Sunday’s match is just game two of 14 in the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying journey, but there’s a sense that it is one that could define how things really look from here on out.
With a win over Canada on Sunday in Nashville, the U.S. will be riding high with four points from two games after Thursday’s draw against El Salvador, their hands firmly on the steering wheel heading into a difficult third game in Honduras. With a loss or draw, though, a little bit of doubt will start to creep in for a team so young and learning on the fly.
And so Sunday’s match isn’t quite a must-win, but it’s definitely a please win.
Ahead of that, USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter has some decisions. One has been made for him, with Matt Turner set to start again ahead of the injured Zack Steffen, but with the U.S. struggling in front of goal against El Salvador, there could be some changes heading into this Canada clash.
With that said, here’s a look at how Berhalter and the USMNT could approach Sunday’s game.
The first decision will come with the formation, with the U.S. taking down Canada 1-0 at the Gold Cup by utilizing a three-at-the-back system. That system could definitely come out to play once again, with James Sands taking that middle center-back spot, but it feels more likely that Berhalter will stick with the preferred 4-3-3.
John Brooks has a 99.9 per cent chance of starting after being held out of the opening game. Brooks has notoriously struggled in Central America after the long cross-continent flights, so saving him for Canada makes sense. Now, he’ll slide in next to Miles Robinson in what may just be the USMNT’s best center-back partnership, even if we haven’t seen it yet.
Sergino Dest, meanwhile, will likely slot back to the right side after having some difficulties on the left. The last time he faced Canada, Dest locked up Alphonso Davies in a match that was likely his best performance with the U.S. so far. He should be motivated by that challenge again on Sunday, while Antonee Robinson will take that left-back spot.
The question up top is over Christian Pulisic, whose fitness status remains up in the air heading towards kickoff. Pulisic trained with the team on Saturday though, so there’s hope he can go, even if its not for a full 90.
Change up top
One of the big decisions Berhalter has is up front, as the battle to be the USMNT’s No.9 is still very much going on.
Josh Sargent got the start against El Salvador and showed signs of what makes him effective. He makes good runs, can hold the ball and he presses well, which will be an asset against Canada. But the fact of the matter is that Sargent, for both club and country, hasn’t scored enough goals. The U.S., as a whole, have struggled to score, and a change up top could help fix that problem.
Jordan Pefok would be the likely replacement should Berhalter opt for something different. The Young Boys forward hasn’t had too many minutes with the U.S., having made his debut in March, but he already does have a big goal to his name from the Nations League semis against Honduras.
The wild card? Ricardo Pepi. The FC Dallas youngster was called in on merit, not just because of his dual-national status, as he’s emerged as one of MLS’ best goalscorers this season.
World Cup qualifiers are never the best time to see what you have in a player, but, even though he hasn’t played on the senior level internationally, Pepi is likely the USMNT’s most in-form goalscorer. It’s unlikely he starts, but it’s possible that Pepi is the guy needed to kickstart the U.S. attack.
Play it safe
Let’s say Pulisic can go but Berhalter doesn’t want him going for more than 30 minutes or so. Pulisic would be a hell of a supersub, with either Konrad de la Fuente or Brendan Aaronson being the player charged with starting and tiring out the Canada defense.
With only two off-days, one of which was a travel day, between games, there are also several players that would make sense to rotate. One would be Tyler Adams, a player that has notoriously had injury issues that have impacted his USMNT availability.
There’s no doubt that the U.S. is better with Adams on the field, but Kellyn Acosta proved a more than capable replacement throughout the Gold Cup. If Adams starts, Acosta is likely the first midfielder off the bench, but it could also be vice-versa if Berhalter wants to ease the workload on the RB Leipzig star.