The United States Men’s National Team opened the international window with a 2-0 loss to Japan, struggling to handle the pressing opponent. As the 2022 World Cup draws near, the upcoming match is considered perhaps the final in-person opportunity for European-based players to impress Gregg Berhalter. Saudi Arabia should provide a stern and intriguing test ahead of the November tournament. The friendly is set for the Estadio Nueva Condomina in Murcia, Spain.
This is the seventh all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USMNT holding a 3-1-2 advantage, claiming a 2-0 result in the third-place playoff at the 1999 FIFA Confederations Cup. Ranked 53rd by FIFA, Saudi Arabia cruised through World Cup qualification, finishing atop the Asian Football Confederation’s Group B with 23 points from 10 matches, ahead of Japan and Australia. The Green (al-‘Akhḍar or الأخضر) have struggled in ramp-up friendlies, losing to Colombia and Ecuador by 1-0 margins as well as ending in a scoreless draw with Ecuador.
Saudi Arabia is led by Hervé Renard, appointed to the role in 2019. The 53-year-old Frenchman has experience at the club and international level, with stops at Cambridge United, Zambia, Angola, FC Sochaux, the Ivory Coast, Lille, and Morocco. He has compiled a 15-4-7 record, including a searing 7-1-2 run of form in qualifying. After securing a ticket to Qatar, the federation signed him to a contract extension until 2027.
Renard named a 26-player roster for the friendlies against Ecuador and the USMNT. Every member of the squad competes in the domestic Saudi Professional League. Al-Hilal, Al-Shabab, and Al-Nassr provided nineteen of the call-ups.
GOALKEEPERS (4): Mohammed Al-Owais (Al-Hilal), Fawaz Al-Qarni (Al-Shabab), Mohammed Al Rubaie (Al-Ahli), Nawaf Al-Aqidi (Al-Nassr)
DEFENDERS (8): Yasser Al-Shahrani (Al-Hilal), Ali Al-Bulaihi (Al-Hilal), Sultan Al-Ghanam (Al-Nassr), Saud Abdulhamid (Al-Hilal), Hassan Tambakti (Al-Shabab), Abdulelah Al-Amri (Al-Nassr), Abdullah Madu (Al-Nassr), Ahmed Bamsaud (Al-Ittihad)
MIDFIELDERS (11): Fahad Al-Muwallad (Al-Shabab), Salman Al-Faraj (Al-Hilal), Salem Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Nawaf Al-Abed (Al-Shabab), Hattan Bahebri (Al-Shabab), Mohamed Kanno (Al-Hilal), Sami Al-Najei (Al-Nassr), Ali Al-Hassan (Al-Nassr), Nasser Al-Dawsari (Al-Hilal), Awad Al-Nashri (Al-Ittihad), Riyadh Sharahili (Abha)
FORWARDS (3): Firas Al-Buraikan (Al-Fateh), Haroune Camara (Al-Ittihad), Haitham Asiri (Al-Ahli)
Renard deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation featuring two wingers covering the length of the field. Saudi Arabia defends and attacks as a cohesive unit, incrementally advancing the formation up the field; opponents, in turn, enjoy the most success from counter-attacks and direct play. The Green looks to build through possession, shoot from outside of the box, and hit crosses to far-post runners, although there is the occasional quick foray into the final third. With a mere two goals in the past seven matches, scoring is a recent and relative issue, and the team takes time to settle into proceedings.
Following the 2018 World Cup, Mohammed Al-Owais slid into the number one role and has yet to surrender the job. The 30-year-old recently moved from Al-Ahli to Al-Hilal, joining the reigning league champions. He is a solid shot-stopper and makes quick reaction saves from point-blank range. His incredible performance in the Ecuador friendly should instill confidence in Saudi supporters, as the goalkeeper did everything short of standing on his head to prevent the opponents from scoring.
Ali Al-Bulaihi made his senior international debut in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup and earned a spot on the roster. The 32-year-old competes with Al-Hilal and performs all of the necessary tasks for a center back but also makes solo dribbling runs up the field that catch opponents unprepared. His main partner during qualifying was Abdulelah Al-Amri of Al-Nassr, a recent introduction to the team. While he can be beaten by pacier players, his recovery speed and curling slide tackles allow him to avoid catastrophe.
Saudi Arabia 0-0 Ecuador, some big saves from Mohammed Al-Owais pic.twitter.com/2D2Is0RNnH— Mohamed El Gharbawy (@Gharbawy) September 23, 2022
At left back is the highly experienced Yasser Al-Shahrani, who has been with the national team since 2012 and grabbed two goals during qualifying. His athleticism is always on display, whether leaping to win a header or sprinting down the touchline to deliver a cross. The opposite side of the formation is patrolled by Sultan Al-Ghannam, another hard-tackling defender constantly pushing into the final third. The 28-year-old of Al-Nassr ascended to a key spot during the current World Cup cycle and overcame a torn ligament during the spring.
The towering Mohamed Kanno took on an essential role during qualifying at the defensive position. The Al-Hilal drops deep into the formation, serving as a third center back and a safety valve during possession, receiving emergency outlets and hitting highly-accurate long passes. The box-to-box role is occupied by his club teammate, Salman Al-Faraj. The 33-year-old keeps proceedings moving forward and is near impossible to dispossess of the ball. He also has a devastating shot from distance, which forces the opponent to step forward and opens up space. A relatively recent introduction to the program, the influence of advanced midfielder Sami Al-Najei is growing since his two-goal performance clinched a 3-2 victory over China. His lock-picking and ability to push deep into the final third are assets in the fluid Saudi attack. Versatile attacker Hattan Bahebri, a new favorite of the manager following a strong domestic season, could also add speed and his unique brand of panache, replete with all manner of acrobatic finishes and circus dribbles.
Al-Faisaly added another goal before Salem Al-Dawsari pulled one back for Al-Hilal with this superb bicycle kick . My pick for "goal of the day". The first half ended Al-Hilal 1-2 Al-Faisaly #SaudiSuperCuppic.twitter.com/yvd8tvZ02x— Mohamed El Gharbawy (@Gharbawy) January 6, 2022
At left wing is Salem Al-Dawsari of Al-Hilal, a veteran and sometime-captain of the squad. He is Saudi Arabia’s main scoring threat and an expert dribbler, spinning and twisting to avoid defenders who are forced into fouling. Capable of shooting with both feet, his power and technique are a sublime joy to watch. Fahad al-Muwallad can be found displaying a similar measure of attacking prowess on the opposite side of the field. A bit more traditional and straightforward, his exploitative and advantageous nature, exhibited when stealing the ball or sneaking into the back post, could trouble the USMNT.
The formation is led by the young Firas Al-Buraikan, a 22-year-old striker with Al-Fateh who became a favorite of the manager over the past year, dubbed “The Man of Decisive Goals.” While production at the international level has yet to match his rate in the Saudi Professional League, his impact reaches beyond the score line providing key support to the wingers. He is an expert hold-up man who spreads across the width and most of the length of the field to receive the ball, often serving as a shuttler and link-up option for teammates. The well-rounded attacker has the pace to get behind the defense should the match drift into a more chaotic back-and-forth.
♂️ Firas Al-Buraikan has just scored his side’s fifth goal of the game pic.twitter.com/6rV4s7wRaZ— Roshn Saudi League (@SPL_EN) November 25, 2021
With the entire roster based in a strong domestic league, Saudi Arabia is something of a mystery opponent, with little opportunity for comparison between the player pools. The USMNT will be tested by the dynamic group of attackers looking to head into the World Cup on a high note. While decisions are based on more than a single match, a performance in Murcia could be what tips the balance for the final few call-ups.
The match is scheduled for Tuesday, September 27th at 2:00 p.m. Eastern, 11:00 a.m. Pacific. Viewing options include Fox Sports 1, TUDN USA, UniMás, and FUBO TV (free trial).