He did plenty of heavy lifting on the first goal by deftly collecting Zimmerman's pass, evading two Moroccan defenders on the play, and with the keeper committed to him, squaring the ball to Aaronson to finish into an open net. The assist was the 10th of his international career, allowing him to reach double figures in goals and assists in 49 games, faster than any other U.S. male. (Landon Donovan did so in 50 games.)

When asked how difficult it is to execute a touch like that, Pulisic insisted it was no big deal.

"I guess for you guys it might not be easy but it's what I've done since ... I've been training this my whole life," he said. "It's a touch I expect myself to make but yeah, maybe not for everyone."

Berhalter was more effusive.

"The ability of players to control the ball at high speed and change direction at high speed with the ball is what really separates players at the next level, and Cristian definitely has that," Berhalter said.

Pulisic's other noteworthy contribution on the night was handing the ball off to former youth international teammate Wright after Pulisic took a hip check from Achraf Hakimi and earned a penalty in the 61st minute. Pulisic said he was just trying to give Wright "a bit of confidence," but the gesture was appreciated.

"I asked him for it, and he gave me the opportunity to score my first goal, in my first game, and it's a really great feeling," Wright said.

The night wasn't without its concerns. The U.S. looked vulnerable on the flanks, especially when Morocco utilized long diagonal passes to switch the point of attack. That led to outside backs Reggie Cannon and Antonee Robinson being isolated and forcing the center backs into difficult choices with other help late to arrive. With better finishing, Morocco could have been the ones to strike first.

"It was about how quickly we could release to their wing back," Berhalter said. "In the first half, Hakimi had too much time on the ball and Antonee was a little bit late releasing, I think at times the back line was too deep, gave the opponent too much space and in the physical battles, I think at times we got dominated on our back line. And Aaron [Long] is a high-quality player and I think he's going to use this as a learning experience because it was a good opponent, good forward, the guy has scored a ton of goals this year. And he got really physical but for us it's about team defending. Getting pressure on the ball makes it a lot easier for the center backs."

The play of the forwards also continues to draw scrutiny. Berhalter pronounced himself pleased with the performances of Wright and starter Jesus Ferreira, calling Ferreira a "pressing machine" and hailing Wright's ability to get involved in the attack, even though his introduction coincided with a period. When Morocco made a bid to climb back into the game. But both players failed to convert some clear looks at goal from open play, continuing a trend that where U.S. forwards do the little things but not the biggest thing.

Yet Wednesday's game marked the first few steps of preparation. An encounter this Sunday against Uruguay in Kansas City, Kansas, will reveal the team's progress, and the extent to which Berhalter continues to experiment.