McKennie to start vs short-handed Jamaica in WCup qualifier

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Juventus’ Weston McKennie goes for the ball during the Serie A soccer match between Juventus and Torino, at the Turin Olympic stadium, Italy, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (Spada/LaPresse via AP)

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna are missing from the U.S. lineup because of injuries but Weston McKennie will start following his disciplinary flap last month. Jamaica is without top forward Michail Antonio for reasons that remain unclear.

The Americans host Jamaica on Thursday night after getting five points in their first three matches of CONCACAF’s brutal, 14-game, seven-month final round of World Cup qualifying. The Reggae Boyz have one point as they seek to return to soccer’s showcase for the first time since 1998.

“After three games I don’t think it’s panic mode for anyone in the table,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said Wednesday. “This is about just hanging in there and every round chipping away at it until you get to that number where you’re qualified.”

Reyna hasn’t played since a hamstring injury in the Sept. 2 opener at El Salvador, and Pulisic hasn’t recovered from a sprained ankle sustained six days later at Honduras.

Jamaica learned Tuesday that Antonio, the Premier League’s August player of the month for West Ham, failed to travel. Reggae Boyz coach Theodore Whitmore wouldn’t confirm or refute a report Antonio was angry he couldn’t bring along a physiotherapist.

“I can’t comment whether it’s commitment,” Whitmore said. “It’s a sticky situation. There’s not much I can say. … I don’t want to point any fingers. I don’t know who is at fault, All I can say is the player was selected.”

Jamaica will have only 20 players dress — including three goalkeepers — from the 23 selected, three shy of the total allowed to suit up. Whitmore said it was too late to ask clubs for releases.

“Personally, I wanted to take more than 23 players,” he said.

Berhalter has 26 in camp. Midfielder Yunus Musah trained on his own Wednesday after an inconclusive COVID test, then received a negative PCR test and was cleared in the evening to rejoin team activities.

“It was a precaution we needed to take,” Berhalter said.

McKennie played 90 minutes in the 0-0 draw at El Salvador but was held out of the 1-1 tie against Canada after violating team COVID protocols, then was sent home before the 4-1 victory at Honduras. McKennie has not discussed the situation with media.

“We’re dealing with young players here, and I think there’s moments where there’s going to be mistakes made, and I think it’s just about being accountable for your mistakes and then learning and moving from there,” Berhalter said. “Weston is going to start the game tomorrow. He’s been focused coming into this week, and we’re not holding anything against him. Is he going to have to rebuild trust by a time period of showing that he’s the leader that we expect him to be? Of course. But there’s nothing held against him.”

This set of games also includes three matches in seven days, with a Sunday game at Panama and a meeting with Costa Rica next Wednesday at Columbus, Ohio.

Panama requires visitors not fully vaccinated to quarantine for 72 hours, and Britain mandates those who have been to Panama to quarantine upon entry to the UK, which impacts goalkeeper Zack Steffen and left back Antonee Robinson.

“Right now, we have everyone except one player that’s fully vaccinated. Another player has one of his two shots, and we’re going to have to be working through that,” Berhalter. “The English situation is changing daily and we’re figuring that out, as well. We don’t think it makes sense to travel Zack or Antonee if they have to quarantine for 10 days at the back end.”

Berhalter used 22 players in the first three matches, including 21 starters. Only goalkeeper Matt Turner, defender Miles Robinson and midfielder Tyler Adams played every minute.

He added Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Musah, Tim Weah, Gysasi Zardes after they recovered from injuries, and Giancluca Busio, Matthew Hoppe, Chris Richards, Shaq Moore and Luca de la Torre a month later into their European seasons.

Berhalter dropped Jordan Pefok, James Sands and Josh Sargent along with No. 3 goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, while defender Johns Brooks (injury) and and Tim Ream (family reasons) withdrew.

In the first World Cup qualifier in Texas, Berhalter is looking for speed — as he calls it, “verticality.”

“There’s moments in the El Salvador game, we get the ball, there’s a ton of space behind the back line, and we want to pass it to an open player so he can dribble instead of playing behind the line,” he said. “Look at the Canada game, where it’s a compact block, why not try to get behind that with the urgency more often.”

Jamaica lost 2-1 at Mexico and 3-0 at home against Panama, then drew 1-1 at Costa Rica.

“We understand the intensity and the grit that it’s going to take to get a result that we want,” Miles Robinson said.

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