Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen to overlook USMNT World Cup qualifying opener at El Salvador

U.S. men’s national team star Christian Pulisic has not traveled to El Salvador ahead of Thursday’s World Cup qualifier, head coach Gregg Berhalter has confirmed.

Pulisic tested positive for COVID-19 last month, setting up a race against time for him to be ready for the USMNT’s opening three World Cup qualifiers.

The Chelsea attacker won’t be able to face El Salvador but could still play against Canada on Sunday or Honduras next Wednesday.

Pulisic looks to make quick return

After his diagnosis was confirmed, Pulisic took to social media to confirm he was fully vaccinated and not experiencing any symptoms.

Pulisic was forced to isolate in London, though he was still named to the USMNT roster for its three qualifying matches.

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The 22-year-old was able to travel to meet up with his teammates in Nashville, Tenn., this week, where he participated in team workouts. 

But he was left back in Nashville as his teammates traveled to El Salvador on Wednesday.

Who could replace Pulisic?

With Pulisic out, Berhalter could hand a start to Konrad de la Fuente, who has started well at Marseille after a summer move from Barcelona.

The U.S. is thin at the winger position, with Tim Weah forced to withdraw from the roster due to injury. Brenden Aaronson, a more natural central player, could also potentially be shifted out wide for the U.S.

“We’re also missing Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris, so four wingers are down now,” Berhalter said. “One of my concerns is verticality. When you think about Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola, Christian to a certain extent, Timmy Weah, they give you that verticality that you need, that really threatens opponents, and when you think about a guy like Gio [Reyna] and Konrad and Brendan potentially, it’s more difficult for them.

“That’s something that we’re really talking about with our winger group: stretching the opponent, being vertical, using our pace, using our speed to get behind the opponent because we know that’s an important part of our game.”

Jordan Pefok, Josh Sargent and Ricardo Pepi are the three center forward options at Berhalter’s disposal. 

Steffen also out

Also out of action for Thursday is goalkeeper Zack Steffen, with Matt Turner named as the USMNT’s starter.

Steffen had previously dealt with a back problem and woke up in pain on Wednesday morning, leading to Berhalter’s decision to leave him in Nashville.

“That’s just creeped up,” Berhalter said. “He has dealt with something like this before last season, but it’s something that just crept up on him over the last couple of days.

“He woke up today and his back was extremely tight, and it was going to be really touch-and-go to see if he could play any part in the game. We thought it was best to leave him back and get rehab and try to make a run for Sunday.”

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