What to watch for: USMNT versus El Salvador

Tonight, the US Men’s National Team takes the field for the final time in 2020. Heavily favored against El Salvador, this group of domestic-based players will fight to be included in manager Gregg Berhalter’s plans for the upcoming World Cup qualifying cycle.

In a match that should exemplify the “friendly” designation, here’s what I’m looking for.

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1. Who impresses at center-back

John Brooks of Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg seems to have one of the starting center-back roles nailed down when Berhalter has the full pool of players to choose from. Who partners him in defense is still an open question. Matt Miazga, perpetually loaned out from Chelsea, has played next to him in the past, but hasn’t always been a reliable option.

This camp gives Berhalter the ability to evaluate arguably the three best domestic-based center-backs in the pool (Ike Opara is probably another one, but for whatever reason has never really been involved with the national team).

Walker Zimmerman is the reigning MLS Defender of the Year, and his 2020 season with Nashville SC built on an already solid reputation. He’s 27 and has just 12 caps so far, but his recent performances should have him in contention to be included in the upcoming cycle.

Mark McKenzie has been a standout for Philadelphia Union, named to the Best XI this season, and is seemingly destined for a move to Europe. He’s an elite defender at the MLS level, and has really developed his ability on the ball, turning into one of the better passing center-backs in the pool. If he moves to Europe and finds consistent playing time, he seems like the favorite to lock down the starting job.

Aaron Long rounds out the group of domestic center-backs who seem to me to be in competition for a larger role. He’s been a fixture for New York Red Bulls, winning the Defender of the Year award in 2018. He’s also been a highly publicized target of Premier League side West Ham, who saw a transfer bid rejected last winter. At 28, his window to move to Europe is narrowing, but he’s an exceptional defender with 17 caps to his name.

These three should all get another chance to impress in the upcoming January camp, but a strong showing tonight will further solidify their case for the starting role.

2. Can Ayo Akinola fit Berhalter’s system?

20-year-old Ayo Akinola seems likely to get the nod up front after Daryl Dike picked up an injury. Akinola had a breakout season for Toronto FC this year, scoring an insane nine goals in 1,200 minutes.

His off-the-ball movement is impressive for such a young player. He times his runs into the box really well, and understands how to use space to pull defenders out of position and open up channels for his teammates.

He also likes playing on the back shoulder and stretching the field. Berhalter’s system has emphasized the forward playing with his back to goal and linking possession. That seems like a more natural fit for Dike.

It’s also worth noting that while Akinola has represented the US at youth levels, he’s still eligible to play for Canada or Nigeria at the senior level. He grew up in Ontario and came through the Toronto FC academy, so getting him to commit to the US long-term is no guarantee.

3. A contender at left-back?

Left-back has been a problem for the US for like… 20 years. Fulham’s Antonee Robinson has been a regular there recently, as well as Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest, who’s more suited to the right side.

Sam Vines is an interesting option. Playing for a Colorado side that’s been pretty poor for a while hasn’t made him one of the most visible left-backs in the pool, but he’s quietly been really good.

He’s a really good attacking full-back who will provide width on the overlap and solid service into the box. He likely won’t beat out Robinson or Dest for the starting job in a full roster, but he could become a solid depth piece at the national level.

The USMNT takes on El Salvador tonight at 6:30 PM central. The match can be seen live on ESPNews, TUDN and Unimás. Check back in to Broadway Sports Media for a recap of the action following the match.

Author: Ben Wrightis the Director of Soccer Content and a Senior MLS Contributor for Broadway Sports covering Nashville SC and the US National Team. Previously Ben was the editor and a founder of Speedway Soccer, where he has covered Nashville SC and their time in USL before journeying to Major League Soccer since 2018. Raised in Louisville, KY Ben grew up playing before a knee injury ended his competitive career. When he is not talking soccer he is probably producing music, drinking coffee or hanging out with his wife and kids. Mastodon

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