A striker battle and McKennie at 90%: what we learned from USA’s friendlies

<span>Photograph: Nick Wosika/USA Today Sports</span>
Photograph: Nick Wosika/USA Today Sports

An intriguing battle is developing for the central striker role

He’d scored the game’s only goal, yet Folarin Balogun walked off at half-time shaking his head, visibly disappointed. He knew he was being substituted and that there would be plenty more chances for the US after the break against dismal opponents.

The 22-year-old, who joined Monaco from Arsenal last month for a fee in excess of $30m, found the net in the 13th minute on Tuesday, reacting sharply to tuck in the rebound after Sergiño Dest’s shot was parried by Oman goalkeeper Ibrahim Al-Mukhaini.

As in last Saturday’s 3-0 win over Uzbekistan, Balogun came off for Ricardo Pepi at half-time. And just like the previous game, Pepi scored with a fizzing finish from the edge of the penalty area. Balogun has found the net twice in four US appearances since switching his international allegiance from England earlier this year and will probably continue to start. He likely has a higher ceiling than Pepi and head coach Gregg Berhalter will want to give him time to forge a firm rapport with his new teammates.

Related: USA trounce Oman 4-0 in friendly as Balogun, Aaronson and Pepi score

“I think we’re still trying to figure out the best way to utilize Balo, because we know he’s high quality,” Berhalter told reporters. “He made a number of good runs behind the back line today that we didn’t pick up on, so he’s still integrating that side of it.”

Pepi has roared back after his World Cup setback

That’s now six goals in six international appearances this year for Pepi, the 20-year-old Texan who Berhalter left off the 2022 World Cup roster. He’s evidently brimming with belief and is in a better situation at club level this season having joined PSV Eindhoven after spending 2022-23 on loan at lowly Groningen.

“I thought from a pressing standpoint, Ricardo did a great job,” Berhalter said. “It’s really good to see him playing full of confidence.” It’s an impressive scoring rate considering Pepi has started only once for the US this year. He’s making a compelling case to be viewed as Berhalter’s best attacking option off the bench, at the least. And a problem position at last year’s World Cup, center forward, suddenly seems much less bereft.

McKennie is the key to high marks

As a keen student of managerial philosophies, Berhalter is probably aware of the latest trend, the 85% Rule, which advises that for maximum results you should not go all-out at work because giving 100% (or 110%) is a recipe for burnout and underperformance.

Whether consciously or not, the US looked to be operating at about 70% against Uzbekistan in St Louis, when two stoppage-time goals gave the scoreline an unmerited luster. Tuesday’s match in Minnesota was a far more commendable display – something much closer to optimal, even with Christian Pulisic relatively quiet for the second successive match.

The US upped their pace and effort while playing intelligently, working hard without needing to strain every sinew against vastly inferior opponents. Berhalter told reporters after the match that he was delighted with the way his center backs quelled Oman’s counterattacks (such as they were).

That the US were so convincing had a lot to do with Weston McKennie, the game’s best player. Given plenty of space by his opponents the Juventus midfielder used it well, sparking attacks with smart runs and splashy diagonal passes but botching a good late chance. For him it was a 90% sort of night.

Young talents continue to emerge

Berhalter’s reappointment was a vote for continuity and the belief that he can improve a largely settled young squad, but the pipeline continues to flow.

Kristoffer Lund, the latest dual national to commit to the US, is a Denmark-born, seal-feeding son of an American marine biologist. The 21-year-old, who plays for Serie B side Palermo, made his debut as a substitute against Uzbekistan and started against Oman. It was an opportunity to stake a claim as the leading understudy to first-choice left-back Antonee Robinson, a position where the US has lacked depth. Lund was energetic but with so little defending to do it was hard for him to impress.

The coach gave debuts on Tuesday to 18-year-old Inter Miami midfielder Ben Cremaschi and 20-year-old Wolfsburg winger Kevin Paredes, whose cross instigated the own-goal. That takes the number of first-timers under Berhalter to 59 in 62 matches. Playmaker and putative Gio Reyna alternative Malik Tillman, on loan at PSV from Bayern Munich, made his first start but did not fully grasp a golden opportunity to shred a feeble side.

This window was only the warm-up for October

Speaking on TNT afterwards, McKennie described two kinds of friendly matches. There are fixtures against unfamiliar minnows the US are expected to convincingly beat, when fluidity and finesse matter, and there are grittier, character-building challenges against more illustrious opponents, the kind of established powers who knock American teams out of World Cups.

Uzbekistan (ranked 74th in the world by Fifa) and Oman (73rd) are firmly in the former category. Oman were particularly feckless, slow in body and mind and mustered only one shot on target all game. It is hard to comprehend that they beat Japan in Osaka only two years ago and were unfortunate to lose 1-0 to Germany last year.

Substitute Brenden Aaronson put the US 2-0 up after an hour with a weak free-kick that seeped through a defensive wall with some serious structural integrity issues. Two minutes after Pepi’s sharp 79th-minute strike, Khalid Al-Braiki turned the ball into his own net, and the scoreline at Allianz Field in St Paul was a fair reflection of the home nation’s dominance.

But these two matches were only the appetizers on the Fall menu. Next up, truer tests. The US host Germany in East Hartford on 14 October, and Ghana in Nashville three days later; two nations that have indeed knocked the US out of World Cups. Managerless and in tumult they may be, but Germany’s 2-1 win over France on Tuesday suggests the friendly in Connecticut will be a far more meaningful gauge of the US’s progress since Qatar than the past two games.