USMNT-Panama: How Gregg Berhalter’s heavy rotation strategy could pay off as World Cup qualifiers approach

During World Cup qualifiers, it’s rare for a team to be available all the time. This cycle, the final round spanned nearly seven months in five different international windows, meaning every team at CONCACAF must contend with choppy formats, injuries and off-season schedules between Europe and the Americas. This is the main reason why US men’s team manager Greg Berhalter has pushed the next man mentality home across the entire pool of players and made sure every player, whether on the roster or not, is aware of their place within the program. He had reached the depth of the players gathering at times and everyone knew that they could be summoned at any moment.

Rotation is something the team is preparing for as 38 players have appeared so far during the World Cup qualifiers, with 21 of them playing 90 minutes or more. Berhalter talked about how the best advice Bruce Arena gave to the two-time former USMNT director (and current president of New England Revolution) was to never have your first team, so make sure his roster can fill at least 1.5 teams to make up.

This policy has turned out to be important. Ahead of the USMNT’s crucial playoffs against Panama on Sunday in Orlando, Berhalter finds himself in need of a roster makeover. With Sergino Dest, Reggie Cannon and Dender Yedlin out of the team through injury or suspension, Berhalter called on Chuck Moore to fill the void. Moore traveled to meet the team despite the fact that his club, Tenerife, were fighting for promotion in Spain’s second division during this window.

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Moore hasn’t appeared for the national team since USMNT first lost to Panama in October, but prior to that he was a Gold Cup member as the XI of the tournament last summer when USMNT played a largely rotating team. Berhalter knows what he’s going to get at the right-back. Moore was considering starting the squad when Dest suffered an injury just before this window but George Bellow was eventually picked because the need at the time was a natural left-back. The Dest could play both sides if needed, and USMNT had Reggie Cannon and Deandre Yadlin to cover on the right. Now Yedlin has been suspended and Cannon has COVID so the situation has changed.

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Berhalter noted that Moore’s standing has also changed since the list was chosen two weeks ago.

“The funny thing is that before we called this roster Shaq wasn’t playing at all, mainly the weekend after we called the roster he started in that game, [and played] 90 minutes, Berhalter said, I think he played well as a right back [vs. Sporting Gijon]. He got help that day and was really good at progressing.”

But Berhalter had a tough decision to make as Tenerife played and the inclusion of Moore at that time could have hurt his chances of playing for the rest of the season. Since Cannon was still available at the time, Moore stayed in Spain and started another match for Tenerife, doing well before calling camp.

Berhalter was blunt in describing his thinking, saying, “He’s a guy you know, he played for us in the Gold Cup final. So we’re very comfortable with him and we’ve decided to go ahead with the experiment, Joe Scully in this case.”

Scully has also found it difficult to get minutes for the club recently, starting only twice in 2022 in the Bundesliga for Borussia Moenchengladbach, although both matches came this month. But it’s important for Berhalter to know what he’s getting from his buddies, and while Scully was on the team in November, he has yet to appear in Berhalter’s North American Federation game. So for a manager, that’s a balancing act. It depends on the rotation, but he also needs to know what he will get from the players he brings. So Moore, with his international experience, got the call.

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Berhalter averaged between three and four changes per game during the playoffs. The only time he didn’t spin this way was one of the biggest failures of the course. After beating Mexico at home in November, Berhalter made only one change before heading to Kingston to face Jamaica. This was suspended Miles Robinson to make way for Chris Richards. The whole team was tired to play and played a disappointing 1-1 draw. Had they won that match, a mere draw with Panama on Sunday would have been enough to snatch qualification for the World Cup. Now, even with the win, they could technically be in danger of going to their final qualifying match in Costa Rica on Wednesday.

Goalkeeper Zach Stephen doesn’t think similar issues will turn their heads this time around, and believes that after Thursday’s draw against Mexico they are in a much stronger place mentally.

“This time around, I think we got a point in the Azteca, with all the energy and emotions that was put in there, we didn’t go very high,” he said. “We haven’t been too low, back to Orlando where I’m going to focus on staying in the moment, focusing on what we can control, and that’s all about just getting our bodies back to readying our minds and focusing on tomorrow.”

This mental shift is again due to Berhalter, who ensures that his men are ready for whatever challenge they may face. And with Panama on the horizon, everything that Berhalter built will be at stake. A well-rounded team showing new legs and higher energy levels than Panama, who will also play on a short break, is likely to dominate the match.

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Panama needs to win and will have to try and score, and USMNT can take advantage of the space you will surely create. Take care of the business, and that will justify Berhalter’s approach to building a deep team where everyone is willing to step up. However, if you fail to do so, the USMNT’s mentality will be tested already under pressure with a trip to Costa Rica and a World Cup venue on the line. This is the challenge of international football. No matter how prepared you are, disaster always lies in a few outcomes.

Berhalter built a great team in hopes that they could keep those disasters at bay. Now is the time to see if they will.

How to watch a USMNT vs Panama match and odds

  • History: Sunday, March 27 | time: 7 p.m. Eastern time
  • LocationExploria Stadium – Orlando, Florida
  • television: FS1 | Live broadcast: fuboTV (try for free)
  • Prospect: USA-245; draw +310; Panama +675 (via Caesars Sportsbook)

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