Hours ahead of his team’s long-awaited World Cup qualifying game against Mexico on Friday night, head coach Gregg Berhalter clarified a few lineup decisions, namely clarifying how he plans to use star attacker Christian Pulisic.
Apart from the expected fanfare preceding a USA versus Mexico qualifier, one of the biggest stories has been around the return of star player Christian Pulisic to the team after a long injury layoff. Most importantly, fans and journalists have speculated on what role he might play against Mexico.
Berhalter confirmed in the team’s pre-game press conference that the Chelsea player will not be in the starting eleven, which he framed as an obvious choice based on simple common sense. This is despite Pulisic’s club coach, German Thomas Tuchel, making considerable noise in the media during recent days to warn the American coach to be cautious with the recently returned player; warnings which he dismissed as unnecessary.
“Regarding Christian, he’s not going to start the game tomorrow,” Berhalter clarified. “It was kind of strange to hear that text come out from Tuchel because we use common sense.”
He continued, “Christian was back training for three days before the game he played […] in Malmö. And then he got maybe another day of training before the next game against Burnley, so he’s been training for four days.”
“Common sense is going to tell us that you can’t start a guy a game like this when he’s only been training for four days and has been out for two months. I understand Tuchel’s concern. Our idea wasn’t to play him 180 minutes in this trip anyways.”
Despite his absence from the starting eleven, Berhalter indicated that fans can likely expect to see Pulisic participate in Friday’s game, and touts him to be up to the task against the southern rivals.
“He’s not going to start tomorrow,” he reiterated, continuing “hopefully he’ll get some playing time, we’ll put him on the field and he can make an impact to help us get the result that we want.”
Berhalter also addressed one of the other major questions that remained throughout qualification, namely whether Manchester City backup keeper Zack Steffen or New England star Matt Turner is the team’s #1. While taking care to not diffuse the overall situation, he did confirm that Steffen will be the starter on Friday night.
“Both great goalkeepers, no question about it,” he complimented. “Zack is going ot start the game tomorrow but there is very little separating them at this stage, and we could have just as easily went with Matt. But we decided to play Zack.”
The former central defender also had plaudits for one of the newest and youngest member of the squad, outside back Joe Scally, who has been a revelation for German Bundesliga side Borussia Mönchengladbach this season, and finally received his first call-up.
“Joe has looked good,” he stated. “He’s very mature for his age, and for how he plays for his age.”
“Any player that we bring into camp, we believe has the potential to play. I can envision Joe playing in one of these two games.”
Reading between the lines, Berhalter’s comments likely quash any chances, however unlikely they were, that the 18 year-old will start versus Mexico or four days later in Jamaica. However, a debut in the latter would be a likely scenario, particularly in the case that the Americans can put the game away early.
The coach did address one of the most notable features for his squad, namely their extreme shift towards youth in the current cycle, and their general lack of experience in going through previous qualifying campaigns.
He contrasted this with the situation for their opponents on Friday, who are teeming with experience, with some players even having made their full international debuts for El Tri before Berhalter’s last appearance as a player for the Stars and Stripes in early-2006.
“We’re not going to be able t make up for Mexico’s experience, we know that. That one’s done,” he opined.
“They’ll have an average age of 29 years old, we’re closer to 22 or 23 years old,” he continued, adding “that’s just how it’s going to be.”
“What we’ve tried to do is give these guys experience over the last couple years. We’ve played Mexico four times in the last two years, and we’ve earned from [those games].”
“It’s important that we are taking all of those lessons on-board as we prepare for tomorrow night. If we want respect as a team, we’re going to have to earn it. We’re going to have to go out on the field and earn it through our play.”
The teams kick off at 9pm Eastern time on Friday, in Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium.