USMNT in World Cup qualifying trouble: Explaining why U.S. soccer fans are already panicking

The U.S. men’s national team is off to another slow start after two matches in World Cup qualifying and the alarm bells are already beginning to sound among USMNT fans and observers. Of course, the memories of the humiliating elimination suffered during 2018 World Cup qualifying are still relatively fresh and the USA’s two draws in the opening two matches of the 2022 campaign are stirring feelings of deja vu.

The latest result under scrutiny is Sunday’s 1-1 home draw against Canada, which exposed a multitude of issues affecting the team that have the potential to compromise a top three finish in the standings and a direct ticket to Qatar 2022.

The good news is that the USMNT has yet to lose a match in qualifying — the U.S. team in 2018 qualifying dropped its first two and it cost manager Jurgen Klinsmann his job — and it’s tied for the third direct berth on two points.

But Wednesday’s match at Honduras will already represent a tad more than one-fifth of the qualifying campaign (14 total matches) and a positive result is not guaranteed given recent history (0-1-1 in last two qualifiers in Honduras) and the real challenges the USA is presently facing.

Berhalter’s substitution strategy

U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter came under fire from fans and media postgame for his reluctance to bring in fresh legs against Canada. The Americans made a triple substitution at 1-1 with just seven minutes left in a game they wanted to win. By then, the Canadians had already made four substitutions. Berhalter accepted the criticism.

“They score in the 66th minute. We need a goal to end the game, and I can understand how it looks like we should’ve acted quicker — 100 percent,” Berhalter said. “In this situation we were looking at the performance of the guys and trying to figure out who we’re going to take off the field.”

Weston McKennie’s suspension

Not only can Weston McKennie boss a midfield on his best day, but he’s also one of the emotional leaders of the team at the age of 23, earning him the captain’s armband on occasion. But he was suspended from the Canada match for violating team COVID protocols and Berhalter wasn’t ready to confirm an immediate return to the lineup vs. Honduras: “That remains to be seen,” he said.

Berhalter didn’t get into specifics, but Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams admitted that it was a blow for the team on the field. Unless there are medical repercussions from the COVID protocol violation, the Americans can’t afford to have McKennie sit out against Honduras.

“We tried not to let that whole situation affect us too much,” Pulisic said. “Obviously, we missed him today.”

“Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation because he’s such an important player and important character to this team. And off the field, how he brings this team together,” Adams said. “It’s obviously very disappointing.”

For a team that is seeing its best player come back from COVID-19 (Christian Pulisic) and its former starting goalkeeper test positive for the virus (Zack Steffen), you’d imagine that players would be extra careful. Then again, this isn’t the first instance for McKennie (below) after he hosted a party in Italy a few months back, leading to a visit from police, and a fine and suspension from his club team Juventus.

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Lack of ideas in attack

Outside of Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Brenden Aaronson and Sergino Dest, there are few other players who can spark an attack on their own. Tightly contested matches like CONCACAF qualifiers are often decided by a player who can come up with an unpredictable moment of magic to throw off an opposing defense. The other American forwards depend on these players to unlock the attack with a big play.

Nicholas Gioacchini is another in that attacking catalyst mold, and he proved it in the Gold Cup, but he was not called up (presumably due to his recent club switch). And USMNT fans hope winger Konrad de la Fuente can be that kind of player. But looking ahead to Honduras, Reyna and Dest are injured (Dest’s availability is still TBD), and Aaronson already has 78 and 83 minutes in his legs from matches on Thursday and Sunday. Pulisic, who is always a marked man given his elite quality, is still regaining his best form after a bout with COVID-19.

“We need new ideas at times,” Pulisic said after the Canada draw. “Today, I think we didn’t test them enough, whether it was not being direct enough or — I’m not too sure. But it just felt like we couldn’t break them down. They defended well, but we need some new solutions. It wasn’t good enough… At times we couldn’t go from side to side quick enough and make them run enough. Everything was a touch too slow today.”

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Struggles breaking down the “low block”

Other CONCACAF opponents will have noticed that the USA is not comfortable finding its way through an organized defensive block like the one formed by Canada’s defenders and midfielders in front of their penalty area.

And in trying to penetrate the opponent’s wall, the Americans open themselves up on defense. The USA was vulnerable on several Canadian breakaways. For all the possession and shots the USA enjoyed, Canada’s chances were just as dangerous based on expected goals scored (1.52 vs. USA’s 1.66):

“It was tough to break down, man. It really was,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter, who wanted to see faster ball movement that didn’t allow Canada to shift positions and settle. “We have to figure out ways to break down a compact defense because I’m sure there’s going to be other teams that come to the United States and do the same thing.”

But it’s going to happen to the USA on the road, too. Expect Honduras to come out with a similar approach on Wednesday in San Pedro Sula. The only team that won’t take on that defensive stance is Mexico, and it’s no coincidence that the U.S. national team enjoyed success against El Tri in this summer’s two major finals when the tables were turned and the Americans were the ones defending and counterattacking. 

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Moments of lax defending

It was Canada doing the countering on the USA on Sunday and that led to moments of emergency defending from the U.S. back line. Central defender Miles Robinson excels in those situations and he has emerged as a key player for the USA. But those moments of one-on-one defending exposed his center back teammate John Brooks . Canada could have scored a winner on one such play when Tajon Buchanan torched Brooks but couldn’t find a teammate in the box.

The panic defending also doesn’t bring the best out of Sergino Dest, who is often caught out of position on his attacking forays. He also experienced some difficult moments against Canada. 

Strategy questions

He may not have intended it, but Pulisic’s post-game comments pointed the finger at the USMNT’s strategy and tactical adjustments. 

“After we score our first goal we need to be able to win a game lke that 1-0 at times,” Pulisic said. “I think whether that’s making adjustments or sometimes even having to defend a bit more, it’s tough to say. I don’t think we changed a whole lot. But we got beat and they scored and that was tough.”

It’s a skill for teams to grab a lead and sit on it. Pulisic’s Chelsea squad has mastered it under head coach Thomas Tuchel. Adams, who plays his club ball in the German Bundesliga with RB Leipzig, also brought up tactical considerations. 

“We have to look at the video, think hard about what we can change, how we can change our tactics, creativity. Just the whole thing,” Adams said. “Going into that next game we need three points.”

Injuries are mounting

There’s also an element of bad luck to start this qualifying campaign. There have been a series of injuries to attacking players that have seriously weakened the U.S. squad. Center forwards Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike, and wingers Tim Weah, Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris were all unavailable for selection to the squad due to injury. And now Reyna (injured vs. El Salvador and out vs. Canada and Honduras) and Dest are added to the list.

“Sergino [Dest] has an ankle sprain. We’re going to have to find out if he’ll be available on Wednesday,” said Berhalter, who didn’t strike an optimistic tone.

This is a deeper American squad than ever, but that depth has its limits. Berhalter confirmed they’re looking at possible replacements ahead of the Honduras match.

Ghosts of 2018

ESPN analyst and former USMNT player Taylor Twellman is spot on: The pressure on this U.S. team is greater than any team before it because it happens to follow the one that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Today’s squad is expected to be deeper and better so as to avoid drama during qualifying. The regional titles won over the summer served to inject some optimism that those expectations were not unfounded. 

Tyler Adams attempted to brush it off — “I wouldn’t say it adds pressure,” he said — but it’s real. It’s the main reason why the post-Canada reactions have been extreme. And they’ll only get more extreme if the U.S. can’t right the ship against Honduras.

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