USMNT - Honduras preview: Yanks look to kick off an important period
June 02, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL TEAM is set to play in its first competitive game on Thursday night when it meets Honduras in Denver in the semifinal of the CONCACAF Nations League. The opportunity will serve several purposes for manager Gregg Berhalter in that it will allow his team to compete for silverware while also preparing for World Cup qualifying starting in the fall.
The current roster contains most of the team’s key players although July’s Gold Cup will likely be used to fill out important depth throughout the roster.
One of the most important themes we’ve heard discussed since camp opened last week in Switzerland is that Berhalter wants to simulate the situation the team will encounter at World Cup qualifying with three game international windows. What that entails is some degree of squad rotation and greater endurance for his players.
Combined with Sunday’s friendly against Switzerland, the Nations League semifinal on Thursday, the final or third place game on Sunday, and the Costa Rica friendly on Wednesday – Berhatler believes he will simulate the qualifying window.
In terms of how much rotation he will employ, the game against Honduras should provide some insight. Last week, while admiring Chelsea’s run in the Champions League, Berhalter said he noticed the club could rotate three or four players and the “level doesn’t seem to drop.”
When looking at the three-game windows, it seems difficult to start a given player in all three games. For the Nations League, some players are likely going to have to start both rounds – especially if the U.S. advances to the final. Then for Costa Rica, perhaps things get switched around.
In selecting his lineup today, Berhatler will likely have to keep an eye towards the final – which is what he will have to do come qualifying in terms of planning for subsequent games.
Key questions for the lineup
Enter Pulisic and Steffen
What we know is that Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen will enter the starting lineup against Honduras. The Pennsylvania duo was part of the Champions League final and Pulisic became the first American player to play and win the world’s top club game.
As Berhalter said from Switzerland – “you try telling Christian Pulisic that he won’t start” against Honduras. Although, you can bet that if the United States gets a healthy lead at some point, Berhalter will take Pulisic out to save energy for the final.
Steffen and Pulisic will be two key additions to the starting lineup from the loss to Switzerland. It’s likely there will be more.
The Front Line
Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna started on the wings against Switzerland. It seems like Pulisic will replace Aaronson on the left side for the two Nations League games. Reyna seems likely to start on the right side, although Tim Weah could be in consideration.
It seems likely that Josh Sargent will start up top although Jordan Siebatcheu seems likely to get playing time as well. Berhalter indicated he was pleased with Sargent’s effort, despite him not scoring. Siebatcheu, meanwhile, only had three touches after coming into the game in the 72nd minute.
At this point, starting Siebatcheu in his first competitive game with the U.S. team seems a bridge too far – but it also seems likely Siebatcheu will play a big role off the bench in the Nations League.
This area of the field seems like the toughest to predict outside of the obvious note that Weston McKennie will start. If Pulisic is going to start, it seems almost certain McKennie will start to prepare for the final. McKennie also seems likely to get removed if the U.S. team can build up a multigoal lead.
If McKennie starts at the No. 8, the other two midfield positions aren’t settled.
It was a very promising sign that Tyler Adams was not removed from the roster ahead of Wednesday’s deadline. The Leipzig defensive midfielder has been battling back issues and hasn’t played since April 25 – a span of now five and a half weeks. The fact that Berhalter is keeping him on the team is a testament of how valuable he is and that keeping him is “a risk worth taking” as the coach said last week.
That being said, it’s hard to see Adams starting right off the bat. The best-case scenario might be bench minutes against Honduras, and a start in the final – if possible.
The No. 6 position will fall to either Jackson Yueill or Kellyn Acosta. Yueill provides skill on the ball and is fast, although Berhalter might require more defensive bite in closing down on attackers. Yueill was decent against Switzerland but Acosta was sharp off the bench and connected on all 15 of his passes.
McKennie’s partner in the more advanced midfield position will either fall to Yunus Musah or Sebastian Lletget. Musah is certainly one of the most exciting additions to the player pool over the past year while Sebastian Lletget has been nothing but solid for the team since the return from the COVID shutdown.
If we are looking at squad rotation issues, Yueill and Acosta might rotate in the coming games along with Musah and Lletget.
In central defense, it seems likely that Berhalter will roll with John Brooks and Mark McKenzie. While he didn’t have a good game against Switzerland, Brooks is still the best left-footed central defender on the team. Meanwhile, McKenzie is the hot hand at the moment. McKenzie was named to the Belgian Team of the Week the last two weeks of the season and was the team’s best defender against Switzerland.
The fullback position is not as settled. Sergino Dest had a tough game against Switzerland but is one of the best players on the team. He’ll start but it remains to be seen if he’s on the right or left side. If he’s on the right, Antonee Robinson starts on the left.
If Dest starts on the left, it will either be Reggie Cannon or DeAndre Yedlin on the right. Dest and Yedlin would seemingly give Berhalter his most experienced set of fullbacks – and that is something to consider should the U.S. make the final. Against Honduras, this might be the time to test Robinson on the left in a meaningful game.
- GK: Zack Steffen
- LB: Antonee Robinson
- CB: John Brooks
- CB: Mark McKenzie
- RB: Sergino Dest
- D-Mid: Jackson Yueill
- Mid: Weston McKennie
- Mid: Sebastian Lletget
- LW: Christian Pulisic
- RW: Gio Reyna
- FW: Josh Sargent
The challenge of Honduras
Historically, Honduras has often been a tricky opponent for the U.S. team but Berhalter is the clear favorite in this game.
The current U.S. team is coming off a European season where the roster accumulated 12 pieces of silverware. 14 of the 23 players are either currently or have played in the “Big Five” leagues in Europe. 13 players on the roster were part of teams that qualified for either the Champions League or its qualifying stages next season.
Honduras, however, is trying to turn younger although it still has captain Maynor Figueroa (age 38) and Boniek Garcia (age 37) leading the way.
Its two best players are Cadiz forward Anthony Lozano and former Houston Dynamo winger Alberth Elis. Elis is now teammates with Reggie Cannon at Boavista and scored eight goals for Boavista – which was critical towards avoiding relegation.
The U.S. team has the edge in talent but Honduras will be looking to make up for that in familiarity and chemistry, which have been hallmarks of the team in the past.
The U.S. team will be looking to press up the wings in this one – especially if Robinson gets the start at left back. With Pulisic and Reyna on the wings and Dest and Robinson at fullbacks, it is almost guaranteed that the U.S. will be active from wide areas.
Of course, that should provide Sargent with the service which he has been missing at Werder Bremen. With the point of stretching Honduras wide, that should open the door for attacking midfielders who might have more space. Sebastian Lletget has been red hot and he should have more space to work with.
The question for the U.S. team will be on the defensive side. Will the wingers track back adequately? Will the fullbacks not get caught up the field? Will the central defenders not leave too much space between them? Will the No. 6 close down adequately. Will McKennie be that disruptive force that he is known to be?
The U.S. team has the firepower in this game but it will be about utilizing that while getting back into defensive shape quickly. If not, Honduras is a team that can pick those errors apart very quickly and effectively.
CONCACAF is not one of the strongest regions of the world but it can be tricky. Games can be scrappy, feisty, and sometimes out of control. The better the U.S. team becomes, the more physically difficult the games can become.
When the U.S. was successful in World Cup qualifying (winning the Hex in 2009 and 2013), the team’s best players were very well versed into the style of soccer in this region. This current group lacks that experience and the Nations League is going to serve as a useful opportunity to learn.
We are also going to learn about Berhalter’s approach and how he plans to rotate players and continue to be competitive. The player pool is going to have to be deep to get through qualifying and, if successful, push players for spots on the World Cup team.
It seems like this game on Honduras is a big turning point over the last several years dating back to the start of Dave Sarachan’s tenure. Things are moving from the “building” phase and into a more concrete and competitive era.