With the United States Men’s National Team having qualified for the 2022 World Cup, Gregg Berhalter can shift his gaze toward preparation. June provides ample opportunity for player evaluation and tactical tinkering, with four matches split between friendlies and the CONCACAF Nations League. The first fixture is against Morocco at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, a stern test from a strong squad largely composed of European talents fresh off the completion of their club seasons.
This is the fourth meeting between the two nations, with Morocco holding a 3-0-1 historical record against the USMNT. The two-time African Nations Championship and 1976 Africa Cup of Nations winners are led by manager Vahid Halilhodžić, who was hired in August of 2019 with a demanding list of job requirements. He was rumored to be on the chopping block due to some tension over the handling of certain players, notably the reported absence of Hakim Ziyech and Noussair Mazraoui. His impressive 18-2-7 record includes an unfortunate loss in the quarterfinals of the most recent AFCON competition.
Following a 20-year absence, Morocco appeared at the 2018 World Cup, bowing from Group B with a 0-2-1 record. The Atlas Lions qualified for the upcoming edition by finishing first in the Confederation of African Football’s Group I with a perfect 6-0-0 record and defeating the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 5-1, in a two-leg playoff. In Qatar, they will cohabitate Group F with Belgium, Croatia, and Canada, the latter of which likely inspired this friendly.
Halilhodžić named a 27-player roster for the friendly, an intensely talented group competing at some of Europe’s top clubs. The squad is mostly composed of talents based abroad, with a mere two from the domestic Botola Pro. A healthy mix of domestically raised and recruited dual-nationals forms the backbone of the team ranked 24th in the world by FIFA.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Yassine Bounou (Sevilla), Munir El Kajoui (Hatayspor), Anas Zniti (Raja Casablanca)
DEFENDERS (10): Soufiane Chakla (OH Leuven), Samy Mmaee (Ferencváros), Romain Saiss (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Nayef Aguerd (Stade Rennais), Jawad El Yamiq (Real Valladolid), Achraf Hakimi (Paris Saint-Germain), Noussair Mazraoui (Bayern Munich), Sofiane Alakouch (Metz), Adam Masina (Watford), Yahia Attiyat Allah (Wydad Casablanca)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Fayçal Fajr (Sivasspor), Sofyan Amrabat (Fiorentina), Aymen Barkok (Eintracht Frankfurt), Ilias Chair (Queens Park Rangers), Adel Taarabt (Benfica), Azzedine Ounahi (Angers), Selim Amallah (Standard Liège)
FORWARDS (7): Soufiane Rahimi (Al-Ain), Amine Harit (Marseille), Munir El Haddadi (Sevilla), Zakaria Aboukhlal (AZ Alkmaar), Youssef En-Nesyri (Sevilla), Ayoub El Kaabi (Hatayspor), Tarik Tissoudali (Gent)
Morocco uses a variety of formations, shifting between three- and four-player back lines. As with most meat-and-potatoes international strategies, the attack looks to build through the wings, breaking into the box with crosses to the back post or one-two combinations. Numbers are gradually increased, attempting to overwhelm opponents, particularly those attempting to bunker. The defense is highly susceptible to counter-attacks, as demonstrated in recent matches against Malawi and Egypt.
An impressive side is nothing without an equally talented goalkeeper, in this case a Europa League winner with Sevilla. Yassine Bounou, also known as Bono, stands tall at 6’4” but has impressive agility for his size, getting to ground quickly. The Canada native has solid distribution and starts counter-attacks with punts that easily reach the opponent’s box.
The pairing of Nayef Aguerd and Romain Saïss has played several matches together, receiving crucial opportunities to build chemistry during a World Cup year. The former competes with Stade Rennais in Ligue 1, leading Les Rouges et Noir to fourth place this past season. The left-footed defender is “a big part of the build-up phase” and plays “vertical passes that break the lines of the opposition,” while “displaying the strength needed to hold up attackers” and winning aerial duels. His interior partner is an established veteran with Wolverhampton Wanderers, holding a key role as the club has risen from the English Championship. “Consistent, reliable, and durable,” the 32-year-old is an aggressive leader who works to cover his teammate’s mistakes and fearlessly throws himself into tackles.
While Mazraoui is back in the fold, expect Halilhodžić to stick to the superlative-defying Achraf Hakimi, who has the unbelievable curriculum vitae of stops at Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund, Inter Milan, and currently Paris Saint-Germain. Considered one of the top right backs in the world, he’s a dynamic attacker with the ball constantly at his feet. Total Football Analysis notes his “strength in 1v1 duels,” “brilliant ball-carrying,” and ability to shut down opposing dribblers. On the other side of the formation is Watford’s Adam Masina, a more defensive-minded player that uses his length on slide tackles. The former Italy youth international is less aggressive moving forward but picks his moments to play a cross or sneak into the final third.
If Morocco uses a 4-4-2, then Sofyan Amrabat should line up in the defensive midfielder role, an intriguing two-way player on Tottenham’s radar. The 25-year-old Fiorentina anchor dictates the tempo and works constantly to step into passing lanes, fearless even when dribbling in circles to maintain possession. Selim Amallah occupies a more box-to-box role, having developed a nice scoring touch in the Belgian First Division. He is at his best when receiving the ball in the final third and quickly finding a teammate making a cutting diagonal run.
Selim Amallah at the double today, scoring 2 goals for Standard Liège pic.twitter.com/N8mJVeKV2A— FootMoroccan (@FootMoroccan) January 11, 2021
Eintracht Frankfurt’s Aymen Barkok thrives in the inside-out advanced midfielder role and could use some playing time after an injury-filled season. The former German youth international is fierce in transition, making long straight-line runs with and without the ball. A relative newcomer to the squad, Azzedine Ounahi started in the second leg of World Cup qualifying series against Democratic Republic of the Congo, almost single-handedly assuring advancement with two goals and an assist. The 22-year-old is a product of the famed Mohammed VI Football Academy, displaying the speed, technical ability, and passing accuracy making him a nightmare to opposing defenses.
Halilhodžić has a deep group of attackers at his disposal but could opt for the thunder-and-lightning size and speed duo that feasts off of crosses. Youssef En-Nesyri is coming off a disappointing season after scoring 18 goals during 2020-21 for Sevilla. The 6’2” striker is a hard worker on both sides of the ball with elite athleticism, although The Guardian claims he is “one-footed” and has “much to learn about positioning and timing, taking decisions, [and] how to play: when to drop, when to go, [and] which pass to choose.” His likely partner, Ayoub El Kaabi of Hatayspor, finished second in the Turkish Süper Lig scoring table with 18 goals. A 28-year-old from Casablanca, his ability to carve out space in the final third with speed and guile is an obvious asset only surpassed by his acrobatic finishing.
What a beauty from @AyoubElKaabi#WCQ | #WorldCup | @EnMaroc pic.twitter.com/hncWaLsPU2— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) March 16, 2022
While not a nation with a name that would titillate the casual supporter of international football, this is a shrewdly scheduled friendly that should present a challenge to the young American side. Morocco may have the edge on the basis of individual talent, with the squad (and program in general) teeming with players populating some of the world’s top clubs. Whether this group can come together as a cohesive unit is another matter entirely, a familiar endeavor undertaken by the USMNT to mixed results.
The match is scheduled for Wednesday, June 1st at 7:30 p.m. Eastern, 4:30 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include ESPN2, TUDN USA, UniMás, and FUBO TV (free trial).