The USA closes out World Cup 2022 qualifying with three games in seven days.
A potential "must-win" game against Panama in Orlando -- a victory will assure the USA of no worse than fourth place in the Octagonal and a berth in the intercontinental playoffs in June -- will be sandwiched between games at Mexico and Costa Rica, where it has never won in World Cup qualifying in 16 and 10 meetings, respectively.
"There's going to be ups and there's going to be downs," said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter on Thursday, "but we're in good position right now, and our goal is to finish it off and qualify for the World Cup by the end of these three games."
The USA will begin to gather on Sunday in Houston, where it will train until leaving for Mexico City on Wednesday morning. It will then face Mexico on Thursday, host Panama three days later and then travel to play Costa Rica in San Jose. On April 1, FIFA will hold the draw for 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
A theme of Berhalter's national media call was how much he will rotate his squad, given the demands of opening against El Tri -- at altitude -- in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium, the short turnarounds between games, and the qualifying scenarios.
The USA (21 points, +9 goal difference) could clinch a berth in the World Cup on March 27 with a win over Panama (17 points, +1 goal difference) after a loss against Mexico (21 points, + 6 goal difference). But it might have to beat or tie Costa Rica (16 points, +1 goal difference) on the road in its final game to avoid being eliminated from the World Cup again even if it beats Mexico, but it loses to Panama.
Berhalter said it's a matter of one game at a time:
"For us, it's not trying to get cute. It's trying to put teams on the field in each game we think can win the game. I think the beauty of this thing is we have five subs and when we're in Mexico City we're going to use all five subs. We may use some earlier. We may be more purposeful where we use these substitutes, but there's going to be five subs in that game. And then it's about, how are we planning for the next game?"
Another theme of the media call was how does Berhalter patch together lineups for three games, given the team's injury situation, which took a turn for the worse hours before the call, and the limited loads some key players will be able to play.
Here is a look at the squad (with the minutes players have played in World Cup 2022 qualifying in parentheses):
Goalkeepers. 'A last-minute decision'
Who's in. Zack Steffen (270 minutes), Sean Johnson (0), Ethan Horvath (0).
Who's not. Matt Turner (720 minutes), Gaga Slonina (0).
Turner's foot injury -- no, he didn't have frostbite -- likely leaves the choice between Steffen and Horvath, both of whom could play Sunday for their respective teams in the English FA Cup.
Steffen, the No. 1 keeper at the start of qualifying but limited to three starts because of back problems (and Covid), has returned to full training at Manchester City after injuries kept him from even dressing for all but three games in 2022 before his appearance on the bench at Crystal Palace on Monday.
"They're confident enough to put them on the bench," said Berhalter, who added that Steffen might start on Sunday when City plays at Southampton in the FA Cup quarterfinals.
Horvath hasn't been called in for the USA since the opening window in September following his move to Nottingham Forest, where he was the No. 2 behind Brice Samba until the incumbent's red card and suspension in February. Since then, the Colorado product has started all six games -- four wins, two ties, three shutouts -- for Forest, which hosts Liverpool in the FA Cup quarterfinals.
Horvath came on for Steffen in the second half of the Concacaf Nations League final and was the hero with the save on Andres Guardado's penalty kick to preserve the USA's 3-2 overtime win.
"He's definitely in contention, there's no question about it," said Berhalter of Horvath. "He's performed excellent lately, and it's going to be up to a last-minute decision. We're going have to assess both of them when they come into camp."
Outside backs. 'Not great news'
Who's in. Antonee Robinson (792 minutes), Sergino Dest (419), DeAndre Yedlin (363), Reggie Cannon (105).
Who's not. George Bello (135 minutes), Shaq Moore (81), Joe Scally (0), Sam Vines (0).
Hours before the roster announcement, Dest was injured in Barcelona's 2-1 win at Galatasaray. He has been playing his best soccer of the season, blossoming as a two-way defender under new coach Xavi. He'll likely miss Sunday's Clasico at Real Madrid and the three March qualifiers.
"It's not great news," Berhalter said. "The initial diagnosis seems to be a hamstring injury, but we're going get the final details tomorrow."
Dest was the standout in the October window but otherwise has had a rather quiet qualifying campaign -- six starts, five at right back. He was expected to split time on the right side with Cannon and serve as the backup to Antonee Robinson at left back. The plan will now be for Cannon and Yedlin to handle the duties at right back and bring in a second outside back from among the other players who have previously been in camp to back up Robinson (Bello, Moore, Scally and Vines).
"We also see Kellyn Acosta potentially being able to play left back," said Berhalter, "but with him having minutes in midfield, it may not be ideal."
Center backs. 'Details we need to improve on'
Who's in. Miles Robinson (718 minutes), Walker Zimmerman (545), James Sands (72), Aaron Long (0), Erik Palmer-Brown (0).
Who's not. Chris Richards (361 minutes), Mark McKenzie (180), John Brooks (135), Tim Ream (90).
Once again, no Brooks, and once again, a lot of questions about his absence for the fourth straight window.
Not for the first time, Berhalter referred to the "game plan for the window" and how a particular player not recalled did not fit into those plans.
"In October, he had an injury," Berhalter said of Brooks. "In November and January, we weren't happy with his club form. Now, he's back playing, and it becomes about what our game plan is for this window. And there's some details in his game that I talked to him about that we need to improve to fit into our game model, and we don't have time on Tuesday to improve these things. The game's on Thursday, the [next] game's on Sunday. There's not a runway here. So I think when this whole thing settles down and hopefully we're in the World Cup and we have the June window, the September window, I think there will be another opportunity for him where we can really start addressing where we think his deficiencies are to be the starting center back in our pool, but like a lot of players, we're never going to rule a guy out. That's not how we work."
The surprise pick of the window was Palmer-Brown, chosen over Mark McKenzie, who started road games at Honduras and Panama. EPB was acquired by Manchester City from Sporting KC in 2018 and was loaned out to four clubs before being transferred to French club Troyes this winter.
"We just kept watching him," said Berhalter, "and seeing the improvement every single week and seeing the tenacity and how he defends, his ability to deal with pace, deal with runners behind the back line, his ability to carry the ball forward, to make passes and build up."
Berhalter said Ligue 1 is a good testing ground for central defenders.
"When you look at a lot of the top center defenders, they've come from Ligue 1," he said. "And he's doing a great job lately, and we're really excited to get him back into camp and work with him."
Midfielders. 'Mind over matter'
Who's in. Tyler Adams (825 minutes), Yunus Musah (545), Kellyn Acosta (453), Luca de la Torre (104), Gianluca Busio (103), Cristian Roldan (80).
Who's not. Weston McKennie (623 minutes), Sebastian Lletget (230), Jackson Yueill (0).
Adams or McKennie has been on the field for the USA for all but the first half of the match at Panama -- one of the USA's worst halves of qualifying -- and the final seven minutes of the match against Honduras in St. Paul.
The issue the USA will face in the final three qualifiers is that McKennie is out (two broken bones in his foot) and Adams has played sparingly for RB Leipzig in the last four weeks.
Berhalter said McKennie is one player whom the USA can't easily replace.
"That's the thing," he said, "he's been so important to this group that we're not gonna plug a guy in and get a like for like, but that's OK. We've won games before without him [editor's note: the only qualifier the USA won without McKennie was the 4-1 win at Honduras] and we'll do it again."
The other players listed as midfielders are Acosta, Musah, de la Torre, Busio and Roldan though Berhalter added that Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna can play in midfield. "We'll have enough bodies to get someone on the field that we feel cab perform the role adequately."
Adams isn't the only key contributor who hasn't been getting a lot of minutes -- Berhalter also addressed the same situations regarding Ricardo Pepi and Tim Weah -- but Adams, the team leader in minutes and de facto captain -- is indispensable in the No. 6 role.
"With some guys, it comes down to mind over matter," said Berhalter when Soccer America asked him about Adams, "and that is going to be the case for Tyler. He's an important part of his team. We need to have him on the field, and even though he hasn't been getting game time, he's been training, he's fit and he's ready to go."
Wingers. 'It's a roller coaster'
Who's in. Brenden Aaronson (654 minutes), Timothy Weah (462), Christian Pulisic (378), Paul Arriola (164), Jordan Morris (105), Gio Reyna (90).
Who's not. Konrad De La Fuente (71 minutes), Matthew Hoppe (18).
For the first time since the start of qualifying, the USA could get Pulisic and Reyna on the field at the same time. Reyna was injured in the opening qualifier -- which Pulisic missed after being quarantined due to Covid -- and hasn't played for the USA since.
But given his limited minutes, Reyna is not expected to start. Berhalter said he mapped out with Dortmund coach Marco Rose the minutes Reyna might play in the three qualifiers. "The important thing is us qualifying for the World Cup, first of all," he said. "But secondly is Gio returning healthy to his club, and we're mindful of his load."
Pulisic scored in both legs of Chelsea's UEFA Champions League series against Lille and has regained a starting position in the Blues' attack ahead of such players as Romelu Lukaku and Timo Werner.
"It's a roller coaster," Berhalter said of Pulisic's situation, "especially when you're at a club like Chelsea, when you're at these massive clubs, it's very, very difficult. And all you ask him to do is just to keep fighting, keep working and wait for his opportunity. And he's done that. And he's taken it. He's become, again, an important part of their team. He's shown that he can step up and score goals and make assists. And he has got a great knack for arriving in the penalty box, and he's got a finishing touch to him."
Pulisic's return to form has come as Weah's role at Lille has diminished. Weah was the USA's most consistent attacker over the last three windows, but he has played little in recent weeks and was caught napping on Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta's go-ahead goal in Chelsea's 2-1 win on Wednesday.
"We're going to have to use him in spots in this window," said Berhalter. "I don't think it's realistic to think that Timmy can play three 90-minute games, but he's certainly gonna be valuable for us in this window."
Forwards. 'Just goals'
Who's in. Ricardo Pepi (522 minutes), Jesus Ferreira (109), Jordan Pefok (109)
Who's not. Gyasi Zardes (179 minutes), Josh Sargent (116).
Like Horvath and Reyna, Pefok has been recalled for the first time since the opening window.
"Just goals" was Berhalter's explanation for Pefok's return -- 17 for Young Boys in the Swiss Super League and 22 overall.
Berhalter said Pefok is being brought in for the Panama game in Orlando: "We think we're going to need a box presence. We think we're going to need someone in there that can finish off crosses and he's been doing great."
Berhalter didn't come and and say it, but that leaves Pepi, who hasn't scored a goal in his last 17 games, as the likely starter up front against Mexico.
"Am I concerned about Ricardo Pepi? Absolutely. No question about it," he said. "We want him scoring goals. We want all our strikers scoring goals, and you could make the case that, why isn't Josh [Sargent] included the roster if he's not scoring and Pepi's not scoring? One thing with Ricardo is, getting back to the basics with him. He's a goalscorer. That's comes naturally to him and that's something we need him to refocus on, clear his mind, focus on doing the small things, getting in good positions, because if he gets in good positions, we're comfortable he's going to score."