Reyna in midfield, Pepi up front? How the USMNT could line up against Japan

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Just two games stand between the U.S. men's national team and the World Cup and, for several players, those two games could make all the difference.

First up is a friendly against Japan in Germany – a match that gives the U.S. a strong test against a fellow World Cup qualifier, a welcome and overdue opportunity to go up against a non-CONCACAF side containing some top talent.

Heading into that game, there are several things Gregg Berhalter will look to accomplish. The first is to give his stars, both those in form and out of it, a run out together to build chemistry for the World Cup.

The second objective will be to assess those players on the fringes, the ones gunning for those last few spots on the plane to Qatar.

So, here's a look at how the USMNT could line up against Japan...

  • Projected XI

    With just two games left before the World Cup, Berhalter will likely use at least one outing to take a closer look at something resembling his best XI. After all, due to injuries, we haven't seen his strongest side all too often.

    Gio Reyna missed chunks of World Cup qualifying, as did Weston McKennie. Jesus Ferreira only recently claimed the No. 9 role, so seeing him with the rest of the USMNT attack would seem important.

    But, once again, injuries do exist, so there are some alterations.

    Antonee Robinson is a lock to start on the left, but he's out, opening the door for Sam Vines. Yunus Musah can also be written into the midfield when he returns to injury.

    Centerback is something different, though, with several players auditioning to partner Walker Zimmerman following Miles Robinson's horrible Achilles injury.

    And in goal, there's Matt Turner, who, with Zack Steffen out, gets another chance to show that he deserves to be the No. 1.

  • Pepi (or Sargent) up top

    One small change, but one that deserves a whole explanation.

    As things stand, Ferreira is almost certainly the guy. He's the best fit and in the best form (Jordan Pefok aside).

    But things change quickly at striker, and Berhalter may want to prepare for that.

    In the lead up to this game, Berhalter said that he wanted one final look at Ricardo Pepi before he makes a decision. The former FC Dallas star's stock has cratered since this time last year, but he is still a player with the skill and ability to lead the U.S. for years to come.

    The question is if he does it this year. His move to Groningen seems to have him on the right track, but it may just be that his performances during this camp determine his fate.

    Something similar could be said for Josh Sargent, who is in great form for Norwich.

    At the end of the day, there are likely three spots for some combination of Ferreira, Pepi, Sargent, Pefok and Haji Wright. Who grabs them will depend a lot on the next few games and the next few weeks.

  • On the fringes

    This is a friendly, and we all know the point of friendlies: to try things.

    Berhalter has said that he has about 85 per cent of his World Cup roster locked in, but that leaves an extra four spots or so up for grabs.

    So, while it may be tempting to trot out the Best XI for both of these games, it's also worth giving those fringe players a chance to audition.

    Players like young Malik Tillman can use the reps at the senior level, while someone like DeAndre Yedlin or Reggie Cannon could look to show why they're the best backup right back.

    And at centerback, Berhalter has plenty of options as Erik Palmer-Brown and Mark McKenzie have been handed a late lifeline as injury call-ups.

  • What to do with all of these attackers?

    One of Berhalter's biggest problems isn't the quality of his attackers, but the quantity.

    It could be argued that four of the USMNT's six best players all play in the same position: on the wing. In some ways, that's good, as injuries, form and fitness shouldn't leave the USMNT bereft of options out wide.

    It does, though, bring up another problem: getting the best players on the field.

    Berhalter, so far, has been somewhat against this option, playing everyone in their more natural roles. The USMNT's young stars are flexible, though, and could provide some answers in other places.

    Both Reyna and Aaronson, for example, can play in midfield. Weah, who isn't here, can play as a striker. Tillman can operate all across the front line or in midfield, while Ferreira is capable of playing as a No. 10 if that's something that ever pops up.

    So, why not get a look at Aaronson or Reyna in midfield to see if it's something worth doing?

    With Musah out, it seems like the perfect time to carry out an experiment that could help get the USMNT's biggest stars on the field together in Qatar.