PANAMA CITY, Panama – After the courtship, the trial, the anticipation, and then the decision, there was an uncomfortable and unexpected wait.
That doesn’t seem to be the way this type of story typically plays out. The filing of the record should follow the fanfare. But in Yunus Musah’s case, his March engagement with the United States men’s national team didn’t lead directly to his competitive debut. Months passed. I was on the bench. He was injured. And the team that Musah was so excited to join, and that many were eager to welcome, progressed in his absence.
Qualifying for the World Cup forces players to adapt to strange rhythms. They must maintain a strong sense of internal balance as they cross borders and time zones, adapt to different teammates and opponents, and now at the Concacaf Octagonal, they play in new countries with just two days off. You may have to play a game that means it all in the fumes. Or, in Musah’s case, you may be the center of attention after months of disappointment and delay.
It is still early for Musah. He is 18 years old. But there was a lot of enthusiasm for the New York-born, Arsenal-raised midfielder two years ago when US men’s coach Gregg Berhalter and assistant Nico Estévez began to get close to the teenager. Musah, a veteran of England’s youth teams, had left North London for Valencia in the summer of 2019. Estévez had previously been a coach at the Spanish club’s academy.
“I felt that the manager really wanted me to be here, to be part of the group, to be part of their plans, and that makes me feel a little special,” Musah said here in the Panamanian capital, where the United States is preparing for Sunday. . World Cup qualifier against the hosts. “Being asked to be a part of that is a great feeling.”
Musah started in a couple of friendlies that November and formed a tantalizing trio with Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. He highlighted Musah’s ability to blast his way through midfield with the ball at his feet and unbalance defenses with his acceleration, agility and vision. He was an asset. And it was just beginning. But he was also eligible to play for Italy, where he lived as a child; England, to which he moved when he was nine; and Ghana, the homeland of his parents. Those are all pretty good options.
Berhalter and Estévez persuaded him to enter the US fold, where a host of young, talented and ambitious players focused on launching a new international era. In March, Musah pledged his international future to the US.
“There were a lot of conversations about what this young group could do and the potential of this young team and the players that we have in the pool,” Berhalter said. “How we saw him fit into our team, talking about America and what we want to do as a group, and I think that’s what really got him excited about the project.”
Musah hadn’t spent much time in the US yet, but he was sold on the idea of representing his country of birth and starting early in his senior year with so many peers. Much attention was paid to the announcement of their engagement. But his competitive debut would have to wait. After appearing in three more friendlies, Musah was called up but did not play a minute in the two Concacaf Nations League games in June. The excitement turned to concern. Didn’t he fit into Berhalter’s system as well as many had hoped? Would Musah reconsider his decision because he wasn’t tied up yet?
“I talk to all the guys about the realization that they would be disappointed if they weren’t on the field, not in the starting eleven. And that’s just part of it. But part of building a strong team is getting everyone involved and everyone moving in the same direction, ”Berhalter said Saturday.
“In the case of Yunus, enter the Nations League, play at height [in Denver]He didn’t play regularly for his club and we didn’t feel like the time was right. “
Musah admitted here that missing the League of Nations minutes was “annoying,” but said he understood Berhalter’s decisions. And it didn’t weaken their loyalty. If anything, his connection to the US was strengthened this summer by his time with the team (he started a subsequent friendly against Costa Rica) and then an extended vacation in New York. Now an American international, Musah finally had a chance to reconnect with his hometown and really tap into the American within him. He spent time with an uncle who lives in the Bronx and had the ideal guidance in his American teammate Tim Weah, who was at home for the summer after winning the French title with Lille.
“We just had a little experience together, we went out to eat and things like that,” Weah said. “The bond that we have with this group is incredible and the bond that I have with Yunus is obviously like my little brother. I showed him around. He was with me and my family, just relaxing and enjoying all that New York has to offer. He even went alone and took it all in. Seeing that he wants to connect a lot more with American culture is great for him and it’s great for us. “
New York offered “a good atmosphere,” Musah said.
“I always love coming back to the United States and being with the national team,” he added. “It makes me connect with this part of me and I love being here.”
But Musah would have to be patient as an ankle injury ruled him out of the Octagonal’s opening window in September. Those three games proved to be a vital learning experience for this young team from USA, as 16 men debuted in qualifying for the World Cup. The Americans went 1-0-2.
Finally, after returning to Valencia’s starting lineup in late September (albeit on the flank), Musah was ready for international service. Berhalter said he and Estévez kept in constant contact with the player and his club. Musah was called up for this month’s playoffs and was on the field when the United States began Thursday against Jamaica in Austin, Texas. At that point, his bond with the US national team was technically sealed, although it had already been cemented in his heart. Starting over alongside Adams and McKennie, Musah showed multiple glimpses of the player who can bombard his way through midfield, and he played a key role in creating Ricardo Pepi’s first goal. The Americans went on to win, 2-0, and are 2-0-2 and in first place facing Sunday’s match with Los Canaleros (1-1-2).
“I thought he had an excellent game,” Berhalter said in Austin. “We talked about his quality of driving on defense and fidgeting on defense and he did it constantly. And it’s hard, man, when you have someone dribbling you, who is so agile and so mobile and who keeps the ball so close to them. It becomes a challenge for the defense. We’ll see a bit of defensive work, but overall, I thought he had a good performance. “
Distressingly, Musah’s involvement in Austin was in doubt the day before thanks to an inconclusive COVID-19 test. He trained apart from the team and did not know until shortly before dinner on Wednesday that he was negative and capable of playing. Understandably, he was excited to take his bow in a meaningful game.
“After being involved in the Nations League and not playing in the Nations League, to think that that was possible again due to COVID was really upsetting. But I’m glad it was a quick process and they realized it was nothing, so I was glad about that, ”Musah said. “It was a great moment for me, you know? In my mind, I just wanted to win in my first competitive game and I’m happy that we won. “
Now, after all that waiting, Musah may have to turn around and do it again less than 72 hours later. It’s a lot to ask for, but the stakes are high and that’s the pace and stamina that qualifying requires. Berhalter is comfortable rotating men in and out of the lineup – he used 22 in all three games last month – but McKennie’s absence due to muscle soreness means there will already be at least one new starter among the midfield three.
Berhalter can turn to the experienced Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget or Cristian Roldan. But if you want a player who can unblock the opposition and force the defense to make tough decisions, Musah is probably the choice. Panama is a rugged team coming off a loss suffered on a soggy field in El Salvador. While he may be tempted to approach Sunday’s vital home game with a more offensive base, defense remains the strength of Los Canaleros. A fan of advanced statistics, Berhalter said that Panama leads the Octagonal in expected goals allowed. Americans are in second place.
“Definitely Panama is a very physical team, an aggressive team. We have to be able to match that right away, ”Acosta said. “Now, coming home, they are looking from the first minute to take it to us, so we have to be prepared for that and match its intensity.”
If prompted, Musah will surely be ready. After months of rushing and waiting, he’s now living his ambition. This is what you signed up for.
“Since I joined the United States, I have always had this in mind,” he said. “Trying to be able to participate in a World Cup has always been a dream for me. We are on our way to do it and we are doing everything we can to be able to go to the World Cup. “
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.