United States men's national soccer team rolls over Morocco in 2022 World Cup tune-up match

CINCINNATI — Even the most glaring blight on the U.S. men's national team's performance against Morocco was a forgivable one.

After Morocco was awarded a penalty kick on a questionable call by center official Ismael Cornejo, Moroccan Selim Amallah pounded his shot into the crossbar. The ball caromed back into play but the Americans were eventually able to steer the ball out of harm's way.

Defensively, that's as shaky as it got for the USMNT, even as New England Revolution and Arsenal FC-bound goalkeeper Matt Turner was forced into eight saves in the match.

Offensively, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter's team had plenty of ideas, chances and converted opportunities. Taken together, the USMNT impressed in many facets in a 3-0 victory against Morocco on Wednesday night at TQL Stadium.

"We talked about, before the game, establishing a a base line for this group about how we can perform against World Cup opponents, and I felt like the group went out and showed exactly how good we can be," Berhalter said in his post-match opening remarks. "But also, at times, vulnerable. For us, I think we’re very happy with the result. We still know that we need to keep improving and that’s why this game was so good for us.

“It was a good opponent. A very dangerous opponent and I think we controlled the match pretty well and were able to create a number of chances against a good defensive opponent."

Brenden Aaronson celebrates his goal against Morocco  at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati.
Brenden Aaronson celebrates his goal against Morocco at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati.

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The match was the first of four World Cup tune-ups the USMNT will play in June. The Americans departed Cincinnati for another friendly against Uruguay, a traditional power in the global game also bound for the Qatar World Cup this autumn, Saturday at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas.

Two competitive games in the Concacaf Nations League – one against Grenada in Austin and a second on the road at El Salvador – comprise the busiest and longest pre-World Cup camp for the Americans.

Brenden Aaronson, who recently completed a transfer from Austria's Red Bull Salzburg to the English Premier League's Leeds United FC, got the Americans rolling in the 26th minute after Morocco controlled possession for roughly the first 15 minutes.

Christian Pulisic delicately controlled a ball played in over the top, cut it back to take two Moroccan defenders out of the play at close range, and slid the ball across to Aaronson, who needed only to tap-in for 1-0.

"I mean, I guess for you guys it might not be easy," Pulisic said with a hint of humor regarding his initial touch on ball. "I've been training (for) this my whole life, so for me it's a touch I expect myself to make."

Pulisic was named the coach's man of the match, Berhalter announced during his post-match news conference, and the player left TQL Stadium with a match ball  tucked under his arm as part of the honor.

Tim Weah, of French side Lille, scored from distance about five minutes later with a blistering effort that seemed to overpower Morocco goalkeeper Yassine Bounou.

The Americans were in control by the intermission, but added a goal of significance on multiple levels in the second half.

In the 63rd minute, Haji Wright of Turkish club Antalyaspor coolly deposited a penalty kick earned by Pulisic, who was hip-checked and taken off his feet to earn the spot-kick.

Pulisic initially grabbed the ball and appeared set to take the penalty but was serving as a decoy.

After a lengthy protest against the penalty call that resulted in yellow cards for three Moroccan players, Pulisic handed the ball off to Wright, who became 56th American to score in his debut senior national team contest.

"It's his first game with the senior team and just wanted to give him (Wright) the confidence," Pulisic said of the decision to divert attention away from Wright before allowing him to take the penalty.

Berhalter called Pulisic's actions during that period "great leadership," adding, "it shows how selfless the leaders are on this team.

The goal for Wright also amounted to a much-needed boost from the center-forward position, which lacked for consistency during the Americans' successful World Cup qualifying campaign.

"Didn't feel brand new," Wright said. "It felt like I'd been there already... it just felt natural (and) I was happy to be there."

The center-back pairing

Nashville SC's Walker Zimmerman and Atlanta United FC's Miles Robinson paired together at center back to great success throughout the USMNT's World Cup qualifying campaign.

When Robinson's Major League Soccer season was cut short in a May 7 match through an injury that will make a World Cup appearance unlikely for him, it raised a serious problem for the Americans.

The New York Red Bulls' Aaron Long was the first player charged by Berhalter to attempt to fill the void as he played alongside Zimmerman, and the pairing's performance elicited mixed reviews.

Berhalter said the back line was generally too deep and often dominated in the physical battles, adding that Long would have to use the match as a learning experience.

Meanwhile, Turner seemed to throw his support behind the Zimmerman-Long pairing, which was still good enough to help preserve the shutout.

"I thought they did a great job," Turner said. "The communication was great. They're leaders in this team. I think we saw the captain's armband float to Aaron at one point. These guys are really important to this team and they're guys that every body in this locker room looks up to."

First-time USMNTers

Three players made their USMNT debuts against Morocco, and Berhalter had praise for all three afterward.

Joe Scally (Borussia Mönchengladbach, Germany), entered in the second half to make his first-ever appearance under Berhalter.

Bayern Munich attacking midfielder Malik Tillman, who was just over 24 hours removed from FIFA 's approval of his one-time national team switch from Germany, also debuted as a second-half substitute.

"Joe Scally, who came on and I think played an excellent game," Berhalter said. "Haji Wright, who made an impact and got a goal, and Malik Tillman showed why he was so highly-regarded in our program, because of his technical ability and his ability to unbalance defenders."

Berhalter has now overseen 53 USMNT debuts in his 51 matches in charge of the program, a U.S. Soccer spokesman said afterward.

Follow the Cincinnati Enquirer's Pat Brennan on Twitter @PBrennanENQ.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: USMNT defeats Morocco in 2022 World Cup tune-up match