Examining USMNT Backups
Ahead of yet another international window and two more incredibly important World Cup qualifying matches, the USMNT roster continues to take shape. One of the prominent aspects of this year's qualifying games has been the condensed schedule, which has forced coach Gregg Berhalter to heavily rotate his roster on several occasions. 33 players have played in just 6 games, and that number could grow during this window.
Most of Berhalter's roster decisions have been based on current form and fit with the national team, and the large amount of different faces on the field at any given time has made it difficult to understand the depth chart at each position. The US came into this qualifying cycle with lots of questions and very few penciled in starters. Many players have stepped up to claim roles, including Ricardo Pepi, Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, and Miles Robinson. Still questions remain about the depth chart despite the team being halfway through qualifying after tonight.
The November window offers a unique opportunity to see a more stable USMNT roster. This is the only set of games where there are just two matches instead of three, so Berhalter can use a first-choice XI and substitution pattern if he desires. While injuries, suspensions, and other factors means no lineup will ever be perfect, we should have a better understanding of some of the backups at each position after this window.
With the US playing at Mexico in Cincinnati tonight, Berhalter will be putting his best available lineup out. Injuries and substitutions at certain positions will allow us to see who the designated backup is at those spots. With that in mind, here are a few positions to keep an eye on tonight and next Tuesday at Jamaica.
In an ideal world, Christian Pulisic would be starting on the left wing, while Gio Reyna would be on the right. However, Pulisic will not be starting tonight as he regains full fitness from an ankle injury, and Reyna did not make the trip due to ongoing hamstring issues. That means the starting wingers versus Mexico will be the backups once Pulisic and Reyna are healthy. Brenden Aaronson has solidified himself as the next man up out wide, but the next spot is more up for grabs.
The winger opposite Aaronson will likely be filled by either Paul Arriola or Tim Weah. Weah, with his pace in behind backlines, appears to have more talent and upside. However, Arriola received more starts last window as the veteran Berhalter can trust. However, squad rotation certainly played a factor last time out and the spot is very much there to be won. I would give Weah the slight edge, although I would not be surprised if Arriola received the start. Of all the backup competitions, this is one of the closest.
Weston McKennie is a guaranteed starter in the middle, and Yunus Musah appears to have the leg-up next to him in the starting XI. Behind them, however, is a mystery. Kellyn Acosta has received minutes there, although he struggled as it's not his natural position. Veteran Sebastian Lleget had decent performances centrally in the summer tournaments, but has struggled during World Cup qualifying. Whoever is called into the game off the bench tonight has a big opportunity to solidify their role in the depth chart behind McKennie and Musah.
Options for this spot include Acosta, Lleget, Christian Roldan, and Giancluca Busio. Roldan, like Lleget, is a veteran presence, although he has not had as many opportunities. At just 19, Busio is the youngster of the group, and also has the most potential fresh off his move to Seria A side Venezia. Berhalter has not shied away from letting a youngster start, so if he thinks Busio has what it takes, he could easily be central midfielder number three by the end of next week. I have a feeling Busio will keep moving up and will be rewarded accordingly.
Tyler Adams is the clear starter and plays every minute of every game in a perfect world. This is far from a perfect world, however, especially given Adams' injury history. Acosta is the only other natural holding midfielder in this camp, and has really been the only option for Berhalter recently. Unfortunately, Acosta also struggled in holding midfield in previous games, leaving the door open for someone to come in behind him. The lack of another option in camp shows he's safe for now, but one or two more bad performances in relief could leave Berhalter scrambling for another option. The December friendly versus Bosnia and Herzegovina will help the coaching staff see some of the deeper options, including who could be on the roster in January for qualifying in Acosta's place. While I think Acosta will keep his position, he needs to turn in a good performance, even if it's just in training, to do so.
Antonee Robinson has come out of a crowded field to secure the starting spot, but the competition behind him is as wide open as the central midfield depth chart. George Bello and Sam Vines have been fighting for backup duties, although only Vines was called into this camp. This leads us to believe Vines is ahead for now, although newcomer Joe Scally could throw a wrench into those rankings. After an impressive start to the Bundesliga season, Scally has received his first callup for the USMNT. A natural right back, he can play on the left as well. Given his inexperience on the international stage, assume his first minutes will come in his more comfortable position. Thus, Vines is likely the backup for Robinson.
Normal starter Dest is out with an injury, which forces a decision in the most intriguing backup fight of all. Veterans Reggie Cannon and DeAndre Yedlin both have legitimate cases to be this window's starter, but Scally is in the best form. Berhalter has a tough choice on his hands. While he is not afraid to play youth, this is Scally's first time in a Berhalter camp. He will need time to adjust to the group and learn the tactics Berhalter wants to use. Because of this, I expect Yedlin to start (he was the starter with the "A" team in the Nations League Final), but a Scally substitute appearance or start against Jamaica likely means he will be number two behind Dest going forward. Acclimating him to the team now will go a long way towards allowing him to play valuable rotation minutes next window.