USMNT vs. Uruguay: A decisive Copa América game full of mystery and 'many variables'

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter is a planner. In months between USMNT games, when his job is less pressurized and hands-on, his methodical brain obsesses over details and possibilities. He spent long summer days before the 2022 World Cup analyzing group-stage opponents. He likely spent chunks of this spring mapping out 2024 Copa América gameplans.

But he couldn’t have prepared for this, a decisive Group C game with messy scenarios, a suspended star and an injured goalkeeper, plus an opponent whose influential coach will be missing and whose motivations are unclear.

The USMNT will meet Uruguay here on Monday (9 p.m. ET, FS1/Univision) at Arrowhead Stadium in a match full of mystery. And it probably — maybe, but not definitely — must win to reach the Copa América knockout rounds and avoid unvarnished failure.

(L-R) USA's forward #10 Christian Pulisic, USA's goalkeeper #01 Matt Turner and USA's defender #13 Tim Ream line up for the national anthem ahead of the Conmebol 2024 Copa America tournament group C football match between the USA and Bolivia at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas on June 23, 2024. (Photo by Aric Becker / AFP) (Photo by ARIC BECKER/AFP via Getty Images)

In a simultaneous group-stage finale, Panama will play Bolivia in Orlando. The simplified version of several dizzying scenarios is that the U.S. must equal Panama’s result.

After Thursday’s self-destructive 2-1 loss to Los Canaleros, the U.S. and Panama are level on three points entering Group C’s third and final matchday.

Uruguay is on six points, with a plus-7 goal differential, and will top the group unless it loses to the U.S. by four goals.

In second place — the most significant place — the U.S. (+1) leads Panama (-1) on goal differential; so the U.S. will advance if both draw or both win by the same margin.

If Panama begins pumping goals, though, permutations get complicated. The second tiebreaker is goals scored throughout the group stage — and there, with each team on three goals, Panama has an advantage. A 3-0 Panama win and a 1-0 U.S. win would send Panama through to the quarterfinals and the U.S. out.

An easier way to process those permutations is from the Panamanian perspective: They must better the U.S. result; and if both win, their margin of victory must be at least two better than the U.S. margin.

The superficial view, then, is that the U.S. is sitting somewhat pretty. The problem is, well, everything else.

Panama very well could pound Bolivia, which shipped five goals to Uruguay and is pretty clearly the worst team in Group C.

Uruguay, on the other hand, is humming. Marcelo Bielsa, a revered Argentine manager, has rebooted La Celeste and transformed them into arguably the 2024 Copa América’s most impressive team. They are talented, coordinated and aggressive. They press man-to-man, relentlessly, high up the field, and blitz opponents immediately after winning the ball.

Uruguay's Maximiliano Araujo, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's third goal against Bolivia during a Copa America Group C soccer match in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
Uruguay's Maximiliano Araujo, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring his side's third goal against Bolivia during a Copa America Group C soccer match in East Rutherford, N.J., Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)

“We know that they're gonna be extremely high-intensity, really forward-thinking,” U.S. defender Antonee Robinson, who played against Bielsa’s Leeds United in the English Premier League, said Saturday.

"How they maintain the intensity throughout the game is different level," Berhalter added Sunday.

“They play quite a high-risk, high-reward game,” Robinson noted, sometimes leaving space that vertical forwards can exploit.

But the USMNT’s most vertical forward, Tim Weah, won’t be available.

Weah has been suspended two games for his costly red card against Panama; and the USMNT has been scrambling to adjust in his absence.

They had only three days to concoct a Plan B, and to figure out how to replace a player whose skill set has no parallel in the current player pool.

Weah, when healthy, has started every A-team U.S. game over the past two-plus years; he is a fixture on the right wing, because his on- and off-ball directness add dimensions to the U.S. attack, dimensions that it otherwise lacks.

So, how will Berhalter reconfigure the USMNT without Weah?

Option No. 1: The closest thing to a like-for-like replacement would probably be Haji Wright, a forward who often played centrally in the past, but now plays wide for the U.S. and for his English club, Coventry City.

Wright is more comfortable and effective on the left wing; Christian Pulisic could shift to the right, where he spent most of this past season for AC Milan in Italy. Such a shift, though, would require other adjustments further down the field.

Option No. 2 would be to play Gio Reyna wide, and bring Yunus Musah into Reyna’s midfield place.

If Reyna is deemed integral in midfield, Option No. 3 would be another versatile attacker, such as Brenden Aaronson or Malik Tillman, on the wing.

But both of those options have a familiar flaw: When the U.S. plays with two wingers who both prefer to drift infield, into pockets of space between lines — as Reyna, Aaronson and Tillman all do, and as Pulisic often does when he plays on the left — the American attack often struggles. Without Weah in September 2022, for example, they scored zero goals in 180 minutes against Japan and Saudi Arabia.

Referee Ivan Barton sends off Tim Weah of the United States, left, during a Copa America Group C soccer match against Panama in Atlanta, Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Referee Ivan Barton sends off Tim Weah of the United States, left, during a Copa America Group C soccer match against Panama in Atlanta, Thursday, June 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Last but not necessarily least, Option No. 4 would be something completely unpredictable: Perhaps a 3-5-2 with Pulisic partnering Folarin Balogun up front? Or a 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield of Adams, Weston McKennie, Musah and Reyna?

In the past, Berhalter has preferred consistency. He rolled out roughly the same personnel throughout the 2022 World Cup, and the exact same lineup in the USMNT’s first two 2024 Copa América games. But he has, at times, been willing and able to tweak his system to counter a specific opponent.

In the buildup to Monday’s match, there have been reasonable questions about whether Berhalter even knows exactly what he’ll be countering.

Uruguay hasn’t mathematically qualified for the quarters, but with its place all but confirmed, fans and media have speculated that Bielsa could play something of a second-string team, to rest regulars for the knockout rounds.

Assistant coach Diego Reyes was asked multiple times about that possibility Sunday. He said, after speaking about “many variables,” that Monday’s starting lineup had not yet been determined.

Seated next to Reyes was reserve goalkeeper Franco Israel, an unusual choice for a pre-match news conference, one that raised suspicions of lineup rotation. But it was almost too unusual — and maybe a misdirectional ploy. Rumors in Uruguayan soccer circles suggest that Uruguay’s lineup will be mostly unchanged.

​​”My guess is they're gonna play their strongest team,” Berhalter said Sunday.

And they won't assume that their quarterfinal place is secured. "We are focused on tomorrow’s game as if it were our last one," Reyes said.

KANSAS CITY, KS - JUNE 30: Matt Turner of the United States passes the ball during USMNT Training at Compass Minerals National Performance Center on June 30, 2024 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)
USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner's status for Monday's match against Uruguay is questionable. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

They will, though, be without their coach, Bielsa, who on Sunday received a one-match suspension because Uruguayan players arrived late for the second half of Thursday’s win over Bolivia.

Bielsa can still prepare his team, of course, but won’t be in their locker room or on their sideline Monday. He won’t be allowed in contact with them once they arrive at Arrowhead. Two of his longtime assistants, Reyes and Pablo Quiroga, will step in and take charge.

The suspension will limit their ability to tap into Bielsa’s wisdom mid-game. But it won’t limit Uruguay’s ability to play BielsaBall. His brilliance is in his teaching and his training, not his in-game adjustments. “It's a well-drilled team,” Berhalter said Sunday. “Regardless of who's on the sideline, it's gonna be a very similar playing style."

And the assistants are in tune with his philosophies. Reyes, beginning in 2007, has followed him from Chile to Athletic Bilbao, from Marseille to Lazio (briefly!), from Lille to Leeds and now Uruguay. He sounded confident that he and the staff would be able to cope with the assignment just fine.

“We have been working with Marcelo for a very long time,” Reyes said.

Uruguay, more importantly, is wholly healthy, with all 26 players available.

The U.S. will be without Weah, and could be without goalkeeper Matt Turner, who injured his left leg in the first half against Panama and departed that game at halftime.

Turner got through "limited" training sessions Saturday and Sunday, Berhalter said. He is questionable for Monday. Ethan Horvath would start if Turner can’t go.

None of these are ideal circumstances entering a hugely consequential game, easily the USMNT’s most consequential since Qatar. A win would provide proof of concept, and buoy U.S. players into the knockout rounds and beyond. A loss could kick-start a crisis and cost Berhalter his job.