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, if things go the way he hopes they do, he will be representing the United States at the World Cup in Qatar.
As the international soccer world enters a supposedly quiet summer period, with the European season over and most players on an all-too-brief break from their clubs, Tillman’s story offers a compelling counterpoint to any notion that teams will merely hover in holding patterns until the tournament begins in late November.
National teams, after all, have only two chances left to gather before departing 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. Then he was thrown right into the action on Wednesday night, coming on as a 65th-minute substitute in the Americans’ imposing 3-0 exhibition win over Morocco in Cincinnati.
“It took me a lot of time to make the decision, but in the end, I listened to what my heart told me,” said Tillman, one of three young players, along with the 24-year-old striker Haji Wright — who scored the third U.S. goal on a penalty kick — and the 19-year-old left back Joe Scally, who made their U.S. national team debuts in the game. “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 matches played in them, represent valuable time to introduce new ideas and refine the ones that got them to this point.
“We talked before the game about establishing a baseline for this group about how we can perform against World Cup opponents,” Gregg Berhalter, the coach of the U.S. men’s national team, said after the game. “I feel like the group went out and showed how good we can be.”
For individual players — like Tillman and others who are on the fringe of their national squads — they are opportunities to make a positive impression, to catch a coach’s eye, to earn his trust.
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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 go into the World Cup thinking we just want to participate,” U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie said. “A good World Cup for anyone is going as far as you can, 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 played on several of Germany’s youth national 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.
Berhalter, 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, soccer’s world governing body. 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, very good first touch and awareness around the penalty box,” Berhalter said. “So that’s been great.”
Coaches at the club level have tried using Tillman as a striker, and while he has not pushed back too much against their experimentation, he sees himself as a midfielder in the mold of his favorite player, the French star Paul Pogba: confident, fluid, versatile.
“In my mind, I’m more of a 10 than a striker because I would say my strength is my vision, 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, a more creative role currently occupied by the likes of Pulisic, the Americans’ actual No. 10. That was one of the points that persuaded him to switch to the United States, Tillman said.
The biggest selling point from Berhalter, though, was telling Tillman he could potentially make a World Cup roster this year — something that would have been impossible with Germany.
Of course, outside a small core of players like Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams, no American player’s place in Qatar is guaranteed. Anything can happen as they fight for spots. Tillman knows that. So do his teammates.
On many players’ minds, for instance, was the plight of defender Miles Robinson, who was largely viewed as a lock for the World Cup roster until last month, when he ruptured his left Achilles’ tendon while playing in M.L.S. 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 allowing anxieties about injuries to seep into his mind.
“When you’re looking at your goals that are right in front of you, and you’re just always a little bit more 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 has been a need to weigh long-term goals against the short-term practicalities of earning immediate playing time in the run-up to the World Cup.
Consider Brenden Aaronson, who opened the scoring Wednesday in the 26th minute. He achieved a personal dream of signing for a Premier League team when he joined Leeds United in May, but the move, he acknowledged, means he will have to fight all over again for playing time in a potentially more competitive situation. 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 has not named a starting goalkeeper. And he has said he does not know who his backup left back will be.
“I’m not sure the question needs to be answered right now, and the reason why is we have time,” Berhalter said when asked about the goalkeeper position. “I think it’s time to just let all 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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