After two matches, though, the United States has looked more like the older, predictable team from the previous cycle than a new contrivance.
“We haven’t lost yet. We’re undefeated, which is a positive part of it,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said after a 1-1 draw with Canada on Sunday.
He is not wrong, but they haven’t won, either. Entering the competition, the United States and Mexico were heavy favorites to earn two of the three automatic slots in Qatar next year. Given two U.S. victories over Mexico in regional summer tournaments, the Americans were considered the unofficial top seed. Even with a slip-up here and there, they figured to qualify.
Two games into the 14-match schedule, however, Berhalter’s bunch has garnered just two points. The aim was at least four and ideally six, the latter total taking pressure off the need to win Wednesday in Honduras.
Instead, the vulnerable Americans sit in a fourth-place tie. They will arrive in San Pedro Sula, the Honduran cauldron, badly needing a victory in the last of a whirlwind first window of matches. A draw would ease some of the anxiety that is setting in with both the team and an antsy fan base, but three points are what they really need for both their positioning and confidence before three matches next month.
A lot of points remain on the table, but missing out on them at home is what helped doom the 2018 qualifying campaign.
The standings are tight. Only Mexico has won each of its first two matches, both by one-goal margins. Panama is the only other team to win a game. All others have ended in draws. In all likelihood, the scramble will not be settled until the final matches in March.
“These rotations, these three-game windows, are killer,” said Canadian Coach John Herdman, whose team also tied its first two matches. “This is a tough grind. Every game is an absolute battle. So it’s like a 14-game war.”
The disappointment in the U.S. results is tied to expectations. Although it’s a young squad, the players come from club nobility, such as Chelsea, Manchester City, Barcelona and Juventus. Never before has the national team assembled such a rich collection of world-class players.
That said, “it’s a team sport,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “It doesn’t matter where we come from if we don’t do the things we’re good at. We’re just a group of names on a piece of paper. Other teams maybe don’t have the players on these big clubs, but it doesn’t matter. It’s a team sport.”
And right now, the team is not functioning properly, on or off the field. Weston McKennie, the strongest personality in the delegation, left Berhalter in a tight spot after violating team policy related to coronavirus pandemic guidelines.
Feeling he needed to hold the Juventus midfielder accountable, Berhalter dropped him from the game-day roster Sunday. It’s unclear how much of a distraction he caused — his teammates were not informed of his absence until Sunday afternoon — and he won’t play Wednesday after being taken off the squad and returning to Italy.
Other problems were out of Berhalter’s control: Gio Reyna suffered a hamstring injury in the 0-0 draw at El Salvador on Thursday; Zack Steffen contracted the coronavirus while rehabbing back spasms; and Sergiño Dest sprained an ankle in the first half Sunday. Reyna, Steffen and Dest are out Wednesday.
Christian Pulisic missed the first match because of fitness issues tied to his coronavirus recovery. He started Sunday and gave a noble effort but wasn’t in top form.
The U.S. program has developed so much depth over the past four years that absences to even several probable starters should not cause such problems.
When Canada, competing in the final round of qualifying for the first time in 24 years, sat back early in the match, the Americans labored for answers.
“We need new ideas at times. … We didn’t test them enough,” Pulisic said. “We need some new solutions. … Everything was a touch too slow.”
Berhalter was equally disappointed: “We needed much faster ball movement. It took way too long on the ball, not skipping passes, not playing behind them enough. We have to find ways to break down a compact defense.”
Don’t think Honduras, Panama and all other future foes with less ability and greater reliance on tactics were not taking notes. The United States did have greater success unlocking the Salvadoran defense but faltered in finishing opportunities.
Although the U.S. team has gone 11 matches without a defeat, it has not lit up the scoreboard. Aside from a six-goal eruption against a weak Martinique side in the Gold Cup, the attack has not posted more than one goal since a friendly against Costa Rica in June — eight matches ago.
Josh Sargent, the first-choice striker now playing for Norwich City in the English Premier League, has not scored for the national team since November 2019, a span of six matches. Dest, a regular with Spanish power Barcelona, struggled in two matches before getting hurt.
Defensively, Matt Turner has been fine in goal, but the back line was exposed on Canada’s equalizer: DeAndre Yedlin, Dest’s replacement, could not keep up with superstar Alphonso Davies, and the center backs lost track of scorer Cyle Larin. There were several other scares as well.
Another factor to consider: The rough-and-tumble ways of Concacaf qualifying may be better suited for MLS players than the European-based elite, who, in addition to the travel between matches, had to fly across the Atlantic for a brief training camp. Almost every other country relies heavily on players employed in the Americas.
Regardless, this U.S. roster should be too good to fail. The outcome of the first two matches, though, demonstrated that Berhalter is going to need more than shiny résumés to get the job done.
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