USMNT: A position of strength suddenly becomes a question mark

There was good news and bad news on the U.S. men's national team front on Monday, specifically the status of its wingers.

The good news: Christian Pulisic arrived in Nashville and is training with the team ahead of the start of World Cup 2022 qualifying on Thursday at El Salvador.

The bad news: Tim Weah was forced to withdraw after suffering a thigh injury in practice with French champion Lille.

What was considered a position of strength for the USA -- the depth on the wings -- is now a question mark.

Pulisic has been cleared following his positive Covid-19 test of two weeks ago, but he has not played for Chelsea in two weeks and missed training for 10 days.

In announcing the squad for the September qualifiers, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said it was not known if Pulisic would be ready to go for Thursday's match against El Salvador, or the subsequent matches against Canada in Nashville or at Honduras.

"We just don't know," he said. "It's a wait-and-see type of thing."

Following his club's 2-1 win over Montpellier on Sunday, Lille coach Jocelyn Gourvennec said Weah's injury, picked up in training, should sideline him several weeks.

The loss is a setback for Weah. After missing almost all of the 2019-20 season with hamstring issues, he was a key contributor off the bench for Lille in its 2020-21 Ligue 1 championship run and was Lille's top-rated player in his first two starts of the 2021-22 season.

Weah's absence is also a setback for the USA. He has rarely been mentioned as a starter for the USA with Gio Reyna and Pulisic ahead of him on the wings, but he gives Berhalter an invaluable option off the bench, as he showed in the Concacaf Nations League final against Mexico, prized for both his ability to stretch defenses and provide support on the defensive end, a key part of what Berhalter saw in his maturation last season at Lille.

Weah's withdrawal leaves four wingers in camp:

Brenden Aaronson, 20 (RB Salzburg/AUT; 7/3)
Konrad de la Fuente, 20 (Marseille/FRA; 1/0)
Pulisic, 22 (Chelsea/ENG; 38/16)
Gio Reyna, 18 (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 8/4)
Note: In parentheses are caps and goals.

Aaronson (goals in back-to-back UEFA Champions League playoff wins) and Reyna (two goals in three Bundesliga games) are both off to good starts in Europe, but both players are playing in more central roles under new coaches at their clubs. Konrad has only cap for the USA -- a 0-0 tie with Wales in its first game back after the pandemic lockdown in November 2020 -- but earned a recall on the basis of his strong start at Marseille (two assists in three games) following his transfer from Barcelona.

U.S. Soccer has not said whether Weah will be replaced, for the El Salvador game or for the games against Canada or Honduras. But assuming Pulisic is unable to play all 90 minutes in each of the three qualifiers -- he played 209 of 210 minutes in the Nations League, more than any player except for John Brooks, Mark McKenzie and Weston McKennie -- Berhalter will probably need additional help on the wing.

Neither of the two players who started on the wings in the latter stages of the Gold Cup is in camp. Paul Arriola is injured, and Matthew Hoppe has played just 16 minutes since his return to Schalke 04, now in the 2. Bundesliga, and is the subject of transfer talks with LaLiga's Real Mallorca, per ESPN FC's Jeff Carlisle. (The window closes on Tuesday.)

Cristian Roldan and Sebastian Lletget have played on the wing, but both are also needed as cover in midfield. If the USA goes with three in the back at some point during the September window -- a distinct possibility with six central defenders brought into camp -- that will lead to wing backs being deployed in midfield, lessening the need to use out-and-out wingers.

Here is how the USA played up front in the eight Concacaf matches it played in 2021:

Nations League:
USA 1 Honduras 0. 4-3-3: Pulisic (*Miazga, 90+4) -- Sargent (Siebatcheu, 78) -- Reyna (Aaronson, 78).
USA 3 Mexico 2 (OT). 3-4-3, then 4-4-2, then 4-3-3: Pulisic -- Sargent (Siebatcheu, 68) -- Reyna (Lletget, 82).
(Weah came on for Sergino Dest in 60th minute and played on the left wing and then on the right wing after Lletget came on.)

Gold Cup:

USA 1 Haiti 0. 4-3-3, then 3-5-2: Lewis (Dike 62) -- Zardes -- Arriola (Gioacchini, 14, *Sands 76).
USA 6 Martinique 1. 3-4-3. Hoppe (Gioacchini, 58) -- Dike (Zardes, 68) -- Roldan.
USA 1 Canada 0. 3-5-2. Zardes (Hoppe, 75), Dike.
USA 1 Jamaica 0. 4-3-3. Hoppe (Gioacchini, 84) -- Dike (Zardes, 63) -- Arriola (Roldan, 63).
USA 1 Qatar 0. 4-3-3. Hoppe (Gioacchini, 86) -- Dike (Zardes, 63) -- Arriola (Williamson, 81).
(Roldan came on in midfield for Gianluca Busio in 63rd minute and moved to right wing in place of Arriola when Williamson came on.)
USA 1 Mexico 0 (OT). 4-3-3. Hoppe (*Kessler, 120+1) -- Zardes -- Arriola (Gioacchini, 87).
*Defensive substitution.

Pulisic Photo: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

3 comments about "USMNT: A position of strength suddenly becomes a question mark".
  1. frank schoon, August 31, 2021 at 11:35 a.m.

    Wingers??? Let us say they are players who are positioned on the outside flank...

  2. Seth Vieux, August 31, 2021 at 6:39 p.m.

    Am hoping this opens an opportunity to bring Hoppe in for the last two matches of the window.

  3. R2 Dad, September 1, 2021 at 12:51 a.m.

    Great opportunity for Aaronson and Konrad to impress, scare our CONCACAF rivals with a new wave of young talent, and steamroll these other programs. Gregiola should be able to roll with a false 9 or any other formation required to win these matches, right? As long as bad CONCACAF officials don't make it all about themselves, we should be OK. 

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