Top Stories

Who will, and who should the USMNT start vs. El Salvador?


The four-year wait to right the wrongs of the failed 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle is almost over, as the final round of Concacaf World Cup qualifying kicks off this week.

What is undeniable is that the U.S. men’s national team that will take the field in El Salvador on Thursday will be significantly more talented than the squad that failed in Trinidad & Tobago four years ago, but it will also be a team with significantly less experience playing in Concacaf qualifiers, and Concacaf matches on the road.

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter will have to factor that in as he considers his team for Thursday’s opening qualifier.

Here is the starting lineup we could see the USMNT deploying against El Salvador in Thursday’s World Cup qualifying opener, as well as the lineup we would deploy if we were making the final lineup decisions:

Projected USMNT Starting Lineup vs. El Salvador

SBI’s Preferred USMNT Starting Lineup vs. El Salvador


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Who will start: Zack Steffen

Who should start: Matt Turner

Gregg Berhalter isn’t likely to dethrone Steffen as his number one, but if we are talking about current form and entering qualifiers in a good rhythm, there is no denying that Turner is very much the more in-form goalkeeper.

Steffen does have more experience, but he has as many World Cup qualifiers under his belt as Turner (zero). The more realistic scenario is that Turner starts at least one of the three September qualifiers, but will Berhalter make it the very first one, or will he give Steffen a chance to set the tone by starting the opener?


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Who will start: Sergiño Dest, Miles Robinson, John Brooks, Antonee Robinson

Who should start: Sergiño Dest, Miles Robinson, John Brooks, Antonee Robinson

The presence of veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin makes it at least possible that Berhalter moves Dest to left back and starts Yedlin, one of the few players on the squad with World Cup qualifying experience.

That said, Antonee Robinson has gained serious ground in the USMNT left back depth chart, and his form for Fulham has him entering the current camp playing well. That isn’t lost on Berhalter, who could be tempted to save Yedlin for a starting assignment against Canada, where his speed and savvy could help deal with Canada’s dangerous wingers.

At centerback, Brooks and Robinson should be the lock choices, especially given the lack of playing time Mark McKenzie has seen with his club team in the past month. That being said, we should expect to see McKenzie and James Sands get opportunities to start in September.


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Who will start: Weston McKennie, Sebastian Lletget, Tyler Adams

Who should start: Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Tyler Adams

Does Berhalter go with the experienced Lletget, or the red-hot Aaronson in central midfield? Lletget was a regular starter through the summer tournaments, and his previous experience in qualifying (he scored in his lone previous qualifier) gives him an edge, but it’s tough to deny just how well Aaronson is playing.

Also factoring into this one is whether Christian Pulisic can actually play against El Salvador. If he makes the trip, and starts, then Aaronson is a safer bet to be deployed centrally, but if Pulisic is left in Nashville to skip the El Salvador match, then Aaronson would be the safe bet to step into the left forward spot.


Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

Who will start: Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Gio Reyna

Who should start: Christian Pulisic, Jordan Pefok, Gio Reyna

Will Christian Pulisic play against El Salvador? That’s the biggest question of the week, and the fact that he was at training with the USMNT on Monday suggests there’s a better chance of him playing than previously thought. Getting off to a good start to qualifying is so important that there should really be no way Pulisic doesn’t make the trip if he is healthy and fit enough to play, but Berhalter also knows he can’t afford to risk Pulisic if he isn’t 100 percent.

Berhalter could choose to bring Pulisic to El Salvador and use him off the bench if fitness is a concern, but in that instance it might be a smarter bet to leave Pulisic in Nashville, keep him from having to take the round-trip flight to El Salvador, allowing him to be ready to go for the Sunday match against Canada.

And if Pulisic doesn’t make the trip to El Salvador? Brenden Aaronson would be the safest bet to start, though Konrad De La Fuente’s outstanding form for Marseille could tempt Berhalter to overlook his international inexperience and start him on Thursday.

Should De La Fuente start? He would likely be a better bench option against El Salvador, giving the Americans a real speed threat that could punish a tiring El Salvador defense in the second half. A strong showing in that role could then lead to De La Fuente starting against Canada on Sunday.

At striker, Sargent started in June’s Concacaf Nations League tournament, and has international experience edge on Pefok, but Pefok has been playing much more in the past month on the club level, and scoring goals at a greater rate than Sargent so he could be the pick.

The tandem are a good bet to split starts, but will Berhalter deploy Sargent in El Salvador? That feels more likely, and the two-goal outing Sargent had in Carabao Cup action for Norwich City should have helped his cause.

Something else to consider is whether Berhalter will factor in Pefok’s heavy workload for his club in August, and consider that a reason to give Sargent the nod.

What do you think of our projected lineups? Which would you start? Who are you most excited to see play?

Share your thoughts below.


  1. Excellent post, I am new to the crypto and ntf world and I saw your post in wordpress, your notification helped me to understand more about the subject, greetings from El Salvador, the country of bitcoin hahaha

  2. Since these projections are usually quite a bit off, Im not going to waste a lot of time. A couple of comments though. Sargent should start and if he gets any service, should score. Lletget should carry the water and if GB does not start Turner then he is dumber than I already think he is. We need to get a minimum of 7 points from these three games and I really hope US Soccer is watching closely. If we look like crap now… a change is needed

    • “Sargent should score”…I dunno.

      Sargent seems to do everything well EXCEPT score. He just has never looked like much of a natural finisher to me and as a coach I would already be looking to move on from him unless he starts finding the back of the net.

      I hope he proves me wrong someday. But I really question if the whole will ever equal the sum of the parts with Sargent.

  3. Pulisic makes great sense as an option off the bench for the El Salvador game. And this is a fluid situation, but if USA can handle El Salvador with Christian on the bench, maybe we continue the trend in the Canada game. These are the most important games, no doubt, and our goal should be 9 points come 9/11. We should be looking for nothing less than three Ws. It’s a Svengali move to have pulisic on the bench, definitely down in Central America. This allows guys like BA, and young Konrad a chance to get a feel for WCQ, before we get to the meat of the schedule. We can handle all these teams in this federation, and we can start acting like it.

    Sargent is our undisputed #9 and he is going to show his true value over these next 10 days. R Pepi might have something to say before long, but that’s competition. Here’s to everyone keeping their ego in check and playing for and proudly representing the United States of America. ‘My country today of the, sweat land of liberty.’

  4. I absolutely love McKennie’s mindset going into these qualifiers. In his interview, he said we aren’t going in with the thought of win our home games and grab a few points on the road. To be the best in CONCACAF, we need to “dominate” every game. I do love this unafraid attitude in this younger generation. Reminds me of the 2002 team, but with much more talent.

    • Love it! I think this group has the right balance of confidence and fight.
      Things wont go our way at times and we will need to grind.

      PS, hope this group does better than the 02 group. We finished #3 in 02 qualifying. 3pts separated us from 4th that cycle.

      Agree wt Ives “should start” list.
      Matt Turner, come on!

  5. 3-4-2-1(underneath CF), 3-4-3 (winger width)
    GK- Steffen
    Sands, Brooks, M. Robinson,
    A. Robinson, Adams, McKennie, Dest
    CP (not playing, then Aaronson), Reyna
    Subs- 65’ Siebatcheu (Sargent), 75’ Yedlin (Dest), 80’ -Aaronson (CP) or Lleget (Aaronson), Roldan (Reyna), 85’ Bello (A. Robinson)

  6. If we run 3 in the back, I would opt for the Canada game. Yedlin as the rightside wingback with Miles behind him. Yed’s job is to butt heads with Alphonso. I’d like to see Dest as the leftside wingback and coupling with Puli.

  7. I would start Aaronson as a wing striker over Sargent. Move Reyna or Pulisic to the center forward and we have a potent attack. Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson, BOOM!

    • No, and that is the key, can Reyna create in the middle from the wing spot. Invert with Dest overlapping.

      Cause we dont have anyone that can, he is the hope. Lletget is a no and McKinnie plays great D and gets his own shots. Creator? Reyna is the hope. He plays wing and we dont have one centrally as listed.

      • fwiw pulisic has a handful of CF or SS club appearances, including a CF stint against Villareal this summer, and has played it some for the Nats as well. “unnatural?” and reyna while not a 9 has slightly more than half his first team club games as a CM instead of a wing. personally i am a fan of strengthen your spine with your best players, and pulisic at 9 and reyna 10 is sensible and with experience, not “unnatural.”

    • personally i’ve said if we can’t sort out 9, if all the options seem undercooked at the moment, then it should be pulisic. kind of like they did with landon and dempsey. the concerns about chemistry if they did so are overstated. they are familiar with him and the type of balls he wants to receive. it’s not like, ok, figure out how to find soto or something.
      he has played that position or up high before. you might have some awkward moments but also probably some immediate foot speed and activity benefits. and then as with GC you give them 3 games together and they’ll figure it out by the end.

  8. I guess since I said i think he will start with a 3-5-2 with a mix of first and second choices, I should post what I think he will do (for clarity, I am not advocating for Ream but I do think he will start)

    Yedlin-McKennie-Acosta-Lletget-de la Fuenta

  9. As other posters have said, I don’t think he will play what he considers his A team in any game as a starting lineup so I dont see him going with either option Ives proposed. I think he will use a mix and I do agree with IV that we will probably see a 3-5-2 to start against ES based on roster selections. With 3 games strategy of all teams is going to impact results. Will ES field their best team against US? Whatever GB decides, it is only right if it works since hindsight is 20/20. Doh!! All the teams strategies to deal with the 3 games will be interesting.

  10. I’m okay with either who will start and who should start. Either side should get the job done. Of the 3 teams, El Salvador is probably the weakest. Should we even go with our best players even if it is the first game? I hope we can get an early lead, build it to 2 shortly after half time and then put in a lot of subs early. El Salvador will probably park the bus, so the first goal may be difficult, but if we can get it in the first half, it will force them to come out attacking in the 2nd half and allow for a counter attack 2nd goal.

    • in terms of getting the goal on ES, that to me has to do with game planning and having personnel packages to attack a mismatch. few decades back we put on a crosser and jozy and got 2 late ES goals off target play. i continue to be concerned about what the “concept’ is for getting goals with the A team. sargent is not the guy to be chasing wayward robinson and dest crosses. sargent is the guy to be finishing service to feet at the spot. this is a good team when defenders knock it over the top or attackers run at defenders and play ground ball passes into the box. it is a mediocre nteam with wingbacks taking the ball to the flag for aimless crosses. when we figure out it’s not an all star team but instead a roster to execute a game plan — ideally with a guy to create in a certain way matched with a finisher who likes that kind of service — we’ll get better.

      we know ES is going to park the bus, the question is do we have a real plan to create or are we going to attempt to play possession passing and wingback crosses while ES hacks us down all day.

      • One never knows but that is not how ES can played during the GC even in the match against Mexico that a draw would have won the group. Could Hugo change tactics for qualifying, sure but at home I think their going to try to play not just bunker and hack.

    • If you put Mckennie further up the field and put in Pefok over Sargent, then you have good aerial targets in the box for crosses.

    • I’m not superstitious, but this talk of what we’re going to do when we get a 2 goal lead early in the second half hopefully won’t jinx us.

  11. This looks like our first choice lineup so if Berhalter wants us to prioritize starting the cycle strong and putting out the best lineup for ES, then this is likely it. Traditionally the thinking has been “win your home games” so I wonder if he doesn’t save a couple first choice players to be fresh for Canada. I am really interested to see how players are rotated for these games. We have a depth advantage so hopefully Berhalter uses it.

    • Meant to add, regarding depth: I hope we don’t play Pulisic and Reyna 90 min for three games and send them back to their clubs with injuries.

    • facing our schedule, ES is winnable away while honduras is a tougher ask. so A team games 1 and 2, aggressive tactics early on ES, try and get a margin to sub the starters off and park the bus to the result. i would go big because ES has small players. game 2, rotate 2-3 guys, all out, as long as the starters need to go for the result. game 3, honduras away is a tough ask and the starters will be tired. put in a fresh unit and see what happens. if the game is competitive at the half weigh whether to put some starters on as subs. i think some of the fanboys are about to get a reminder away quali is not like gold cup. this will be a grind.

      • One thing to remember is that the other countries we play also have three games. And they may write off the game against us or be drained from the other games. El Salvador in particular may rest players for their second, must-win home game against Honduras, and who knows what shape Canada (after a home game with Honduras) and Honduras (after road games against Canada and El Salvador) will be in when we face?

        My preference is to take all games equally seriously and balance the roster for each game, but if we are going to “take our foot off the gas” in any game, it has to be the road game against El Salvador, which our “second XI” should be able to dominate anyway, CONCACAF whistle and all. The other two games seem more important (and particularly Canada, the middle game), anyway.

  12. There should be some rotation:
    Sargent (2 starts) Pefok (1 start)
    Pulisic (1-2 starts) Reyna (2 starts) Aaronson (2 starts, but one in CM) Konrad (1-2 starts) (Pepi off bench)
    Adams (2 starts) McKennie (2 starts) Lletgat (2 start) Acosta (1 start) Roldan (1 start)
    Dest (2 starts) Robinson (2 starts) Vines (1 start) Yedlin (1 start) (Bello off bench, maybe).
    Brooks (2 starts), Robinson (2 starts), Ream (1 start), McKenzie (1 start) (Sands supersub at CDM/CD, Zimmerman for depth)
    Keeper – whatever – fine with Steffan twice or all three games.

    How the players rotate should depend on chemistry and balance (we don’t want to throw in all the subs for any one of the games).

  13. I really like the way Pepi has been playing for a fun to watch Dallas side. His movement and finishing with Pulisic and Reyna could be great.

    • Agreed, we already know what Sargent brings. Not many goals per game. Lets get someone that CAN do more even if he is even more in the learning stage.

  14. Despite the fact that Sargent has mostly had cameo appearances, he’s looked VERY good playing against EPL level defenses. He should start.

  15. why is sargent starting other than circularly because sargent has been starting? pefok is the one getting the job done. striker is not an “intangibles” position or do we need to discuss chris wondolowski again. “back” seems responsive to how the summer actually went. forward doesn’t.

    • doesn’t his positional allocation in camp (too many backs, too few mids) suggest a 343? i would think the first two games of this sequence would be the ones you would more aggressively chase and that if you were calling 5 mids you wouldn’t put miles on them all the first game out, which a 433 about requires (start 3, sub the other 2). or, if you plan on playing 433 for even one game call like 7-8 mids.

    • Sargent has 4 goals in 6 appearances for Bremen and Norwich combined so far this season. Pefok has 5 in 7 for Young Boys. Pefok has 1 goal in 6 games for the national team this year; Sargent has 0 in 4. I’d have no problem with Pefok starting over Sargent, since he is producing. But Sargent is also producing, and at a similar rate as Pefok.

      • “wondo.” it matters “which” team you score for. and let’s be real, you’re counting preseason friendlies and second tier cup games. i want the guy who scored on honduras this year. fwiw historically the big target guy has been what’s worked against ES. down 2-0 and we put on jozy against their tiny backs. for that matter, not sure if he’s the guy for a steel cage match away game, bumpy field, hacking, bad refs. he’s a technical guy for open space on a crisp pitch. he’s not a mudder.

    • within the GB roster universe something like

      aaronson pulisic mckennie reyna
      bello zimmerman/sands robinson yedlin

    • I’m not against starting Pefok but I’m pretty sure Sargent would be scoring a lot more goals if he were playing in Switzerland too. I don’t even know how go about comparing them and on some level you have to trust Gregg on the decision.

      • actually, it’s easy. science. “control” is US games where they play for the same team. in games since january 2020 pefok has 1 goal, sargent has 1 assist, for the US. if we want to introduce “variable” club play, pefok has 6 goals in club this season, sargent 4. last season, pefok had 15 goals, sargent 7. at face value, also advantage pefok. what you are really trying to say is let’s assume sargent is better because club address ergo toss out the performance data. you have assumed your own conclusion. the facts point the other way. and if there is any tiebreaker it should be NT goals where there is a common team situation, which sargent doesn’t win in the common timeframe.

  16. Any possibility that Berhalter creates two squads with some bench players travelling. One that plays against Canada and stays in the US, and another one that goes to El Salvador, trains there, and then plays Honduras? Leave a starting 9 players in the US, and a starting 9 in El Salvador, and the remaining 7 travel to all 3 matches? Otherwise its a lot of traveling because the Canada game is in the middle not at the beginning or end.

    • when i was suggesting calling 30+ that is how you could do it. italy a couple years back had 2 separate camps for their NL plus our friendly in belgium. wales similarly rested a ton of people for our friendly in a 3 game window. but i think you need closer to 30 to make that work. i also don’t see us doing it because the arena/berhalter mentality is “meritocratic.” rotation is risk. to me that we have not responded to weah with a replacement suggests we intend on powering through with a fairly normal quali roster (i think we have typically called like 25 before now for 2 games), regardless 3 game windows.

      • Italy in 2018 Nov 17 vs Portugal (NL) Nov 20 vs USA
        Started both Chiesa, Barella, Verratti, and Bonucci. Played in both only starting one; Lasagna and Berardi. Several more played in the US match and dressed the Portugal match. They sent six players home after the competitive match against Portugal, they did not run 2 different camps. They brought in a few of their U21s for the US match, their U21s had friendlies to prepare for the U21 Euros the next Summer which was UEFAs qualifier for the Olympics (Kean, Mancini, and Tonali, only Kean played). The brought a couple journeyman as well to fill in the roster.
        As for Wales, they had a friendly followed by two competitive matches not at all the same.

      • JR: don’t call me a liar. they literally had 2 camps. they had a second coach in belgium with a second set of practices. bull. this was even discussed on the telecast. just because a handful of people went from camp 1 to camp 2 — while they released others — “two camps” — doesn’t mean there weren’t two camps. the people joining camp 2 hopped a plane to belgium to meet the rest. how could they send home several players and play a game? hmmmmm

        your premise is incorrect. i suggested a 30 man for canada and cuba. not all games that count are equal. even if we treated all games as equal, “trinidad” teaches us that trotting out the same tired starters game after game is diminished returns. as arguably was canada this summer, where you shouted down this same argument and we looked like hell then too. at a point a fresher player, who you esteem slightly less, is your better chance at success than the tired starter. US fanboys struggle with this because some of them couldn’t have played tournament soccer — or at least successfully — and they tend to want the whole thing telescoped to some sort of UCL-rewarding meritocracy as opposed to a functioning soccer team with 3 games to play in a week. in the World of Reality, even a UCL level team rotates facing several games in a short period. this is one reason they stockpile talent. fanboys don’t notice because it means x star plays instead of y star, even though if you saw a depth chart x star is actually the backup eg steffen.

    • I’m not calling you a liar but you are either not remembering what happened accurately or the broadcaster didn’t represent us t to you correctly. 17 players dressed for both matches, 6 players were sent home after match 1. 3 players (Kean, Mancini, and Tonali) played for the U21s then joined up with the NT for the US. 3 others joined the team in Belgium. Was their a 2nd camp for U21s, yes. Did some staff from Italy meet the other in Belgium and do some workouts, probably just as some staff will be staying in Nashville with Pulisic. That’s not running two different camps as you described. 71% of the roster dressed in both matches.
      I’m sorry did we win Nations League? Your constant get off my lawn is tiresome. Berhalter has shown in NL group stage, NL knockouts, and 2021 GC he is firmly aware of how to use squad rotation effectively. You screamed about the 4 game window in June the wide spread injuries and lethargic players you prophesied didn’t materialize, in fact we were stronger at the end against Honduras and Mexico. Again before the GC, woe is us Berhalter is just like (usually Arena because you think complaining about him will get people liking your whining) we should be rotating whole squads we wear out. Hmm, the US took over at the end of every knockout round match. It was as if Berhalter and his spreadsheet guys know how to rotate and sub players. So keeping throwing out insults all you want because us fanboys (aka anyone who posts anything positive) ain’t getting off your lawn.

  17. I actually wonder if Pefok is getting the start up top against El Salvador. He only played 45 for Young Boys and you wonder if it’s because Berhalter told the coach he intended to start him. I wonder if Gregg might might do this for a couple reasons – he intends to save Sargent for Canada and Honduras, and also the USA would reasonably be expected to face a lot of stacked boxes against El Salvador and Pefok might be better than Sargent for winning headers in those stacked boxes.
    Just a thought but I wonder if Gregg does surprise us by trotting Pefok out Game 1.

    • it reflects our incumbency/inertia bias. i think this is one of the harmless instances of this IF he is instructed to whack the ball downfield. if we intend to play barca ball he ships a goal every few games with ballhandling mistakes. turner is not brilliant at this either. maybe fudge xeroxing this part of the dutch theory. i’ve seen plenty of 433 teams including italy content to whack goal kicks and keeper clearances to japan.

      but yeah i think if we were talking ’21 performance turner is better and horvath might be even as well. and that was a busy GC stint of several games, not a one off friendly illusion. steffen to me hasn’t played “like steffen” since the city move. and that’s where GB doesn’t have the guts to consistently apply his form ideas across the board……

    • I have no idea how you can tell what Steffan’s form is now. He looked good in his one start this year, and “not as good with the ball at his feet as the best goalie in the world” (which is why he doesn’t start) isn’t really much of a criticism, especially since he’s still better with the ball at his feet than Taylor.

      • i think we’re confusing a few points here. i said steffen might be less a problem if he just whacked it downfield. as turner often did. you seem to be not just advocating steffen but GB’s initial idea of steffen. at which point, sorry, dude, he’s given up like 2 goals off the top of my head with bad keeper passing. my point is not debating to continue that but maybe quit trying that and stick to keeping. punt/ goal kick/ clear to half field. problem solved. we then see if he can keep as well as turner, sticking to his specialty.

        y’all exaggerate the meaning of club form. my bigger concern, is whether he’s rusty. and even if that wasn’t true, i tend to favor evaluating based on how you looked for us and not play the proxy game with how you looked for city. his play for the US is mixed bag. turner’s play for the US is good. no mixed bag. if we went by NT performance, i don’t care if you thought steffen looked ok for city a month ago last time he played, because turner looked better in our shirt. to me the obsession with club form is to the detriment of evaluating how they actually play for us. it’s a means of keeping the debate forever open, as there is always some anecdotal club game where they played more like you wish they did for us. the real question here is how are they for us. i haven’t seen the Real Steffen since he hurt his knee.

  18. I agree 85-100% on who should start…

    Turner is in form, should start- I don’t think this should be as controversial as it appears. Steffen plays sporadically and has the City possession and defense to barely trouble him when he plays.

    Turner had to withstand some shelling in the Gold Cup, so I don’t why he would not get the start.

    Only potential disagreements I have is on the LB and RB. Dest troubles me from what I saw over the summer in terms of creating a defensive hole. Maybe more of a concern versus Canada for next game, but why not go with Robinson and Yedlin as the backs. I’m scared of Dest getting caught out and costing 2 or 3 points because of a stupid error, or two, given up on defense over 90 mins. With Reyna, Pulisic and Aaronson and McKennie, there
    should be enough offense created.

    Dest can come in off the bench when a goal is needed. He’s like a Ferrari, a luxury, but not best suited for driving on a dirt road full of potholes.

    Also Pefok is scoring more in Switzerland, but back to my point about the US wings and mids being the offensive engines, the forward’s job is a little different-Sargent runs a lot harder at the center backs then Pefok. If the goal is for a possession-dominant game, the ball must be won, by forcing the CBs to punt it under pressure, versus easily maintaining possession and Sargent just runs a lot harder than Pefok from what I’ve seen. Let Sargent run himself ragged to set up some turnovers and then sub him out for Pefok.

    • I like your analogy of Dest as a Ferrari driving on a dirt road with potholes. On the flip side though, Dest is the most skilled on-the-ball player in this team (he stands out even among his Barcelona teammates); so I think he could set up a couple of goals for us in the first half, and then Berhalter could sub him out later in the game to solidify the defense. I guess I’d rather try to outscore the opponents then cling to a one-goal lead.

    • He could surprise us, but I have a feeling we’re looking at 60th- or 75th-minute sub roles…which is honestly fine for a first camp. If Berhalter decides he’s too hot to leave on the bench, we may even see him start the third match.


Leave a Comment