Premium: Business in the Front, Party in the Back
With Aaron Long appearing a likely World Cup starter, an imperfect but resolute USMNT back line gets its second straight clean sheet against a Qatar 2022 team in a 0-0 tie against Uruguay
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Uruguay’s Darwin Núñez, with Kylian Mbappé and Erling Haaland off the market, is at 22 the most coveted transfer target among young strikers in the world these days. Teammate Edinson Cavani, now 35, is a lion who can still summon the old furies—he scored twice against Mexico last week—as he prepares for one last World Cup.
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They were exactly what the U.S. central defenders needed on Sunday: a significant test beyond any they’d faced during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. And while the Uruguayans certainly had chances to score—U.S. keeper Sean Johnson saved Núñez’s point-blank second-half shot, while Cavani misfired on a stoppage-time sitter—the combination of Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long (and second-half sub Erik Palmer-Brown) helped give the U.S. its second clean sheet in as many games against World Cup-bound foes in a 0-0 tie at Children’s Mercy Park.
“They’re very good forwards,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. “Núñez is a younger guy with a huge potential and is going to be a huge transfer. He’s had a great season at Benfica. Cavani from Man United is a workhorse, a battler, a guy who competes for everything. He gets chances like you saw against Mexico, and he’s able to finish it. We talked to the centerbacks about embracing that challenge, enjoying that challenge. It’s not often that you get to play against guys of that quality, and I think they did a really good job.”
Zimmerman said: “It’s very important to have back-to-back opponents [Uruguay and Morocco] in the top 25 in the world. Uruguay, I think 13th, with quality players all over the pitch and guys that have experience, World Cup experience, big-time game experience. So it was an opportunity for us, and we didn’t take it lightly. It was a dress rehearsal for a World Cup. We wanted to compete as if this was Game 3 in our group and we had to get points to move on. So that was the mentality.”
Zimmerman has become the rock of the back line, and that was the case again on Sunday over 90 minutes. He rarely put a foot wrong, delivered some nice passes to start the buildup and covered for his teammates on occasion. But one of the big questions coming into this four-game window was whether Long would stake his claim to be Zimmerman’s sidekick after starter Miles Robinson suffered a ruptured left Achilles last month.
And while Long wasn’t perfect handling Uruguay’s pressure, he acquitted himself well enough in his 45 minutes after going 90 in the U.S.’s 3-0 win over Morocco on Wednesday. “It’s great to get a shutout, right?” he said afterward. “At the end of the day, that is what matters. I think we gave up a couple chances that were a little bit self-inflicted a couple times. Overall, a shutout is great, but there’s room to improve.”
Enough room, in fact, to make you wonder what might have happened had Chris Richards been fully recovered from injury to participate in this month’s games. Richards, 22, who played for Hoffenheim last season on loan from Bayern Munich, has a higher upside and a bit more speed and ball-playing ability. Long, 29, has more experience and a slightly more imposing presence against physical forwards. It remains to be seen if Richards’ club performance starting in August can help make his case, but it’s going to be hard with only two U.S. friendlies in September coming before the World Cup. Centerback is a position of trust, and Berhalter appears to believe in Long at this point—much as he did when Long was a regular USMNT starter before his own right Achilles rupture in May 2021.
Goalkeeper is another intriguing situation. Zack Steffen is out this month for family reasons, and Matt Turner was solid putting up a clean sheet against Morocco. Johnson got the nod on Sunday over Turner and Ethan Horvath (a late camp arrival after Nottingham Forest, where he’s the backup, won the promotion playoff to the Premier League). “As a professional player who has been around the national team scene for a while, and been around this group for a while, the opportunity meant everything,” Johnson said.
Since none of Steffen (Man City), Turner (Arsenal) or Horvath appears likely to be the starter at his club come August, I asked Johnson on Sunday if he thought being a starter for your club—in his case, New York City—should influence playing time for the national team and which keepers are named to the World Cup team.
“Ultimately, I think for me it’s just playing every single game and maintaining a high level,” he responded. “I’m not really worried about too much else besides what I have to do. And when I’m with my club team, it’s putting in performances week in and week out and holding myself to a high standard, maintaining a good level and good form. Good rhythm coming to these camps helps. So it was a smooth transition into the game today, having gotten a ton of games.”
Christian Pulisic, for his part, kept it simple: “SeanJohn was incredible today.”
Two other pieces of news dominated the day for the USMNT in addition to the Uruguay game. The 1-0 victory by Wales over Ukraine ended the latter’s inspiring World Cup qualifying run in the wake of the Russian invasion and meant the U.S. will face Wales on the opening night of the World Cup, November 21.
“It’s a great feeling [to know the U.S.’s opponent],” said Berhalter when asked about it. “It’s kind of strange when you get drawn into a group and it’s one of three teams that you can play. So in terms of prep you get stalled a little bit, but now it’s full steam ahead and concentrating on Wales. My heart goes out to Ukraine. The whole world was probably behind Ukraine wanting them to go to the World Cup. So: England, Wales, Iran and the U.S., an interesting group.”
The other big announcement was the letter from the USMNT players and staff to every member of Congress imploring them to pass legislation to counter gun violence.
“We implore you to stand with the majority of Americans who support stronger gun laws,” they wrote in an eloquent and direct letter. “As athletes who have the privilege of traveling the globe representing the greatest country in the world, we are often asked how in a place like the United States there can be such horrific gun violence. We are also asked why the representatives of the people do nothing even though most Americans want them to take action. Those of us who play professionally abroad experience none of these things in our daily lives, yet we return home to a place where mass shootings are frighteningly common and the victims are often defenseless children.”
Zimmerman, who has become one of the team’s leaders, explained it this way: “We look at our motto Be The Change, and we didn’t just want to sign something. We wanted to take action and really send it to Congress, to those who can make a difference with these laws, and we’re really proud of the group and the way that we stepped up. Gregg kind of helped us draft that letter. And we kind of looked over it as a leadership council first and then with the bigger group, talked through it and said, ‘Is everyone good? Is this something that we want to do?’ And it was unanimous, a hundred percent yes. We want to take action and speak up on that.”
Pulisic added: “I hope you guys can all realize why we did it. I think it’s getting to a point where [it’s about] anything that we can do and trying to take action. People can say it’s not the guns, it’s the people, but we have to start somewhere, and that’s where we wanted to start.”
This may be a young U.S. team—the youngest squad, in fact, at the World Cup—but it’s finding its voice. And that matters.