USMNT vs. El Salvador: 5 things to look for in World Cup qualifier at Lower.com Field
The United States men’s national soccer team can — almost has to — significantly improve its already solid odds of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar at the end of this qualifying window in the dead of winter.
Beginning at Lower.com Field on Thursday at 7 p.m., the USMNT hosts CONCACAF bottom-feeders El Salvador, then travels to Hamilton, Ontario, to play first-place Canada, who will be without its top player in Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies on Sunday before finishing the three-game window in St. Paul, Minnesota, against last-place Honduras on Wednesday.
The USMNT is one point ahead of fourth-place Panama entering this set of qualifiers. The top three teams earn berths to the World Cup while the fourth-place team will play a one-game playoff against either an Asian or Oceanic national team for a spot in the World Cup.
The last thing the USMNT wants is to have its status up in the air entering a final window that has road games against Costa Rica and Mexico, plus a home game against a Panama side that already beat the U.S.
With the stakes set, here are a few things to watch for in Lower.com Field’s second qualifier this cycle.
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Gregg Berhalter’s starting lineup
Will USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter play his strongest lineup knowing just three days later there’s a massive game against Canada? Will he play the strongest possible group two games in a row and rotate the lineup against Honduras?
There are several ways Berhalter could play it. So far during qualifying, Berhalter has rotated in the road games while prioritizing the home games. But this is the most high-profile road game the USMNT has had this qualifying cycle, meaning Berhalter will likely prioritize the Canada match more than other road games.
Berhalter said last week that with the short trips between Columbus, Ontario and St. Paul he foresees many players being able to start all three matches. For the first game against El Salvador, at least, there’s no question Berhalter will go with what he thinks is his best lineup.
The starting lineup in a 4-3-3 formation will likely look something like this:
Forwards (left to right) — Christian Pulisic, Ricardo Pepi, Timothy Weah
Midfielders — Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams
Defenders — Antonee Robinson, Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Sergiño Dest
Goalkeeper — Matt Turner
When everyone is healthy and available, the only questions game-to-game have been at goalkeeper and center back. Berhalter’s apparent top choice at goalkeeper is Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, but the team announced he was day-to-day with back tightness and had not arrived in Columbus as of Wednesday. New England’s Turner, however, has proven his quality as the USMNT’s starter.
As for center back, Atlanta’s Robinson and Nashville’s Zimmerman started against Mexico and likely would have started together against Jamaica on Nov. 16 had Robinson not been suspended for the match because of a red card against Mexico. The most likely third option at center back is Hoffenheim’s Chris Richards.
Christian Pulisic’s return to starter
The USMNT’s most talented player will get his first start in a World Cup qualifier since injuring an ankle against Honduras on Sept. 8.
Pulisic made his return for the Americans in the second half against Mexico on Nov. 12, scoring the game-winning goal and displaying why he’s the USMNT’s best playmaker. In 42 appearances, Pulisic has scored 17 goals with 10 assists. Having been benched in his last two Premier League matches at Chelsea, Pulisic might be a bit more motivated to have a memorable stretch of qualifiers.
Thursday could also be the 2022 World Cup qualifying debut for Seattle Sounders winger Jordan Morris.
Morris tore an ACL on loan last winter with Swansea in the English second division. He returned to the USMNT for a friendly on Dec. 19, playing 78 minutes with one shot, 48 touches and an 82% passing accuracy.
Behind Pulisic, Brendan Aaronson has looked promising at times at left wing — Morris’ preferred spot. Morris started at right wing in the friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina. There’s room for him to be the second-choice player there, behind Weah.
Can Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah continue their excellence?
Commonly referred to as MMA, the midfield trio of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah has been revolutionary since Musah made his qualifying debut in a 2-0 win against Jamaica on Oct. 8.
As the deepest-playing midfielder, Adams is perhaps the most irreplaceable player on the roster. McKennie is a difference-maker with his ability to tackle, gain and keep possession, and get the ball into the attacking third.
If the US excels in its game model, look for these three to be the reason why.
How will USMNT look after long layoff?
This question could be asked for every team in CONCACAF, since it has been more than two months without highly competitive games. But given the youth of the USMNT — the average age of the starting lineup against Costa Rica was 22 years and 199 days — there’s a particular feeling of not knowing how the Americans will play each game.
A portion of the call-ups have been training with the national team in Arizona before reporting to Columbus. With the sizeable talent gap between the USMNT and El Salvador, the Americans will want to start strong to send a message to the rest of CONCACAF that they’re looking to finish qualification at the top of the group.
How will the weather affect the game?
The one major factor in possibly preventing them from playing at their top level could be the cold conditions on Thursday night.
'Your adrenaline builds': Fans ready to support U.S. men's team team no matter the weather
The field itself might not be a major factor given Lower.com Field’s heating system, but U.S. Soccer took a risk in scheduling the two home games this window in climates that are forecast to have temperatures below freezing with some snow flurries.
The theory that the federation is testing is that the USMNT will be more acclimated to cold-weather games than Central American national teams. Several players and Berhalter have said the weather shouldn’t have much of an impact.
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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: USMNT vs. El Salvador: 5 things to look for in World Cup qualifier at Lower.com Field