That’s it. (Kind of.)
The entire four-and-a-half-year project undertaken since the United States men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 – the controversial and long-delayed search for coaches, the lost year of the pandemic and the weeks and months lost to injuries, players in and out and moving around – it all comes down to the finer points: three games next week to decide whether the United States- United get a ticket to the premier football event.
Will the United States qualify for the 2022 World Cup? May be! Are we going to enjoy the ride regardless? Probably not. Will it at least be finished by next week? Potentially not.
While a win and a draw in the next three games will almost certainly clinch the Americans’ spot, the variables of opponent and venue, injury and team rotation, form and tactics all conspire to make these next few days feel like a panel. of talking heads discussing comebacks from Waukesha County and suburban Philadelphia on election night. Everything seems very complicated, and depending on how you read the signs, you could easily convince yourself that the United States is going to crash into the World Cup or that they are doomed to repeat the horrors of 2017.
Let’s start with some good news: the United States currently sits in second place, four points behind first-place Canada and ahead of third-place Mexico in goal differential tiebreaker. The top three all qualify for the World Cup, and the United States have a slight lead, as they are four points ahead of fourth-placed Panama and five points ahead of fifth-placed Costa Rica. It’s possible that just one win in the next three games, especially if it comes at home to Panama, will be enough to guarantee the United States a World Cup spot. It’s perfectly doable; the Americans won five and drew one of their home games in qualifying.
However, it is also possible that the team needs more. If Costa Rica wins its first two games against Canada and El Salvador, it might be able to overtake the United States with a victory when the two teams play next week in the final match of the qualifying cycle. (Costa Rica is good enough to win at home against the United States) This would confine the United States to fourth place even if they beat Panama. It’s bad.
If the USMNT finishes fourth, its place in the World Cup will hinge on a playoff game in June in Qatar. Their opponent would be the winner of the Oceania qualifying tournament, which is currently taking place, also in Qatar. (Four of the games in this tournament have already been postponed or canceled due to COVID outbreaks, so CONCACAF’s fourth-place team may be paired with the last healthy team standing.)
That’s all for the future, though. Before facing Panama or Costa Rica or potentially New Zealand, the United States will face Mexico for the first time in Mexico on Thursday night. It’s not as intimidating as you might think. Given that the United States have beaten Mexico three times in a row in 2021, there may never be a better opportunity to secure a first competitive victory at the Estadio Azteca, which, at 7,200 feet, has historically provided one of the best home-court advantages in the sport.
Except that throwing the full weight of his team into this game could mean ruining his chances in the other two, especially Sunday’s must-see home game against Panama. Mexico look vulnerable, but there’s no guarantee the United States would get a result even with their incumbents. What is certain is that playing 90 minutes at this altitude can exhaust a player as surely as if he had been hooked up to the torture machine of The princess to be married. Whoever takes on this task will be mostly dead for a few days.
Additionally, players like Tyler Adams, Tim Weah and Zack Steffen are all one yellow card away from being suspended from the team’s next game. Add it all up, and you’ve got a lot of people, The Fox Soccer studio team among themsuggesting the smarter approach is to deploy a back-up team to Mexico and focus on the next two.
It would be easier to support this kind of team rotation if the depth of the USMNT had proven to be the strength we expected. Instead, the team looked mediocre when they benched their starters, usually for the second of three games. A probably meaningless statistic that you can nevertheless try to weigh in the balance of your apprehension: the Americans have so far failed to win any of their second World Cup qualifiers, drawing Canada at home and the Jamaica away and losing to Panama and Canada away. . Is this tendency more important than home advantage and lineup strength? Probably not. Throw him on the fire of anxiety anyway!
Worse, the US roster is thinner than ever. The team will miss qualifying MVP Weston McKennie, who broke his foot last month while playing for Juventus. McKennie’s overall excellence means coach Gregg Berhalter will have to give up something no matter who starts in midfield. Kellyn Acosta would provide defensive solidity and experience – he appeared in all three USMNT wins in 2021 over Mexico, which has to count for something. Luca de la Torre, the star player in February’s chilling win over Honduras, brings the dribbling and ball progression. Gianluca Busio provides a passing range. The coach will have to prioritize: what does he think his team needs against Mexico, for the unmissable home game against Panama and for the (possible) final in Costa Rica? How do the absences of attacking full-back Sergiño Dest and press winger Brenden Aaronson, both injured last week, change those calculations? What about goaltender Matt Turner’s ankle injury, which leaves the United States relying on a recently recovered Steffen (and possibly his replacements) in net?
The top tier of the team remains intact, led by the defensive efforts of midfielder Adams and centre-backs Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman. The United States allowed more than one goal in just one of their 11 playoffs, and that second came in the final minute against Canada as the United States sold out to tie. It would take an unusually poor performance for the Americans to find themselves completely overwhelmed in Mexico or Costa Rica.
The question is whether they have the firepower to get back in a game if they fall behind early, like they did in that demoralizing 2-0 loss to Canada. After eleven qualifying games, the team still have no idea who their best centre-forward is. The meteoric rise of 19-year-old Ricardo Pepi faded just as quickly. He hasn’t scored a goal for his club or country since joining FC Augsburg in Germany in January, although he remains the USMNT’s top scorer in qualifying with three goals. Jordan Pefok, back in the fold for the first time since September, has consistently finished in Switzerland, but his repertoire of comebacks and loaded headers make him an imperfect match for Berhalter’s system.
21-year-old Jesús Ferreira of $2 FC Dallas is a more natural fit as a mobile forward and playmaker. But until Saturday, when he scored a hat trick in the first half for FC Dallas, he too struggled to score goals, netting a header in his only qualifying start against El Salvador in January but missing two golden chances. Ferreira won’t score a hat trick in the Azteca, but if he can complete his pass with that new punch, then the job could be his for a while.
He will hopefully have some help on offense. Gio Reyna, whose recovery from injury suffered in the first-ever qualifier was long and arduous, started and lasted 90 minutes for Borussia Dortmund on Sunday, raising hopes he could be available for more than a late cameo by Kirk Gibson. Christian Pulisic, a source of consternation last window, looked dangerous again, scoring in both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League win over Weah’s Lille. He has scored twice in seven appearances, only half of which have started.
Now would be the perfect time for Pulisic to assert his dominance – to leave his mark as indelible as he did in the last doomed cycle when he was still just a teenager. It’s not for lack of trying. As he explained to ESPN after the last round of games, he thinks the pressure he feels while playing for his country has hurt his performance. His desire to “do something special” too often leads him to play the soccer equivalent of the hero ball, dribbling through congested areas until he is fouled or returns the ball. He rarely runs behind the defence, spending too much time near midfield instead of creating danger near the opposing goal.
Without McKennie and Dest to carry the ball forward, there’s a chance the United States will need Pulisic to work more as a liaison player. Hopefully he’s able to find a balance – trusting his teammates to choose his races, letting go of the idea that he has to do everything himself. If he can boost the team in the right areas, the road to Qatar will be much smoother. They could even conclude this week.