Armchair Analyst: Matt Doyle

Biggest questions facing Gregg Berhalter & the USMNT for final World Cup qualifying window

Full disclosure right here up at the top: I do not particularly care about the US men’s national team World Cup qualifier in Mexico on March 24 relative to the game that follows it, which is a must-win home qualifier vs. Panama on March 27.

The simple fact is that, in the scenario the US are facing, the juice just ain’t worth the squeeze at the Azteca. Of course it’d be nice to get a point, and it’d be legacy-defining in a ton of ways, for both the coaching staff and whichever players take the field, if the US were to get all three. But Mexico will be coming into this game as desperate as the US are (probably more), and while home-field advantage at the Azteca has slowly deteriorated over the past decade, it’s still quite literally the biggest mountain to climb in the region.

Thus, no matter what lineup the US put out in that game, a win is extremely unlikely. A draw is more likely, but still a low probability play, and spending the starters for a point in Mexico – an energy-sucking gambit which would then make it much more likely the US concede all three points at home in that all-important Panama match – would be, in a word, stupid.

So here is where I stand: The games that matter the most are the home qualifier vs. Panama and the final day (March 30) road qualifier at Costa Rica. Both of those come on short rest, and US squad rotation should be aimed at maximizing the chances of taking four points from those two games.

If they do that – take four points from those two games – the US will have qualified directly for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar no matter what happened in Mexico. If, however, they play the starters at the Azteca, come out of there with a heroic and exhausting point, then fall on their faces at home (either because the starters are spent or because the back-ups get murked by Panama again), then that puts the US in a spot where they’d likely need to go to Costa Rica and get a win on the last day.

That is a nightmare, and it must be avoided.

All of this is my way of saying that the biggest question facing Gregg Berhalter this window is how to rotate his squad. And frankly, I think it’s a pretty easy answer: Put out a B Team to grind down El Tri on the road, plan on doing a line change at around the 60th minute of that game (four subs, please!), and keep the starters fresh for the two-game blitz of Los Canaleros and the Ticos.

Just keep in mind that a win over Panama means the US can finish no lower than fourth in the Ocho, and thus guarantee, at the very least, a trip to the one-game playoff (in Qatar!) against Oceania’s representative. It will be, without question, the most important game the US men’s national team has played since that trip to Couva four-and-a-half years ago. The Mexico game means nothing compared to that.

Everything has to be oriented toward maximizing the chances of winning that Panama game.

Ok, so within the scope of all of the above, here are some of the personnel questions Berhalter’s going to be juggling with this roster:

How do the US replace Weston McKennie?

McKennie’s injury, which has ruled him out for the rest of Juventus's season (and thus, obviously, these qualifiers) was gutting. He’d been playing the best soccer of his life and arguably the best soccer a USMNT midfielder has ever played, and while I’d argue he’s not quite irreplaceable in the US XI, he certainly is inimitable. No one else in the pool brings his combination of set-piece dominance, field coverage, goal-danger on those box-arriving runs, and occasional game-breaking passing ability.

Nonetheless, I am perfectly fine with Luca de la Torre slotting into that three-man midfield alongside Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams. De la Torre really is more of an analog for Musah than for McKennie (his ball security and ball progression are his outstanding traits), but I am ok, in general, with him as the presumed starter for the final two games of qualifying.

Who starts in goal?

Zack Steffen finally got back into Manchester City’s gameday squad after missing more than a month with that balky back of his – it kept him out of the last round of qualifiers as well, remember. His last game action, heading into these games, is likely to have been the Feb. 5 FA Cup match against Fulham. He’ll have made all of two appearances since the November World Cup qualifying window. It’s definitely not ideal.

Matt Turner, meanwhile, remains hurt (ankle/foot). If he gets on the field this week for the Revs – they’re playing in Mexico against UNAM Pumas midweek in CCL action – then obviously that changes. But that's unlikely, with Bruce Arena saying on March 8 that a "couple of weeks from now that he'll be available."

The good news is that presumed third choice Ethan Horvath has finally won regular playing time, starting and going 90 in each of Nottingham Forest’s past four Championship matches. He’s allowed just one goal in that stretch.

Horvath hasn’t been part of any US squads since the first round of qualifiers back in September, and hasn’t played for the US since the Nations League final. But at the very least, he’ll be match-sharp if he gets the call.

There’s a chance that Sean Johnson, Gaga Slonina or even Brad Guzan could get the call. But I think Steffen’s the most likely starter, even with his lack of game action.

Zack Steffen USMNT
Zack Steffen is back with Manchester City after suffering an injury.
How fit is Gio Reyna?

Reyna, after missing five months with a hamstring injury that he picked up way back in September, in the first qualifier at El Salvador, has returned to action over the past six weeks, playing about 130 minutes for Borussia Dortmund.

It’s been a stop-start affair, though, as Reyna 1) hasn’t gone more than 45 minutes in any of those appearances, and 2) had to be subbed off in tears after reinjuring himself on Feb. 20 against Borussia Monchengladbach.

That injury was, thankfully, not as serious as it seemed, and he returned to the lineup as a sub this past weekend, logging 27 minutes in a win over Arminia Bielefeld.

And that seems the right way to use him in these games: a 25-30 minute super-sub. Reyna’s ability to make something out of nothing, and to draw fouls around the box – not to mention his courage in demanding the ball in the toughest spots on the pitch, and then his skill once he’s on it – seems perfect for closing out Concacaf games.

Can Brenden Aaronson play in central midfield?

No. He still doesn’t find the ball enough to be a central midfielder in Berhalter’s system. Even playing at the point of that Salzburg diamond, it’s more of a winger’s skillset he’s asked to show rather than the pitch control Berhalter asks of his central midfielders.

Have any MLSers played their way into potential roles this window?

Aaron Long is back, is healthy, and has been in the past several USMNT camps. My guess is he will start one of these games.

Cristian Roldan has been absurdly good playing on the wing for the Sounders, and will have played a competitive match in Mexico (Seattle face León in the CCL this week). Jordan Morris hasn’t been quite as good, but his nose for goal has come back to him, and he’ll have that altitude game under his belt as well.

Djordje Mihailovic has been damn near incredible for CF Montréal and just played at the Azteca this past week.

DeJuan Jones and Sebastian Lletget have both been very good for the Revs, and will be playing in Mexico this week in the CCL.

Paul Arriola leads the league in xA through three games. He, Jesus Ferreira (playing well but struggling to finish) and Paxton Pomykal (mostly good, but not excellent) have the advantage of playing in Nico Estevez’s 4-3-3 at FC Dallas, which is almost identical to Berhalter’s 4-3-3.

Kellyn Acosta has been very good through three weeks with LAFC. Though he’s been playing as a No. 8, I think he’s still the back-up No. 6 for the US.

Gyasi Zardes has one goal in three appearances, all off the bench for the Crew.

That is it, I think, for the MLS guys who could realistically get a call for these games. And for what it’s worth, I do think that 1) familiarity playing in Mexico, and 2) familiarity with the system both matter. It wouldn’t shock me at all if that XI vs. El Tri was littered with guys who’ve played meaningful club games in Mexico over the past couple of weeks.

Tyler Adams USMNT
Tyler Adams is back after an injury scare vs. Canada.
What’s the right way to use Tyler Adams?

Adams is one yellow away from a suspension. The way to guarantee two high-quality starts for him is to play him 90 minutes against El Tri, have him take a time-wasting yellow at the end (and thus be suspended for the Panama game), and have him fresh for the Costa Rica game.

But if you do that, you don’t have arguably your most valuable player for the most important game, that home qualifier vs. Panama. What if you start Adams in that one, he picks up a yellow card, and then you don’t have him in what could be a must-draw at Costa Rica, where the US have never taken a point?

I think I’d take the risk of that scenario playing out and trust Adams to avoid the yellow.

What’s the forward situation look like?

Jordan Pefok is the only forward in the pool who’s scoring regularly, but… is he really in the pool? He hasn’t played for the US since 83 ineffective and ineffectual minutes vs. Canada back in the second game of the Ocho, and hasn’t even been a part of camps since then.

Berhalter rotated through Ferreira, Zardes and Ricardo Pepi in the last round of qualifiers, back at the start of February. Zardes is the only one of those three who’s scored a goal since then – Pepi has not scored a goal for club or country since October – and he’s not starting for his club team.

Josh Sargent starts for his club team, Norwich City, but… he’s a winger now, one with two goals to his name all season.

Brian Dunseth, on Monday’s MLS Today, raised the prospect of calling in Bobby Wood for this window. Wood is 29 years old, has 1g/1a for Real Salt Lake in three games this year, and 13g in about 2600 USMNT minutes. Two of those goals were against Mexico in meaningful games (one Concacaf Cup and one World Cup qualifier), and he’s also scored against Panama and Costa Rica in qualifiers.

He hasn’t been called up since 2018, so I don’t expect it to happen. But given the state of the US No. 9 pool, it wouldn’t be crazy!

Ok, here’s a couple of lineups. First, the B Team at the Azteca:

Doyle WCQ lineup v Mexico USMNT

• I’d feel more comfortable with left back if Jones had gotten some minutes for the US back in the previous window, but his familiarity with the system (he was part of the past two camps) plus his familiarity with playing in Mexico (the Revs play at Pumas' Estadio Olímpico Universitario on Wednesday), combined with the need to keep Antonee Robinson fresh for the next two games as well as the unconvincing performances of Sam Vines and George Bello, kind of make this his chance by default.

• Busio has not played much lately for Venezia, and when he has played, he hasn’t played particularly well. I also think he lacks the physicality for games like this one – he’s straight up not ready. But Berhalter rates him, and one thing about kids is that when they’re ready, it can happen all at once. Maybe it happens like that here for Gianluca.

• I’m not sure that Berhalter rates Pomykal at all – he’s only been to one camp, and played five minutes as a winger. But the attrition rate on No. 8s in the pool is high (McKennie and Eryk Williamson are both hurt, Tanner Tessmann hasn’t progressed, and Lletget fumbled the ball so badly the last time he was entrusted with big minutes that he hasn’t stepped foot on the field since), and Pomykal checks a lot of boxes with regard to system familiarity, skillset and eye test, so here he is.

• You could talk me into James Sands as a No. 6 with Acosta pushed up to the No. 8 role, but Acosta’s consistently underwhelmed for the US as an 8, and it’s not like Sands has been great for Rangers. Plus Berhalter has hesitated to use him as a pure No. 6 in his limited USMNT minutes.

• Djordje’s a halfspace merchant, which means he’s more of a winger in Berhalter’s system rather than a central midfielder.

• Roldan should only be considered as a winger for USMNT purposes.

• I really wish Sargent was getting reps somewhere as a real center forward, but whether he is or not, he will empty the tank pressing like a madman and making life miserable for El Tri’s error-prone center backs. I’m fine with him doing as much here for 65-70 minutes before changes are made.

Doyle USMNT lineup WCQ v Panama

• I would start Pefok. I think that Berhalter will start Ferreira.

On the one hand, I will say that there’s more to the game than goals, and that Ferreira played well for the US vs. El Salvador, and has played well for Dallas through three games this year. There’s a reason that Dallas’s wingers have been rampant, right? He’s a part of that, and the US have some very good wingers.

On the other hand, I will say that there actually isn’t more to the game than goals. It sure would make me happy if he found the back of the net a couple of times between now and next Thursday.

Miles Robinson is the only holdover, with my notion being to rotate him out after this game and Long back in, with a Long/Zimmerman partnership for the finale at Costa Rica.

The rest of the squad pretty much picks itself. See you all in Qatar… hopefully.