The USMNT stars are getting in shape just in time for the World Cup


(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe)

A month ago on Sunday, the US men’s national team lost 2-0 to Japan and their World Cup prospects looked alarmingly bleak. It managed just two shots on target and zero goals in its last two games before flying to Qatar. His players seemed unenthusiastic, his coach unqualified, his system ineffective, and… fatalistic attitudes took hold among a fan base that was rightly inclined to be pessimistic.

But this week, a month before the four-year tournament, the very stars who sparked the optimism in the first place have slowly, gradually and fairly quietly reignited it.

Christian Pulisic played his best football of the season for Chelsea on Wednesday. Weston McKennie played his on Friday for Juventus and scored his first Serie A goal since January.

And then, on Saturday, Gio Reyna announced his return from his recent injury woes: with a cathartic goal for Borussia Dortmund.

Reyna is arguably the most technically skilled player the United States has ever produced. He is one of the most talented teenagers in global football. And yet he’s made little impact on the USMNT over the past year as he’s battled insane injury after insane injury.

He seemed final, final the back in September, but then ended the national team’s last friendly before the World Cup with muscle strains that had repeatedly weakened him. However, after almost a month of being cautioned, he returned to Dortmund’s starting XI on Saturday and caused a stir again. The goal was his first in the Bundesliga in 421 days, and 400 days of unfathomable frustration poured out of him as he slid onto the pitch and collapsed from apparent relief.

Reyna could be the chief creator of the USMNT in his day. But ideally, he probably wouldn’t start in Qatar in the first place. And the different parts of this ideal scenario are – knock on wood – tiptoe in place.

Pulisic was set to start on the left and although he’s still not starting at Chelsea, he looked as crisp and confident in 30 minutes off the bench on Wednesday as he had in a while. He slipped past defenders and fired a couple of 20-yard shots. His movement was clever and his decision making solid.

Tim Weah, meanwhile, was USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s first-choice right winger. His directness and single-mindedness provide the US attack with a balance and verticality that it otherwise lacks.

Weah missed September and the first two months of the club’s season while recovering from a foot injury. The concern remained that he would not be himself in time for Qatar. But in his second second leg, just 25 minutes off the bench, he provided two typical assists last week and allayed fears.

Another prominent part of the American attack is McKennie, an elite aerial threat and an engine capable of powering the USMNT from the top of a midfield threesome. He had started slowly and sporadically at Juventus following a shoulder injury last season. But he helped Juve win on Friday with his best performance of the season so far.

And of course he reached his goal with his head.

Elsewhere in Europe, Brenden Aaronson continues to impress at Leeds. Goalkeeper Matt Turner has conceded zero goals without a penalty in four Europa League starts with Arsenal. Yunus Musah is back in Valencia’s starting XI, Antonee Robinson is back at Fulhams and Sergiño Dest is at AC Milan on Saturday.

Josh Sargent’s upswing has continued at Norwich and Ricardo Pepi is scoring almost a goal a game in the Netherlands and suddenly, surprisingly, everything seems to be coming together at perfect timing.

Of course, the club form is not automatically transferred to the national team. Systems, roles, and teammates can disrupt or facilitate the rhythm. But more than any other kind of football, international football is a player-driven game – if Berhalter lets it. The single most important indicator of World Cup performance will be the performance of two dozen American players in the month leading up to the USMNT’s opening game on Nov. 21. And this month got off to a remarkably refreshing start.

Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna all look ready for the World Cup. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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