Pulisic, Turner and the ‘MMA’ midfield mean best chance vs. El Salvador

After a two-month break, the US men’s national team resumes World Cup qualification with a match against El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio (Thursday at 19 ET; stream LIVE on ESPN2, ESPN +). It is the first of a crucial window in three games that includes a trip to Canada on Sunday before returning home to play Honduras in St. Louis. Paul, Minnesota on Wednesday.

Through eight out of 14 matches, the United States is in a good position to qualify for Qatar 2022, but there is still plenty of work to do. With 15 points, the team is one point behind Canada in first place and one point ahead of Mexico and Panama. Three teams will receive an automatic bid, while fourth place in the region will play a one-off match against the winner of the Oceania Football Federation (probably New Zealand) in Qatar in June.

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On paper, El Salvador appears at home as one of the easiest games the United States will have throughout the cycle. The Americans are 18-1-6 all the time against El Salvador and have never lost to Cuscatlecos in the World Cup qualifiers (5-0-4), but a victory is not given: the United States was held to a 0-0 draw away in the first match in September.

El Salvador has only one win (Panama at home) in eight games and is in seventh place out of eight teams. With six points, the team is not mathematically eliminated, but it is far enough back where a draw does not help much. How it affects manager Hugo Perez’s approach is still unknown, but in the event that the game remains on par in the later stages, both teams will be encouraged to chase the winner.

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said Wednesday that he does not have a predetermined rotation planned for the three-match window and that the team’s priority is to get three points against El Salvador. While taking into account the possibility that everything a coach says about his lineup before a game may involve a certain level of playmaking, the implication was that he will pose his best possible starting XI on Thursday.

With that in mind, here’s a look at how the United States could line up against El Salvador, and what factors come into play.

Jump to: Goalkeeper | Defenders | Midfielders | Forward |

Goalkeeper

After Matt Turner allowed three goals while starting the first five games of qualifying, the New England Revolution goalkeeper was dropped in favor of Zack Steffen in the last three games against Costa Rica, Mexico and Jamaica. Berhalter indicated that Steffen’s ability to play ball with his feet led to the decision, but it does not appear that he will have a real choice to make this time – certainly not against El Salvador. From Wednesday afternoon, Steffen remained at his club, Manchester City, and received treatment for stiff back.

While Berhalter said Steffen’s status was “day to day”, it is likely to be assumed that Turner – who has been linked with a possible transfer to Arsenal – will be between the posts for the next three matches. Turner won the full 90 minutes of the United States 1-0 victory in a friendly against Bosnia-Herzegovina in December and has not played a competitive match since the Revs were knocked out of the MLS playoffs by the final champions New York City FC in November. 30.

Sean Johnson, who came big in penalty kicks to help NYCFC win the MLS Cup, expects to serve as a backup, while 17-year-old Chicago Fire FC youngster Gabriel Slonina is also in camp, though in what should be seen more as a development opportunity.

Expected starter vs. El Salvador: Matt Turner

Game

0:38

Matt Turner sheds some light on his love of football and the reason he started playing the game in the first place.

Defenders

The peculiar case of John Brooks’ exclusion is still a remarkable point of discussion in the back, but the reality is that the center-back pairs without the VfL Wolfsburg man have been pretty good through qualifying. Both Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson have been excellent for USMNT, and Chris Richards has started regularly for Hoffenheim, where he plays on loan from Bayern Munich. Mark McKenzie is also an option, but it will likely be a combination of Richards / Robinson / Zimmerman against El Salvador with the possibility of rotation among the three against Canada and Honduras.

Antonee Robinson has developed into the undisputed first-choice left-back and – especially given the lack of natural left-backs on the list – could be asked to start all three matches. On Monday, Robinson said he did not think it would be a problem to play three games in seven days, and he hoped that would be the case. On the other hand, Sergino Dest is the obvious choice despite his battle for playing time recently in Barcelona. His creativity in attack may be the key to unlocking defense when the United States goes into three games where it should have the majority of possession.

DeAndre Yedlin – who terminated his contract with Galatasaray on Thursday – is not expected to arrive in Columbus until Wednesday due to weather-related travel issues leaving Turkey, so without a training session his availability against El Salvador is still in doubt.

If Yedlin is unavailable, then Reggie Cannon should be the next man, with a surprising inclusion, Brooks Lennon also an option.

Expected starters vs. El Salvador: Antonee Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, Sergino Dest

Game

2:20

Taylor Twellman explains why he believes that games in cold temperatures “level the playing field” for El Salvador.

Midfielders

Unlike the other position groups, the midfielder chooses himself at this point. When Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah – start together, the team is significantly better than with any other combination. Individually, there is a big gap between their talent levels and others on the list, which is further reinforced by how complementary they are to each other.

Adams’ ability to put out fires in moments of transition allows McKennie and Musah to focus more on pushing the game forward and connecting games with the attackers. This is not complicated. The team has won four matches in qualifying, three of which (Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico) are the only ones that Adams, McKennie and Musah have started together.

One of the more exciting tactical elements against El Salvador will be to see the so-called “MMA” midfield start the match with Christian Pulisic for the first time.

Expected starters vs. El Salvador: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah

Game

0:57

Christian Pulisic is looking forward to USMNT’s remaining World Cup qualifiers and their long-term goals.

Extensions

Ricardo Pepi, who completed a $ 20 million transfer from FC Dallas to FC Augsburg earlier this month, has cooled off since his breakthrough performance for USMNT early in qualifying, but is still the team’s best option as a striker. He is expected to start between Pulisic – with the Chelsea winger on the left – and either Timothy Weah or Brenden Aaronson, both of whom have been effective for the squad.

Weah missed about a month with a thigh injury he suffered in December, but recently returned to Lille and started and walked 66 minutes on Saturday. Pulisic’s up-and-down season with multiple positions for Chelsea is not ideal for national team purposes, but the most important factor with him is that he gets healthy into this window.

The striker debate behind Pepi (or perhaps including him) features a number of players who have done just enough to stay relevant without offering a compelling case they should be on the list or playing consistent minutes. Berhalter called in Jesus Ferreira and Gyasi Zardes (both out of season in the MLS) ahead of Joshua Sargent and Jordan Pefok (in the season in Europe), which opened up to being branded as biased in favor of MLS players. For the 1-plus-1-lig-3 spectators, there is a conspiracy on the way, but the more boring reality is that none of these players have definitely deserved their place.

Given the possibilities ahead of them, if either Jordan Morris or Paul Arriola shows up, it would likely come in a replacement role – and ideally for watching a game.

Expected starters vs. El Salvador: Christian Pulisic, Ricardo Pepi, Tim Weah

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