The time to really judge Gregg Berhalter on the work he does with the U.S. national team is still several months away, specifically after this summer's Concacaf Gold Cup, but first impressions matter, making Sunday's 2019 opener, and Berhalter's USMNT coaching debut very important.
No, it won't be about running up a big goal total against what is essentially a Panama C team, but more about giving long-suffering U.S. fans some clearcut signs about what sort of style Berhalter's USMNT will feature.
We hear over and over about the tenants of the "Berhalter way", from the emphasis on possession and ball circulation to aggressive wing play, but until we see a U.S. team deployed in his system, doing the things expected of a Berhalter team, it won't feel real, and it won't feel like the long-awaited new era has begun.
The current squad in camp is a far cry from the full first-choice USMNT group, but there are plenty of interesting questions that can be answered by this collection of MLS standouts. For instance, what's the pecking order among the various central midfielders? Kellyn Acosta's early departure would seem to suggest the Colorado Rapids midfielder has fallen behind the pack, with players like Russell Canouse and Cristian Roldan making strong cases in the current camp.
Then there are the wings, where Berhalter was left with few natural flank options and certainly fewer than the coach would want given how he likes his teams to play. Paul Arriola is the most natural fit in Berhalter's system, featuring on the right wing, while the versatile Sebastian Lletget can handle working the left even if you can argue he might be better suited for a central role.
Will Berhalter go with the predictable pairing of Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp at the base of a five-man midfield? That pairing would feel like a bit of overkill against an inexperienced Panama side that won't offer much in the way of dangerous attacking threats. While that may be, Berhalter is going to want his first match in charge to be one where the team is in control, and a Bradley-Trapp pairing would all but ensure that the Americans control possession, and protect the centerbacks enough to allow the fullbacks and wingers to get forward and create chances.
If there is a young player who could be a surprise starting option it is Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic, who has drawn raves from the veterans in camp for his skill and creativity. The 20-year-old was called in with an eye towards his potential as an option for the next Olympic qualifying squad, but at a time when pure attacking midfield options are scarce, Berhalter could be tempted to see how Mihailovic can do in a lineup with some veterans around him.
A start might be asking a lot of Mihailovic, with Roldan emerging as one of the players who has settled into Berhalter's system the best. Roldan isn't a pure attacking midfielder, but he can work in a central role in front of Bradley and Trapp, and is capable of pushing into the attacking third, though Berhalter could look to Marky Delgado in that central role as well.
Left back is once again a problem area, with Greg Garza's injury costing the team it's one veteran option at the position. Daniel Lovitz is an underrated player, but has he done enough to merit starting ahead of Nick Lima, who isn't a natural left back, but who has experience at the position? Berhalter could decide that he wants to send a message about playing players in their best positions, and having natural fits in each role, which would mean starting Lovitz, but Lima has had a good camp and is a good bet to be on the field, either at left back with Reggie Cannon on the right, or at right back.
Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman are the most experienced center back pairing available, even if they only have a combined six caps between them. The Philadelphia Union tandem of Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie have impressed in camp, but they are both waiting for their national team debuts, which aren't likely to come in a starting role just yet.
At forward, Gyasi Zardes should get the nod, not only because he is familiar with Berhalter's system, but because he is the most experienced option in the squad. Christian Ramirez and Jeremy Ebobisse are both searching for their first caps. Ramirez is the more likely of the two to earn a start, but is more likely to come off the bench.