Imagine for a moment of Concacaf decided it had to start World Cup qualifying immediately, in order to get matches in ahead of a worsening pandemic. What starting lineup would Gregg Berhalter use in all-important qualifiers right now?
It might seem like a useless exercise considering the next scheduled qualifiers aren’t until June, but with November’s friendlies in the books, it is a good time to take stock of the USMNT player pool, and which players would get the call if there were meaningful games in the immediate future.
For the purposes of this exercise we will leave out Yunus Musah, who is not currently cap-tied, and we still don’t know for certain whether Musah will commit to the USMNT. If he were committed and/or cap-tied already, then Musah would have to be considered for a starting role.
Jozy Altidore’s long-term injury has kept him out of action enough time to rule him out of consideration to start, but it should be noted that if he can find a way to stay healthy in 2021, then he will still be a leading candidate to start as Gregg Berhalter’s preferred striker. His hold-up play is still unmatched among American strikers, but his inability to stay healthy, coupled with the continued improvement of a generation of young strikers, means the clock is ticking for Altidore’s continued standing as the top striker option.
Christian Pulisic will be factored in, even though he has missed a few weeks with a hamstring injury. He is on the verge of returning to action, and it’s a good bet that he would have played in the November matches had they been qualifiers.
So who would Berhalter call on to start in an important match right now if he needed a starting XI? Here is the lineup we could see him turning to:
USMNT first-choice XI
Zack Steffen is the pick, and it’s not really close right now. If he spends 2021 not getting any games, then things might change, but as long as he keeps getting cup matches for Manchester City he should see enough action to keep him ready.
The biggest question is whether you play Sergino Dest at right back or left back, and while right back is his natural position he is also the best left back option there is, and Berhalter prefers a Dest-Reggie Cannon combo to any current fullback combination available. Could that change? Perhaps, but right now it’s Dest-Cannon.
Antonee Robinson struggled against Wales, but if he continues to play well for Fulham then he will continue to be in the conversation, pushing to make the left back position his own, which would push Dest to right back. There are some intriguing left back prospects in the pipeline, but it’s tough to see any of them being ready to challenge for a starting role by next summer.
At centerback, the spot next to John Brooks is wide open, with Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Matt Miazga and Mark McKenzie among those in contention. Zimmerman is in the midst of an MLS Defender of the Year season, so he could just as easily get the nod here, but Brooks and Long have a good connection as partners, and while Long struggled in the first half of the current MLS season, he looked sharper down the stretch of the regular season. He has a speed advantage over both Zimmerman and Miazga, which matters playing next to Brooks, who isn’t the fastest defender.
Plenty could change in the time before next summer’s qualifiers though, especially with younger options like McKenzie and Chris Richards.
Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie are locks, leaving one other spot. Gio Reyna would win a fan vote for the role, but right now Christian Pulisic makes more sense as a player capable of handling the two-way work required of the position. The good thing about Pulisic and Reyna is that they would have no problem interchanging roles during a match.
Josh Sargent is continuing to evolve as a striker, and the steady playing time for Werder Bremen is only serving to sharpen his game, and his hold-up play in particular, which will only help him be more effective in Berhalter’s system.
Nicholas Gioacchini and Sebastian Soto are both very interesting prospects, as are Daryl Dike, Ayo Akinola and Jeremy Ebobisse, but Sargent gets the nod, while Gyasi Zardes is someone who Berhalter is sure to bring into the fold.
The wings are a bit more wide open, with Reyna and Pulisic top options. Jordan Morris is having an outstanding season for the Seattle Sounders, and looked very sharp on the wing for the USMNT a year ago in Nations League. Morris’ ability to switch flanks, and his ever-improving ability to combine with teammates makes him a very good candidate to start.
In terms of some other young options, Tim Weah needs consistent playing time to push his way into the picture, as do Konrad De La Fuente and Ulysses Llanez.
What do you think of this starting lineup? Who would you start if there were a qualifier later this month?
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