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Who will, and who should start for the USMNT vs. Mexico?


The injury bug has hit the U.S. men’s national team hard heading into the March World Cup qualifiers, but that doesn’t mean Gregg Berhalter doesn’t still have options and tough lineup decisions to make heading into Thursday’s showdown versus Mexico.

There are question marks at multiple positions, in part because of the absences of key regulars Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest and Brenden Aaronson, who would all be expected to start at the Estadio Azteca if they were available.

The good news for the USMNT is that that the current player pool is the deepest in the program’s history, and while that doesn’t mean there is another McKennie or Dest sitting around waiting to jump into the lineup, there are some viable candidates to step in and fill those considerable voids.

Not all the tough decisions are injury-related ones. The striker role continues to be a wide-open one, with no clear-cut unquestioned starter at the position. Ricardo Pepi has gone ice cold and no longer looks like the lock starter he was in the Fall.

Central defender is also a question, with Aaron Long back in the mix and Miles Robinson having endured a recent difficult stretch of form.

There is also the question of players on yellow cards, and whether Berhalter might consider sitting some players to have them available for the crucial home match against Panama.

With all that in mind, here is a look at the lineup we could see the USMNT deploy against Mexico on Thursday, and the lineup SBI would like to see:

Projected USMNT Lineup vs. Mexico

SBI’s Preferred USMNT lineup vs. Mexico


Who will start: Zack Steffen

Who should start: Zack Steffen

With Matt Turner injured, and Steffen back in action, this is an easy call, though Ethan Horvath’s recent run as a starter for Nottingham Forest has propelled him into the category of viable option.


Who will start: DeAndre Yedlin, Miles Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson

Who should start: DeAndre Yedlin, Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Antonee Robinson

The locks in this group are Walker Zimmerman and Antonee Robinson, who have both been outstanding during the Octagonal.

At right back, DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon are both experienced and have both faced Mexico in big matches. Yedlin brings a bit more attacking quality while Cannon is arguably the better defender of the two.

At centerback, Aaron Long has worked his way back from the torn Achilles that sidelined him for the second half of 2021, and he returns just as Miles Robinson has hit his first real stretch of below-average form. Neither has experience at Azteca, but both have faced Mexico in big matches (Long in the 2019 Gold Cup final and Robinson in the 2021 Gold Cup final and the November qualifer).


Who will start: Tyler Adams, Kellyn Acosta, Yunus Musah

Who should start: Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, Gio Reyna

Will Gregg Berhalter play it safe or will he gamble and bet on one of his biggest talents being able to deliver after an extended layoff? That’s the question for Berhalter as he ponders whether to go with the expected midfielder trio of Adams, Acosta and Musah or deploy Gio Reyna in a bid to take the game to El Tri.

Starting Reyna after his long injury layoff might seem crazy, but he is just coming off his first 90-minute starting shift since returning from his long absence, so the match fitness is there. The question then becomes whether the USMNT might not be better off saving Reyna for the all-important qualifier in Orlando against Panama.

The case for starting Acosta is a good one. He is one of the players on the roster who has started aa qualifier in Azteca, so he knows what to expect, and he has played Mexico enough times by now to be fully aware of what is needed. Acosta also brings an edge and toughness that the USMNT will need.

Could Berhalter consider a Gianluca Busio or Luca De La Torre? Not over Acosta at the moment, and given the physical impact expected from playing a match at altitude, there is a good chance one or two midfield starters against Mexico won’t start against Panama, which would open the door for a Busio or De La Torre for the second March qualifier.

There is also the fact Tyler Adams is on a yellow card and could pick up a suspension for the Panama match if he draws yellow on Thursday. The short answer is NO, you can’t bench Tyler Adams or save him for Panama. He’s built for games like Thursday’s and Berhalter has to trust his captain to do what needs to be done.


Who will start: Tim Weah, Jesus Ferreira, Christian Pulisic

Who should start: Tim Weah, Jordan Pefok, Christian Pulisic

Losing Brendan Aaronson to injury was a big blow, but it does clarify Berhalter’s wing choices, with Pulisic and Weah the clear-cut options. Their presence makes it less of a necessity to rush back Reyna into a wing role (though the appeal of slotting him into a central playmaking role is clear).

The biggest question is at striker, where Ricardo Pepi isn’t scoring, Jordan Pefok is scoring but hasn’t played for the USMNT since September, and Jesus Ferreira is thriving in his new striker role for FC Dallas.

Ferreira is the logical pick given Pepi’s struggles. He impressed in the starting role in January against El Salvador, is coming off a career performaance with a hat-trick for FC Dallas, and perhaaps most importantly, he matches up well against Mexico’s slower and bigger central defenders, who are better-equipped to deal with a Pepi or Pefok.

That being said, Pefok is in outstanding form for Swiss side Young Boys, having scored 10 goals in his past 10 competitive matches for the Swiss champions. Berhalter seemed to pour some cold water on the idea of Pefok starting against Mexico last week when he pointed to how well Pefok matches up with Panama, making him more of a candidate to start the second March qualifier.

And what of Pepi? He hasn’t scored a goal in more than five months, has struggled for minutes since joining Bundesliga side Augsburg, and his confidence was already suffering in the previous fixture window, which is why he only wound up starting one of three qualifiers in January/February.

The storyline of Pepi starting against Mexico at Azteca after choosing the USMNT over playing for El Tri is an appealing one, but the harsh reality is he isn’t in good form and forcing him into the lineup could do more harm than good.

What do you think of our projected lineup? Would you go with our projected XI or the SBI preferred XI? Who would you start at striker? Would you take a chance on starting Gio Reyna?

Share your thoughts below


  1. This game is fascinating because there are so many issues at play. GGG likes to get cute, so we might see a new wrinkle…

    Finding a replacement for McKennie is important. If GGG is not sure about Luca, how can he be sure if never gives him a chance. Since this is not the most important game of the window, i would roll out LDT to see if he can do it.

    Adams getting another yellow. Would we prefer he missed the Panama game or a Costa Rica must win? I think I would go Adams here.

    I don’t think we are playing as much out of the back in the Mexico game so I would go with Horvath over Steffen. Horvath might be the better shot blocker. GG loves Steffen however.

    I would not be surprised to see Arriola to help make the game ugly.

    Pefok and Pulisic late inning subs to try and change a 0-0 game.

  2. Zach
    Jedi, MIles, Zimm, Yedlin
    Adams, Acosta, Musah
    Pulisic, Weah, Pefok

    subs: Pepi for Pefok, Gio for mids/wingers

    absurd that Brooks is not on roster — he is absolutely 3rd or 4th best CB option (along with Chris Richards when healthy)

  3. Morris, Pepi, CP
    Ferreira, Acosta, Musah
    Jedi, Miles, Zimmerman, (if healthy), Cannon
    Subs- 60+ Weah (Morris), DLT (Ferreira), 70+ Reyna (CP), Pefok (Pepi)

  4. Who will start: Zack Steffen
    Who should start: Zack Steffen
    “With Matt Turner injured, and Steffen back in action, this is an easy call . . . ”

    Steffen back in action? I see what you did there!

  5. I guess the answer to who replaces Aaronson is no one. Seems foolish Tom me. To those who want to play a strong lineup against Mexico, taking points from Mexico doesn’t really help us qualify as they will likely get 4 or 6 points from the last two games so taking points from Panama and Costa Rica is much more important but I completely understand thinking it is bad to go into that game with a weak lineup. It is really a very unusual situation to be in. I personally opt for the weak lineup against Mexico because I don’t think our strong players can go 3 games in 7 days. I am actually worried about Musah going two games in 4 days because he seems to only have one good game per window. I am usually wrong though …

  6. It makes no sense to start your best 11 against Mexico. Of the 3 games, it is the least important. Start energetic hustlers up top (Arriola, Pepi, Morris) then sub near the 60th minute. Bring off Musah after 60, if starting, and plug in fresh legs. We need to keep this in perspective. Azteca is a mile above sea level in a hot and humid climate. Players will be drained after 60. Costa Rica will be another sauna played in brutal heat. Play to get the points needed to advance with smart tactics and rotations.

    • Forecast is for 65 degrees at kickoff in Mexico City, going down to 60 over the next two hours. May be humid, I don’t know. Also don’t know how smoggy it will be. Will definitely be high altitude, though. But conditions could be about as good as can be expected.
      Forecast for San Jose, CR for next Wednesday is 80 during the day, going down to 65 at night. Not terrible.

      • That is unusually cool for this time of year. That will certainly help with preserving energy and maintaining stamina.

  7. I’d rather keep Reyna on the bench to start and bring him in for the last 30 minutes. He just got off injury and played 90 on Sunday. Then start him against Panama.

  8. The projected lineup looks to me like our strongest possible lineup, and I think that is the right approach. I don’t follow the logic of saving guys for Panama, I think that could really backfire. The only exception being Reyna, the guy has just now played one 90 min game after several months off injured (from US duty), bringing him as a starter against Mexico is too much too soon. Weah has given Mexico fits with his speed in behind, we should go to him early, maybe free up Pulisic to finish, which is what he can be best at. Even if some rotation is necessary for Panama, we still should have the players to beat them at home.

    • I think the idea of saving guys against Mexico isn’t for Panama…it’s for Costa Rica should some calamity befall the US. The most likely scenario is the US lose in Azteca – I mean, history. Panama is a must win and a probable win. But if for some reason the US drop points they will need points versus Costa Rica – where history is against the US as well. One of the games – Mexico or Costa Rica will necessarily have a rotated squad…I like the US’s chances away to Costa Rica better than away to Mexico – with a full squad that is. A rotated squad with all the pressure in the world or a tired squad with all the pressure in the world in San Jose would be a disaster.

      • Yup. I want a win in Azteca, but only for pride.

        Mexico will likely come out hot. Start the runners, bring on stronger players at 60+ as need. Save Reyna and Musah for the points we more likely need and a more likely to get.

      • Quaker – I’ve been consuming a ton of USA – Mexico hype over the last days. I’m feeling like this Mexico team is a mess and ripe for the picking. When I commented on this originally I would have been pretty mad if there wasn’t a lot of rotation in this game. Now I could really care less which strategy GB goes for – I can really respect either one. There’s a gamble no matter what.

  9. I think that Pulisic will get hammered by Mexico. Having Geo rather than Acosta will make that tactic by Mexico less appealing to them since Geo can take defenders on as well and they can’t double or triple up on Pulisic all the time.

    OTOH, both Geo and Acosta can serve great balls from set pieces so it that regard, it might not make much difference. But it might make Pulisic a sacrificial lamb.

  10. Reggie Cannon, James Sands, Miles Robinson, George Bello, Gianluca Busio, Kellyn Acosta, Cristian Roldan, Paul Arriola all featured in the Gold Cup final. Use some of those guys with Mexico experience.

    Weah Pick-A-Nine Arriola
    DeLaTorre Acosta Musah
    Jedi Robinson Zim Cannon

    Subs: 60th Pulisic, Reyna, 75th+ Pick-a-nine, Busio, Adams


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