It’s finally here. 1,423 days after the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign ended for the United States with a disastrous loss in Couva, a new cycle begins, bringing with it a chance for redemption. With a new manager and the most exciting crop of talent in program history, this new-look USMNT side kick off their 2022 qualifying campaign with a trip to El Salvador.
El Salvador 🇸🇻
As is typical for this window, head coach Hugo Pérez (capped 73 times by the U.S.) called up 27 players to his squad for their three matches. Nearly all of his squad is domestic-based, with 17 player plying their trade on home soil.
El Salvador has plenty of talent, but they’re a young and inexperienced side on the Concacaf stage, with an average of just 16 caps among them. They’ve aggressively targeted dual nationals, with players like Alex Roldan and Joshua Perez opting not to play for the U.S., and their foundation is solid. The 2022 cycle may have come a bit too soon for this program, but their future is bright.
Pérez typically uses a 4-3-3 setup for La Selecta, with FC Tulsa man Joaquín Rivas leading the line. He’s not a typical loan striker, though, dropping into midfield to link play, almost as a false nine.
The entire front line is versatile, tracking back defensively and able to drift wide as well as finding pockets in more central areas.
Alex Roldan, one of the best right backs in MLS for Seattle, plays in a more central role for his country, allowing Bryan Tamacas to stay in his natural position.
Houston Dynamo man Darwin Cerén is one of the more veteran options in the squad at 31, with his 66 caps leading the current squad. He is tasked with winning the ball back in midfield before springing a counter attack, and a major piece of their attack hinges on his ability to quickly pick out a line-breaking pass under pressure.
El Salvador are direct, sitting deep in defense with numbers behind the ball while trying to cause most of their attacking problems on the counter. Like many Concacaf sides, they’ll find themselves at a talent deficit against the top sides in the conference, but they can overcome the perceived lack of talent with a well drilled, disciplined system. They’re not going to play expansive soccer, especially against the U.S. or Mexico, but they’ll make life miserable for anyone who comes to their stadium. They’ll be excessively difficult to play against.
United States 🇺🇸
Back in World Cup qualifying for the first time in nearly four years, tonight is the most important match the United States have played in a long, long time. While this summer’s Nations League and Gold Cup wins over Mexico were important for raising the morale of the players and fanbase, this is where the rubber really meets the road.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter named 26 players to his squad, but won’t have to trim it down to the required 23 available for matchday. Forward Tim Weah was withdrawn due to injury, while Christian Pulisic and Zach Steffen have stayed in Nashville to recover fitness and work through minor back spasms, respectively.
It wasn’t long ago that playing without Christian Pulisic would feel close to a death sentence for the U.S., but the wealth of options playing at the highest levels in Europe means that Berhalter can afford to give the Chelsea winger time to recover.
Matt Doyle has written a comprehensive breakdown of the squad selections for each of the three matches, but the wide expectation is for Berhalter to rotate heavily. Especially on the road, Concacaf experience is important. Pulisic obviously is out of the question for tonight, but any of Brendan Aaronson, Conrad de le Fuente or Christian Roldan can slot in opposite Gio Reyna.
The primary issue without Pulisic or Weah is that there’s not a natural vertical threat who can really stretch the field. Aaronson, Reyna and de la Fuente are all more dangerous coming inside and taking on players. This can lend itself well to playing against a low block, with real estate behind the backline at a premium, but having a guy to come in and open up space with off-the-ball movement is a valuable option.
At the back, John Brooks has struggled on the road in Concacaf. It seems like an opportunity for Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson to continue their Gold Cup partnership. Both are more than capable going both ways on set pieces, which become even more important on the road.
Berhalter could always keep rolling with the back three he used at the Gold Cup, and NYCFC’s James Sands seems to be on the roster for that specific reason. With Zach Steffen out, Berhalter has already named Matt Turner as the starting ‘keeper. After his performance at the Gold Cup, he has as strong a case as anyone to earn the number one job.
Several things are true tonight. First, the U.S. has a clear talent advantage. Second, the U.S. are in form. And third, winning on the road in Concacaf is really, really hard.
The Yanks didn’t win a single road match in the last cycle, a major reason why they didn’t make it. I fully expect them to be better this time around, but it’s dangerous to assume that they’ll win away from home because they’re better on paper. Again, Concacaf is really hard.
I do think they’ll pull it off, but it won’t be nearly as easy as fans expect or hope. United States win, 2-1.
Date: Thursday, September 3
Teams: El Salvador (64 FIFA World Ranking) vs United States (10 FIFA World Rankings)
Time: 9:05 PM central
Location: Estadio Cuscatlan, San Salvador, El Salvador
Broadcast: CBS Sports, Paramount+ (English), UNIVERSO (Español)