In such an intense, fast-moving period, it's easy to become prisoner of the moment.
As it relates to the U.S. men's national team and its quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, that means, for those on the outside, contemplating a roller coaster of what-ifs, worst-case scenarios and knee-jerk reactions that may either be lacking the context of the bigger picture or may not entirely be rooted in reality—at least not with the full complement of evidence required to come to such conclusions. For those on the inside, it means tuning all of that out as much as possible and keeping one eye on the big picture and the other on what's right in front of you.
“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces. We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way. We want to play well and we want to win games,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said following Wednesday night's 2–1 win over Costa Rica. “But all of World Cup qualifying is difficult. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging. And sometimes I feel like people forget that and people think it’s a cakewalk and we’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a game, and we’re just going to breeze through these games. It’s not realistic.”
The U.S. most certainly did not breeze through this October window, but on the surface, a six-point haul after home wins vs. Jamaica and Costa Rica and a lifeless road defeat to Panama represents another satisfactory effort in the grand scheme.
Somewhat ironically, though, it was a series of individual moments that allowed the U.S. to emerge from the October window in good shape. The victory over Costa Rica was defined by a number of instants that went the U.S.'s way (after the first-minute calamity, that is). There was the 13-pass sequence that led to Sergiño Dest's goal (and yes, the sequence nearly broke down after the first few passes, and you could argue that Tim Weah should've hit an early, first-time cross to Dest, but the play wound up with Dest's banger of a goal, so all of that is moot).
There was the potential-PK-that-wasn't on Chris Richards's sliding challenge on Jonathan Moya (Berhalter may wind up grateful after all that Concacaf does not have VAR available in this competition). There was Miles Robinson's awful giveaway and heroic recovery tackle (he's fortunate that was Bryan Ruiz who made the steal and not someone with the pace of, say, Alphonso Davies). There was the injury to Costa Rica star goalkeeper Keylor Navas that at least raises the idea that perhaps Weah's shot that resulted in the game-winning own goal could have had a different fate. And there was the pregame injury to Paul Arriola that resulted in Weah's starting to begin with. There's no telling what Arriola could have or would have done in that place, but Weah wound up as one of the U.S.'s top performers on the night. Often, a complex picture boils down to the fine margins, and on Wednesday, the majority fell in favor of the Americans.
So the U.S. moves forward as part of a trio of teams beginning to separate from the pack. The Concacaf Octagonal isn't halfway done just yet, but the three 2026 World Cup hosts—Mexico, the U.S. and Canada—are positioned best to secure the region's three automatic berths for the 2022 showcase. For the U.S., there's a five-point buffer between its current standing and not making it to Qatar, though with road matches at Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica still to come, the hard part hasn't yet hit.
Since this is the first eight-team final round of Concacaf qualifying, there's no previous data to draw upon to determine what would be a target number of points for the U.S. to hit to secure a top-three berth, but through six games, the U.S. is likely and roughly halfway to glory slightly less than halfway through the fixture list.
There's little time to rest on laurels, though. The home Mexico game is on tap next, and full focus will be on Cincinnati, where the U.S. can either pull even on points with El Tri atop the table or find itself dragged back closer to the middle of the pack, allowing the external doubts to creep back in ahead of a trip to Jamaica.
Barring injuries, the U.S. will have a full deck for the Mexico match. It was imperative that Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, the indispensable midfielders they are, avoided picking up second yellow cards in qualifying Wednesday that would have rendered them suspended (Adams looked to be close to receiving one for dissent after Costa Rica's opening goal, with the referee going to his pocket before ultimately not doling one out). If Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna are fit to rejoin the team—and take a second to consider that the U.S. has secured 11 points from six games by getting just one match out of Reyna, just over one and a half from Pulisic and one and a half from imposing center back John Brooks—then Berhalter may actually have a full complement of top talent for his first time as U.S. coach. Given that November's is a more traditional two-game window and not a three-game one, squad rotation will be less of a requirement as well.
All eyes will also be on the U.S. goal. Zack Steffen was handed the start in Columbus, and the first-minute fiasco made for a clinic of second-guessing. Did Berhalter need to make a change in the back and open himself up to the potential for criticism when Matt Turner had been so steady? In the long run, it may prove that getting Steffen that game has tremendous value, and while it's nice that on one hand the U.S. feels it has two goalkeepers it can turn to in big spots and feel equally at peace, it helps when there's consistency at the back. Steffen lost the No. 1 job due to injury and COVID-19, so in one sense it's unfair to take it from him permanently, but Turner had deputized well in the previous five games, coming up with pivotal moments that are likely to be overlooked when qualifying is through, and, unlike Steffen, he plays regularly for his club. The scrutiny over the decision in goal doesn't look to be ending anytime soon.
But that's a question to be sorted in a few weeks' time. For now, the U.S. has emerged from another grind of a week in a position of strength. It's sandwiched in the table between Mexico and Canada, who remain the only unbeaten sides left in the region. Elsewhere, Panama remains equally capable of stifling top foes at home while struggling on the road. Costa Rica looks old and severely limited. Jamaica got the win it needed to remain alive and will hope that the likes of Michail Antonio and Leon Bailey come back next month to fortify the squad before it becomes too late. El Salvador is still a tough foe that has little to show for its efforts in the points column. Honduras is in last place and onto a new coach, its hopes of qualifying for a third World Cup in four cycles dwindling by the game.
All things considered, the U.S. remains right where it needs to be to achieve its ultimate goal, and after all the angst, worry and hypothesizing over the last few days, that's a fine place to reside.
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