U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter has said repeatedly that his squad needs to approach Concacaf’s World Cup qualifying competition like it's playing 14 individual finals. The unfortunate flaw in that analogy is that teams tend to enter finals on a roll. The Americans have kicked off qualifying with a discouraging thud.
Two ties in the first two games, just one goal scored, multiple injuries and the dramatic dismissal of midfielder and team Leadership Council member Weston McKennie has sapped a lot of the momentum generated by the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup titles earned this summer. So far, the Americans have looked unprepared both tactically and psychologically for the qualifying gauntlet. They haven’t risen to the occasion. And that doesn’t cut it in a final.
Fortunately, there’s another flaw in Berhalter’s analogy that works in his floundering team’s favor. Despite failing to win its first two “finals”, the U.S. (0-0-2) is far from eliminated. There’s a long way to go in Concacaf’s Octagonal, which will send the top three finishers to next year’s World Cup in Qatar. And there’s still one more opportunity to reverse the current slide before this month’s international window closes. Beat Honduras (0-0-2) Wednesday night at the Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano in San Pedro Sula, and the U.S. would change the narrative. Five points would represent a decent and resilient return across the first three matches, and at least a dozen U.S. debutants will have gained indispensable qualifying experience.
There’s no trophy to lift in San Pedro Sula, but the stakes are significant. In a way, this one will feel more like a final than the previous qualifiers against El Salvador and Canada. Win, and the U.S. can exhale and approach the three-game October window with a bit more confidence. Lose, and the questions, concerns and public resentment that still linger from the 2016-17 qualifying failure will escalate. The knives will come out. If the tension and intensity was too high for a young U.S. side to handle this month, a defeat (or an ugly draw) in Honduras will make October’s qualifiers that much tougher.
“If I’m a fan, I’m not happy with two points after two games. I’m not, and I can understand the frustration. I think it’s completely normal. But you have to look at the big picture. This is a marathon. It’s not a sprint. You don’t qualify in one window,” Berhalter said Tuesday following the team’s arrival in Honduras.
“I can see it being memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back and people saying ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can understand that completely,” he continued. “What I’d say is that this is a different group. We’re focused on winning games. … We know these games are difficult and we’re focused on getting another result on Wednesday.”
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To flip the script and secure those three additional points, Berhalter and his team will have to dig deep. Winning on the road in Concacaf is always difficult (the U.S. is 3-2-2 all-time in Honduras but 0-1-1 since 2010). Honduras will be desperate and fresher thanks to more thorough squad rotation by coach Fabián Coito. And the U.S. will be playing shorthanded. The list of American absences is topped by McKennie, who was suspended for Sunday’s 1-1 tie with Canada and then sent home to Italy after breaching team rules. The midfielder acknowledged Sunday via Instagram that he violated “COVID protocols” and apologized publicly. On Tuesday, TUDN reported that McKennie had an unauthorized visitor in his Nashville hotel room and later, ESPN cited a source who claimed the midfielder also spent a night outside the national team’s COVID bubble.
In April, McKennie was suspended by Juventus for hosting an illegal gathering at his house along with two teammates.
Berhalter declined to confirm the TUDN and ESPN reports, but said that the door remained open to McKennie’s eventual return.
“I think the morale is great. People make mistakes. Weston apologized to the group. He apologized to me, and things happen,” the manager said. “We’re here in camp for seven days. The intensity is incredible. It’s three finals in seven days. We need everyone single-minded focused on what we’re trying to accomplish.
“By and large the group is there. The group is focused on that and sometimes when people aren’t, then you have to have a talk with them and you have to sometimes enforce standards,” he added. “It is upsetting to me as a coach. It’s upsetting to Weston. It’s upsetting to the players and the staff. But it is what it is and we’ll be ready to play tomorrow.”
Speaking from Honduras, U.S. forward Christian Pulisic said, “I think the group is ready to respond from everything that’s gone on. Obviously two results that we wish could’ve gone a little bit better, but the guys’ heads are up and I think we’re ready for a big match tomorrow.”
The pandemic’s impact on this qualifying window isn’t just related to broken protocols. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was already dealing with back spasms, tested positive for COVID on Sunday and will remain sidelined. Matt Turner has filled in well and likely will start again in Honduras. Pulisic played 90 minutes against Canada after recovering from a positive test and subsequent 10-day quarantine. It was his first action since Chelsea’s Premier League opener on Aug. 14, and it’s uncertain how much he’ll have left in the tank. He was decent but far from spectacular against Canada, drawing several fouls and hitting the post in the first half.
“[I’m] recovering well from the [Canada] game as well and I’m definitely going to be ready for tomorrow. I’m going to give everything I have,” Pulisic said Tuesday.
Two of Berhalter’s most dangerous dribblers, forward Gio Reyna (hamstring) and defender Sergiño Dest (ankle), will miss the Honduras match. And in addition to injury, there’s the specter of fatigue. Midfielder Tyler Adams and center back Miles Robinson probably have been the U.S.’s best performers across the first two qualifiers. But both will have played all 180 minutes so far. Going 270 in three countries in seven days would be asking quite a bit. Brenden Aaronson also started against El Salvador and Canada, laboring in midfield in the first game but showing well and scoring as a winger in the second. San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Jackson Yueill was called up Monday for additional depth, but he’s unlikely to start in San Pedro Sula.
Aaronson’s second-half goal in Nashville is the only breakthrough so far by an attack that’s struggled to get in gear. Frenetic El Salvador and compact Canada presented very different challenges, but the U.S. failed to create consistent danger against both. In fact, the Americans have had difficulty scoring all summer and, following a six-goal Gold Cup eruption against tiny Martinique, they’ve managed just five goals in six matches. Set pieces and pressing/turnovers have been the primary route to goal (Aaronson created the turnover that led to Wednesday’s tally). Open-play chances resulting from prolonged possession, build-up or individual skill have been tough to come by.
Honduras traditionally is a team that’s content to defend and counter. The U.S. will have to rely on lessons learned in Nashville against Canada’s deep and compact five-man back line.
“We have good attacking players,” Pulisic stressed. “It’s not something that we need to be concerned about or look into too much. Obviously, there’s slight things we can do. We watch videos, certain adjustments that we’ll try to make just to make it flow a bit better. But in the end, we know how to play and, yeah, it’s our job to go out there and create chances and score goals.”
Berhalter has said after both qualifiers that the U.S. was too slow in possession and needed to do a better job of moving opposition defenders out of position and making runs and playing passes behind the back line. That depends on chemistry, control and speed. The press can only do so much against an opponent that doesn’t try to keep the ball and looks to counter quickly. Honduras will have noticed the U.S.’s difficulty picking apart Canada’s low block, not to mention the way it yielded Cyle Larin’s equalizer on the counter.
Berhalter acknowledged again on Tuesday that there was substantial room for improvement. But he also admonished those who thought the Octagonal might be more forgiving.
“When we were on press conferences and we were talking … we were saying how difficult it’s going to be, how it’s not going to be easy. There’s going to be ups and downs,” he said. “But then when you’re actually going through it, I think people are like ‘Whoah, why didn’t we win the first two games? Why didn’t we win 4-0 the first two games?’ And the reason why is we said it’s going to be difficult. There’s going to be a lot of challenges. There’s going to be unexpected things happen. You’re going to get injuries. You’re going to not perform well one game, or one game you’re not going to finish some chances. That's what qualifying is going to be.”
It’s already been all those things and more. Luckily for the U.S., nothing is final yet. There’s time to turn it around, and there’s still confidence inside a beleaguered and depleted squad that Wednesday could be the day.
“That’s what we do for a living,” Pulisic said when asked about maintaining focus amid adversity. “It’s a normal thing. Things happen. Things go on outside of the game. But it’s our job that as soon as we get to that field, we’re ready to go. We’re ready to give 100’%, and I know this team will be ready come game time tomorrow.”
More Soccer Coverage:
- Straus: Concern, Urgency Grow for USMNT After Second Draw
- Straus: USMNT Earns Experience and a Point in El Salvador
- Straus: Home Is Where the Heightened Expectation Is for USMNT
- Creditor: Features, Pitfalls and Favorites in Concacaf's Qualifying Octagonal
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