Brad Friedel on USA v Mexico, Pulisic's fitness and USMNT's young stars
In our exclusive interview, the former USMNT star discusses the match against Mexico, the USA's goalkeepers and how to manage Christian Pulisic's fitness.
Ahead of the USA's crucial World Cup qualifying match against Mexico on November 12, the Betway Insider spoke to former USMNT, Liverpool and Tottenham goalkeeper Brad Friedel about Gregg Berhalter's side's chances.
The USA are three points behind Mexico in the CONCACAF standings and are priced at +185 in the sports betting odds to win Friday's huge match at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati.
In our exclusive interview, Friedel also discusses topics including the competition between American goalkeepers Zack Steffen and Matt Turner, the USMNT's exciting young prospects and his former Liverpool teammate Steven Gerrard's appointment as manager of Aston Villa.
View on how USA vs Mexico this weekend is going to go
“Given that the game is in the US, I think we are slight favourites, but these are two excellent sides at the top of the table right now. Mexico will technically be very good, they will try to retain possession and work the ball, while the US will also try to keep the ball but make full use of their extra physicality.
“The US will be better at breaking quickly against Mexico, I think they will struggle to deny us clear scoring opportunities. But equally, Mexico will know that Gregg Berhalter will want to play out from the back so will press us high, which could cause a couple of mistakes.
“I don't think it will be a large goal margin victory for either side, it'll be a tight affair. But I do think the USA are slight favourites.”
Why is USA vs Mexico a rivalry like no other?
“It's so intense politically and historically between the two countries off the pitch, particularly if you were raised on either side of the borders. But on the pitch, principally Mexico was so much better than us for years. They have a much better footballing history than we do.
“Then in the mid-1990s we started getting some results against them and they didn't like it. They said it's only in friendlies, or on home soil, or in really cold climates. But in 2002, we beat them comfortably in the World Cup, so the media turned on Mexico to the point where if a head coach lost to the USA, he'd be fired.
“Nowadays, US soccer has had such a developmental uptick to the point where the games are now 50/50. Our players are good, their players are good and it is really even. With our players getting more and more Champions League, Premier League and European league experience, we are going to start overtaking them if they do not start developing their players more. So in recent times, more Mexican players have followed in the USA's footsteps and gone to Europe. It makes for the most intriguing soccer match between the two nations at any time in our histories.
“I played in some feisty derbies in my time - I remember playing in Mexico City and having bags of urine thrown at me!”
Are Christian Pulisic's injury problems going to stunt his development with both club and country?
“Pulisic has had injury problems so I think there is more time needed so that he has a long run of fitness before we can jump to any kind of conclusion about his future with Chelsea. I'd like to think that when fully fit, he is a focal point of Tuchel's team and plans. I don't think there are any alarm bells that at this stage, that he has to move on from Chelsea. Transfer talk at the moment won't help him when he deserves the right to be considered at Stamford Bridge when fully fit for an extended period of time.
“But of course, when your best players are consistently injured, it is a concern. You want your best players on the international stage to be playing regularly with their club team and staying fit so they can hit the ground running when they play for their nation.
“He has not been free of injury, which has stunted his ability to play regularly at Chelsea. The issue is not whether he’ll play for the USA when he's fit, because he will. But the national side is not a day-to-day club team, so the people who monitor his fitness at Chelsea I'm sure would say they are concerned off the record about his constant injury record at this stage of his career."
Thomas Tuchel has warned the United States national team to be 'responsible' with Pulisic, how should Berhalter play it?
“You'd hope that the USMNT and Chelsea have open lines of communication on Christian. I don't know Tuchel, but I would think his comments are more to protect his player as opposed to alleging anything against Gregg's management style. He does not seem disrespectful.
“I hope they are careful with Pulisic, but if he is in any way fit against Mexico, he will play. You simply cannot leave your best attacker out in such a massive game.”
What is your take on the goalkeeper situation between Matt Turner and Zack Steffen, and the position in general?
“As per normal, there is strength in depth in the goalkeeping department in the USA. Turner and Steffen are both terrific and you also have the experience of Brad Guzan to call upon if you had a sticky situation and you need an experienced keeper in your squad. Then you've got really good youngsters coming through such as Chris Brady and Gabriel Slonina, so it looks really promising for the long-term future of the GK position in the USMNT.
"As regards Turner and Steffen, Zack is probably ahead of Turner with his feet while Turner is ahead on sheer shot-stopping abilities – he is remarkable at that. The only downside for Steffen is that he is going to start having to play regular games soon, and he knows that, but he's got one of the world's best in Ederson ahead of him.
“It may happen at City soon, but he's a top-quality keeper. I'd say if he wants to be the out-and-out No. 1 for the US, he has to start playing consistent first team games very soon.”
With the development of the likes of Ricardo Pepi, Sergino Dest and Gio Reyna, are we entering a golden age of US young players?
“We are already well into the golden age. The only time I can compare it to is the 2002 World Cup team, when we had a lot of players playing at big European clubs as focal points, and we are definitely seeing that again with the current crop.
“If you played the current team against my 2002 team, it would be a really close game and it's the only time since then where we've seen that level of talent on the world stage.”
What are your views on Ricardo Pepi?
“Pepi has the ability to play in most countries in Europe because of his style. He is big, strong, has great pace, good feet and is a top finisher. He's burst on the scene in such a way that I can see him succeeding in every league from the Premier League to the Bundesliga to Holland, Spain or Italy. I feel he can adapt to almost any league due to the many different assets of his game.
“I don't know what his personality is like, but watching him he has just about everything, so now it's about finding those experiences and game time with and against the best in the world for an extended period of time to see where the ceiling is for this kid.
“In terms of a move for him, January would be the right time for the MLS, but whether it is the right time for a European club remains to be seen. One of the downsides to the MLS windows is the better transfer market for them is in the winter when the season ends as opposed to in the summer when they'd be more reluctant to sell their best players - but that is obviously when European clubs are mostly on the hunt and have bigger budgets.
“Perhaps somewhere like Germany may be best for him, with more of an extended winter break and therefore more changes in the middle of winter when it's easier to bed in a new player - as well as a track record of German clubs nurturing young American talent.
“I'd assume he will go somewhere in January but it remains to be seen which league. He needs to go somewhere where he's going to play. He could go to one of the big boys and then go on loan somewhere, but playing regularly is imperative for him right now - he doesn't want to be stuck in the reserves or youth teams at a giant.
“As long as his career is managed properly – and he stays away from too many overconfident comments about Real Madrid at this stage before he has seen the conveyor belt of talent he'd be in with in Europe – there is no ceiling for him.
And Gio Reyna?
“Reyna can go anywhere he wants to go. His dad Claudio was one hell of a player so he has great foundations, but like a lot of others, he has had his fitness issues. But he has done remarkably well from the moment he moved to Germany, having gone from strength to strength.
“Gio's skills are well suited to the Premier League. Don't get me wrong, there would be a learning curve due to the physicality of the league, but could he adapt and thrive given the assets he already has? Most definitely.
“A team like Liverpool or City would of course suit his style of play with the ball at his feet, but we have seen him do the defensive, grafting side of the game too out of possession, which stands him in good stead. Remember Dortmund are already a massive club, so if he left for another huge side, it would not be daunting to him. And it just shows the wealth of talent that Gregg has at his disposal and the age of them. Gregg could have a really long successful run with this current crop.”
On the MLS - there is a lack of bigger names these days, like Beckham, Owen, Pirlo, Lampard, Gerrard, Zlatan, Cole. Has that made the league more competitive and given more opportunities to develop young players?
“There are certainly more opportunities to develop younger players and for them to shine in their own right with fewer big names taking all the headlines. Every year the league gets more competitive anyway, and the MLS has given clubs more resources to develop their own younger players and become a selling market as opposed to just a buyer’s market losing money every year.
“I like this strategy, it bodes well for the future. I still don't mind the odd older player coming over every now and then, so long as that player wants to win and give their all with the right attitude - for example David Villa and Giovinco were outstanding over here - as opposed to someone just here for the payday.”
You played at Liverpool with Steven Gerrard, is Aston Villa a stepping stone to the ultimate Liverpool job?
“If he does well, it's a natural progression. If the Liverpool job ever becomes open and Stevie is at the height of his managerial career, you'd like to think there would at least be an interview. I think the fans would love to have a Liverpool legend in the dugout, but it's very premature as Jurgen Klopp has done so consistently well over a number of years, with the trophies to back it up. He's not going anywhere any time soon.
“Stevie still needs one other club before he could probably make that Liverpool jump, and while a club of Villa's magnitude have hired someone unproven at managing in the top flight, you have to remember that Rangers is a huge club and Liverpool even bigger. He is a big-club guy and it won't daunt him, especially given his demeanor. I don't think it is a risk for them at all.
“When I played with him at Liverpool, he was really young and raw. But having played against him so many times and also having spoken to him a lot when we were out in LA at the same time, he grew up into one of the finest minds in football. He is tactically astute and has a great grasp of man-management - I am not surprised he has been so successful already in his managerial career, because he is a born leader.”
Why do you think Manchester United are keeping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a job?
“They have assembled a really good squad there over the summer and I believe they will give him a certain amount more time to see if it clicks. There will come a time when it will end, but I know Ole really well and he's a calm, level-headed, good person. I would like it to work out for him even if I don't tend to care how it works out for United.
“United fans won't think that as they want to win everything all the time, but I see really good players there as well as players they need to get out of the club. But he needs more time. People were calling for Mikel Arteta's head and Arsenal are up to fifth now. Ole has the squad for it to work out in his favour.”
Eight Premier League clubs have American ownership and there are more in Europe, like Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid. Is this a growing trend?
“Sports teams in the USA are really expensive and people love the energy and culture around football in Europe. But I do think some of the businessmen are worried about relegation as they do not have that over in the US.
“But the global nature of football in Europe and the positive effect that can have on their businesses tends to outweigh the fear.”
On the USWNT, Carli Lloyd has retired, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are both in their 30s – are they in transition but in the opposite direction to the men?
“The performances at the Olympics shows they need regeneration and to start to transition some of the younger players in. But it's hard because that older crop of players was so good and all-conquering so it's natural for them to still play a major part even when time may not be on their side. It’s also tough to replace them at the same level.
“But it is time for that transition to start taking place, it has to if they want to win the World Cup in 2023, because right now I wouldn't say they are outright favourites or the power they once were.”