For the USMNT and others, the World Cup race begins with a sprint

CINCINNATI — Until a few days ago, Malik Tillman, a 20-year-old midfielder from Nuremberg, Germany, had never set foot on American soil.

In five and a half months, if things go as he hopes, he will represent the United States at the World Cup in Qatar.

As the world of international football enters a supposedly calm summer period, with the end of the European season and most players on too brief a break from their clubs, Tillman’s story offers a compelling counterpoint to any idea that the teams will simply remain on hold until the tournament begins in late November.

National teams, after all, have just two more chances to come together before they leave for the World Cup – a few games this month and a second window of matches in September – and there is still a lot to do. Squads must be formed. Tactics need to be refined. Players’ dreams will be realized or postponed. Lives will be changed.

One of them could be Tillman’s. This week he completed the change football allegiance to the United States, his father’s country of origin, to Germany, the country where he was born and where he is a rising prospect at Bayern Munich. His first appearance for the United States could come this week, in a friendly against Morocco (Wednesday) or Uruguay (Sunday).

“It took me a long time to make the decision, but in the end I listened to what my heart was telling me,” said Tillman, who started getting to know his new American teammates during their training camp. training this week in Cincinnati. “I hope it’s the right decision. I’m happy to be here.”

For national team coaches around the world, the remaining training camp windows and the handful of exhibition games played there represent valuable time to implement new ideas and refine the ones that brought them to life. this point.

For individual players – like Tillman and others who are on the fringes of their national teams – these are opportunities to make a positive impression, to get a coach’s attention, to gain his trust.

For teams and their fans, games can present a last moment, perhaps, to pause and dream. The agonizing struggle of qualification is over. The formidable melting pot of the World Cup is looming. Until November, everything seems possible.

“We don’t want to go to the World Cup thinking that we just want to be there,” said American midfielder Weston McKennie. “A good World Cup for anyone goes as far as possible, coming out of the group stage. A perfect World Cup is winning it.

“A lot of people say it’s far-fetched for us, but that’s the mentality we have. We want to compete. We want to win. And we want to go as far as possible.

For Tillman, who has played in several German national youth teams, the past week has been a whirlwind. He arrived in the United States late Friday evening. The next day, in front of his new teammates, he is offered a cake for his 20th birthday.

Gregg Berhalter, the coach of the United States men’s national team, who secured Tillman’s commitment only a few weeks ago, presented the cake to the player.

“Malik is coming with a bang, baby,” Berhalter said. “Happy Birthday dude!”

On Tuesday, Christian Pulisic, the team’s best player, was tasked with telling the group that Tillman’s switch had been officially approved by FIFA. This sparked another round of applause from the group.

Asked this week about his first impressions of the United States, Tillman smiled.

“It’s huge,” he said, drawing laughter from a room full of reporters. “Germany is a bit small.” Noting the sprawling streets he had seen in Cincinnati, he added, “It’s crazy.”

Amidst all the extracurricular activities, there have been actual on-field practice sessions, where Tillman has already impressed his coaches and teammates.

“He showed a lot of quality in training, a very good understanding of the game, a very good first touch and an awareness around the penalty area,” Berhalter said. “So that’s been great.”

Coaches at club level have tried to use Tillman as a striker, and while he hasn’t put off their experimentation too much, he sees himself as a midfielder in the mold of his favorite player, the Manchester United star and from France Paul Pogba: confident, fluid, versatile.

“In my mind I’m more of a 10 than a striker because I would say my strength is my vision, and as a striker you don’t need that in your game because the goal is almost everything. time in the back of your body,” Tillman said. “I like attacking the goal, seeing the goal in front of me.

Tillman said Berhalter told him he too saw him as a No. 10, a more creative role currently held by Pulisic, the current American No. 10. It was one of the points that persuaded him to move to the United States, Tillman said.

Berhalter’s main selling point, however, was telling Tillman he could potentially train for the World Cup this year – something that would have been impossible with Germany.

Of course, outside of a small core of players like Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams, no American player spot in Qatar is guaranteed. Anything can happen as they fight for places. Tillman knows it. Just like his teammates.

On the minds of many players, for example, was the fate of defender Miles Robinson, who was widely seen as a lock for World Cup training until last month when he ruptured left Achilles tendon while playing for his club, Atlanta United.

Robinson’s injury was a sudden reminder to American players of their own fragility. Defender Walker Zimmerman said he found himself letting injury worries seep into his mind.

“When you’re looking at your goals that are right in front of you and you’re always a little more hesitant, it’s hard to fight that, but you have to,” Zimmerman said.

Along with injury concerns, players have also expressed concerns this week about optimizing their situation with their clubs. For those who have signed or could sign with new clubs in the current European off-season, it has been necessary to weigh the long-term goals against the short-term practicalities of gaining immediate playing time on the approach. of the World Cup.

Consider Brenden Aaronson, who fulfilled a personal dream of signing for a Premier League side when he joined Leeds United in May. The move, he acknowledged, means he will have to fight for playing time again in a potentially more competitive situation. Sitting on the bench does not bode well for a player’s form.

“It’s definitely a risk,” he said, “but it was a risk I was willing to take.”

For now, there are spots up for grabs in the US depth chart.

Berhalter, for example, has no striker of choice. He did not name a starting goalkeeper. And he said he didn’t know who his left-back would be.

“I’m not sure it’s necessary to answer the question now, and why we have the time,” Berhalter said of the goalkeeper job. “I think it’s time to let it all play out, and that’s the beauty of time in this case.”

Players like Tillman and others, however, know the clock is ticking.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: