McKennie, Pulisic, Pepi: Players to watch for USMNT against Saudi Arabia

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Christian Pulisic USMNT 2022
The USMNT will need to show something entirely different in their final friendly before the World Cup.

The U.S. men's national team will need to be better against Saudi Arabia and, more importantly, at the World Cup. That's because, against Japan, they couldn't have looked much worse.

Outplayed and outhustled last Friday, the U.S. will have a point to prove against Saudi Arabia on Tuesday in their final tuneup before the World Cup. As a team, the U.S. will be desperate to show that they are more than what they showed against Japan and that they are truly a threat to be taken seriously in Qatar in November.

And the players will be desperate to make individual statements too. There are those on the fringes hoping to seal their ticket to Qatar and those that are starters that are looking to prove that Friday's letdown against Japan was an aberration, not the expectation.

"Ideally, in a perfect world, I have [my World Cup lineup ]in mind, but one thing I know is that that's not international soccer," Berhalter said.

"Do I think we have the best players in each position identified? Yes. Do I think they're all going to be available for the start of the World Cup? I don't know.

And that's just what every international manager will be dealing with right now... Even in this camp, we're missing five starters, so it just is what it is and you have to roll with it and you can't you can't use it as an excuse.

"What you need to do is give the players that are here confidence instead of worrying about the players that aren't here."

With that said, here's a look at five players to watch in Tuesday's friendly:

  1. Weston McKennie

    Weston McKennie

    When he plays his game, Weston McKennie is almost certainly the USMNT's best midfielder. Against Japan, he was far from it.

    McKennie had one of his worst games in a USMNT jersey last Friday as he suffered through a low-energy, high-error disaster of a game. His giveaway led to Japan's opener, and his frustration prevented him from tracking back and maybe impacting the play.

    It was a lethargic performance from the Juventus star, who was rightly criticized by many for it. He wasn't the only one, as the rest of the midfield struggled too, but his dropoff in performance was most glaring.

    "It was just making some bad decisions," Berhalter said of how his team in general dealt with Japan's press. "And having said that, it's we're not happy with that. We had an off game again. I can't say it clearly enough. We played poorly. The coaching staff takes responsibility for that and we move on. We move on to the next game. We'll try to have a better game."

    If the USMNT are to make any sort of run in Qatar, the team will need its pillars all playing at a high level and McKennie might just be the most important of those pillars.

    The U.S. doesn't fully go as many goes, but the Texas-born midfield is usually a good indication of how the US. will fare.

    So he'll hope to use this Saudi Arabia friendly as a bounce-back game, one where he can show once again who the real McKennie is and why he's so important to the USMNT's World Cup hopes.

  2. Ricardo Pepi
    Getty Images

    Ricardo Pepi

    It's Pepi's time to shine.

    Berhalter has confirmed that Pepi will start after Jesus Ferreira and Josh Sargent featured against Japan. Neither truly impressed, but both are probably ahead of Pepi on the depth chart due to their club form.

    So this, for Pepi, is vital. Berhalter said before the camp that he wanted one last look at the forward, a player that, for most of qualifying, was the USMNT's go-to No. 9. But he earned that status before the disastrous scoring drought that saw him tumble down the depth chart.

    Can Pepi salvage his World Cup push, or has his mess of a move to Augsburg stunted his progress too much for him to overcome?

    This match won't fully answer that, but a goal or two certainly wouldn't hurt his case.

  3. Christian Pulisic

    Christian Pulisic

    It seems everything is okay with Pulisic, at least fitness-wise.

    The Chelsea star missed the first game of the window with a knock. Reports said that, if it were a World Cup, Pulisic would have played. But, for just a friendly? No need.

    So the decision to start Pulisic is a clear indication that he's just fine and that we can look past the injury and to other problems.

    Pulisic's biggest problem is the one that awaits him on the other side of this window. After the Saudi Arabia friendly, Pulisic will jump into life with Graham Potter's Chelsea after a miserable ending to Thomas Tuchel's version.

    What better way to get into your manager's good graces than to arrive at training filled with confidence? Is there anything that could lift Pulisic's mood quite like shining for the national team?

    "Just have Christian be Christian," Berhalter said. "He does a great job of changing the game in moments and that's all he needs to do. He doesn't need to do anything more than what he's done in the past. He just needs to continue to play our game and he does it really well. He just needs to be himself and he'll be fine."

    Pulisic has always done such a good job of separating national team from club, but a good performance against Saudi Arabia could give him the lift he needs to bring those two lives together in a positive way.

  4. Sean Johnson

    Sean Johnson

    The battle to be the third goalkeeper isn't the sexiest in the squad, but it is certainly one to keep an eye on.

    Based on his performances over the last two years, Matt Turner is going to the World Cup, and should probably start. If not him, it will be Zack Steffen, who has always seemingly had the leg up on the Arsenal goalkeeper.

    But that third spot is up for grabs.

    Sean Johnson is the most likely choice considering his club form. After leading NYCFC to an MLS Cup last season, Johnson hasn't slowed down in the slightest and remains one of the best goalkeepers in MLS. He was great against Uruguay earlier this summer and deserves a start to show what he can do once again.

    The other option? Ethan Horvath, who has had nowhere near the club success that Johnson has. He does, however, have that Nations League performance on his resume, so don't write him out just yet.

    Look for both to play at some point, but, all things considered, Johnson seems to be the favorite to head to Qatar.

  5. Malik Tillman

    Malik Tillman

    In many ways, Tillman may just be the most interesting player in the squad.

    He can play in a whole bunch of positions, from the midfield right into the attack. He's emerged from the Bayern Munich academy and is currently starring for Rangers. And, despite all of that, he's still a bit of a mystery with just two caps to his name.

    Even so, Tillman has a very real chance of making the World Cup roster.

    He earned an appearance against Japan, but he's due for an extended run out. With just two second-half cameos to his name, Tillman deserved a chance to show what he can do alongside some of the USMNT's stars.

    Whether that comes as a starter or as a halftime sub remains to be seen, but look for Tillman to get more minutes in this game.