Forget Bellingham and Rice! USMNT trio Adams, McKennie and Musah produce midfield masterclass against England
In the very near future, England may see several of their midfield stars sold for nine-figure transfer fees. They’re among the best in the world, after all. They’re young, talented and experienced in equal measure. The sky, for players like Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice, really is the limit.
But on Friday night, if asked which midfielder looked like the one that should be commanding record transfer fees, which would you say? Bellingham? Rice? Or a member of the U.S. men’s national team midfield trio that made the Three Lions' lives a living hell on Friday night?
In the build-up to the USMNT’s clash with England, many of the questions centered around how the young U.S. squad would handle the midfield.
How would it stop Bellingham, the youngster destined for superstardom, after his near-flawless World Cup debut against Iran? How could it go toe-to-toe with Rice, one of the top game controllers in the Premier League? What would it be able to do with Harry Kane when he dropped deep to dictate play?
As it turns out, we were all asking the wrong questions. We really should have asked England how it planned to cope with the USMNT’s midfield three who, by the end of the 90 minutes, had proven they had all of the answers required to completely overshadow their big-name counterparts in Friday’s at-times-dominant 0-0 draw.
Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah were incredible against England’s star-studded squad, putting in a reputation-defining performance in the biggest moments of their careers. On the biggest stage and against the biggest opponent for an American audience, they put England on the back foot.
And, despite surprising people, this was no fluke. This was three high-level players already at big clubs proving exactly who they are to an international audience that might not have known just yet.
“There's a lot of people that obviously thought we were gonna get blown out,” McKennie said. “We went into this game, on the outside world we’re obvious underdogs, but for us, we didn't feel like an underdog at all because we know our capability. We know what we can do. We know the talent and fighting spirit that we have, so I think we're not really afraid of playing against top-tier teams.”
With the squad as currently assembled, the USMNT is defined by its midfield trio: scrappy, brave, passionate, bold and, perhaps most importantly, a bit better than most give it credit for.
There’s Adams, the destroyer, who is looking more and more world-class by the day. He’s been the USMNT’s best player at this tournament, controlling the game against both England and Wales in ways usually reserved for the game’s biggest superstars.
“It's normal for him, “ said USMNT and Leeds teammate Brenden Aaronson . “I don't expect anything less from a guy like him. He's a competitor. He was the best player in the match for me, again, in the second game in a row. He's done in all season for Leeds and I just know he's that kind of player. He's unbelievable.”
Added Antonee Robinson: “I don't know whether it's the captaincy or not, but I've said to him, since he's come here, he's really upped his level even more than I already know. That energy he brings in midfield and that leadership, it affects all of us and keeps us all in check. He sets the standard."
Next to Adams is McKennie, his longtime partner in crime. Against England, he was as dynamic as ever, shifted over onto the right where he, Christian Pulisic and Sergino Dest put Luke Shaw in a blender several times.
The biggest benefit to Gregg Berhalter’s tactical tweak to a 4-4-2 was just how much it helped McKennie. He routinely created overloads as the U.S. focused its attack down the right and probably should have scored on a first-half half-volley that, unfortunately for him, flew over the bar. It was his only misstep during a match that he otherwise cruised through in a big way.
“Every player that gets an opportunity wants to put it in the back of the net, but sometimes it's not in the cards,” he said of the miss. “That's how it is. You can't really change it after it happens. You can just try and keep getting goalscoring opportunities. We still believe. If you get 100 chances, if you create 100 chances, at least one of them is gonna go on eventually.”
“I felt like [we dominated] on the field as well,” McKennie added. “We felt like we dominated the game. I think we had the more clear-cut chances. Obviously, it sucks that we couldn't put the ball on the back of the net and come out with the win and three points.”
And, finally, Musah, the England star that got away. He started off nervous, clearly shaken by the moment in the first few minutes. But, as the game settled down, we saw the real Musah, the one that has been compared to Paul Pogba due to his ability to receive the ball, turn and embarrass defenders in one swift motion.
Those three controlled the center of the park throughout the 0-0 draw, benefitting from Berhalter’s tactical switch designed to make England uncomfortable.
Normally deployed in a 4-3-3, the U.S. played in more of a 4-4-2 or a 4-4-1-1, depending on the scenario. McKennie drifted out wide while Tim Weah went up top, working with Haji Wright to harass England’s center backs and cut off the balls to Bellingham, Rice and Mason Mount.
“The amount of running that Haji did, I almost feel bad for him, man,” Adams said with a laugh. “A striker should never have to do that, but he worked his ass off.”
Now, the USMNT’s World Cup hopes could rest on its midfield replicating its efforts against Iran.
Against Wales, it showed it can dominate a game on the ball, at least in the first half. Although the goal came from a counterattack, the U.S. midfield trio showed it can be slow, patient and smart against a team bunkered in. That’s what they’re a bit more likely to see against Iran who, to its credit, is definitely more attacking than Wales.
On Friday night, though, Adams, Weah and Musah showed that they can dominate a game off the ball too. From crunching tackles on one side to avoiding tackles on the other, they took it to the England midfield in a complete performance. They ran the show in a game where few expected they could.
The world will have been watching, and some big clubs were as well. McKennie is already playing for a powerhouse, even if Juventus have struggled in recent years, but Adams and Musah may be looking at a move up the food chain after this World Cup. Both have their faults, namely Adams’ passing and Musah’s defensive work, but the sky is still the limit for both.
They may not have the name recognition of Bellingham or Rice, and they certainly won’t command the transfer fees that those two will when they, inevitably, move to some mega-club. But Adams, McKennie and Musah proved that they’re at that level with a career-defining group performance on the highest level.