USMNT

Friendly preview: USMNT v. Northern Ireland

The prospects for today’s friendly are very different from the one a couple days ago. It’s the second in a two-game window for the US, but second of a three-game window for the Green and White Army – and either bookend is a competitive match for Northern Ireland.

The essentials

Opponent: Northern Ireland
Time, Location: Sunday, March 28, 11:05 a.m. CDT • Belfast, UK
Weather: 58ºF, 60% chance of rain, 81% humidity, 22 mph SSW wind
Watch: Fox (national) • Unimás/TUDN (nacional)

The FIFA rankings: USA 22 , Northern Ireland 45
Competition: International friendly

The Green and White Army

The U.S. is crammed between two competitive games for Northern Ireland. The (British) Irish lost to Italy 2-0 on Thursday, and will take on Bulgaria Wednesday in UEFA World Cup Qualifying. Only two teams in the five-team group (the Swiss are tied with Italy atop Group C; Lithuania has yet to play its first match) remain alive for Qatar 2022, so taking as many points as possible against Lithuania and Bulgaria is a necessity in the quest to sneak into one of those two spots.

Because of that, you can expect heavy squad rotation in what is a compact FIFA window for Northern Ireland.

The team went with a conservative 5-3-2 against Italy, with the three central defenders staying home, and the wingbacks getting up the pitch but not getting as involved in the offense as you’d think if Northern Ireland thought they had a legit chance to win the game. As a chance to prep against a certain style, The Green and White Army is pretty good (with differences in the way that style is played and the overall quality at some positions) for taking on some of the more minnow-y Concacaf squads.

Given the less-strenuous nature of the physical demands of the position, it’s a possibility that top keeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell of the Premier League’s Burnley could go all three games… but at the same time, this is an atypical opportunity for national teams to call guys in for camp, get the No. 2 some minutes that they wouldn’t otherwise get, and still play the best keeper in the game that matters. This will apply at a number of other positions as well, of course, but seems to be so specifically beneficial at keeper.

Speaking of minute-management, all five members of the backline went the full 90 against Italy. That includes a handful of the most-capped (here a proxy for both “best” and “oldest”) players. At least some of the CB trio of 33-year old Jonny Evans, 32-year old Craig Cathcart, and 25-year old Paddy McNair probably gets a rest here. Given I listed their ages, you can probably guess which ones I’d project. LWB Stuart Dallas and RWB Michael Smith are 29 and 32, respectively, and in a 5-3-2 system, obviously play a position that has a ton of physical demands.

The backups aren’t exactly awful, of course. Even a full line change would see players from the Premier League (LB Jamal Lewis, [presumably not also of the Baltimore Ravens), the Championship (Millwall LWB Shane Ferguson, Cardiff’s Ciaran Brown) and Netflix (Sunderland RWB Conor McLaughlin) available. A weakened Northern Ireland backline is not a weak Northern Ireland backline.

There was healthy rotation at the other five outfield positions against Italy, with only defensive midfielder (and captain) Steven Davis going the full 90. He’s also 36 and that can be a taxing position. Does head coach Ian Baraclough want to go without his captain for a match in the name of having him less-fatigued for a key game Wednesday? It may be wise, in all honesty.

Ahead of him, it wouldn’t surprise me to see many of the same starters, since Corry Evans and George Saville got 45 apiece against Italy at one more forward-thinking midfield spot, striker Gavin Whyte got only 64 minutes, and the other two starters got a healthy 78. The Green and White Army brought striker Kyle Lafferty – the second all-time leading goal-scorer with 20 – off the bench. At 6-4 and sorta awkward (also: playing at a midtable club in the Scottish Premiership – a/k/a “Celtic, Rangers, a rotating cast of solid third-place sides, and then a bunch of USL-quality teams”), he’s got that late-game, set-piece quality that may see him make more sense off the bench no matter what.

Indeed, the rest of Northern Ireland’s midfield and attack largely comes from clubs with that profile – either Championship of lower in England, or non-Rangers/Celtic SPL sides. Niall McGinn and Matty Kennedy come from Aberdeen, which has recently been one of the designated non-awful clubs in SPL. Five Thirty Eight‘s global rankings (always to be taken with a grain of salt, of course) still have them below six USL teams.

No matter the philosophy in choosing a lineup, the strength of this team is going to be in the back, getting progressively weaker as you move to positions up the pitch. Aside from maybe four or five guys, every player for the United States plays for a stronger team than his counterpart from Northern Ireland.

The Americans

Thursday’s win against Jamaica featured some incredible moments. For example, Sergiño Dest’s goal.

Still feel this way.

We saw basically a full-strength lineup given the available personnel. Since this is just a two-match window for the Americans and players will have a little more rest than their European counterparts (many of whom, like the Northern Irish, play on Wednesday, the final matchdate of the international window) when they get back, the world is Gregg Berhalter’s oyster when it comes to load management. I.E. He doesn’t have to be concerned about it.

Meanwhile, three players left after game one: John Brooks, Reggie Cannon, and Nicholas Gioacchini. The first two went the distance, while Gioacchini got a substitute appearance against Jamaica. Were you to plug-and-play with the existing lineup, the absences of Brooks (Tim Ream) and Cannon (Dest to the right, Antonee Robinson on the left – or just Bryan Reynolds on the right) have obvious like-for-like replacements.

What I would rather see is something different, not because there were significant problems in the US’s win over Jamaica, but rather because this is an opportunity to build in and rep some tactical flexibility before meaningful games in Nations League come the beginning of June (and the tune-up against Switzerland as that window opens). An odd backline, for example, is probably something that Berhalter will want to have his team build a bit of comfort in. I don’t know what he’s thinking, but it seems a possibility.

Anyone who reads regularly also knows I’m a big #playyourkids guy when it comes to the national team, so the likes of Chituru Odunze (to be clear: I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely that Zack Steffen doesn’t start, and if he doesn’t, Ethan Horvath is almost certainly the choice) would be cool to see, along with guys like Christian Cappis, Erik Palmer-Brown and Reynolds. None of those guys saw the field against Jamaica. Let’s give ’em a run.

Predictions

Keeping it brief because we’re under two hours from kick. This should be a heavily rotated Northern Ireland squad that even at its best shouldn’t be much more than a thorn in a more-talented American team’s side. The only question I have is how hard either team works to open the game up. I suspect “not very.”

United States wins 2-1.

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