The US National Team will take the field on Tuesday night against Saudi Arabia in Murcia, hoping to head into the final weeks of preparation before Qatar with a few less concerns after Friday’s flaccid performance against Japan.
Despite a growing list of injuries to prominent players, few would have expected such a huge step back for Gregg Berhalter’s team on Friday in Düsseldorf, even against a quality team like Japan.
Even though the team held the lion’s share of possession, they were still outshot by their Japanese counterparts by a 16-4 margin, had no players showing the quality and impetus to attack the opposing goal, and were ultimately bailed out by a six-save performance by Arsenal benchwarmer Matt Turner.
Still, while the 2-0 loss could be considered a flattering scoreline for the Americans, a solid bounce-back game on Tuesday night in Spain could relieve some of the pre-World Cup jitters, even if only slightly.
The main question will be whether even a convincing win on Tuesday will quell the any of the fears that bubbled to the surface after Friday’s dud, where execution and creativity were completely omitted from the equation.
One factor which could be an impact for Berhalter’s team, even if not an instant cure-all, is the return of attacker Christian Pulisic, who missed Friday’s outing with what was described as a slight knock, but was confirmed to start in pre-game comments.
It was also confirmed that Ricardo Pepi will replace Jesus Ferreira at center forward, leaving only the question of whether the coach will stick with budding Leeds star Brenden Aaronson as the third attacker, or pull a surprise and call a domestic option like Jordan Morris or Paul Arriola into action.
On the other end of the starting XI, it would be difficult to justify dropping Turner to the bench after his strong showing on Friday, one which might have earned him the #1 spot for November’s final dance. Nevertheless, either Sean Johnson or Ethan Horvath should see some time on the field, even if limited to a half of action.
Apart from these two bookends of the lineup, the overall poor showing on Friday combined with the unpredictable tendencies of Berhalter to stick with underperforming players or to mysteriously shift around pieces effectively leads everything up for grabs.
Instead, a brief look at the opposition reveals a fully domestic-based squad, who flew their Asian qualification campaign, finishing one point ahead of Japan in their group, and second overall the the region behind future US Group B opponents Iran.
While it is difficult to judge the Saudis based purely on their qualifying campaign – they split wins and losses with Japan while winning one and drawing another against regular qualifiers Australia – their recent middling results against B-list South American teams might be a stronger, albeit negative indicator.
They fought to a scoreless draw against Ecuador on Friday, which was a better result than their identical 1-0 losses to Venezuela and Colombia during the June qualifying window. All three of those games, as well as tomorrow’s against the Americans, have taken place in the Estadio Enrique Roca de Murcia, home of Spanish third-tier team Real Murcia.
The game kicks off at 4pm Eastern US time.