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

The Men’s World Cup trophy smiles at Yunus Musah every time the high-spirited American teenager pulls out his phone.

He made it his screensaver about two years ago, around the time he made his debut for the United States men’s national team at the age of 17. He kept it there, as daily motivation, as he turned 18 and 19, and the real thing came into focus. He became a regular on the USMNT; they qualified for the World Cup; “And now that we’ve qualified, you wait a bit,” Musah said in August. Waiting, radiating and dreaming.

But in the meantime, on the sunny southeast coast of Spain, in Valencia, the La Liga club he joined aged 16, Musah has been working, preparing for the biggest sporting event on the planet – and proving why he might just be the USMNT’s most important player. to her.

He’s a fearless ball-progressor with a tireless drive who, for a few years at Valencia, played out of position. Now he is in the one that “feels natural”, the one in which he rose through the youth ranks at Arsenal, and the one in which he drives USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter raving. “Yunus is a guy who blows my mind, at his age, what he can do. Crazy level of talent,” Berhalter said in June. The missing piece, back then, was “the end product, the final pass, the finish,” Berhalter added. But a few months later, it began to appear with auspicious frequency.

He completed a world-class skill set that would have caught the attention of Liverpool, Arsenal and Juventus. It made the 19-year-old Musah an automatic starter for club and country, and a centerpiece in midfield without which the United States seem scrappy.

For many, such a responsibility would be a burden, a bit heavy for a teenager to manage. For Musah, it’s a blessing he wears, like most things, with an irrepressible smile.

“It’s all a privilege, really,” he said in May when asked how the hell he stays so consistently positive. “For the smallest thing, like waking up in the morning and being able to walk to the bathroom, it’s also a privilege. Not everyone can do that. After a loss or something like that, after a hard day, coming home, I worry about the outcome while others are more worried about more serious things? »

He’s endured the hardship and knows he’ll have to endure a lot more, but that prospect, he said, “really helps keep my spirits up, 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 injured when the United States takes on Japan on Friday, September 23, 2022 in Dusseldorf, Germany at the Americans.  the penultimate warm-up of the World Cup.  (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, but moved to Italy before his budding brain could store memories of America. He learned the game and the world in Castelfranco Veneto, a small town in northern Italy which blessed him and his older brother, Abdul, with a calcium location adjacent to the apartments in which they grew up. They would play for hours, anchoring the sport in their muscles and their hearts. They grew to love this park – until, when Yunus was 9, their parents told them they were moving out. In England.

“It was a tough time in Italy. My dad just wanted a fresh start somewhere,” Yunus said in a recent La Liga profile. not go,” he said. “We had just known Italy all our lives.

The one constant, in a way, as he made his way to London and later Spain, was football, or soccer, a universal game. Musah speaks four languages. He is, in his own words, “black”, “African”, “American”, “Muslim”, “Italian”, “English”, “immigrant” and “citizen of the world”. And on top of all those identities, wherever he went he was a brilliant footballer. A few months after moving to London, he goes to trial at Chelsea, and catches the eye of an Arsenal scout. He joined the Gunners academy and then started playing for the England national youth teams.

The series of events that led him to the USMNT were fortuitous. It started with his birth in the Bronx, where his mother spent a year visiting relatives. And it resumed, after a 16-year hiatus, when Musah jumped to Valencia. Nico Estevez, the USMNT assistant coach from 2019 to 2021, had coached at Valencia earlier in his career and learned from a former colleague that a US-eligible teenager had just joined the club.

So began a recruitment process that sometimes involved phone calls every other day. Most often they were every two weeks. Berhalter did a few, and Estevez did countless others, and many of the conversations were informal, designed to create the kind of personal connection that brought Musah back to the United States. He accepted an invitation from the USMNT in November 2020. He made his debut in a friendly that hasn’t yet tied him to the United States. He committed his international future to his native country with a phone call to Berhalter in March 2021.

It was a difficult decision, made agonizing by all the opportunities England had given him – but made, ultimately, by the “faith” Berhalter had in him.

That summer, he returned to New York for the first time since childhood and reconnected with America, a land that still feels like “a completely different world.” But he “really appreciates[s] this.” He is attracted to food, “high roads” and “good atmosphere”.

And “from day one,” Musah said of his commitment to the United States, “I have never looked back.”

USMNT coach Berhalter helps reveal Musah’s brilliance

Instead, he looked and pushed forward, from his “natural” position in the center of midfield. On his United States debut, he picked up the ball with Welsh opponents on his back and passed them like 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 autumn as an 18-year-old reserve with no competitive appearance. By November it had become almost indispensable, as a box-to-box dynamo that could do almost anything that needed to be done in the middle third of a football pitch.

In May and June, Berhalter piloted Musah into an even deeper midfield role which amplified his brilliance. The USMNT tweaked their attacking form from a 4-3-3 to a 3-2-5 or 4-2-4, in part so Musah could get in next to defensive midfielder Tyler Adams and help advance the ball from the defensive third. to the third attacker. He did it regularly in a friendly against Uruguay, with shoulder drops and accelerations that outsmarted the Uruguayan press in one fell swoop.

What he hasn’t done often in his fledgling American career is unlock defenses. And for two years his development seemed stunted by an unnatural role at Valencia. Previous managers saw an explosive athlete whose pre-eminent skill is his dribbling and cornered Musah on the right wing. Wide areas became his route to the first team. And he was “grateful” for the “opportunity” they gave him, he said recently.

But the middle is where it’ really feels[s] comfortable.” His role at Valencia finally changed when Gennaro Gattuso, a 2006 World Cup winner with Italy, became the team’s head coach in the summer. He “now feels[s] the same” as his role with the national team.

As a classic number 8 in a 4-3-3, he excelled in tight and open spaces. His second assist against Getafe in September – ball retention, turning, vision – illustrated his progress and potential.

A few weeks later, in two daunting American friendlies, his absence due to a minor injury reinforced just how vital he will be in Qatar.

He’s since returned, and on Sunday he got 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 are going to announce you on the 26-man squad for the World Cup.”

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

“Do you remember when we first had these conversations about what we can do together?” said Berhalter, smiling. “And now it’s time, man. Now is the time to do so.

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