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What should USMNT player rotation look like in October?

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The roster is out, and we have data from the first World Cup qualifying window. Let’s discuss how to go about this best.

John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Gregg Berhalter’s 27-man roster has been announced for the second 2022 World Cup qualifying window, and we have a few days to look forward to the first game: next Thursday, October 7th at home to Jamaica.

Thanks to COVID-19, most World Cup qualifying windows will have 3 matches in a week or so. There are a number of factors to discuss. Let’s get into it.

  • Two home games! Unlike the September window, the USMNT have two home games this time around, with a trip to Panama sandwiched in the middle.
  • Midfield changes. Gregg has added Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, and Gianluca Busio to the roster. Weston McKennie is also back and presumably will be available for all 3 games - he played just one in September.
  • The opponents. Jamaica has the most talent on paper, although COVID might affect their roster. Panama is the only opponent we will face in this window that has already won a qualifier (3-0 away to Jamaica).
  • UK players can’t play in Panama. Antonee Robinson, Zack Steffen, and Tim Ream will only be available for our two home games, which works well to rotate them in games 1 and 3.

Which game is most crucial?

I would argue that the opening match to Jamaica is the most important, for three reasons:

  • It’s the first match - it sets the tone for the rest of the window
  • Jamaica will be our most talented opponent
  • It’s a home game, which makes it a must-win

If you follow me to that conclusion, the next question is how to allot resources between Panama away and Costa Rica home. It makes sense to rest as many players as possible for Panama to allow them to be fresh for Costa Rica, while also trying to field as strong of a squad as possible in Panama City.

Here’s a snapshot of the 2-week window for our players. It plays out exactly like the September window, except our home and away matches are flipped:

Goalkeepers

We have Matt Turner, Zack Steffen, and Sean Johnson in camp. While Gregg may still rate Steffen as the #1, Turner has clearly outplayed him, especially in shot-stopping. In fact, while foot skills are Turner’s weakness, I would argue he’s actually less dangerous to the team on the ball than Steffen, because despite Steffen’s superior technical ability, his risk-taking and decision-making get us into terrible positions that create opportunities for the opponent.

I would start Turner all three games, with Steffen first off the bench if needed.

Center backs

We have John Brooks, Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, and Tim Ream. With just five CBs, I’m guessing we go with a back four in all 3 games. I also think a back four is ideal for our team, due to our options in the attack and midfield - it doesn’t make sense to take one of those players off to add an extra CB.

There are a lot of ways to go about this. Miles Robinson showed last month that he is capable of playing 3 games back-to-back, but I don’t think we want to do that repeatedly and risk wearing him down or creating an injury. I have to believe Chris Richards is just as fit, and is capable of playing 2 games at the very least. John Brooks is also capable of playing twice, but I don’t think I’d start him in back-to-back games, and I’d prefer to avoid Jamaica with Brooks, due to their speed in the attack.

I’d start Richards and Robinson vs Jamaica, Brooks and Richards at Panama, and McKenzie and Robinson vs Costa Rica.

Richards and Robinson can both be relied on to handle the speed of Jamaica’s attack, and won’t be exposed like Brooks could be. Brooks provides the distribution in Panama City, with Richards mopping up. Mark McKenzie comes on fresh to be the distributor at home vs Costa Rica, with Robinson doing the defensive work. I trust McKenzie more at home where we’re likely to have a good surface than I do on the road, to help make sure his passing benefits the team.

Fullbacks

We have Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Shaq Moore, and George Bello. Berhalter has shown a propensity for playing Dest on the left, but I’m going to keep him on the right in this projection, because Dest is at his best on the right.

I would start Dest and Antonee vs Jamaica, Dest and Bello at Panama, and Yedlin and Antonee vs Costa Rica.

Antonee Robinson is only available for games 1 and 3, and he was our best fullback in the first window, so I start him the two matches he’s available. The dropoff when Dest plays on the left is significant, so I want to keep him on the right. With Antonee unavailable for Panama, that leaves Shaq and Bello as LB options. Shaq seems a more consistent performer than Bello in general, but hasn’t played on the left for the national team in over two years. Better to stick with Bello for the Panama match and hope he improves from last window. Joe Scally would’ve been nice to have here.

Dest seems to perform better on good surfaces and in good conditions, but he’s going to have to figure out how to play in Concacaf away games sometime. No better time than in one of the comparatively easy windows, against a relatively weak opponent like Panama. I’m leaving Shaq as a bench option since he’s played so few minutes for Tenerife since the Gold Cup. He could be a fun late substitute to bring to run at tired legs.

Defensive midfield

We have Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta; Gianluca Busio can also fill in if needed, but Busio is not ideal as a single 6 due to how it easy it is to bypass him.

I would start Adams vs Jamaica, Adams at Panama, and Acosta vs Costa Rica.

It was marvelous to get 270’ from Adams last window, but again, it creates a risk of burning him out, something the team absolutely cannot afford. We’re still waiting to see a performance from Acosta like the one he had in the Gold Cup final vs Mexico, and it seems more likely he’ll recreate that moment at home than he will on the road.

Center midfield

Reinforcements! We have Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio, Sebastian Lletget, and Cristian Roldan.

How good is it to have Yunus Musah back in the fold? Weston McKennie too, for that matter!

I would start McKennie and Musah vs Jamaica, Musah and de la Torre at Panama, and McKennie and de la Torre vs Costa Rica.

With Reyna unavailable, McKennie-Musah-Adams is clearly our strongest midfield. We should absolutely roll that out in game one to see if we can dominate the game vs Jamaica the way that midfield dominated vs Wales in fall 2020. I think it will be easier for LDLT’s technical ability to shine through at home on a good surface, but we have to rotate someone for the two games, so I start LDLT for games 2 and 3. With Adams out vs Costa Rica, we’ll need McKennie as a leader, which leaves Musah and LDLT for Panama.

Wingers

Our wingers are Brenden Aaronson, Tim Weah, Matthew Hoppe, and Paul Arriola, with Cristian Roldan also likely to sub on as a winger rather than a midfielder.

I would start Aaronson and Weah vs Jamaica, Hoppe and Aaronson at Panama, and Hoppe and Weah vs Costa Rica.

Hoppe is a fantastic player, but Aaronson and Weah appear to be clear of him at the moment. It seems very risky to play Weah on the road in Panama due to his injury history, so he will be fresh and ready to go vs Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Hoppe steps in for games 2 and 3, with Aaronson rested vs Costa Rica after 2 straight starts.

Striker

Our strikers are Ricardo Pepi and Gyasi Zardes. Tim Weah and Matthew Hoppe are both more than capable of filling in up top, as well, but they will be needed on the wings.

I would start Pepi vs Jamaica, Pepi at Panama, and Zardes vs Costa Rica.

Pepi is clearly in line for the first start, after his game-winning performance at Honduras. It’s a hard decision which game to start Zardes for. In the end, it makes sense to play Zardes with Hoppe and Weah. Weah’s runs in behind will likely get in the way of Pepi’s movement, so I keep Pepi up top in Panama to go with Hoppe and Aaronson.

Summary

Here’s what the full lineups look like, with planned subs included.

What do you think? How would you rotate the squad this window? Let us know in the comments.