Who: USMNT vs Mexico
When: Friday, September 6th at 8:30pm ET
Where: Red Bull Arena, Harrison, New Jersey
Line: USMNT +210 | Draw +240 | Mexico +130
Short Hills, NJ – Missing out on the 2018 World Cup was a serious blow to the USMNT leading to the resignations of coach Bruce Arena and President of US Soccer Sunil Gulati. Players weren’t spared the house cleaning, either. First interim boss Dave Sarachan pushed veterans aside while he blooded numerous newcomers in his year in charge before yielding to “permanent” coach Gregg Berhalter. Now, Berhalter has elected to play the kids in a pair of friendlies versus Mexico and Uruguay over the FIFA International Break.
Wednesday afternoon in a roundtable setting, High Press Soccer was among the small group of reporters that spoke to three of the young veterans that are set to lead this team in the present and into the future.
Pulisic, McKennie, Steffan and Adams are the present and the future
RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams remains sidelined with a stubborn injury, leaving it to Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, and Zack Steffan to represent the “future is now” contingent.
Any discussion of the USMNT starts with the young man from Hershey, Pennsylvania, Christian Pulisic. The $73 million dollar man was asked about Mexico, who defeated the U.S in the Gold Cup final 1-0, Chelsea, and his adjustment to the English Premier League.
“Yeah, we’re taking it very seriously” Pulisic began. Referencing the Gold Cup Final defeat, the 20-year-old attacker said it was “obviously a disappointment. You know, a tough one in the final wanting to win that one bad. But the best thing is, we have a chance second chance now. So we’re excited for it doesn’t matter that it’s a friendly.”
“Incredible” Premier League a “challenge” for Pulisic
Words can tell part of the story of Pulisic’s delight at joining Chelsea and playing in the Premier League and here are some from the man himself.
“It’s amazing,” Pulisic volunteered. “I mean, it’s everything I hoped it would be and more so, it’s incredible.” “It’s been great learning, you know, under [new manager Frank Lampard],” Pulisic went on. “And playing with top players and in the Premier League, it’s, it’s incredible. I’m still I’m still learning a lot. And I have a long way to go. But it’s been great so far.”
The rest of the story was told by the ear to ear grin that was plastered across the face of U.S. men’s soccer.
Asked about his adjustment to the English League, Pulisic had this to say. “I mean, it’s not like a huge difference or something that you really notice but it’s great man. The speed. It’s very intense. The games are very intense. Every single game I’ve played so far has been had a new challenge. And I mean, it’s, it’s great. And I’m learning a lot.”
It was noted that Pulisic signed for Chelsea when Maurizo Sarri was the manager, but since then former Chelsea (and New York City FC) star Frank Lampard has taken over at Stamford Bridge. Pulisic was asked about playing for the younger Lampard.
“Yeah, I mean, it worked out really well for sure. Frank’s a great guy, and he’s helped me so much and he understands you know, where I’m coming from. And yeah, he’s been really, really good job and helped me, teaching us, especially, a lot of the younger guys on the team and also mixing in well with some of the more experienced guys and it’s been a pleasure to work with him and to play with this team. It’s been it’s been amazing.” – Pulisic on Lampard’s influence
Who you got: Pulisic or Lozano?
With Chelsea discussed, one of the Mexican journalists on hand asked Pulisic about the debate raging in Mexico: Who is better — Pulisic or 24 year-old El Tri star Hirving “Chucky” Lozano — who recently transferred from Ajax to Napoli?
Pulisic demurred, saying Lozano is a fine player, although he was unaware of the debate. When asked more bluntly by a second Mexican journalist, “Who is better you are Chucky” Pulisic brought the house down when he said, “I’m not gonna give you like an Ibra answer,” before adding more seriously, “but obviously, I’m very confident in myself.”
McKennie still adjusting to Bundesliga
Weston McKennie followed Pulisic’s path to Germany, joining Schalke 04. Like Pulisic, McKennie quickly made his way to regular first team action. Also like Pulisic, McKennie has become a centerpiece with the USMNT.
Recently turned 21, McKennie is more outgoing than his former youth national teammate and has emerged a leader for club and country despite his young age.
Three games into the new Bundesliga season, McKennie and his Schalke club are still adjusting to a new coach, former U.S. international David Wagner. Although Wagner is German-born and raised, McKennie said of his relationship with his new boss, “it’s always good whenever you have a coach that has been through it himself, because it’s more relateable.”
“Honestly,” McKennie added, “you guys may not believe it but me and him, we don’t speak in English. We’re speaking German. Which I was also surprised to find that out, too. But, he’s real big on making sure everyone knows German.”
Not that McKennie objects. “I think it is right to do. We play in Germany, live in Germany.” That is not to say that the American connection doesn’t come into play. “Being able to connect to him on a more personal level, you know, whenever I speak about things that are in America, he knows what I’m talking about. So I think that’s also good.”
Positional stability would also be good for the versatile McKennie, who was played all over the field by the previous regime at Schalke. Does McKennie feel that Wagner will let him find a spot and stay put?
“I definitely hope so,” was McKennie immediate response. “I think we’re on the same page when it comes to that. I think he sees me as a midfielder, you know, six, eight, or 10, one of the three, not a right back or forward or left wing. So, I think he also realized that I’m best when I’m in that position. And that’s whenever I feel like I can bring something to the table.”
Steffen also cutting his teeth in Germany
No team can succeed without a top-class goalkeeper and if the start of the Bundesliga season is anything to go by, the USMNT is set both now and well into the future with 24-year-old Zack Steffen between the pipes.
Steffen failed to settle during his first stint in Germany, where he signed with Freiburg after his sophomore season at the University of Maryland. Returning to the U.S, Steffen eventually took over the number one job with the Columbus Crew, earning a MLS Goalkeeper of the Year award and catching the eye of Premier League champions Manchester City.
After signing with City, Steffen was loaned to Bundesliga side Fortuna Dusseldorf and this time around things have gone better for the talented keeper. Helping smooth the way for Steffen’s second stint in Germany was USMNT and Dusseldorf teammate Alfredo Morales, who reached out to Steffen during the off-season.
“He and I really kind of bonded since me being over there. So it’s great to have another familiar face over here,” Steffen noted.
“It was really nice of him to reach out to me,” Steffen noted. “I was on vacation when he did and it brought a smile to my face just because to have some familiarity over there already because everything’s new, it was great and definitely lucky to have him over there.”
A more mature Steffen has certainly looked the part on the pitch, earning Man of the Match honors in Dusseldorf’s season-opening 3-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen.
Steffen feels that the Gold Cup was “a really good stepping stone for this U.S. team.” He explained, “For a lot of us, that was our first senior tournament that we were really thrown into, so we played against some good teams. And we had some games where we thought we could have played better could have been more composed on the ball and could have worked together more, and then we had some games that we played well.”
Things have started out well for Steffen in his Bundesliga reprise, but that doesn’t mean the U.S. number one has given up on Man City. “Yeah, my goal is obviously is to play for City, get back to City and compete there for a spot. I have those goals, but at the same time I take it day-by-day and week-by-week and try and progress and get better. Playing the games and executing my role and then learn from the guys on my team and my coaches and that process one day will hopefully get me to City.”