Through three 2022 World Cup qualifying matches, the USMNT is sitting relatively calmly in a tie for second place. They have five points, after two tough draws and a 4-1 victory in Honduras. This window is a chance to stack more points, with two home games.
The first? A game in Austin against Jamaica, which might be the weakest opponent in the final Concacaf eight.
Jamaica sits in last place after losses to Panama and Mexico and a draw against Costa Rica. But Jamaica won’t be a walkover. The US’s Gold Cup squad needed an 83rd-minute winner to get by them in the quarterfinals this summer, and Jamaica nearly stole a point at Estadio Azteca in September, losing on an 89th-minute Henry Martin goal.
So while this is by no means a walkover, it would be a massive disappointment if the US lost. Welcome to World Cup qualifying! Let’s take a look at what to watch for from a US perspective.
Stretching the field
One of the big discussion points for the US entering this qualifying cycle is finding a way to stretch the field. That is a point of emphasis for coach Gregg Berhalter, and it’s why he decided to leave off forwards Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok in favor of Matthew Hoppe and Gyasi Zardes. Runners in the channels force the opposing backline to run backwards, creating space for players like Brenden Aaronson to find space on the ball in good areas.
Ultimately, this new emphasis on stretching the field is intended to generate more consistent and quality chances overall. Berhalter’s system has faced criticism for its difficulties in chance-creation. It has a tendency to get narrow and bogged-down as the US cycle possession. The US needs to run into space and play more direct. If they can get their attackers pushing the pace and running hard at the backline, they’ll have less time to languish and more time directing the ball into the final third.
It will help to have speedy winger Tim Weah healthy and available. Without Gio Reyna or Christian Pulisic, the US will need other methods of getting quality shots.
The dream for a lot of US fans is Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah all playing in the same midfield. That should definitely happen at least once in this window, with Reyna out, Musah healthy, and McKennie back from suspension. The three complement each other really well, especially with Musah’s slick dribbling and ball progression.
We’ll see if Berhalter starts all three against Jamaica. He likely knows that he’ll have to manage Adams’s minutes a bit better this window, as Adams went the full 270 in September and ended up picking up a muscle injury when he returned to Germany. Adams is coming off 90 minutes in the Bundesliga on Saturday, so Berhalter could go with Kellyn Acosta, a very capable backup No. 6.
John Brooks out in central defense
Tim Ream already had to withdraw due to family reasons, with Walker Zimmerman replacing him, and now Brooks has picked up a back injury. That leaves the US without one of its most talented center backs.
But Brooks struggled in September. This was going to be a big window for Chris Richards anyway, and the pressure is even more amped up now than it was before. Richards will likely partner with the stud Miles Robinson against Jamaica. It’s a big test for the young Hoffenheim starter.
The role of the fullbacks
One of the most interesting tactical questions for the US, in addition to the “stretch the field” emphasis, is how Berhalter will use his fullbacks. One of the common denominators when the US found success in attack in September was aggressive fullback play, particularly from Antonee Robinson. A home game against Jamaica is a good opportunity to start Robinson and Sergino Dest, two attack-minded fullbacks, and give them more license to venture forward.
Dest is a big wild-card for the US. He has been good for FC Barcelona, but he conspicuously struggled in September before exiting camp with an injury. The best version of the US includes an in-form Dest. He’ll figure out Concacaf one of these days.
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