Youthful energy lifts US in grueling World Cup qualifying

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United States' Brenden Aaronson celebrates after the United States scored against Jamaica during a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match Thursday, Oct. 7, 2021, in Austin, Texas. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

AUSTIN, Texas – Yunus Musah’s place in the U.S. lineup wasn’t certain until 24 hours before kickoff, when coach Greg Berhalter received a text message revealing the 18-year-old’s COVID-19 test had come back negative.

So the midfielder was inserted alongside 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi and 20-year-olds Brenden Aaronson and Sergiño Dest in an American lineup captained by Tyler Adams, a sagacious 22-year-old. The four played key roles in a 2-0 win over Jamaica that put the youthful group into first place in World Cup qualifying heading into Sunday’s match at Panama.

“Yunus isn’t even nervous before the game,” Aaronson said. “We’re all smiling. We’re just having a good time, and then we just go out on the field and just have a great time and just show our country what we can do.”

Pepi scored twice in the second half, becoming the youngest American with goals in consecutive qualifiers. The youngins showed stamina to withstand toilsome travel, punishing pace and reduced recovery time.

With a dozen players making qualifying debuts, the U.S. opened with a 0-0 draw at El Salvador on Sept. 2, played a disorganized 1-1 tie three days later against Canada in Nashville, Tennessee, then trailed at halftime at Honduras on Sept. 8 before rallying for a 4-1 win.

Aaronson and Adams were among the group that left San Pedro Sula on an overnight charter for London and Berlin. Aaronson played a full Champions League match at Sevilla for RB Salzburg on Sept. 14, a home Austrian Bundesliga league game against Rapid Vienna five days later, the first 89 minutes against Wolfsberg on Sept. 24, then another complete Champions League game against Lille on the 29th.

He went the whole way vs. Linz on Sunday, then drove 90 minutes on Monday to Munich, where he took a flight to Dulles International Airport outside Washington. From there, Aaronson flew to Texas, where he practiced twice with the Americans and played until the 68th minute against the Reggae Boyz. His pinpoint cross led to Pepi's second goal.

“We’re looking at his minutes from the week, and it’s 90, 90, 90 and Champions League games,” Berhalter said, “and we’re like, flew across the world to get here, and we thought that he wasn’t going to be able to do it or it was going to be difficult. And he performed really well.”

Musah missed the September qualifiers because he was coming back from an injury. He played 76 minutes in his first start of the season for Valencia against Real Madrid on Sept. 19, the first half against Sevilla three days later, went 82 minutes against Athletic Bilbao on Sept. 25 and 84 minutes at Cádiz on Saturday.

He helped create the opening goal when he sprinted upfield and dished off to Dest, whose cross was headed in by Pepi.

“We talked about his quality of driving at the defense and unsettling the defense. And he did that constantly,” Berhalter marveled. “And it’s difficult, man, when you have someone dribbling at you who’s that agile and that mobile and keeps the ball that close to him, it becomes challenging for the defense. We’ll look at some defensive work, but overall I thought he had a good performance.”

Since scoring the go-ahead goal at Honduras in his international debut, Pepi played full matches for Dallas in Major League Soccer on Sept. 11, 14, 18, 25, 29 and again last Saturday. He was replaced against Jamaica in the 68th minute.

“We put up the minutes of the past week, and he’s a guy that was dragging,” Berhalter said. “We knew it was going to take a lot of mental courage for him to step up and really play with that relentlessness that we need. And he did it.”

Paul Arriola, at 26 one of the Americans’ veterans, missed the September qualifiers with a hamstring injury. While only going 90 minutes once, he, too, played six games from Sept. 11 through Oct. 2. Arriola and Aaronson were paired on the wings.

“I would hate to play against those guys,” Berhalter said. “They’re relentless. They don’t stop. It’s annoying. Even as the coach watching them, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you guys aren’t stopping right here. You keep going,’ and they harassed those defenders the whole time.”

Defender Walker Zimmerman was the oldest U.S. starter at 28, with every other outfield player 24 and younger for a lineup average of 23 years, 111 days. That became the second-youngest for the Americans in a qualifier behind 23 years, 85 days in Honduras.

When the U.S. was eliminated with a 2-1 loss at Trinidad four years ago this Sunday, the American lineup had Arriola, 19-year-old Christian Pulisic and a pair of 24-year-olds, DeAndre Yedlin and Bobby Wood. The other non-goalkeepers were Matt Besler and Michael Bradley (both 30), Omar Gonzalez and Jorge Villafaña (both 28), and Jozy Altidore and Darlington Nagbe (both 27).

“I always talk to my family about a lot of things going on,” Pepi said. “And they always tell me that I got to stay humble and I got to keep working.”


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