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USA vs. Northern Ireland, 2021 friendly: Scouting Northern Ireland

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The USMNT faces the Green and White Army for the second time.

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Northern Ireland v Slovakia - UEFA EURO 2020 Play-Off Finals Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

For the second of two friendlies, the United States Men’s National Team heads to Belfast to take on Northern Ireland at Windsor Park. This match represents one of the remaining opportunities for players to prove themselves ahead of the busy summer. The opponent is a country descending from a few years of achievement, set to begin “a challenging and lengthy transitional period.”

The USMNT has an all-time 0-1-0 record against Northern Ireland, the only result a 5-0 loss in 1948. The European nation was most recently in action on March 25th against Italy in a World Cup qualifier, falling by a 2-0 margin. The Green and White Army is on a dismal 11-match winless streak dating back to October of 2019, a run that includes elimination from Euro 2020 qualifying.

Northern Ireland is led by Ian Baraclough, a former defender-midfielder with managerial experience at Scunthorpe United, Sligo Rovers, and Motherwell. The 50-year-old Englishman was hired in June of 2020 after a three-year run in charge of the U-21 squad. The start to his tenure has been frustrating, but he remains upbeat about the country’s prospects as he attempts to build on Michael O’Neill’s progress.

“I’ve made mistakes in areas that we can improve on and hopefully we all look at ourselves as players and coaches and say, ‘I could have done things better,’” Baraclough told the Belfast Telegraph. “You’re always on a learning curve. It’s something I’ve always done, always learning… I don’t think I’ve got all the answers, we can all learn and I open the floor and certainly listen to the senior members [of the team] who have been in certain situations before so I can glean information from them.”

The federation called in a 27-player roster for the match. Due to the friendly’s placement inbetween UEFA World Cup qualifiers against Italy and Bulgaria, the United States will not be facing Northern Ireland’s first-choice lineup. The squad is split between 17 contributors from the English pyramid, eight at Scottish clubs, and two with Northern Irish ties.

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GOALKEEPERS (4): Bailey Peacock-Farrell (Burnley), Conor Hazard (Celtic), Nathan Gartside (Derry City), Liam Hughes (Liverpool FC)

DEFENDERS (9): Jonny Evans (Leicester City), Craig Cathcart (Watford), Stuart Dallas (Leeds United), Shane Ferguson (Millwall), Conor McLaughlin (Sunderland), Jamal Lewis (Newcastle United), Michael Smith (Heart of Midlothian), Daniel Ballard (Blackpool), Ciaron Brown (Cardiff City)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Steven Davis (Rangers), Corry Evans (Blackburn Rovers), Niall McGinn (Aberdeen), Paddy McNair (Middlesbrough), George Saville (Middlesbrough), Gavin Whyte (Hull City), Jordan Thompson (Stoke City), Ali McCann (St. Johnstone), Matty Kennedy (Aberdeen)

FORWARDS (5): Kyle Lafferty (Kilmarnock), Josh Magennis (Hull City), Shayne Lavery (Linfield), Liam Boyce (Heart of Midlothian), Dion Charles (Accrington Stanley)

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Baraclough regularly deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation but has experimented with a three-player back line. The friendly’s placement raises the difficulty of predicting a lineup, although eliminating the starters from the match against Italy seems like a reasonable conclusion. With striker being the strength of this roster and an abundance of wingers included, the coach’s recent preference for the 4-4-2 may be the choice.

Projected Northern Ireland Starting XI

Assuming regular number one goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell plays in the meaningful matches, 23-year-old back-up Conor Hazard should start against the United States. The towering 6’6” Celtic reserve has one cap for the national team, a 2018 loss to Costa Rica. Statistically, he is an above average shot stopper, possesses great technique, and controls the box. Distribution is a weakness, possibly making him vulnerable to pressure from attackers.

The first-choice center back pairing is composed of Jonny Evans and Craig Cathcart, an aging duo likely in the last year of their international careers. Provided he is not being saved for qualifiers, 21-year-old defender Daniel Ballard should slot into the lineup. With five senior caps, the national team is already positioning the developing young talent for a future leadership role. His partner, Cardiff City’s Ciaron Brown, is a sharp, aggressive player with “impressive defensive and aerial duel ability off the ball” and tipped for stardom in the Championship.

The fullbacks should also be a second-string duo. Shane Ferguson plays at midfielder for Millwall but lines up at left back for the national team. The 29-year-old will occasionally score from distance, making him dangerous on set pieces. On the other side of the formation is Sunderland’s Conor McLaughlin. Reliable in possession and judicious in his movements, he can also be stationed on the interior when Baraclough opts for a three-player back line.

The central pairing will be tasked with stopping a dynamic American group looking to push the tempo. Jordan Thompson, a 24-year-old “gifted left-footed player” with Stoke, can spray the ball around the field and is constantly working on defense. His partner could be George Saville, a box-to-box midfielder with Middlesbrough. The 27-year-old native Englishman is dangerous on set pieces and likes to push forward into the final third.

Baraclough has several options at winger. The well-traveled Niall McGinn made 61 national team appearances but has not been in the team’s plans as of late. The Aberdeen attacker tends to drift centrally and get on the end of crosses. Matty Kennedy, also with The Dons in the second-tier Scottish Championship, is a former Scotland youth international who recently made the switch to his birth nation. The 26-year-old is always looking to beat defenders off the dribble and cut inside.

Several members of Northern Ireland’s front line depth chart is performing well at the club level, considered a strong aspect of this roster. Dion Charles, a 25-year-old striker at Accrington Stanley, has yet to make his senior debut. Baraclough noted his inclusion as “coming in at exactly the right time.” He’s scored 17 goals in 32 League One appearances this season and should get a chance to debut in the safer environment of a friendly. After entering the Italy fixture as a substitute, there is an opportunity for late call-up Shayne Lavery to make an impact against the United States. The 22-year-old Linfield attacker has three appearances for the national team and brings a similar torrid production into camp. His speed and constant pressure on the back line could cause problems in the final third. Towering veteran target man Kyle Lafferty may also start, carrying a résumé of 20 goals in 80 caps.

Northern Ireland is searching for an identity in the midst of a challenging schedule and suffering from a “lack of depth in the player pool.” This is an oddly timed match for the Green and White Army, but a necessary one for American manager Gregg Berhalter as he continues evaluating his options ahead of the summer. The United States should coast against a distracted opponent that has not won a match since October of 2019. Friendly or not, a result is expected for a near-full strength squad against a second-choice lineup.

The match is scheduled for Sunday, March 28th at 12:00 p.m. Eastern, 9:00 a.m. Pacific. Viewing options include FOX, UniMás, TUDN, and Fubo TV (free trial).