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How should the USMNT rotate players in World Cup qualifying?

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Three games in seven days means a lot of tired bodies and a lot of switching things around. Let’s discuss.

Gregg Berhalter’s 26-man roster has been announced for the very first 2022 World Cup qualifying window, and we have a few days to look forward to our first action, next Thursday, September 2nd away to El Salvador.

In normal times, there would only be 2 matchdays per international break, but thanks to a significant amount of missed time due to COVID-19, most of the 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.

Home and away

It’s important to recognize that the USMNT are playing away-home-away during this window. This cadence works well for rotating our best team, since we have good “home” data for likely backups such as Acosta, McKenzie, and Bello. All three of them have had good performances for us at home; none of them have been particularly tested on the road. Also, it will be important to have players like Brooks, McKennie, Adams, and Reyna on the field for away matches for their swagger, self-belief, and @%*&housing.

Flights

One interesting wrinkle is that games 1 and 3 of the window are only a 1-hour flight away from each other. However, since game 2 is in Nashville, that necessitates a 5- or 6-hour flight to Tennessee and back. This opens up the possibility of a player like John Brooks starting at El Salvador and Honduras, and resting his legs in the meantime by staying in Central America while the rest of the team travels to Nashville and back.

Which trip would you rather take?

The Pulisic question

So much depends on young Christian’s availability, as he recovers from COVID-19. The knock-on effects are huge. With him, we have five wingers. Without him, we have four. With him, we have much more freedom to push Reyna into midfield (and potentially Aaronson). Without him, not so much.

Granted, he’s also our best player, our most dangerous attacker, and an obvious leader of the team. There are lots of reasons we’ll miss him, to the extent he’s unavailable. I’d love to hear people’s thoughts on when they expect him to be available and how much they expect him to play.

Opponents will tire out

We talk a lot about depth, and it’s crucially important in these 3-game windows. We have the luxury of rotating talented players in and out of our squad because of our depth. The same might be partially true for Canada, but it is definitely not the case for Honduras or El Salvador. They will either need to play close to their best teams every game (at risk of wearing out their best players), or risk giving up an easy loss. All that to say, I think it’s more crucial to put our strongest XI on the field for game 1 than it is for game 3.

We talk a lot about depth, and it’s crucially important in these 3-game windows. We have the luxury of rotating talented players in and out of our squad because of our depth. The same might be partially true for Canada, but it is definitely not the case for Honduras or El Salvador. They will either need to play close to their best teams every game (at risk of wearing out their best players), or risk giving up an easy loss. All that to say, I think it’s more crucial to put our strongest XI on the field for game 1 than it is for game 3.

Different approaches

Here are some big-picture approaches to evaluate. The three most important factors in evaluating them are how crazy you think the games in Central America will be, how many top players you think we’ll need vs Canada at home, and how much rest you think guys need.

  • Start off strong, then partially rotate. Go with a strong lineup at El Salvador, rotate some vs Canada and Honduras. Arguments in favor: it’s extremely important to set the tone early and get the 3 points, away games will be wild, need the mentality and experience of our best players on the road, and it allows us to rest a lot of our top players in the week between games 1 and 3.
  • Domestic first, strongest vs Canada. The Scuffed podcast guys wanted to play a mostly-domestic XI at El Salvador, and play our best team vs Canada, and then figuring out who is fit enough to play at Honduras. Arguments in favor: Canada has the strongest squad on paper, allows Euro players time to rest before playing.
  • Best XI, fully rotate, best XI. I haven’t heard anyone fully espouse this theory, because it would mean playing a full B-team at home against Canada.

I personally like the first option I listed. I think it’s extremely important to set the tone early, and that the intensity level and environment of the Central American games calls for our top players (especially vs El Salvador, which will be a hugely anticipated game with tons of energy from both teams and from the home fans). I also think most of our “B-team” have proven they can play a very good game when needed on home soil. As long as we keep a few specific best players around for Canada, I think we should focus more on the away matches.

I’m sure there are other approaches, as well (please let me know in the comments). Here’s a snapshot of the 2-week window for our players:

Goalkeepers

We have Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath, and Zack Steffen in camp. I rate the keepers in that order, and think Steffen has shown himself to be slightly mistake-prone compared to the other two.

I would start Turner at El Salvador, Horvath vs Canada, and Turner at Honduras.

Horvath can be available off the bench when Turner starts, and Steffen when Horvath starts. I would leave Turner in Central America between games 1 and 3.

Center backs

We have John Brooks, Miles Robinson, Mark McKenzie, Walker Zimmerman, James Sands, and Tim Ream. There’s certainly flexibility here to go to a 3-man back line, but I wouldn’t opt for that unless things get really dire in the midfield and we only want to play 2 central mids - also not ideal.

I would start Brooks and Robinson at El Salvador, McKenzie and Robinson vs Canada, and Brooks and Zimmerman at Honduras.

First of all, I think John Brooks’ cool head will be a huge asset in both of the away matches. We saw that against Honduras and Mexico in Nations League.

I think Brooks and Robinson is our strongest pairing, with Chris Richards not in camp. McKenzie can fill the role of distributing LCB in the Canada match, allowing Brooks to stay in Central America. However, I’d rather pair Robinson with McKenzie, to strengthen our defense against what will be a good test in Canada. Brooks and Zimmerman can handle Honduras.

Fullbacks

We have Sergiño Dest, DeAndre Yedlin, Antonee Robinson, 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 we have good LB options, and because Dest is at his best on the right.

I would start Dest and Antonee at El Salvador, Dest and Bello vs Canada, and Yedlin and Antonee vs Honduras.

I think Dest and Antonee are our clear top fullbacks, so I’d start both of them in game 1. I also want Dest on the field against Canada to help contain Alphonso Davies. Davies will be easily the most dangerous attacker we face this window, and he typically plays on the left, so he would match up against Dest.

To avoid over-working Dest, I would sub Yedlin in around the 60’ mark of the first two games. That should allow Dest to start twice in four days, I hope. Sports science people, help me out here.

Bello had some good moments in the Gold Cup, and I think it’s important for him to play at home so he can be more comfortable and less pressured. Antonee can handle the two away games. However, I would have Antonee travel with the squad to Nashville as an option off the bench if Bello has an issue, rather than switch Dest over to the left.

Defensive midfield

We have Tyler Adams and Kellyn Acosta; James Sands can also fill in if needed.

I would start Adams at El Salvador, Acosta vs Canada, and Adams at Honduras.

This one seems relatively straightforward to me. Start Adams in the two away matches, start Acosta in the home match. Sands provides extra cover if needed, so that the other two don’t have to sub in late.

Adams could theoretically stay behind in Central America with Turner and Brooks, but he’s such a gamer and so intense I think it might actually be unhealthy for him to not be with the team in Nashville. I think his presence and leadership are also important to the team even if he’s not on the field. He’s young and doesn’t play so much for Leipzig that I don’t think the two flights are that much of an added injury risk for him. Love to hear others’ thoughts on it.

Center midfield

This is where it gets hairy. We have Weston McKennie, Sebastian Lletget, and Cristian Roldan. Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson, and Kellyn Acosta can also fill in if needed.

It’s hard to overstate how much Yunus Musah’s injury is going to affect this qualifying window. But he’s not here, and we can’t just cry about it. I personally don’t feel comfortable starting Lletget or Roldan in a World Cup qualifier. Maybe one of them, in the final match in Honduras, if we’re assuming Honduras is gassed. I’m sure Gregg’s opinion differs, and some of yours probably do too, but I would be using Lletget and Roldan as late-game subs to keep McKennie, Reyna, Aaronson, and Acosta fresh.

Ah yes, Reyna and Aaronson! I’m glad you asked. While both are listed as forwards on the roster, Gregg mentioned in the presser the possibility that Reyna, Aaronson, and Sands could play in the midfield.

I would start McKennie and Reyna at El Salvador, McKennie and Aaronson vs Canada, and Acosta and Reyna at Honduras.

McKennie and Reyna is easily our strongest midfield pairing; I would start them at El Salvador. In order to accommodate this rotation, there would be planned subs nearly every game. Lletget and Roldan will be busy with action from 60’ on, potentially in all three games. Aaronson and McKennie start vs Canada, giving Reyna a chance to rest up for Honduras. Acosta takes McKennie’s spot at Honduras, and Reyna comes back into the squad. Again, we’re going on the expectation that Honduras will not be full-strength or full-energy by game 3, which allows us a chance to start the game without McKennie.

Forward line

Editor’s note: This article was written before news of Tim Weah’s injury was reported. At the time of posting, Weah had not yet been removed from the roster.

Our wingers are Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson, and Konradde la Fuente, although we don’t know if Pulisic will even be able to play. Our strikers are Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, and Jordan Pefok. I’m going to operate under the assumption that Pulisic will be ready to go by game 3. If he’s not, we’ll have to pull Aaronson out of the CM rotation to provide cover here.

I would start Aaronson, Sargent, and Weah at El Salvador, Konrad, Pepi, and Weah vs Canada, and Pulisic, Sargent, and Konrad at Honduras.

There’s a lot going on here. Aaronson starts game 1 on the wing and game 2 in midfield, resting game 3. Konrad starts games 2 and 3. Sargent starts games 1 and 3, with Pefok as a planned 60’ substitute in all 3 games. When Pefok comes on, Sargent shifts out wide to give the wingers a break.

I went back and forth about whether Pepi or Pefok should be the super-sub - I think we should have one consistent super-sub striker, since we’ll need one of them to start vs Canada. I ended up going with Pefok as the sub and Pepi starting vs Canada, for two reasons. One, Pepi’s ability to press is much better, which will allow us to put Canada under much greater pressure for the first 60-70’ of the game. Two, Pefok’s ability in the air is fantastic, which is great for a late-game sub if we’re sending crosses into the box. Hopefully we’re not looking for a desperation goal late, but if we are, Pefok is a great bet.

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.