The USMNT’s long, four-game international window finally comes to an end on Tuesday, when they travel to El Salvador in their second CONCACAF Nations League group-stage game, looking to avoid falling into the same trap as nine months ago.
When World Cup qualifying kicked off in September, 2021, Gregg Berhalter’s promising young squad were fresh off of a summer of accomplishments and looking to carry the momentum into their push to reach Qatar.
They received a major wake-up call in the form of a difficult scoreless draw in San Salvador to open a tough qualifying run.
While the team did finally reach their goal of punching their ticket for Qatar several months later, that opening result still serves as a concrete reminder that the American squad, with all of its European star-power, is still very much in a position to be taught a lessen by the supposedly lesser CONCACAF teams.
Regardless of the bigger picture surrounding Nations League qualification, Tuesday’s game will be a direct measuring stick to see how far the team has pushed itself forward since September, 2021.
In many ways, few new revelations have come to light since a somewhat makeshift attack failed to break down the El Salvador defense, and just as many uncertainties remain.
The crux of the attack still depends on Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah (both of whom were still sidelined in that forgettable game last September) stretching opposing defenders from the outside, although the current beneficiary of their work in the middle is, for now, Jesús Ferreira.
The midfield is still dominated by Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, with Yunus Musah serving as the most promising third piece, although a number of depth options – most notably Luca de la Torre – have gradually emerged.
The back line and keeper positions are arguably more in flux than they were in September, even if frequent injuries of key players is the most notable culprit for the continued uncertainty.
Nevertheless, few would argue that the team is even close to as likely to receive a shock on this trip to the tiny Central American country than on their last visit. In this case, the key is the harsh gauntlet of experience from their 14-game qualifying campaign, and a lack of naivety about exactly how tricky it is to play away from home even in the most forgettable of CONCACAF opponents.
In short, the team and coaching staff have experienced exactly how it can all go wrongly.
In departing somewhat from his top-secret approach to the lineup for their opening group game against Grenada, Berhalter has already let it be known that Haji Wright will get the nod at center forward, after Ferreira started the first three games of the window.
This leave the FC Dallas striker, who scored four on Friday night against Grenada, as a likely second-half option to inflict damage upon the team’s gracious hosts.
Additionally, Ethan Horvath was already confirmed as the starting keeper, in what is slowly shaping up to be a legitimate four-way battle for the top job in Qatar, between a collection of UK-based backups and the MLS lifer Sean Johnson.
Beyond those two positions, the rest of the lineup is still a mystery until shortly before kickoff. Whether Berhalter opts to come at El Salvador with all cylinders firing, or use the opportunity to evaluate his backup options in a competitive setting remains to be seen.
After earning his first minutes for the Americans against Morocco and Grenada, recent convert Malik Tillman will be out for Tuesday’s game with a minor injury, forcing fans to wait until the September international window for further evidence about whether or not his switch was significant.
El Salvador have alrady played two of their four group-stage games in the CONCACAF Nations League, remarkably only managing to take four points off Grenada in two attempts. Their 2-2 draw in St. George’s on June 7 likely killed of even the most distant of chance they had for winning the group and advancing to the semifinal, although, mathematically, nothing is off the table.
The game kicks off at 10pm Eastern time, in San Salvador’s Estadio Cuscatlán.