The USMNT plays six world cup qualifiers in the September and October FIFA windows. It is widely reported that we play:
At El Salvador
Much has been made about how the USMNT might rotate and approach these games but what of our opponents? Many think it possible all the teams but Mexico will punt games with the USA because they would expect to lose. However, I do not think they will go into it with such a negative outlook. I would believe they all expect to win at home and that is generally a good recipe for qualifying. I do think teams will have to rotate, three games on top of club schedule, in a FIFA window is daunting. Gregg Berhalter seemed to hint that he will be playing his best 11 in two games and rotating into a third game. I think most will follow that formula.
Here is what I have come up with on the fly for the game theory of our opponents:
- Play your best possible at home.
- For Canada/Jamaica/Costa Rica/Honduras, they need to maximize points against each other in a race for third.
In red I have the most obvious rotation games for each of our opponents. El Salvador will play its best in their two home games and then whatever is left on the road at Canada. Canada has two home games and would start their best. This leaves their one road game against the USA for obvious rotation. Honduras is in a tricky spot. They would want to field their best lineup at home (Rule #1) and they really need a result against Canada according to Principle #2. But that Canada road game is tough as is the USA game and going to El Salvador could be the easiest chance for three points. Honestly, they could do anything, but playing your best against Canada and the USA and trying to get a result rotated against El Salvador makes sense.
This window sets up nicely for the USMNT in theory. All our opponents have two road games and a single home game. Jamaica needs to get a result against Honduras more than one at the USA. Or in other words, their chances of getting a result at Honduras is far greater than at the USA. The USA road game is the obvious choice for rotation.
Panama need to play the home game against the USA with their best but then are in the same situation as Honduras in September. Do they roll the dice against El Salvador, or try to beat El Salvador and punt the road game against fellow 3rd place contender Canada?
Costa Rica can’t gamble and rotate for the home game against El Salvador and risk dropping points. Then it is much like Jamaica and do they try hardest to get a result in neighboring Honduras or at the USA? The smart money would be to rotate the USA game, bunker, and hope.
While this quick game theory exercise suggests teams will rotate against the USA in three of the first six games, they are the three USA home games. So, really, the path will not be easier than history suggests it will be, as teams will try their hardest against the USA in their home games and the USMNT has generally won its home games. I don’t think in these early windows that Gregg Berhalter can gamble and rotate the squad for home games. Dropping points at home is simply too big a problem to risk at all.
What might benefit the USA is that their first team-up against rotated Concacaf opposition might put games away early. That if the USMNT is up by 3 or more goals that players like Pulisic and Adams and McKennie can be subbed out early and subbed in for bigger minutes in the rotated game. It will certainly also help that the threat to drop points at home seems minimal barring disastrous performances.
I’d expect after these two windows the calculus will change. If the USA or Mexico or some other team is out to a strong lead, you might see teams rotate against them even in home games to maximize their chance for 3rd. However, points are points and I doubt we ever see rotated opponents on the road.