The USMNT return to competitive action this Thursday June 3rd in Denver, Colorado. Empower Field at Mile High will host the two semi-final matches and the final on Sunday June 6th.
The next 10 days are a critical test for the Red, White, and Blue. Coming off the 2-1 loss to Switzerland two days ago the side will play 3 more matches giving them a total of 4 matches in less than two weeks. That’s a lot of soccer with very little recovery time. But its also a smart move by the US Soccer Federation (USSF). Due to the pandemic, qualifying for WC2022 had to be shortened by almost 6 months. The remaining 8 teams in the CONCACAF region will have to play their home and home series (14 total matches) during five windows (September, October, November, and January and March 2022). This means that in 4 of the 5 windows teams will have to play 3 matches compared to the normal 2. So roster management and fitness is going to be critical.
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So with that in mind the USSF scheduled the Swiss and Costa Rica friendlies around the Nations League matches to give the coaching staff a trail run of to gain some insight and experience into managing the team for qualifying. And make no mistake that’s what the focus is all about. Sure, every time they step on the field they want to win and winning the Nations League trophy is certainly in their sights. As will be the Gold Cup coming up next month (more on that as we get closer). But the driver over the next 3 months is to determine four major things.
- Which players are at a playing at a level to contribute to qualifying. One of the age old arguments (and its flat wrong) is that any player on a top 5 European league should be an auto starter for us and that any player in MLS is at best a bench/role player.
- Formation options. And this follows #1 above. The formation you play is geared toward getting the best out of your players and the best matchup against a given opponent.
- Tactical approaches. Following right off the first two. The tactical approach to a match is driven by a number of factors including, the players and best formation for them, the opponent, and the need to gain points. Remember this is about qualifying. Its a long 14 match process and no team will win all 14 matches.
- Those first three factors are always something that the coaching staff has to prepare for. But this time there is an even greater emphasis on fitness, recovery times, and injuries. While those things are always in play its just really ratcheted up when you have 3 matches instead of 2.
So what the staff, led by Gregg Berhalter, will be assessing in the matches and training sessions will be just how to navigate this situation and the first real tests will be this Thursday and Sunday, starting with Honduras.
The USMNT and Honduras are quite familiar with each other having faced off many times over the years. The difference between this coming match and previous ones is the talent levels. The US is simple a deeper team at this point. However, that’s not to say that Honduras isn’t talented. They did finish higher in the Nations League standings that we did! It will be interesting to see how Berhalter sends out his team Thursday with several potential approaches.
- Send out the strongest XI you can to get the win. Then worry about the Sunday final against Mexico. The obvious thought being you can’t win the final if you don’t get there.
- Send out a mixture of fresh players and your best. At home, you should be able to win this match and set up a better lineup for Sunday.
In either scenario prudent use of the bench will be very important. Assuming we get by Honduras, we will face a very stiff test against, presumably, Mexico, and you want as many of our best as you can field.
With that lets look at the two different approaches and what the lineups might look like.
The above lineup is probably the strongest lineup that we can field right now. That assumes that Tyler Adams is fit. He is with the team and in training however he was not suited up last Sunday. Most pundits feel that was to give him more time to be truly ready to go the next two matches. The potential issue with this lineup is the real question. Could you field this lineup and then go with it again 3 days later. Probably not, at least to expect those players to be in top form. So what’s a more realistic lineup for Honduras?
The advantages to the lineup is clearly looking toward a final with Mexico. This enables you to rest Mckennie, Sargent, Reyna, and Dest. And if things go well you could pull Pulisic, Aaronson, and Brooks to save them some for Sunday as well. It will be interesting to see just how Berhalter approaches this as it will give us some pretty good insight into how he is going to approach the qualifying windows with 3 matches. And there are a number of other ways he could come out Thursday night. One thing you can take to the bank. You won’t see the same starting XI that we saw against Switzerland.
Tactically what should we see against Honduras? Since we expect to have the better of possession against Honduras there are a couple of general tactics I expect to be used.
- Adams will sit in front of the center backs allowing the other center midfielder to play as a box to box midfielder. This allows the US to play a high pressure line and to push the outside backs (Robinson, Dest, Cannon whomever is in there) up in the attack. Those outside back combining with our wingers (Pulisic/Aaronson/Green) will create tremendous outside pressure on Honduras.
- The US will use that outside pressure to spread the Honduran back line wide. This then opens up the space for Pulisic/Aaronson/Green/Musah/Lleget to penetrate the 18 yard area. This is why depth on a roster is so important. Any of those guys has the ability to beat the Hondurans on the dribble near the 18 and that creates scoring chances.
- The outside backs are all very good at overlapping the midfield and beating the defense deep and crossing into the box to find that striker (Sargent or Seibacheu, or even Weah or Hoppe).
Its been a long time since the USMNT has had a competition and with most all of their players available. So far its been difficult to judge how the team is doing under Berhalter. The priority so far under his tenure has been to build confidence, evaluate players, and find the best system fit. Winning hasn’t been a real critical need. But the time is near. The biggest issue many have voiced with him so far has been his apparent weakness in making in game adjustments. Its hard to determine in friendlies if that is really a weakness or not since there are just other more important drivers. Lets see how the rest of Nations League goes and hopefully Sunday they are lifting the trophy!
Steve is an avid fan of all things soccer and the O’s. Originally from the west, he grew up in the Baltimore area. He returned to the west for college where he earned a BS degree in Chemical Engineering from Montana State University and spent 36 years working at the Idaho National Laboratory prior to retiring in 2013. It was during his school years in Baltimore where he learned to play soccer and that developed into a life long passion. He played competitively for over 40 years and was a four year starting goalkeeper at MSU. He also coached and refereed in the Idaho premier soccer and High School programs for many years.