USMNT vs. Saudi Arabia: All eyes on Christian Pulisic, Ricardo Pepi

By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

The United States men’s national team has one last warm-up game before the 2022 FIFA World Cup, on Tuesday in Murcia Spain against another Qatar-bound opponent in Saudi Arabia (2 p.m. ET, FS1).

The U.S. has plenty to prove in it, too, after losing their penultimate dress rehearsal in resounding fashion last week against Japan. The Saudis will present a similarly tricky test.

Tuesday’s foe won an Asian World Cup qualifying group that also contained the Blue Samurai, who totally outclassed the sluggish and sloppy Americans in Friday’s 2-0 friendly win in Germany. So for the USMNT, the focus isn’t necessarily on how to stop the team on the other side of the field as much as it’s about finding the intensity and execution that was sorely missing in their last outing — one of the national team’s worst performances in almost four years under coach Gregg Berhalter.

“We got our butts kicked, and we’re not proud of it,” Berhalter said Monday during his pre-match Zoom conference with reporters. “We should’ve played much better, and we could’ve played much better, and we didn’t. So we wanna play better this game. I think it starts with the collective, us playing together more cohesive. And if we do that we’ll be fine.”

Christian Pulisic to start on Tuesday

The good news is the Americans will have their most decorated attacker back on the field. Berhalter revealed on the eve of the match that Christian Pulisic, who didn’t dress for the Japan game after suffering what U.S. Soccer called a “knock” in training, will play from the start against the Saudis.

It remains to be seen if the unspecified ailment that sidelined Pulisic last week will limit him in any way, but just having him back on the pitch should provide a morale boost for a team that needs one.

“He’s motivated — Christian is a guy who is always motivated,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said of Pulisic. “He always wants to play, and he’s a very important member of this team. We’ll be happy to have him back.”

Forward Ricardo Pepi will also start, Berhalter said. Pepi, 19, hasn’t scored for the national team since last October, but he’s registered a goal and an assist in two games with Dutch club Groningen since moving on loan last month from Augsburg of the German Bundesliga.

“He’s been lively, confident. He has this brightness in his eyes,” Berhalter said of Pepi’s performances in training. “He’s ready to perform. It’s good to see that. I know it hasn’t been easy for Rico in the last months. It’s good to see him have a different demeanor.”

Pre-World Cup jitters vexing the Americans?

Berhalter suggested on Monday that part of the problem against Japan could have been nerves. The U.S. will name its final 26-man squad for the World Cup on Nov. 9, making this month’s camp the last, best chance for those called in to convince the coaching staff that they’re worthy of a seat on the plane to Doha.

A few final roster spots are thought to be up for grabs. Same goes for a few places in the starting XI, depending on injuries. (More on that below).

“There’s stress involved and there’s outside factors that affect performance,” Berhalter said. “The guys we’re tensein [the last] game.”

Veteran right back DeAndre Yedlin, the only player in this camp with previous World Cup experience, acknowledged that the looming cull could be weighing on those players whose spots aren’t assured.

“Naturally, guys could be nervous,” Yedlin said. “Guys are going to know what’s at stake.

“We all love each other here, and we’re all trying to obviously make this team,” he continued. “It’s down to crunch time now. Guys can have anxiety about making the squad, but we just need to do what’s best for the team.”

That means not trying to do too much individually and playing more like a unit — something the U.S., rather uncharacteristically, struggled mightily with last match. Along with upping the urgency and cleaning up the poor passing, delivering a more cohesive performance will be the priority on Tuesday.  

Berhalter’s preferred lineup taking shape

A British reporter asked the U.S. coach if he had already settled on a preferred lineup for the Americans Nov. 21 World Cup opener against Wales.

“Ideally in a perfect world, I have it in mind,” Berhalter admitted, noting that the group he has assembled in Europe for this game is missing, in his words, five starters. “Do I think we have the best players in each position identified? Yes. Do I think they’re all going to be available for the start of World Cup. I don’t know.”

We do know that Pepi and Pulisic will play against the Saudis. But with just one last dress rehearsal before the main event begins, Berhalter will want to maintain some continuity — especially with regulars like Yunus Musah, Chris Richards, Antonee Robinson, Zack Steffen and Tim Weah all unavailable this month.

That means that Walker Zimmerman and Aaron Long will probably continue in central defense (the other two center backs on the roster (Mark McKenzie and Erik Palmer-Brown, were called in only after Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers got hurt).

Yedlin and central midfielder Kellyn Acosta seem likely to play after participating in Monday’s press conference. Acosta would presumably fill Musah’s role in midfield alongside guaranteed starters Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie.(Luca de la Torre manned that spot last week.) Selecting Yedlin could mean switching Sergiño Dest, another lineup lock in Qatar, to left back. Youngster Joe Scally is another option to play his off side.

Finally, Matt Turner, easily the best American performer against Japan, should keep his place in goal. Whoever plays, there can’t be much dwelling on what happened last week.

“There’s no reason to get negative,” said Yedlin.

“The name of the game is just rest and recovery,” Acosta added. “After we reviewed the film, it’s like all of our eyes are on Saudi Arabia.”

One of the leading soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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