Gregg Berhalter and his young squad return to World Cup qualifying on Thursday night, with a frigid encounter against El Salvador in the team’s citadel city of Columbus, Ohio.
In case anybody thought it was almost over, there are still six of the original 14 qualifying games remaining for the Stars and Stripes on their road to Qatar. The team enters this fourth window of games in a strong position, occupying second place, however a tightly-packed upper half of the table means that any ordering of the top four teams following these three games is possible.
A home game against El Salvador is one where Berhalter and his team must undoubtedly be looking for all three points, and an extra padding to their already second-best +7 goal differential. However, this was also the expectation going into the first meeting of these teams in San Salvador back in early-September.
In that case, the Americans were held to a scoreless draw, kicking off a nervous period for fans that was not really put to rest until an impressive victory over Mexico more than two months later.
Still, the history, conditions and general quality of the squads should heavily favor the Americans.
A significant, and frankly exhausting amount of journalistic real-estate has been given to the effects and advantages that the cold weather might provide since the game venues were announced in November. However, that ignores the simple fact that the Americans simply sport a far superior squad, are playing in the closest thing they have to a home stadium, and have never lost to El Salvador in World Cup qualifying.
In the four qualification meetings on US soil, the Americans have won three and drawn one, and have also won eight of 11 qualifying games in Columbus. In short, anything less than a clear-cut victory would be viewed as a failure, and likely kick off another round of extended soul-searching and coaching debates.
In order to meet these lofty expectations, Gregg Berhalter has as close to a full squad as is practically possible. The only absence from his 26 selected players is starting keeper Zack Steffen, to be replaced by Matt Turner, who has actually started more qualifying games than the Manchester City bencher.
DeAndre Yedlin is a late arrival to camp due to severe weather conditions in Turkey delaying his trip, however with both Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson available, there will likely be no need for the now-former Galatasaray player to fight any jetlag in order to be available.
The midfield trio of Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah and Tyler Adams all come into the camp with consistent runs of playing time recently in league play, with the first two in particularly sparkling form for Juventus and Valencia.
With usual starter Tim Weah just returning from injury for Lille in their last two games before the break, and Ricardo Pepi having suffered a slip in form lately, there are questions about who will join Christian Pulisic in the preferred front three. Jordan Morris and Brenden Aaronson could also in the mix for a start, even with some question marks for both concerning recent competitive playing time.
The seventh-place Salvadorians are practically, even if not mathematically, down for the count in qualifying, needing the combination of a historical run, and several historical collapses to even reach the fourth-place spot destined for a play-off with New Zealand.
Nevertheless, they will look to play spoiler as they did in the opening game against the Americans, more recently against fourth-place Panama.
Ironically, they are coached by 73-times capped US international midfielder Hugo Perez, whose international career ended barely over one month before Berhalter earned his first cap with the Stars and Stripes.
Their current squad is mostly made up of a mix of domestic players with a few playing in MLS/USL, or other foreign destinations like Thailand, Honduras, the Netherlands or Costa Rica.
Their most capped payer on the roster is 32 year-old Houston Dynamo midfielder Darwin Cerén, while their Thailand-based representative Nelson Bonilla is currently their most dangerous scoring threat with 16 international goals, although none in qualifying.
The game gets underway at 7pm Eastern Time in Columbus.