The United States men's national team will play in their very first game of 2022 when they host El Salvador on Thursday in World Cup qualifying. It's arguably the most important year for the USMNT in a long time, as they aim to finish it with a successful run at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. But first comes qualifying for the competition, with Gregg Berhalter's team in a good, but not great position. They seem like a near-lock to finish in the top four, but only the top three directly qualify for the World Cup. Fourth place, which is just one point behind them entering Thursday's game and occupied by Panama, comes with a spot in the intercontinental playoff against a team from Oceania.
Ahead of Thursday's game, here are three keys for the Americans vs. El Salvador:
1. Have Pepi stay positioned high
Ricardo Pepi deserves a lot of credit for what he does outside of scoring goals. He does a fine job defending corner kicks at the near post, he has no problem tracking back to defend, and that is the heart and determination needed in a lot of teams. But with the attacking deficiency this team has had at the No. 9 position, it's so important for him to stay in an advanced position and trust those behind him to handle the defending.
As we've seen with him at new club Augsburg, he has not been getting nearly enough touches in the final third. In his debut for the club, he had only one touch within 30 yards of the goal in a half an hour played.
Holding that high line against an El Salvador defense that can't keep up could lead to a big night for him. He just has to remember when he's on the pitch that he's there to primarily score goals and not get caught up in tracking further back than he should.
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2. Reel in the fullbacks... just a bit
El Salvador's attack isn't even considered average, it is well below it. It's been 13 games since they've scored multiple goal in a match, and that was back in the 3-2 loss to Qatar at the Gold Cup. But if there is one spot they can do damage it's on the wings with their pace.
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La Selecta won the battle of possession just barely with 51 % in the 0-0 draw in qualifying between the two in September and had just one shot on goal. But there were instances where El Salvador were able to get down the wing and deliver dangerous balls in that match that they did nothing with. Gregg Berhalter is certainly aware that El Salvador will try to play that way, and depending on what fullbacks he uses, keeping them a bit further back could help negate any potential opportunities for the visitors. In the end, the U.S. will probably be fine with letting the fullbacks have the flexibility to get forward, but if El Salvador can pose a threat early, expect adjustments to be made.
3. Close down quicker at the top of the box
I'm not envisioning El Salvador having a lot of cracks from the top of the box, but they do have the power and technical ability to produce some dangerous shots on Matt Turner, who is set to start with Zack Stefen dealing with tightness in his back. As we saw against Jamaica and Michail Antonio's delectable strike form way out in their last qualifier, there can often be a gap between that backline and midfield where pressure needs to be applied. Tyler Adams doesn't sit very deep, like Michael Bradley did, so often times he'll need put a bit more pressure from a lateral position. So it will be up to the centerbacks to realize quicker when a shot could be coming from deep, to apply a bit of pressure on it, while also keeping an eye on any runs into the box.
El Salvador will take all the chances they can get, and if they aren't having luck earlier, they'll resort to shots from way out. It isn't a huge threat, but it's something this defense will be aware of. If they can close down consistently, the Americans should have more than enough to take all three points comfortably.