For USMNT and Others, World Cup Run Starts With a Sprint

CINCINNATI – Until a few days ago, Malik Tillman, a 20-year-old midfielder from Nuremberg, Germany, had never stepped foot on American soil.

Five and a half months from now, he will represent the United States at the World Cup in Qatar.

From the international soccer world, the European season over and most players on their clubs, Tillman’s story offers a compelling counterpoint to any idea the tournament begins in late November.

National teams, after all, have only two chances left for the World Cup – a few games this month and a second window of matches in September – and there is a lot to be done. Squads must be assembled. Tactics must be fine-tuned. Players’ dreams will be realized or deferred. Lives will be changed.

One of them could be Tillman’s. This week, he completed the switch of his soccer allegiance to the United States, the home country of his father, from Germany, the nation where he was born and where he is a rising prospect at Bayern Munich. Morocco (Wednesday) or Uruguay (Sunday).

“It took me a lot of time to make the decision, but in the end,” said Tillman, who started to get his new American teammates at their training camp this week in Cincinnati. “I hope it’s the right decision. I’m happy to be here. ”

For national team coaches around the world, the remaining training camp windows, and the handful of exhibition games played in them, represent valuable time to implement new ideas and refine the ones that got them to this point.

For individual players – like Tillman and others who are on the fringe of their national squads – they have opportunities to make a positive impression, to catch a coach’s eye, to earn his trust.

For the teams and their fans, the games may present one final moment, perhaps, to pause and dream. The nerve-racking struggle of qualification is over. The daunting crucible of the World Cup looms. Until November, anything seems possible.

“We don’t want to get into the World Cup thinking we just want to participate,” US midfielder Weston McKennie said. “A good World Cup for anyone who goes, making it out of the group stage. A perfect World Cup is winning it.

“A lot of people say it’s far-fetched for us, but it’s the mentality that we have. We want to compete. We want to win. And we want to get as far as we can. ”

For Tillman, who has played on several German national youth teams, the past week has been a whirlwind. He arrived in the United States late Friday night. The next day, in front of his new teammates, he was presented with a cake for his 20th birthday.

Gregg Berhalter, the coach of the US men’s national team, who secured Tillman’s commitment only a couple weeks ago, delivered the cake to the player.

“Malik’s coming in with a bang, baby,” Berhalter said. “Happy birthday, buddy!”

On Tuesday, Christian Pulisic, the team’s best player, was tasked with announcing to the group that Tillman’s switch had been officially approved by FIFA. That sparked another boisterous round of applause from the group.

Asked this week for his first impressions of the United States, Tillman smiled.

“It’s huge,” he said, drawing laughter from a roomful of reporters. “Germany is kind of small.” Noting the sprawling streets he had seen in Cincinnati, he added: “It’s crazy.”

Amid all the extracurricular activity, there were actual training sessions on the field, where Tillman has already impressed his coaches and teammates.

“He’s shown a lot of quality in training, very good understanding of the game,” he said. “So that’s been great.”

Tillman as a striker, and while he hasn’t pushed back too much against their experimentation, he sees himself as a midfielder in the mold of his favorite player, Manchester United and France star Paul Pogba: confident , fluid, versatile.

“In my mind, I’m more of a 10 than a striker because I would say yes to my strength, and as a striker, you don’t need that in your game because the goal is almost all the time at the back of your body, ”Tillman said. “I like to attack the goal, to see the goal in front of me.”

Tillman said Berhalter has told him he, too, envisions him as a No. 10, the Americans’ actual No. 10, 10. That was one of the points that persuaded him to switch to the United States, Tillman said.

Berhalter, though, was telling Tillman he could easily make a World Cup roster this year – something that would have been impossible with Germany.

Of course, outside of a small core of players like Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams, or American player’s place in Qatar is guaranteed. Anything can happen as they fight for spots. Tillman knows that. So do his teammates.

Miles Robinson, who was most viewed as a lock for the World Cup roster until last month, when he ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon while playing for his club, Atlanta United.

Robinson’s injury was a sudden reminder to the American players of their own fragility. Defender Walker Zimmerman said he found himself incapable of injuries to seep into his mind.

“When you’re looking at your goals you’re right in front of you, and you’re always a little hesitant, it’s hard to fight that, but you have to,” Zimmerman said.

Aside from worries about injury, players this week also expressed concerns about optimizing their situations with their clubs. For those who have signed, or could sign, with new clubs in the current European off-season, there have been long-term goals World Cup.

Consider Brenden Aaronson, who won a Premier League team when he joined Leeds United in May. The move, it takes, means that it will be possible to compete at a more competitive stage. Sitting on the bench does not augur well for a player’s form.

“It’s definitely a risk,” he said, “but it’s a risk I was willing to take.”

For now, there are spots to be won up and down the American depth chart.

Berhalter, for instance, has no go-to striker. He hasn’t named a starting goalkeeper. And he has said he doesn’t know who his backup left back will be.

“I’m not sure the question needs to be answered now, and the reason why we have time,” Berhalter said when asked about the goalkeeper position. “I think it’s time to just let this play out, and that’s the beauty of time in this case.”

Players like Tillman and others, though, know the clock is ticking.

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