Imagine you are Gregg Berhalter and you are fielding your starting line-up to play the USA’s first World Cup 2022 against Wales and you settle on a 4-3-3. You pick Matt Turner as keeper. He has been playing in place of the injured Zack Steffen and doing such a good job he has earned the slot.
Then from left to right in defense, you choose Antonee Robinson, Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, and Sergino Dest. You go with Weston McKinnie at left midfield, Tyler Adams at center-mid, and Brenden Aaronson on the right. In attack, you go with Christian Pulisic on the left, Giovanni Reyna in the center, and Timothy Weah on the right. That is as good a team as the USA can field but with a few choice substitutions given a particular opponent.
The problem the USA faces is that the mentioned team may never get a chance to take the field together. This national team has issues working the ball up from the back under pressure but flourishes when it can possess the ball in the upper two-thirds of the field and avoids long opposition forays in the USA’s latter third. To do this, they need technically strong, intelligent, and speedy offensive players and their top midfielders playing together. The mentioned line-up would allow the best the Yanks have to offer to ply their trades together. But knowing how to set up a team that optimizes the USA’s offensive strengths and minimizes their exposure on defense are two things Berhalter has been unable to grasp or effectively act upon.
But you are in charge now.
So, then, assume you are in the second half of that game with Wales and are reaching the 70th-minute mark and have a 2-1 lead. Your guys have been mostly controlling the game, with but a Bale goal, since the moment you first took the lead in the first half. In fact, the Yanks have been holding on since taking the lead for the second time, in the 47th minute and now you have a chance to substitute Pulisic (with Josh Sargent), McKinnie (Cristian Roldan), Adams (Kellyn Acosta), Aaronson (Yunus Musah), and Long (Chris Richards), giving some key starters a deserved breather and saving them for the big next game against England while providing key subs with exposure to cup competition.
You coast to victory and three golden points. Then start thinking about England.
Now you begin to plan how to deal with the speedy Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling on the wings and the deadly Harry Kane down the middle. You trust that your veteran duo of Long and Zimmerman will be up to the task of canceling out Kane while simultaneously supporting the defensive wingers should either be left in the dust by their offensive opposites. Yet you know Dest and Robinson are not slow or awkward and probably will be up to the task, particularly with their central defenders’ help, of handling the wings.
In midfield this time you have partnered McKinnie with Acosta and Adams to provide more defensive heft while on offense you have kept Pulisic and Weah but added Musah to have speed all around in attack. Now you have the chance to catch the likes of English defensive options Trippier or Maguire flat-footed, requiring midfield assistance. Meanwhile, your tougher mid-three serve to counter England’s potential four-man midfield of Rice, Bellingham, Mount, and Shaw with USA players who can keep up physically and technically. In fact, given who will be facing whom at either end of the field, with this line-up the USA has the better matchups if not always the better players.
When again you pull ahead on the scoreboard, this time at around the 80th minute, you again substitute your key starters with Sargent, Roldan, Aaronson, Richards, and Paul Arriola, trusting them to bring the win home. The stars avoid the latter fifteen minutes of chippy play including some tough tackling by the frustrated English while getting some additional rest for the final game against the Iranians.
You start your top players again, in that final game, those mentioned at the top, and this time you keep them in until they need a break or something on the field changes to require or suggest an advantage will be obtained with a substitution. Otherwise, the very physical but also technical game will be of value to your top guns going forward, so you keep them in to have them feel the weight of a complete World Cup match ahead of the Round of 16 encounter with Senegal.
At this point, you are relieved to be into the knockout round while trying to put together a lineup that nullifies Sadio Mane and gets around Eduoard Mendy and Kalidou Koulibaly and you need a lot of luck for that. Meanwhile, your tired and bruised charges need to recoup in time for the next battle. How prepared is the USA delegation—do they compare to the Senegalese 327-person entourage?
Now we are back in reality in Qatar and with Berhalter as the coach.
The Yanks are staying at a luxury hotel with its own man-made beach, but what about professional sports recuperation equipment? What will the USA delegation have available at its camp in terms of recuperative technology—ice baths, cupping, cryo saunas, leg sleeves, electro-stimulation, and spa massages? These are the types of logistical supports that can make or break a World Cup campaign and knowing Berhalter the planner some thought will have gone into this aspect of the USA’s Qatari experience. The shame is it will be all for naught if that previously planned game day lineup is not just right.
Photo: Gregg Berhalter, Wiki commons free use, by Jay Eyem