The U.S. men's World Cup qualifier against Mexico next week is big.
Any game against Mexico is. But with El Tri sitting atop CONCACAF qualifying, and the USMNT three points behind, there's a lot at stake in the Nov. 12 match in Cincinnati.
Not enough, however, to overload Christian Pulisic in his return from an ankle injury.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Thursday that how much the Chelsea striker plays against Mexico, and Nov. 16 against Jamaica, will depend on how he feels. Pulisic's appearance Tuesday as a late substitute in Chelsea's 1-0 win over Malmo in the Champions League was his first in any game since being injured in the Sept. 8 qualifier against Honduras.
"it's about progressing him in a safe way," Berhalter said. "We know he's valuable to the team. We know we want him on the field. But we're also not willing to risk anything."
There are six qualifiers left after this window, including tough road games against Canada (Jan. 30), Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30). The top three teams in qualifying automatically advance to next year's World Cup in Qatar. While the USMNT is currently second, the Americans are also just three points ahead of fourth-place Panama.
Having Pulisic against Mexico is important -- he scored the winner in the Concacaf Nations League Final in June, and has -- but not if it means he's not available for games down the stretch of qualifying.
Besides, the USMNT has plenty of other players who can score, including Ricardo Pepi, Tim Weah, Weston McKennie and Brenden Aaronson.
"It's great to have players in form. It's great to be able to choose," Berhalter said.
That depth will come in handy elsewhere on the field, with defender Sergino Dest out with a lower back injury. Berhalter also left John Brooks off the roster, a move Brooks told Fox Sports “isn’t surprising” after a series of sub-par games with the USMNT.
“My job now is to work hard to be the very best I can be,” Brooks said. “I feel great about this week’s Champions League performance and my recent play with Wolfsburg, and will keep building my performance there, until I reach my goal of helping the USMNT reach the next World Cup.”
Berhalter said he was pleased to see Brooks' reaction.
"That’s all you can ask for," Berhalter said. "Normally what players do is they start picking off other players. All John did was take accountability for his own performance
"I don’t assume this is going to be his last time with national team. I'm sure he’ll be back," Berhalter added. "It's just about regaining your form and performing at a high level when you get the opportunity."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Christian Pulisic to play for USMNT against Mexico after ankle injury