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
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?
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.
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.
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.