Christian Pulisic’s return from injury came just in time for him to be part of the U.S. men’s national team’s November roster, but his full recovery hasn’t happen quickly enough for him to start against Mexico in Friday’s high-profile rivalry clash in Cincinnati.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter confirmed on Thursday that Pulisic will not start, but will be available off the bench against Mexico in Friday’s matchup of the top two teams in the Concacaf Octagonal standings.
Pulisic recently returned from two months on the sidelines with an ankle injury suffered in September’s World Cup qualifying win against Honduras. He had been limited to two brief substitute’s appearances for Chelsea since his return, and Berhalter acknowledged that it was overly ambitious to think Pulisic could jump from that level of involvement to starting in the most important USMNT match of the year, against arch-rival Mexico.
“Common sense is going to tell us you can’t start a guy in a game like this when he’s only been training for four days and he’s been out for two months,” Berhalter said on Thursday. “Our idea wasn’t to play him 180 minutes in this trip anyway. He’s not going to start (Friday). Hopefully, he’ll get some playing time, we’ll put him on the field, and he can make an impact and help us get the result that we want.”
Berhalter did reveal one of his starting lineup decisions, confirming that Zack Steffen will get the nod in goal ahead of Matt Turner. Steffen will make his second straight qualifying start after starting against Costa Rica in the 2-1 World Cup qualifying win in October.
Turner had been expected to start given the fact he has been playing regularly in MLS with the New England Revolution while Steffen has played one match in the past month, a start in Manchester City’s Carabao Cup loss to West Ham on October 27.
Turner does have experience against Mexico, having started and played well in the USMNT’s Gold Cup final victory over El Tri during the summer, but ultimately Steffen has secured the starting nod and will start against Mexico for the second time in 2021, having started against El Tri in the Nations League final. He was forced out of that match with an injury, paving the way for Ethan Horvath to deliver some late-game heroics in a USMNT victory.
With Pulisic not in the lineup, Berhalter will have a variety of wing options to choose from. Brenden Aaronson will be expected to slide into the left wing role he has occupied in Pulisic’s absence, while Tim Weah and Paul Arriola are the leading candidates to fill the right wing spot. Arriola started in the October qualifiers against Jamaica and Panama on the right wing, while Weah started and played well at right wing against Costa Rica, emerging as a late inclusion when Arriola was injured in pre-game warmups.
Pulisic is available to feature off the bench, and Berhalter sounded optimistic about the Chelsea star being able to contribute.
“He looks good,” Berhalter said of Pulisic. “For us it was about assessing him, giving him a couple of good days of training, building him up to this point where we can make him available. That was the whole idea. He’s a guy that you want him to be able to help your team no matter where he is. For us, it was assessing him, working with our medical staff and getting him ready to play. He will be ready to play, he won’t he won’t start the game, and hopefully we can get him on in this game.”