Here Comes Crunch Time

It is September 2, 2021, the USMNT is about to take the field in El Salvador to start The Ocho, or more formally, CONCACAF World Cup Qualification.  They will be stepping on the field after playing club games that Sunday, flying from Europe or the USA, and having a limited camp beforehand.  Then they will play Canada in Orlando three days later, then fly to Honduras for another game three days after that.

Coach Berhalter has played in the old Hex.  Among the players, Pulisic played every game of the last Hex.  Brooks has played in some qualifiers, Lletget in one, Arriola in a few.   Nobody has ever played in qualifying with three games per window.  Nobody knows what to expect with any certainty.

But the USMNT is going to try to have a dress rehearsal.  They have set up the June FIFA window as a test run.  Not just of the three game qualification window, but also taking into account that the players will likely have a game on the weekend before.  Since many of the European based players’ seasons will have ended, they have created a game for them.

That game is the “Stand in for League play” game.  The game is May 30th, versus Switzerland, in Switzerland.  Switzerland will probably be the hardest opponent Berhalter has faced to date.  But the result isn’t going to be super important, just having the players play then fly inter-continental, and then see how they handle the three game window will be the important data to collect.  There is a lot of confusion over this game as people expect the complete A team to try and get a result against the best opponent USSF has scheduled since 2018.  But there will be no MLS players there for two reasons:

  1.  It is not in the FIFA window
  2. MLS players don’t need to learn how to play in Europe and fly to North America.   They need to experience playing in MLS, then going to camp in the USA.

Other fans expect a B team to get the majority of minutes to let the first-choice players rest for the Nations League games.  But that would be counter to the whole point of the dress rehearsal.

Here is a predicted roster for the Switzerland game.  There are extra players listed, because the players in parenthesis might be playing with their club (EFLC promotion playoffs, Champions League final, German relegation playoff all happen that weekend).  Starters are in bold.

Goalkeepers:  (Zach Steffan), Ethan Horvath, Chituru Odunze, CJ Dos Santos

Defenders:  John Brooks, Chris Richards, Matt Miazga, (Cameron Carter-Vickers), Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, Tim Ream, Reggie Cannon, Mark McKenzie

Midfielders:  Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Duane Holmes, Luca De La Torre, (Julian Green), Christian Cappis

Forwards:  Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Brendan Aaronson, Josh Sargent, (Darryl Dike), Sebastian Siebetchu

That team will play against Switzerland and then fly to Denver for the CONCACAF Nations League.  The team will play Honduras and then Mexico/Costa Rica and then a friendly against a to be named opponent.  It will be the same schedule as the September window with games on Thursday, Sunday, and Wednesday.  It will not be the same travel at all, as all the games will be in Denver.

Here is the predicted roster for the Concacaf Nations League games.  This will pretty much be a proxy for what Berhalter thinks he would bring in September.  This will be the most interesting roster drop in the last three years.  I will list 23 names, but there will probably be more in June and September, as you can bring an unlimited number of players to camp and dress any 23 you want.

Goalkeepers:  Zach Steffan, Matt Turner, Sean Johnson

Defenders:  John Brooks, Chris Richards, Matt Miazga, Aaron Long, Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, Tim Ream, Reggie Cannon

Midfielders:  Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Sebastian Lletget, Luca De La Torre, Kellyn Acosta

Forwards:  Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Brendan Aaronson, Josh Sargent, Darryl Dike 

There are players that could make a case for this team.  But I believe Berhalter has his depth chart sorted and will not make changes now.  However, he could make changes for September from this roster.  That is where the Gold Cup comes in.  The Gold Cup is where promising youngsters, in form veterans, and returning from injury phenoms will be able to make their case to be included.  The big unknown is whether MLS players from the CNL roster will be included, but let’s assume they will be.  MLS has a brutal Fall schedule due to their late start to the season.  It wouldn’t be the worst idea to give players like Lletget and Long a rest.  So, I will cheat a bit and assume CONCACAF goes to 26 man rosters for the Gold Cup like UEFA is doing with the Euros.  

Goalkeepers:  Matt Turner, Sean Johnson, David Ochoa

Defenders:  Aaron Long, Miles Robinson, Henry Kessler, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, DeAndre Yedlin, Bryan Reynolds, Sam Vines, George Bello

Midfielders:  Andres Perea, Jackson Yueill, Julian Green, Paxton Pomykal, Gianluca Busio, Caden Clark, Sebastian Lletget, Kellyn Acosta

Forwards:  Paul Arriola, Chris Muelller, Ulysses Llanez, Konrad, Matthew Hoppe, Gyasi Zardes

I’m more confident in the Nations League roster prediction; as there are many players I could see in the above roster that I didn’t list.  The Gold Cup could have many cast offs returning, like Christian Roldan or Will Trapp.  Can never be surprised about Berhalter bringing back low ceiling MLS vets.  I don’t see the need for those types of players and think it is in the program’s interest to take a look at players that haven’t featured  to date.  Carter-Vickers and Green could be promoted into the EPL and Bundesliga next year.  There is a ton of exciting U20 talent in MLS that would be fun to see like Busio and Clark. 

I am impressed that USSF has put this Dress Rehearsal together.  It shows initiative and forethought, which is a bit out of character for them.  The number one (and two, three, four, five…) priority is qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.  That is all that matters, and the team should be a bit more prepared having gone through the motions beforehand.  The coaching staff will have a better understanding of how the players can be effective in that kind of schedule.

Not everyone shares that viewpoint.  They view winning trophies as important to team chemistry and growing the game in the United States.  Make no mistake, playing Switzerland in Europe before this tournament in the central USA, does make it harder to win the competition.  Even more extreme, what if the plan in qualifying is to rotate for the second game?  If the dress rehearsal is followed to a tee, that would mean heavy rotation for the Final.

So, a choice and strategy has been made and it is obvious from the existence of this dress rehearsal.  Winning the Nations League or Gold Cup are not close to as important as CONCACAF World Cup Qualification for USSF.  Every decision is being made to maximize the chances of qualifying.  Not playing in Switzerland wouldn’t hurt the dress rehearsal idea that much but would increase fitness for Nations League.  But the data for September would be thrown off some.  So, any marginal benefit is being chosen over any external consideration.  I’m ok with that, but it is confusing for fans expecting to win everything now.