To rotate or not to rotate, that is the question.
At least it's the question Gregg Berhalter is being left to ponder as he prepares the U.S. national team for its Gold Cup group finale against Panama in a match-up of unbeaten teams, with the winner securing first place in the group heading into the knockout rounds.
The USMNT has used the same starting lineup for its two group stage victories, comfortable romps against Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, and Berhalter hasn't come out and said he would make lineup changes for Wednesday's match against Panama, even though squad rotation seems inevitable for the Americans.
Is it Berhalter simply playing coy, or could the first-year coach actually be wrestling with the decision he admitted on Saturday he hasn't had to make before as a head coach.
"That’s a good question, and to be honest I don’t have experience with that," Berhalter admitted when asked whether he would rotate some players. "It’s the first time we’re going through it so we’re going to have to figure it out. We know that the tournament is a lot of games in a short period of time. So there’s going to have to be some balancing. Part of it was getting some guys off today to get them some rest. That’s going to be an interesting problem that we’re going to have to solve."
Berhalter will have to weigh the benefits of keeping the same starting lineup together against the drawbacks of putting too much wear on his first-choice group ahead of the knockout rounds. After a pair of victories by a combined margin of 10-0, it isn't as if there are any current starters who have played themselves out of a starting role, and Berhalter also sees a growing understanding within the group he will be tempted to keep developing.
"The guys feel good right now," Berhalter said. "Part of us analyzing the game against Guyana saying 'Okay, we need to take another step as a group. We need to keep progressing as a group'. It made more sense to play the same lineup. So we looked at who performed well in their position, who was able to keep their spot. And we found that everyone was able to keep their spot.
"In this case you know as we go into the Panama game the guys are feeling good right now. For us it's assessing where everyone is and then making the appropriate decisions."
Among the lineup decisions Berhalter could make, starting Jozy Altidore in place of Gyasi Zardes is a definite possibility. Altidore impressed off the bench against Trinidad and Tobago, but that match also saw Zardes score two goals in a strong performance. Jordan Morris is another good candidate to start, after making a major impact off the bench against Trinidad and Tobago. He could replace Tyler Boyd, though Boyd has looked sharp as a starter.
Defensively, Berhalter has talked up the quality of the central defenders on his roster, and he could choose to give Matt Miazga and Omar Gonzalez a start against a Panama side that doesn't boast the strongest forwards.
With a place in the quarterfinals already secured, the United States will be looking to maintain the momentum generated from its first two group-stage victories. Beating Panama would also pit the Americans against the second-place finisher in Group C, which will be set on Tuesday night. A stumble against Panama could throw the USMNT into a tough quarterfinal clash against Jamaica, the same Jamaica side that defeated the United States in a pre-Gold Cup friendly on June 5.
Panama won't make things easy. It will be a much different Canaleros side than the one beaten by the United States in a 3-0 romp in January. Veterans Roman Torres, Alberto Quintero, Harold Cummings and Michael Murillo will provide the stiffest challenge to date for the Americans at the Gold Cup, which could be another reason for Berhalter to stick with the same starting lineup, though there is also a good chance Panama rotates some players as well.
If Berhalter does stick with the same starting lineup, it won't be in order to try and avoid Jamaica, but more likely an attempt to get his first-choice group into better balance after players arrived at the Gold Cup in varying places in their seasons. Some players were coming off short vacations after European seasons, some were in the middle of their MLS season grinds, while others were working their way back from injuries.
Other top teams in the tournament have incorporated squad rotation into their lineup decisions, such as Mexico, which trotted out a mostly-reserve side in a 3-2 win against Martinique in El Tri's group finale, and Canada, which has used a variety of lineups.
Whether Berhalter makes wholesale changes, stands pat, or finds a middle ground, he and the USMNT head into the group finale with plenty of options, and surging confidence after some impressive victories that have provided a much-needed morale boost.
"This is a team that, from the beginning I think we've all bought into this idea of we're a collective, we're a team, we're a unit, and no matter who's playing, who's on the bench, we're all rooting for one another," defender Walker Zimmerman said. "We're all helping each other in any way that we can and so it's everyone's job to be ready from the first minute whether they're starting or not.
"So far the mentality has been great. In training and games the guys who have come in off the bench, guys who have started, guys who haven't gotten a chance yet, the mentality has been phenomenal and it's going to take that same committed effort and mentality to move along in this thing."