Weston McKennie’s absence forces USMNT to get creative

Red alert! Red alert! It’s happening. 

In my previous column, I examined both optimistic and pessimistic outlooks on the United States Men’s National Team’s chances of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. Here’s the first line of pessimism, forecasting a repeat of 2017’s failure:

“The perfect storm is upon us. Brace for impact. It happened last time, and it’s going to happen again.”

This time around, I was really hoping things would be different, but news out of Italy Feb. 22 has me afraid that, indeed, the perfect storm is approaching. 

Star midfielder Weston McKennie will miss the final qualifying window with a broken foot. Even just typing that sentence hurt my soul. 

McKennie’s story has been complex throughout the qualifying, caught up in off-the-field drama, but one truth has risen above all else: He’s an absolute baller. 

The U.S. simply can’t replace McKennie. They don’t have another midfielder with the same balance of agility, strength and instincts to command the midfield in hectic CONCACAF play. Aside from his physical attributes, he’s an elite dribbler with above average tackling and passing skills. Oh, he also scored against Mexico, which is always a huge plus. He’s a step above everyone else on the field, and he was in some of the best form of his career up until his injury. 

It doesn’t take a tactical genius to recognize McKennie’s impact on the team’s gameplan, but there’s additional context that makes this loss so damning. The team’s other stars haven’t exactly been at their best as of late. 

As both a Chelsea FC fan and USMNT fan, I am the first person to defend winger Christian Pulisic in just about everything except his griddying abilities. That being said, his form with the national team in 2022 hasn’t blown anyone away. In fact, he got benched against Honduras, and it wasn’t because of another injury. He really, and it pains me to say this, sucked against Canada. He couldn’t find any rhythm, losing the ball a plethora of times in attacking transitions and flailing on set piece opportunities. 

Of course, I must point out he scored off the bench in the Honduras game — albeit on a fairly comfortable close-range look at goal. 

Part of McKennie’s importance to the team at this point is that the stars around him just aren’t on the same level as him right now. With him out, it’s imperative that Pulisic and Co. pick up their form again. 

Losing McKennie leaves Manager Gregg Berhalter with a huge hole in the midfield, but I think I know a guy who could help.

That guy’s name is Luca de la Torre. 

LDLT, as members of USMNT Twitter often abbreviate, has only played five games entirely for the U.S. His most recent World Cup Qualifying games came against Honduras, where he truly got to showcase his skills. 

Watching de la Torre is a breath of fresh air. The creativity is the biggest selling point with LDLT. For far too long, the U.S. has had issues with creating attacking chances, and it’s been the result of midfielders who are unwilling to take risks. De la Torre is a refreshing break from the rigidity of past USMNT options. You can see it in the way he turns with the ball and moves up field, showcasing his agility and creativity moving forward. He’s always got his head up, and he has the IQ and vision to pick out passes and make incisive runs.

But you may be asking why de la Torre hasn’t gotten many chances given his talent. Good question. Berhalther, for one reason or another, excluded de la Torre from the first team conversation for most of World Cup Qualifying until the match against Honduras. He played a full 90 minutes and looked so bright, even in the frigid cold conditions. A man who was outcast from the starting team took advantage of his limited chances and proved to everyone that he can be a viable box-to-box midfielder in the first team. 

Do I think de la Torre can do everything McKennie can do? Of course not. But I do think he brings attributes that, frankly, no other available midfielder in the player pool brings at the moment. He’s got a great story, and he’s got my vote to slot into the first team. 

Replicating McKennie will be no small feat. It’s on Berhalter to pick the right player, but it’s also on the other players to kick it up a notch when it matters most. To be honest, I’m still scared to death of going into the final three games without him. If his replacement doesn’t do the job, the U.S. will struggle to pick up points and may be doomed to repeat its past failure. So here it is, I’m officially hitting the panic button just three weeks before the U.S. takes on Mexico. What else would you expect from me?

Adam Jasper is a sophomore providing updates on the U.S. Men’s National Team and its road to qualifying for the World Cup as well as general soccer news. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Soccer in the States,” runs every other Thursday.