U.S. selection headaches for Berhalter
Momentum, confidence, sharpness, cohesiveness; these are chemical-like traits for a team, and they are as desirable as they are difficult to quantify.
Yet it's clear that in the wake of the 6-0 thrashing administered by the United States in Saturday's Gold Cup match against Trinidad and Tobago, these qualities are now at their peak for the U.S., at least in terms of the Gregg Berhalter era. The Americans' spot in the quarterfinals is also assured. This makes the U.S. manager's approach in Wednesday's group finale against Panama trickier than it otherwise might be.
Does he look to make wholesale changes in a bid to get minutes for as many players as possible? Does he keep things the same? Or does he attempt to find a middle ground?
Following the T&T match, not even Berhalter was sure given that this is the first time he has been forced to make such decisions. At his pregame media conference he wasn't giving much away.
"We talked with the team and we want to try to win the group. That's a priority," he said on Tuesday. "Internally, we spoke with the players and our ambition is to win the game tomorrow.
"We know Panama is a very good opponent. We know we always have difficult games in Panama. We've met them, I think, in the last seven Gold Cups and all the games have been tough games. So we know they're going to out up good resistance, but we're going to try to win."
Winning the group does carry with it some advantages, the biggest being that it will result in a quarterfinal matchup against Curacao -- the surprise of the tournament, but heavy underdogs nonetheless -- on Sunday as opposed to Jamaica, which defeated a makeshift U.S. side 1-0 in a recent friendly.
That, combined with Berhalter's previous comments, it would seem that at least some changes will be made. The compressed schedule of games -- including just two full days between the quarterfinals and the semifinals -- demands as much, and a look at some of the individual considerations point to several alterations.
Berhalter has been intent on getting Jozy Altidore up to full fitness since he arrived in camp. To that end, the Toronto FC forward looked active and involved during his 16-minute stint against the Soca Warriors, and while Gyasi Zardes drew some deserved plaudits for this two-goal performance, there is a general understanding that an Altidore at 100 percent makes the U.S. a better team. Starting him would get Berhalter closer to achieving that end.
A case can also be made to hand Jordan Morris a start. The Seattle attacker's introduction against T&T helped turn a tight game into a rout, with Morris contributing assists on goals by Christian Pulisic and Paul Arriola. That might look like a tough break for Tyler Boyd, but if Berhalter is intent on doling out minutes to some reserves, Morris' performance ought to be rewarded.
Michael Bradley was another player who arrived in camp carrying an injury, and while he now looks close to full fitness, the match seems the right opportunity to give him some rest and let Wil Trapp try to gain some sharpness.
Weston McKennie finds himself in the unique position of having been the only U.S. player to have been booked in the tournament so far. According to the CONCACAF Gold Cup competition rules, yellow cards are wiped out after the quarterfinals to avoid a scenario whereby a player can be suspended for the final due to accumulation of yellow cards.
A yellow card against Panama would see McKennie suspended for the quarterfinals. Sitting him against Panama runs the risk of him being suspended for the semifinal. It all comes down to how much Berhalter trusts McKennie's self-discipline.
Panama is in much the same position as the U.S, though it must prevail in Wednesday's encounter in order to win the group, while for the hosts a draw will suffice. Will Julio Dely Valdes choose to rest players or go with his first-choice lineup? Either way, Berhalter is mindful that Valdes has an experienced group at his disposal, even if the likes of goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, forward Blas Perez and defender Felipe Baloy have retired from the international game.
"It's a good generation for Panama," Berhalter said. "We think they have dynamic, attacking players. We like how their forwards play together and combine with each other. We like the strength of the wingers, their speed, the one-on-one ability they have.
"We think they have a strong back-line, a good physically strong back-line. The left-back has been playing really well. We know Murillo well from MLS. [Roman] Torres and [Harold] Cummings as well, very strong, physical center-backs.
"Overall, I think it's a good team. Escobar has slid into midfield, we know that's not his usual position, but he's been doing a good job in there. Cooper has a lot of energy and a lot of dynamic ability. Overall, to me, it's a strong team."
For the U.S., it all makes for a delicate balance. Getting it right may well propel the Americans into the knockout rounds.