The USMNT's stars are rounding into form just in time for the World Cup

(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe)
(Graphic by Michael Wagstaffe)

A month ago Sunday, the U.S. men's national team lost 2-0 to Japan, and its World Cup outlook seemed alarmingly bleak. It managed just two shots on target and zero goals in its last two games before jetting off to Qatar. Its players looked unenthused, and its coach ill-suited, and its system ineffective, and ... among a fan base justifiably predisposed to pessimism, fatalistic attitudes set in.

But this week, with a month to go until the quadrennial tournament, the very stars who spawned optimism in the first place have slowly, gradually, somewhat quietly reignited it.

Christian Pulisic played his best soccer of the season on Wednesday for Chelsea. Weston McKennie played his on Friday for Juventus, and scored his first Serie A goal since January.

And then, on Saturday, Gio Reyna announced his return from his latest injury scare: with a cathartic goal for Borussia Dortmund.

Reyna is arguably the most technical player the United States has ever produced. He is one of the most talented teenagers in global football. And yet he has hardly made an impact for the USMNT over the past year as he battled maddening injury after maddening injury.

He appeared to be finally, definitively back in September, but then exited the national team's final pre-World Cup friendly with tightness in the muscle that had felled him time and time again. After almost a month of caution, though, he returned to Dortmund's starting lineup on Saturday, and instantly made an impact once again. The goal was his first in the Bundesliga in 421 days, and as he slid to the turf, and collapsed in apparent relief, those 400-plus days of unfathomable frustration flooded out of him.

Reyna could, on his day, be the USMNT's creator-in-chief. But in an ideal scenario, he probably wouldn't even start in Qatar. And the various pieces of that ideal scenario are — knock on wood — tip-toeing into place.

Pulisic should start on the left, and although he still isn't starting at Chelsea, he looked as crisp and confident in 30 minutes off the bench on Wednesday as he has in some time. He glided past defenders, and ripped a few 20-yard shots. His movement was clever and his decision-making sound.

Tim Weah, meanwhile, has been USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter's first-choice starter on the right wing. His directness and purposefulness offer the U.S. attack balance and verticality that it otherwise lacks.

Weah was absent in September, and for the first two months of the club season while recovering from a foot injury. Worry lingered that he wouldn't be himself in time for Qatar. But in his second game back, in just 25 minutes off the bench last week, he dished two trademark assists and quelled fears.

Another prominent piece of the American attack is McKennie, an elite aerial threat, and an engine who can power the USMNT from the forefront of a midfield three. He'd started slow and sporadically at Juventus after a preseason shoulder injury. But he helped power Juve to a Friday win with his best performance of the season to date.

And he got his goal, of course, with his head.

Elsewhere around Europe, Brenden Aaronson continues to impress at Leeds. Goalkeeper Matt Turner has conceded zero non-penalty goals in four Europa League starts at Arsenal. Yunus Musah is back in Valencia's starting 11, Antonee Robinson is back in Fulham's and Sergiño Dest is in AC Milan's on Saturday.

Josh Sargent's surge has continued at Norwich, and Ricardo Pepi is scoring almost a goal per game in the Netherlands, and suddenly, surprisingly, everything seems to be falling into place at the perfect time.

Of course, club form does not automatically translate to the national team. Systems, roles and teammates can disrupt or facilitate rhythm. But international soccer, more so than any other type of soccer, is a player-driven game — as long as Berhalter allows it to be. The single most important indicator of World Cup performance will be the performance of two dozen American players in the month leading up to the USMNT's Nov. 21 opener. And that month is off to a remarkably refreshing start.

DENVER, CO - JUNE 06: United States forward Gio Reyna (7) celebrates with midfielder Weston McKennie (8) and forward Christian Pulisic (10) after scoring a goal in action during the CONCACAF Nations League finals between Mexico and the United States on June 06, 2021, at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, CO. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna all look World Cup-ready. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)