USMNT’s main player, Yunus Musah, is a rising World Cup star
The men’s World Cup grins at Yunus Musah every time the vivacious American teenager pulls out his cell phone.
He made it his screensaver about two years ago, around the time he made his debut for the US men’s national team at age 17. He kept it there, as a daily motivation as he turned 18 and 19, and as the real thing came into focus. He became a USMNT regular; they qualified for the World Cup; “And now that we’re qualified, you just wait,” Musah said in August. Waiting, radiating and dreaming.
But in the meantime, Musah has been working on Spain’s sunny south-east coast in Valencia, the La Liga club he joined aged 16, preparing for the world’s biggest sporting event – and proving why he might be the most important player in the game USMNT is on it.
A fearless ball progressor with a tireless motor, he played without a position at Valencia for a number of years. Now he’s in what “feels natural” in which he’s risen through the youth ranks at Arsenal and in which he’s got USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter raving. “Yunus is a guy who, at his age, just blows me away with what he can do. Crazy talent,” Berhalter said in June. The missing piece was then “the end product, the last pass that ends,” Berhalter added, but just a few months later it was popping up with a gratifying frequency.
It rounded out a world-class skill set that has reportedly caught the eye of Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus. That has made Musah an automatic starter for clubs and countries at the age of 19, and a centerpiece in midfield without which USA looks disjointed.
Such a responsibility would be a burden for many, a bit much for a teenager. For Musah, it’s a blessing that, like most things, he carries with an irrepressible smile.
“Everything is a privilege, really,” he said in May when asked how the heck he is so persistently positive. “Down to the smallest thing, like waking up in the morning and being able to go to the toilet, that’s also a privilege. Not everyone is allowed to do that. After a loss or something, after a tough day, when I come home, do I worry about the outcome while other people worry more about more serious things?”
He’s endured agony and knows he has a lot more to endure, but that perspective, he said, “really helps keep the spirits up, and [makes us] realize how lucky we are.”
How “a citizen of the world” voted the USMNT
Musah was born in New York City to a Ghanaian mother but moved to Italy before his budding brain could store any memories of America. He learned the game and the world in Castelfranco Veneto, a small northern Italian town that blessed him and his older brother Abdul with one lime Parking space next to the apartments where they grew up. They played for hours, ingraining the sport in their muscles and heart. They loved this park – until Yunus was 9 years old and their parents told them they were moving. To England.
“It was a shaky time in Italy. My dad just wanted a fresh start somewhere,” Yunus said in a recent La Liga profile. But for an elementary school student, it was shocking. Yunus and Abdul “didn’t want to leave,” he said. “We’ve just known Italy all our lives.”
The one constant as he went to London and later Spain was football or soccer, a universal game. Musah speaks four languages. In his own words, he is “Black”, “African”, “American”, “Muslim”, “Italian”, “British”, “Immigrant” and “Citizen of the World”. And on top of all those identities, he’s been a brilliant footballer everywhere he’s gone. A few months after settling in London, he went to a trial at Chelsea and caught the eye of an Arsenal scout. He joined the Gunners’ Academy and then began playing for England’s youth national teams.
The series of events that led him to the USMNT was accidental. It began when he was born in the Bronx, where his mother spent a year visiting relatives. And it resumed after a 16-year hiatus when Musah moved to Valencia. Nico Estevez, USMNT assistant coach from 2019-21, had coached at Valencia earlier in his career and learned from a former colleague that a US-legal teenager had just joined the club.
This is how a recruitment process began, which at times involved phone calls every other day. More often they were every two weeks. Berhalter conducted a few and Estevez conducted countless others, and many of the conversations were informal in order to develop the kind of personal connection that lured Musah back to the United States. He accepted a USMNT invitation in November 2020. He made his debut in a friendly, which does not yet tie him to the United States, with a March 2021 phone call with Berhalter professing his international future in his native country.
It was a difficult decision, agonizingly taken by all the opportunities England had given him – but in the end by the ‘trust’ Berhalter showed in him.
That summer, he returned to New York for the first time since childhood and rediscovered America, a country that still feels like “an entirely different world.” But he “really enjoys it[s] it.” The food, the “big streets” and the “good vibes” appealed to him.
And “since day one,” Musah said of his US involvement, “I’ve never looked back.”
USMNT coach Berhalter helps unleash Musah’s brilliance
Instead he looked and drove from his ‘natural’ position in midfield. On his US debut, he picked up the ball with Welsh opponents on his back and glided past them like they were statues. In 79 minutes, he did possession things that very few USMNT players ever do.
He entered Worlds qualifiers the following fall as an 18-year-old noncompetitive reserve. By November he had become almost indispensable, as a box-to-box dynamo that could do almost anything that needed to be done in the middle third of a football field.
In May and June, Berhalter piloted Musah in an even deeper midfield role that enhanced his brilliance. The USMNT adjusted their attacking form from a 4-3-3 to a 3-2-5 or 4-2-4, in part to allow Musah to drop by alongside holding midfielder Tyler Adams and help advance the ball from the defensive third to the third attack. He did so consistently in the friendly against Uruguay, with shoulder presses and acceleration spurts that smashed the Uruguayan press in one fell swoop.
What he hasn’t done often in his fledgling US career is unlock defense. And for two years his development seemed stymied by an unnatural role at Valencia. Seeing an explosive athlete whose standout ability is his dribbling, previous managers pinned Musah down the right wing. Wide areas became his way into the first team. And he’s “grateful” for the “opportunity” they offered him, he recently said.
But the center is where he “really feels.”[s] cosy.” His role at Valencia changed for good when Gennaro Gattuso, a 2006 world champion with Italy, took over as the team’s head coach this summer. “Feel it now[s] the same” as his role in the national team.
A classic No. 8 in a 4-3-3, he has excelled in both tight and open spaces. His second assist against Getafe in September – the hold, the turn, the distance – showed his progress and his potential.
A few weeks later, in two disheartening US friendly matches, his absence due to a minor injury reinforced just how important he will be in Qatar.
He’s since returned, and on Sunday he received the FaceTime call that officially crystallized so many dreams. “Hey,” Berhalter said after some friendly banter about Musah’s rapidly growing beard. “I wanted to call you and let you know that we will announce you in the 26-man list for the World Cup on Wednesday.”
Musah beamed. “Thanks Gregg, thanks man, I appreciate it,” he said. “I’ve waited a long time for this moment.”
“Remember when we first talked about what we can do together?” Berhalter said with a grin. “And now it’s time, man. Now is the time to do it.”