The U.S. men’s national team’s first game of its extended 2022 World Cup cycle is less than 30 hours away. The Yanks wrapped up a week-long training camp in Portugal on Monday, and are set to face the reigning European champions on Tuesday in Leiria at 3:45 p.m. ET (Fox Sports 1).
They’ll do so with a 21-man roster that is some combination of experimental, makeshift and depleted. With the MLS playoffs still ongoing, several European-based players resting or recovering from knocks, and several aging players excluded, the squad features an intriguing blend of established starters, previously overlooked fringe players and promising youngsters.
That blend aligns almost perfectly with the game’s objective from an American perspective. It’s to lay a foundation for the next five years. It’s to integrate those youngsters, give a few second chances, and try some new things. So how can caretaker coach Dave Sarachan accomplish those goals?
The answer is not to simply pick the 11 youngest players and hope they stay afloat. There are veterans on this roster for a reason. If Sarachan selected Lynden Gooch, Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie as his three-man midfield, they’d probably get overwhelmed. None, therefore, would derive valuable experience from the match. But if stabilizers like Alejandro Bedoya or Danny Williams are in there alongside one or two of the kids, their minutes will be significantly more valuable.
Sarachan must find that balance. The more teenagers, the more experience for the next generation, but the less valuable that experience is. The goal should be to maximize the collective value. The following breakdown looks at how Sarachan can do that.
This should be straightforward. There are four on the roster: two inexperienced right-sided center backs, and two experienced left-sided ones. One of each is a physical specimen, and one of each is a ball-player. Start with Matt Miazga – the more seasoned of the two youngsters – and national team regular John Brooks. At halftime, or after an hour, bring on debutant Cameron Carter-Vickers alongside steady vet Tim Ream.
Eric Lichaj is 28. He turns 29 on Friday. He’ll be 34 when the 2022 World Cup kicks off. He’s a squad player at best. Deandre Yedlin and Jorge Villafana are the two starting fullbacks even if the U.S. is at full strength. So unless Sarachan thinks Lichaj could unseat Villafana in the near future, the two incumbents should start (and probably play 90) against Portugal.
This is where things get tricky and convoluted. There are a lot of options. There’s probably only one sure-fire starter, Alejandro Bedoya. But even his positioning is a question mark, in part because we’re not entirely sure what formation Sarachan will roll out.
Let’s assume that the U.S. lines up in some version of a 4-5-1, 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1 – with three central midfielders, two wide players and one striker. Next, let’s slot Bedoya in as one of those wide players, mostly based on need. Whereas there are several enticing options in the middle, there are significantly fewer out wide. Bedoya is reliable as a defensive winger.
On the other side, Sarachan could go with any of Gooch, Kelyn Rowe, Juan Agudelo or even C.J. Sapong. With Bedoya and at least one other experience midfielder in the 11, Gooch is the best bet. He has the most potential of the four, and has already shown himself to be a capable two-way wide midfielder.
In the middle, four players should get some amount of playing time: Danny Williams, Kellyn Acosta, McKennie and Adams. Adams could also be deployed as a fullback, but he’s listed as a midfielder on the USA’s official roster, and if all goes right with his development, that’s where he can be most influential throughout his career. So, ideally, that’s where he sees time on Tuesday.
Now, how do you align those four? The two best options are:
The alignment largely depends on whether Williams is a part of it. His presence would allow the other two central players, whoever they are, more attacking freedom. McKennie and Acosta can both play as defensive midfielders, but are more natural as box-to-box guys. Their roles will depend on Williams’ inclusion or exclusion – or, perhaps, Williams’ inclusion or exclusion will depend on what the coaching staff sees as their ideal roles.
If we had to pick a five, we’ll go with the first option: Williams at the base of a central triangle, McKennie and Acosta ahead of him, and Bedoya and Gooch wide. Adams, however, should be off the bench by the hour mark.
One of the reasons a 4-5-1 or 4-2-3-1 is preferable: This crop of strikers isn’t exactly full of promise. The fewer of them on the field, the better.
Josh Sargent, of course, is the exception. But he’s only 17, hasn’t played a single minute of professional soccer, and picked up a knock in training last week. Don’t get your hopes up for a senior debut on Tuesday.
That leaves Agudelo, Sapong and Dom Dwyer. Agudelo has more than five times as many caps as the other two combined, and is probably the favorite to start. But he’s not exactly an inspiring choice. He’s not our choice, either. Sapong is. Of the three, Sapong is the best equipped for Tuesday’s task. He holds the ball better than the other two. He spent most of the MLS season playing as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 for the Philadelphia Union. And while you might think of Dwyer as a better goalscorer, or Agudelo as a better individual talent, Sapong outscored both in 2017 (Sapong: 0.52 goals per 90 minutes; Dwyer: 0.36; Agudelo: 0.40).
Ethan Horvath and Bill Hamid are the two logical options. Horvath is the more logical of the two. For one, he’s younger. And whereas Hamid just made a confidence-boosting move to FC Midtjylland in Denmark, Horvath just received a confidence-deflating demotion to second-string at Club Brugge. The starting nod, therefore, has more utility to Horvath. Whether that means the 22-year-old goes the full 90 or just the first half depends on how Sarachan wants to use his subs …
International friendlies allot each side six substitutions. That means four of the 21 players in camp won’t see any action on Tuesday. Two of the four will likely be Sargent and goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez. A third could be another keeper. But with the No. 1 jersey legitimately up for grabs going forward, which is more valuable: Game experience for both Hamid and Horvath? Or 45 minutes for a player like Dwyer, who, at best, is an off-year Gold Cup superstar?
If we had to predetermine a lineup and a substitution pattern, here’s what it’d be (4-5-1, back to front, right to left):
Horvath (Hamid 46′); Yedlin, Miazga (Carter-Vickers 46′), Brooks (Ream 46′), Villafana; Bedoya, McKennie, Williams (Adams 60′), Acosta, Gooch (Rowe 60′); Sapong (Agudelo 75′)
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.
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