Michael Bradley has been trying to tell us. He’s been answering almost the same question in almost the same way for years.
“You have to know how to even on tough days, under difficult conditions, be able to come away with points. Whether it’s on the turf at Saprissa, whether it’s the altitude and heat and smog at Azteca,” he said in the fall of 2012. “There’s so little room for error …. We have to be committed to getting points and to doing whatever it takes.”
It's going to be ugly, in other words. He added, “We have no divine right to just step on the field and win. There’s another team on the field and things don’t always go your way.”
After a rough start to the Hexagonal the following year, he said, “There’s 10 games. There’s ups. There’s downs. There’s so many twists and turns along the way—so many unexpected things.”
In the summer of 2015: “There’s this prevailing narrative that competition [in CONCACAF] is rising. It’s never been easy. Never … These games are dog fights in every way. This idea that ‘Well, it used to be a breeze for us, and now it’s not.’ It’s not true.”
And after a stunning defeat in Guatemala last year: “Look, it’s never easy. Nobody on the inside expects it to be and obviously for different people, they turn on the TV every four years and watch the World Cup and see us there and think we have a divine right to be there, but obviously anybody who’s in it every day understands that’s not the case.”
Then again—Bradley is nothing if not consistent and patient—he said this when the USA lost last week’s World Cup qualifier to Costa Rica: “There’s always been parity in CONCACAF. You guys have asked me about that a lot. I don’t subscribe to this notion that this is a new thing.”
A cynic—and there seem to be many in the wake of a rough couple games that left the USA’s World Cup hopes in precarious position—would argue that Bradley intends to lower expectations through a sustained campaign of misinformation. Keep saying it, and he can always tell us we’d been warned.
But it doesn’t take a historian to find some validity. For decades, qualifying was impossible for the USA. And then it became difficult—likely, expected and necessary—but still difficult. The larger, better-equipped army will almost always win the war. But that doesn’t mean it won’t lose some battles along the way.
One permanent jump in class is rare for any national team. Two arguably is unprecedented. So this is the state of American soccer's affairs. There have been rough patches in every World Cup campaign, from the one-win-in-six-games stretch in 1997 to the three straight losses and home setback to Honduras four years later. Fans wanted Bob Bradley’s job after a poor performance in Costa Rica in 2009 and Jurgen Klinsmann lost his after after a poorer one last November. The USA needed a win in Trinidad in 1989 to get to the World Cup and, incredibly, a good result against Guatemala in Kansas City just to ensure a spot in the 2013 Hex.
And this isn’t just an American condition. Mexico is breezing through this time around, but four years ago, it needed a favor from its rivals and a bit of divine intervention (San Zusi!) to get through. El Tri won two of its 10 Hexagonal matches. Costa Rica, a 2014 quarterfinalist that now has a strong case to be the second best team in CONCACAF, missed out entirely in 2010 and 1998.
While the USA was losing at home to Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena and struggling simply to play soccer in Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Honduras, other favorites were facing similar hardship. France, a World Cup favorite, couldn’t score at home against Luxembourg. Argentina, the 2014 silver medalist, couldn’t beat Venezuela in Buenos Aires and remains outside South America’s four automatic tickets to Russia. Chile, the two-time reigning Copa América champion, would be out altogether if qualifying ended today. The Netherlands is in deep trouble. Cameroon claimed the Africa Cup of Nations seven months ago, but it’s already been eliminated from the World Cup. And Australia, the reigning Asian champion, finished third in its group and now must win a playoff series against Syria and then another against a CONCACAF team to get in.
These are countries that expect to get to World Cups. Some expect to win them. And yet, every four years, somebody stumbles or struggles and everyone acts shocked. Now, after finishing first in three straight Hexagonals, it’s the USA’s turn. There are myriad reasons, explanations and excuses for the current predicament, which leaves the Americans (2-3-3) in fourth place—perhaps bound for that playoff—with two matches to go. Klinsmann botched the tactics in the opener against Mexico and a late set piece doomed the Americans. His team then appeared to quit on him in Costa Rica. Defensive consistency has been impossible to nail down. The referee didn’t get control of a rough-and-tumble qualifier in Panama. Everybody made mistakes at Red Bull Arena, and then San Pedro Sula posed challenges that—if we’d listened to Bradley—everyone should’ve expected.
None of this lets the Americans off the hook. They’re firmly on it, there's no one else to blame and now they must beat Panama in Orlando next month. And they may still need a result in Trinidad a few days later. That’s the upshot of taking only one point from the past two games. But there are other things to take away, if we look and listen. One is that every team, eventually, faces a qualifying conundrum. The others are worth keeping in mind as the USA nears the finish line, hoping to advance to an eighth straight World Cup.
Neither Arena—Red Bull or Bruce—is to blame
There was a lot of talk following the 2-0 setback to Costa Rica that a few thousand Ticos fans at Red Bull Arena may have influenced the result. This is absurd. The notion that a World Cup-level player will miss a pass, shot or trap because there are 10,000 supporters cheering at slightly different times than the other 15,000 won’t wash with anyone who’s performed at that level. The athletes aren’t counting or keeping track during play.
Atmosphere can have some impact. It can motivate or instill pride in the hosts. It can intimidate, or perhaps even fire up, the visitors. But fans without laser pointers don’t make plays, and home-field advantage is about a lot more than who’s cheering.
At the 2015 Confederations Cup playoff in the Rose Bowl, it felt like almost every one of the 90,000 fans was rooting for Mexico. But the USA still took the game to extra time. Advantage, especially in CONCACAF, is about more tangible things—travel, weather, facilities and field. The USA offers visitors state-of-the-art stadiums and training grounds. Travel is easy, hotels are luxurious and secure and visiting teams are safe and almost always unbothered. Gamesmanship in the USA is at a region-low minimum, and the Americans’ most obvious asset—cold weather that would bother Latin American or Caribbean sides—typically isn’t available in late August/early September. The USA deserved to lose to Costa Rica because it planned and played poorly. The stadium had nothing to do with it.
Bruce Arena played a role in that planning and warrants some scrutiny for deploying a midfield that struggled to blunt Los Ticos' counterattack or build out of its own half. It was apparent relatively early that Bradley and the back four didn’t have many outlets or options with the ball and that Christian Pulisic and Fabian Johnson were unable to find freedom going forward. A more robust, connecting presence in the middle was needed. But Arena stood pat and when the bounces and calls went against him, he failed to adjust in time.
But errors, to the extent Arena made them, are forgivable if not frequent or repeated. That was Arena’s first defeat in 15 games. He took over a team in crisis and through positive and pragmatic management, brought it back from the qualifying brink while winning the Gold Cup. His handling of the short turnaround between the June qualifiers against Trinidad and Mexico was masterful, and his players’ effort and engagement certainly hasn’t been an issue. Against Honduras, which enjoyed a real home-field advantage thanks to the blistering mid-day heat and long grass in San Pedro Sula, Arena made a couple changes late that helped open up the game and set the stage for Bobby Wood’s late equalizer.
Ultimately, soccer is a players’ game. The choice of which modern U.S. stadium hosts a qualifier and a manager who’s gotten most of it right since taking over nine months ago aren’t going to keep the Americans from the World Cup.
Defensive questions seem part of the team's DNA
One thing Arena couldn’t anticipate is the individual mistakes made by players in form. Geoff Cameron, Tim Ream and Tim Howard all had moments against Costa Rica they’d like back, and Omar Gonzalez’s strange failure to clear the ball in the first half in San Pedro Sula led to Los Catrachos’ go-ahead goal.
Everyone wanted Howard to start. He helped the USA win the Gold Cup while Guzan, who had a rough spring in England, yielded a questionable goal during the group stage. But Guzan held up well in Honduras and had the better week. And so fluctuations in form are the calling card of the U.S. defense.
Cameron was a goat at the World Cup, then he was an option at multiple positions, then clearly the USA’s best center back, and then back on the bench after the Costa Rica loss. John Brooks was imperious—perhaps the best prospect at the position in national team history—until he was exposed last November. But then his stock climbed again. And then he got hurt again. Gonzalez was good at the World Cup, then inconsistent with the national team, then a champion at Pachuca, etc. Ream was out of the picture then became the flavor of the month. As Ream rose, Matt Besler—who was very good in San Pedro Sula—seemed to fall. Fans, coaches and media anoint and then unanoint American center backs with regularity, but the fact remains that none have remained good enough or healthy enough to seize obvious and permanent control of the position. If the USA had world-class center backs, it would be Germany or Italy.
There’s a similar situation on the flanks, where the injured DeAndre Yedlin’s pace was missed against Honduras. Graham Zusi was good at RBA, but both the Sporting Kansas City veteran and his Houston Dynamo counterpart, DaMarcus Beasley, had difficulty keeping up in the heat of Honduras after being chosen to start over Jorge Villafaña. Zusi may be the correct choice in certain situations while Yedlin remains atop the depth chart. But it’s clear that Arena seems no closer to finding a World Cup left back. The manager has insisted Johnson is a midfielder. But the USA has other midfielders. Arena may have to consider pulling him back.
The Americans will have to improvise for two more games.
Pulisic is a special case requiring a special solution
Pulisic typically plays on the right for Borussia Dortmund, and Arena hasn't seemed too interested in following his predecessor’s habit of asking players to do the unfamiliar when they come into camp.
National teams often have to simplify. The personnel changes too frequently and players are in uniform for too short a time to leave them guessing and grasping when they arrive. There have to be some patterns and predictability. In that vein, it makes sense to focus on what the team does best rather than try to teach it too many new tricks, and what it does best usually is going to to depend on the strengths of its best players. When Landon Donovan was the top American, Arena and Bob Bradley often built their game plans around getting the ball to Donovan in space. He was at his best running at the opposition.
Pulisic is now the USA’s most dangerous player. But he didn’t make much of an impact this month. Against Costa Rica, the Americans’ inability to establish any rhythm with the ball left Pulisic stranded on the right. He rarely had anyone to combine with and most of his passing wound up going square or backward. In Honduras, it wasn’t until Arena moved to a 3-5-2 and added the speed of Paul Arriola and Bobby Wood that the game opened up. Pulisic moved inside and drew the foul that resulted in the free kick that led to Wood’s goal.
Pulisic drew seven fouls across the two games, more than any other U.S. player. He’s still dangerous, even in discrete moments. Moving him centrally might limit the space he enjoys on the right, but it also would result in more dangerous set-piece chances. And in certain situations—if the grass is shorter, if Arena picks the right players or if those players have better days—Pulisic almost certainly will see the ball more frequently.
A move inside raises other questions, of course. Would it also require a box-to-box player like Kellyn Acosta or Alejandro Bedoya to shore up the middle and connect Pulisic to Bradley? Does that mean sacrificing a second forward? The four current strikers—Wood, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris—all are assets.
It worked in home qualifiers against Honduras and Trinidad, but those were far easier assignments than Costa Rica and San Pedro Sula. Arena has done well introducing the 3-5-2 and getting the USA comfortable playing in that formation when required. It easily could work with Pulisic in the middle. The question is how the manager’s preferred 4-4-2 might function against better teams.
Both Panama at home and Trinidad away are winnable games. Those are easier assignments—on paper—as well. Perhaps it's time to cement Pulisic’s move to the middle—if he’s healthy, and if other options are available on the right and if Arena can work out how to avoid leaving Bradley overwhelmed.
There are always complications.