Yunus Musah, the USMNT’s most important player, is a World Cup breakout star in the making

The men’s World Cup trophy grins at Yunus Musah every time the buoyant American teenager whips out his phone.

He made it his screensaver some two years ago, around the time he debuted for the U.S. men’s national team at age 17. He kept it there, as daily motivation, as he turned 18 and 19, and as the real thing came into focus. He became a USMNT regular; they qualified for the World Cup; “and now that we are qualified, you're just kind of waiting,” Musah said in August. Waiting, beaming and dreaming.

But in the meantime, on Spain’s sunny southeastern coast, at Valencia, the La Liga club he joined at age 16, Musah has been working, readying himself for the planet’s biggest sporting event — and proving why he might just be the USMNT’s most pivotal player at it.

He is a fearless ball-progressor with a tireless engine who, for a couple years at Valencia, had been playing out of position. Now he’s in the one that “feels natural,” the one in which he rose through youth ranks at Arsenal, and the one in which he makes USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter rave. "Yunus is a guy that just blows me away, at his age, what he can do. Craaazy level of talent,” Berhalter said in June. The missing piece, at the time, was “the final product, the final pass, the finishing,” Berhalter added. But just a few months later, it began to appear with auspicious frequency.

It rounded off a world-class skill set that has reportedly caught the eye of Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus. It has made Musah, at age 19, an automatic starter for club and country, and a midfield centerpiece without whom the U.S. looks disjointed.

For many, such responsibility would be a burden, a bit much for a teen to handle. For Musah, it’s a blessing that, like most things, he carries with an irrepressible smile.

“Everything's a privilege, really,” he said in May when asked how the heck he stays so persistently positive. “To the smallest thing, like waking up in the morning and being able to walk to the bathroom, that's a privilege as well. Not everyone gets to do that. After a loss or something, after a tough day, coming home, I'm worried about the result when other people are more worried about more serious things?”

He has endured distress, and knows he’ll have to endure plenty more, but that perspective, he said, “really helps keep the mood, and [makes us] realize how lucky we are.”

FILE - United States' Yunus Musah shoots against Mexico during the first half of a FIFA World Cup qualifying soccer match between Mexico and the United States, Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, in Cincinnati. Tim Weah, Antonee Robinson, Yunus Musah and Zack Steffen will be out with injuries when the United States plays Japan on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, at Düsseldorf, Germany, in the Americans' next-to-last World Cup warmup. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)
Yunus Musah is 'ready and hungry' to represent the United States at the Qatar World Cup. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

How 'a citizen of the world' chose the USMNT

Musah was born to a Ghanaian mother in New York City, but moved to Italy before his nascent brain could store any memories of America. He learned the game and the world in Castelfranco Veneto, a small Northern Italian town that blessed him and his older brother, Abdul, with a calcio pitch adjacent to the apartments in which they grew up. They’d play for hours on end, embedding the sport in their muscles and their hearts. They grew to love that park — until, when Yunus was 9, their parents told them they were moving. To England.

“It was a shaky period in Italy. My dad just wanted a fresh start somewhere,” Yunus said in a recent La Liga profile. But to an elementary-schooler, it was shocking. Yunus and Abdul “didn’t want to go,” he said. “We’d just known Italy all our lives.”

The one constant, in a way, as he headed to London and later to Spain, was soccer, or football, a universal game. Musah speaks four languages. He is, in his own words, “Black,” “African,” “American,” “Muslim,” “Italian,” “English,” “an immigrant” and “a citizen of the world.” And in addition to all of those identities, wherever he has gone, he has been a brilliant footballer. A few months after settling in London, he went to a trial at Chelsea, and attracted the attention of a scout from Arsenal. He joined the Gunners’ academy, then began starring for England’s youth national teams.

The series of events that led him to the USMNT was a serendipitous one. It began with his birth in the Bronx, where his mom spent a year visiting relatives. And it resumed, after a 16-year hiatus, when Musah jumped to Valencia. Nico Estevez, a USMNT assistant coach from 2019-21, had coached at Valencia earlier in his career, and received word from a former colleague that a U.S.-eligible teen had just joined the club.

Thus began a recruitment that, at times, featured phone calls every other day. More often, they were every other week. Berhalter made some, and Estevez made countless others, and many of the conversations were informal, designed to craft the type of personal relationship that wooed Musah back to the U.S. He accepted a USMNT invite in November of 2020. He debuted in a friendly that didn’t yet tie him to the U.S. He committed his international future to the country of his birth with a phone call to Berhalter in March 2021.

It was a difficult decision, made agonizing by all the opportunity England had given him — but made, in the end, by the “faith” Berhalter showed in him.

That summer, he returned to New York for the first time since infancy, and reacquainted with America, a land that still feels like “a completely different world.” But he “really enjoy[s] it.” He’s taken to the food, the “big roads” and the “good vibe.”

And “since the first day,” Musah said of his U.S. commitment, “I’ve never looked back.”

USMNT coach Berhalter helps unlock Musah's brilliance

He has, instead, looked and driven forward, from his “natural” position in the center of midfield. On his U.S. debut, he’d pick up the ball with Welsh opponents on his back and glide past them as if they were statues. In 79 minutes, he did things in possession that very few USMNT players ever have.

He entered World Cup qualifying the following fall as an 18-year-old reserve without a competitive appearance. By November, he’d become nearly indispensable, as a box-to-box dynamo who could do almost everything there is to do in the middle third of a soccer pitch.

In May and June, Berhalter piloted Musah in an even deeper midfield role that amplified his brilliance. The USMNT tweaked its attacking shape, from a 4-3-3 to a 3-2-5 or 4-2-4, in part so that Musah could drop in next to defensive midfielder Tyler Adams and help progress the ball from defensive third to attacking third. He did this consistently in a friendly against Uruguay, with drops of his shoulder and bursts of acceleration that foiled the Uruguayan press in one fell swoop.

What he hasn’t often done in his young U.S. career is unlock defenses. And for two years, his development seemed inhibited by an unnatural role at Valencia. Previous managers saw an explosive athlete whose preeminent skill is his dribbling and stuck Musah on the right wing. Wide areas became his route to the first team. And he was “grateful” for the “opportunity” they afforded him, he said recently.

But the middle is where he “really feel[s] comfortable.” His Valencia role finally changed when Gennaro Gattuso, a 2006 World Cup winner with Italy, took over as the team’s head coach this summer. It now “feel[s] the same” as his role with the national team.

As a classic No. 8 in a 4-3-3, he has excelled in both tight and open spaces. His second assist against Getafe in September — the ball retention, the turn, the vision — exemplified his progress and his potential.

A few weeks later, in two discouraging U.S. friendlies, his absence due to minor injury reinforced just how vital he’ll be in Qatar.

He has since returned, and on Sunday, he received the FaceTime call that officially crystallized so many dreams. “Hey,” Berhalter told him after some friendly banter about Musah’s rapidly growing beard. “I wanted to call you and let you know that on Wednesday, we’re gonna be announcing you on the 26-man roster for the World Cup.”

Musah beamed. “Thank you Gregg, thank you man, I appreciate it,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while.”

“Remember when we first had these conversations about what we can do together?” Berhalter said, grinning. “And now it’s time, man. Now it’s time to do it.”

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