Opportunities to measure themselves against European opposition have been few and far between for the US men’s national team lately, thanks largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That makes Sunday’s friendly vs. Northern Ireland (12:05 pm ET | FOX, UniMás, TUDN) a potentially important data point as the program counts down to a frantic 12-month stretch of Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying action starting later this spring.
“It will be a big challenge for us. It’s a very physical team with height, strength and aggressiveness,” coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters on a Saturday conference call.
“We think it's a good team because of their organization; very compact, they play a 5-3-2, very difficult to break down.”
This is just the second time the two nations have faced off, the first coming way back in 1948. The match is sandwiched between the Green & White’s first two UEFA World Cup qualifiers, raising the likelihood of the USMNT seeing a rotated Northern Ireland XI. Ian Baraclough's side lost 2-0 to Italy on Thursday and host Bulgaria in Belfast on Wednesday, a game they really need to win.
“I think it's a good change of pace, it's a different challenge,” said US and Fulham defender Tim Ream. “Probably a team that's going to be a little bit more technical than what we've been playing against in the past couple camps … Whenever you can play these teams and you can beat them on their soil and play games in their place and come away with a good result, it boosts confidence.”
Zack Steffen phrased it a bit more bluntly.
“It's something we haven't seen in a little bit,” said the goalkeeper. “I think the guys are excited to play a non-Concacaf team.”
Veteran striker Kyle Lafferty is slated to start for the hosts on Sunday and despite a four-year scoring drought in international play, Berhalter expects the Kilmarnock target man and his teammates to give the US defense a workout, though he’s not certain how proactive Northern Ireland will be.
“The game against Italy gave a really good picture of them. I think in the first half they tried to be more compact but Italy picked them apart pretty well. In the second half they were much more aggressive high pressing and they created more chances, but they also gave up a whole bunch of chances,” said Berhalter.
“So a lot of it depends on them and what they're willing to do and willing to commit to the game. If they are going to come high press us, I think it will open space for us, for our players. And if they stay really compact it’s about us moving the ball quickly and trying to play behind them.”
Several members of the US squad returned to their clubs after Thursday’s 4-1 win over Jamaica in Austria and Berhalter said all 23 left at his disposal are fit and available for selection. He plans to handle his MLS contingent – all three of whom started the first game – with care, however, given their lack of club action in 2021.
“There will be some guys that we’ll manage their minutes,” said the coach, “Aaron Long, who hasn't been playing in full games yet. We won't want to push Sebastian [Lletget] 90 minutes again, most likely Kellyn Acosta we won’t want to push 90 minutes, so we’ll have to manage those minutes. But everyone's ready to go.”