NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Winning home games is the key to World Cup qualifying, and the Americans go into Sunday night's match against visiting Canada uncertain whether star attacker Christian Pulisic will be available and knowing No. 1 goalkeeper Zack Steffen remains out.
Pulisic is regaining fitness following a positive COVID-19 test and missed Thursday night's opener of pandemic-delayed 14-game final round, a 0-0 draw at El Salvador.
“We've been getting him up to speed with training. We're trying to see what he can tolerate, see what type of workloads he can do, and I think that's the first step,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Saturday.
A 22-year-old attacker who last season became the first American to play and win a Champions League final, Pulisic missed Chelsea’s 2-0 win at Arsenal on Aug. 22 and a 1-1 draw at Liverpool on Aug. 28. He resumed training with the U.S. on Monday and remained in Tennessee when the team traveled to Central America.
Pulisic was to be evaluated again later Saturday to determine whether he will be on the game-day roster.
“It's about really seeing how he can come back in a safe way," Berhalter said. "We been having conversations with him asking him about he's tolerating loads and everything. We'll see if he’s ready.”
Steffen missed the El Salvador game because of back spasms and was replaced by New England's 27-year-old Matt Turner. Berhalter said Steffen, Manchester City's backup to Ederson, remains out.
Wingers Gio Reyna and Konrad de la Fuente, central midfielder Brenden Aaronson and forward Josh Sargent failed to generate offense at El Salvador, where Berhalter said metrics showed the U.S. had almost 1.6 expected goal chances. He concluded combination play and passing was “not up to the level that we expect” but attributed that in part of 12 players making their qualifying debuts.
“It's a bit of pressure on them, for sure,” Canada right back Alistair Johnston said. “I know that their fans are probably essentially a little upset that it was only a point but I still think that any point on the road here in CONCACAF is a solid thing.”
Canada opened with a 1-1 draw against Honduras in Toronto, Mexico defeated visiting Jamaica 2-1 and Panama was held 0-0 at home by Costa Rica. The top three nations of North and Central America and the Caribbean qualify for next year's tournament, and fourth place advances to a playoff for another berth.
The U.S. had been unbeaten in 32 home qualifiers (30 wins) from 2001 until a 2-1 loss to Mexico at Columbus, Ohio, in November 2016, the Americans’ final round opener. They followed with a 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica four days later, leading Jurgen Klinsmann to be replaced by Bruce Arena, and lost to the Ticos 2-0 in September 2017 at Harrison, New Jersey.
A 2-1 defeat at Trinidad and Tobago in their final game the following month left the Americans one point short of reaching the 2018 World Cup.
Both teams enter with confidence. The U.S. has won 14 consecutive home games and is ranked 10th, its highest since 2006. Canada is led Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies, Lille's Jonathan David and Beşiktaş' Cyle Larin, and the Canadians are No. 59, their highest since 2010.
“We've going to have to rotate players," Canada coach John Herdman said. "It's going to be difficult to sustain top-level performance in three games in seven days, but at the same time there are players who have the abiity to go back-to-back games.”
Advance sale topped 36,000 for Nissan Stadium, one of 18 venues in 17 U.S. cities competing to be sites of the 2026 World Cup. Atlanta, Miami and Orlando, Florida, are the other southern contenders.
"It's going to be a weird experience," said Johnston, who plays for MLS's Nashville team and referred to it as “enemy territory.”
“Being on the wrong side of our supporters' chants will be a little different," he said. "I wouldn't mind seeing what they've got, seeing what they can get on me with.”
These teams have not met in qualifying since 1997, when the Americans won 3-0 at Stanford, California, and 3-0 at Burnaby, British Columbia, the latter clinching a berth in the 1998 World Cup with a game to spare.
They met again in the 2019 in the CONCACAF Nations League group stage. With the U.S. missing Pulisic due to a hip injury and Steffen because of left knee tendinitis, Canada ended a 34-year, 17-game winless streak against the Americans with a 2-0 victory at Toronto that October on second-half goals by Davies and Lucas Cavallini. The following month, the U.S. won 4-1 at Orlando, Florida, on two goals by Gyasi Zardes and one each by Aaron Long and Jordan Morris. Steven Vitória scored for Canada.
When the sides met at the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July, the U.S. won 1-0 behind Shaq Moore’s goal 20 seconds in, the fastest since U.S. records began in 1990.
"Canada has a lot of players (who) also play in Europe, is maybe similar to us," said American defender John Brooks, who will enter the starting lineup after being rested at El Salvador.
Berhalter is likely to make several changes.
“Now it's a home game. We get to play in front of our fans.” he said. “These are the moments that we've been waiting for.”
Notes: The start of the U.S.'s game Wednesday at Honduras was pushed back 25 minutes to 10:30 p.m. EDT by the hosts.
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