The United States men’s national team will be without star playmaker Christian Pulisic and starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen for their opening World Cup qualifying match on Thursday. The team kicks off its Concacaf qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup against El Salvador. Pulisic, who tested positive for COVID before the international window, did not travel with the team to San Salvador for Thursday’s clash, a 10:05 p.m. ET kickoff at Estadio Cuscatlan on CBS Sports Network and Paramount+. Steffen also did not travel, while coach Gregg Berhalter named Matt Turner the starter in goal.
Pulisic stayed behind in Nashville to regain fitness and is listed as day-to-day, Berhalter said Wednesday in his prematch press conference. The Chelsea player could potentially be available for Sunday’s game against Canada at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, though Berhalter said they’ll have to see how he is doing when they return and did not commit to him being available.
“Christian Pulisic did not travel with the team,” Berhalter said. “He will not be playing. He’s listed as day-to-day.”
As for Steffen, his unavailability is a blow as he deals with back spasms, but the team is so deep at that position. Nations League hero Ethan Horvath is on the squad, as is Gold Cup star Turner. Berhalter said he is confident with any of the three starting, but he opted for Turner due to him being in the best form.
As for Pulisic, not having him is a big blow for the U.S. in a game that likely won’t be a cakewalk. There is more excitement around the El Salvador national team than in a long time with former USMNT player Hugo Perez as coach. The team looked sharp at the Gold Cup while making the quarterfinals but hasn’t been to a World Cup since 1982.
Ahead of the match, who could fill Pulisic’s shoes in the starting XI? Here are three options.
1. Brenden Aaronson
This is the logical choice because he’s been an important part of the national team under Berhalter and offers a lot of the same qualities that Pulisic does, which includes beating defenders one-on-one, a creativity to find others in the box and more. He’s just 20, so you have to be concerned with the inexperience, but the talent is there, as is the ability to produce something magical to secure all three points.
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2. Konrad de la Fuente
This would be my choice. The Marseille man has dazzled in Ligue 1 since moving from Barcelona, registering two assists in four games. He has averaged over 80 percent completion of his passes and has done so well to pick up opening attackers after making a move to the endline. He’s earned the right to start, in my eyes, but we’ll see if Berhalter thinks the same.
3. Formation shift
There is a chance we could see a striker move out wide. After all, Berhalter did that plenty with Matthew Hoppe at the Gold Cup. But there is also the possibility of shifting to a formation of having two strikers. Now, the team is kind of short at that position, and this spot would have gone to Tim Weah, but don’t be surprised if Berhalter has something up his sleeve. U.S. fans would love to see a shocker and Ricardo Pepi get the start, but don’t count on it. Expect it to be Aarsonson or de la Fuente.