Midfielder Yunus Musah has played seven games in one of the top leagues in the world. He has scored one goal. His team stands in 13th place. Very few fans of the sport here have seen him, because Spain’s La Liga is contracted to a cable channel not widely available in the United States. And he is the biggest deal in U.S. soccer, at least for the moment.
Musah, 17, became a darling of American fans upon accepting an invitation from U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter to join the team for a pair of friendly matches next week in Europe, against Wales and Panama.
Born in New York, raised in London, Musah has the choice to represent any of four countries, including Ghana and Italy, at the international level. He has appeared in youth competitions for England. Playing in these friendlies will not secure him to the USMNT; that requires participation in a competitive FIFA event. For now, though, he is Berhalter’s to lose. Adding this to Berhalter’s successful pursuit of FC Barcelona defender Serginio Dest offers proof that Berhalter’s subdued style does not exclude him from functioning as a tenacious recruiter of soccer talent.
“I think it’s important that it’s a two-way street, that it’s just not a recruitment,” Berhalter told Sporting News in a Zoom call Tuesday with reporters. “We want to create an environment that players want to be at, want to be part of. And it’s important to us that there’s this level of nationalism, there’s a level of pride for the United States and for what we’re trying to do as a team.
“We look for those two qualities in the players. First that they have talent, and then there’s a level of commitment, as well. And then we create the environment they want to be in.”
One of the underrated elements of serving as a national team coach, especially for a nation as diverse as the United States, is, for lack of a better term, recruiting. Berhalter, so far, has been impressive in this venue.
If you were to compare Berhalter to a college basketball coach, he would be less a charismatic Bill Self or John Calipari and more an understated type like Gonzaga’s Mark Few. That’s OK, though. Few is approachable, diligent, indefatigable. He might never be asked to host “Saturday Night Live,” but neither is anyone going to outwork or outmaneuver him.
When Jurgen Klinsmann was serving as U.S. coach, his connections in Germany yielded 2014 World Cup players Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler and Julian Green. He also drew forward Aron Johannsson away from Iceland and, later, defender Cameron Carter-Vickers from England.
Klinsmann’s approach to coaching and man-management left precious few experts concerned about his departure, but there was a period between permanent coaches when such talents as Efrain Alvarez of the Los Angeles Galaxy leaned toward playing elsewhere, in his case Mexico. And when Berhalter was hired, it wasn’t obvious that he would produce the same success in this category as Klinsmann.
But Dest appears to have more promise than any of the Klinsmann recruits, and he had a more obvious option: an invitation to represent The Netherlands with a significant chance to become a first-team player.
It’s presumptuous to say this, particularly when the U.S. missed the World Cup altogether the last time it was staged, but landing him and potentially adding Musah to the young core could help the U.S. advance in the direction of a “Golden Generation” of soccer talent.
Winger Christian Pulisic is an established force at Chelsea. Tyler Adams scored the game-winning goal for RB Leipzig in the 2020 Champions League quarterfinals. Weston McKennie transferred this summer from German to Italian power Juventus and already has made three starts, picking up an assist in Sunday’s victory. Gio Reyna is a regular starter for Borussia Dortmund and has four assists in six league matches. All their teams are competing in the Champions League this season, and all are part of the roster for the upcoming friendlies.
Is that enough to keep Musah involved, or to keep forward Sebastian Soto from switching to Chile, or perhaps even draw back an Alvarez or Julian Araujo from their early Mexico commitments? Berhalter’s early success is an indication that the USMNT will be in contention for such players.
“The players that we have are attracting a lot of attention worldwide,” Berhalter said. “So when you speak to Yunus or Sebastian Soto or other players, these guys that are doing these things across the world of soccer are known. And they’re very familiar with these guys. Everyone can see what Christian is doing on the field, and everyone can see why this guy is a star on the world stage. And, ‘I can use that platform — the platform of the United States national team — to also be a star.’
“These players are all aware of what’s happening with our player pool.”
When Berhalter was running the Columbus Crew as head coach and technical director, the rules did not allow for the sort of conversations with players and their representatives now essential in his role with the USMNT. In Major League Soccer, that would be tampering.
He must take a different approach, and there is less margin for error.
“I think the universe of players is a lot smaller,” Berhalter told SN. “Now, when you talk about needing a U.S. passport, that shrinks that group down.
“To me, it largely starts with communication and where we want the program to go and what the player’s role can be in the program.”
Berhalter might not be the sort of coach whose approach will have a player aching to run through a wall, but it appears that he can get the players he wants to wear the U.S. Soccer crest on their jerseys.