CINCINNATI — On a muggy Wednesday afternoon in Washington D.C. last month, Gregg Berhalter sat across a table from three reporters, leaned forward, and confronted his most irksome dilemma.
With the 2022 World Cup approaching, his U.S. men's national team didn’t have a consistent striker; was he concerned?
“Well, I mean, I don't want to underplay this,” he began. “But France won the World Cup without a striker scoring a goal. It could be done, right?”
He was not, of course, comparing the USMNT to the 2018 world champions, or declaring his team title favorites. His point was that, although he’d love to have a ruthless poacher leading his line, “it’s not that it’s dire,” he said of the striker situation.
And four weeks later, on another muggy Wednesday, this time in Cincinnati, his players proved the point.
In their first of four friendlies between now and Qatar 2022, the USMNT roared past Morocco, 3-0. Its three goals came from a midfielder, Brenden Aaronson; from a winger, Tim Weah; and on a penalty won by another winger, Christian Pulisic.
Haji Wright, the hottest American male striker on the planet, converted that penalty, and at the very least earned an extended look from Berhalter as a more traditional No. 9. His movement was sharp. He took his one chance from open play confidently, though he fired his shot right at the goalkeeper. He then celebrated his debut goal with a point toward Pulisic, his youth national team running mate and roommate who handed him the ball at the penalty spot — after Wright asked for it.
But it was the USMNT’s first-half performance, with Wright still waiting in the wings, that was most impressive. Pulisic expertly ran in behind off the left wing, deftly controlled a long ball from Walker Zimmerman, and set up Aaronson for the opener.
THE TOUCH AND ASSIST BY PULISIC TO AARONSON 😱 pic.twitter.com/y5hq1gKbIA
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) June 1, 2022
Weah, who has played up front at times throughout his young career, then spanked a 20-yard screamer past Moroccan goalkeeper Yassine Bounou for the second.
Pulisic, Aaronson and Weah were the stars, and will be three of the stars in Qatar. But in their midst, off the scoresheet, was Jesus Ferreira, who started at striker and did non-traditional-striker things. In the third minute, he led a ferocious press that created a Morocco turnover in the attacking third, which led immediately to the first U.S. chance of the game. Throughout his 45 minutes, he occupied and lured defenders away from the very space that Pulisic and others can exploit.
He didn't score — his two shots, both well taken, were saved — or really stretch Morocco's back line. But in this U.S. system, he doesn't need to do either.
The USMNT demonstrates its attacking expertise
Ferreira is a "pressing animal," Berhalter said, a causer of "uncertainty in the opponent," at the forefront a team whose press is one of its greatest weapons. And the FC Dallas attacker is "100 percent" feeling more comfortable between Weah and Pulisic in the front three, he said postgame. "Them making runs in behind helps me come in and kind of playmake."
It's something Pulisic especially has done more and more, with increasing precision, in recent years. He's learned to do the back-line stretching when his strikers do not. "We see it from him at Chelsea," Zimmerman said. "We see how he likes to drag people in and then run in behind their center backs."
And that's exactly what he did in the buildup to Wednesday's first goal. Throughout an 18-pass, 58-second U.S. move, Ferreira was occasionally the fifth-most advanced U.S. player, and Pulisic also dropped deep to briefly receive the ball. Their movement pulled Morocco's center backs toward midfield, creating space in behind.
"We kind of lull 'em to sleep by playing side to side," Zimmerman explained. "They started to get higher and higher." When Zimmerman received the 16th pass of the possession, and surveyed the field, he made eye contact with Pulisic, who'd just begun a dart past the Moroccan defense.
"I see him look at me, and change pace, and I immediately just put my head down to strike it over the top," Zimmerman said. "It's one of those things that you gotta constantly work on your chemistry, and I think we have a good feel for each other."
It's the type of feel that, coupled with talent, can eliminate deficiencies in other attacking positions. "It was magical from Christian," Aaronson said of the first touch and assist. But Pulisic, as others marveled, laughed and said: "I mean, I guess, for you guys it might not be easy, but it's what I've done ... my whole life."
False nine or true nine?
There has, for a few months now, been a burgeoning school of thought that the best solution to the striker dilemma would be to play no striker at all. The USMNT's best 11, disregarding positions, would clearly not include one. Wright and Ferreira haven't yet proven themselves at elite levels. Ricardo Pepi hasn't scored in eight months. Josh Sargent has never really scored that much at all.
So, the logic goes, rather than pick two or three of Pulisic, Weah, Aaronson and Gio Reyna, why not pick three or all four?
It's a tantalizing theory, but it clashes with a system that is already humming, a system in which a striker like Ferreira serves an integral purpose.
While a more fluid system with a "false nine" might jam more raw talent onto fields in Qatar, it might also neutralize all that talent. The reason Weah was able to drive into space, toward the penalty box, and ripple a net on Wednesday, for example, was that three USMNT attackers, including Ferreira, had pushed high, right up against Morocco's center backs, pinning them back and preventing them from stepping to the ball.
The point is the one that Berhalter made last month in that quiet room in D.C. Modern strikers do far more than score goals. Successful teams can look elsewhere for their final-third firepower. Pulisic and Weah aren't poachers, but they have qualities that allow them to emulate poachers. Pulisic has the speed, and Weah the finishing technique to fuel a system that could essentially be goalscorer-by-committee.
The U.S., in other words, doesn't need a striker to propel it to the World Cup knockout rounds. It can win two or three games in Qatar via goals scored or created by Pulisic and Weah; by Reyna, Aaronson, Weston McKennie and others. It can supplement their contributions with set pieces, and full-team moves, while the striker is simply another cog in the machine.
"Would I want our striker to be scoring more goals? Of course," Berhalter said last month.
But the USMNT reinforced on Wednesday that more goals from a prototypical No. 9 aren't necessarily necessary.