As the United States moves towards the final two matches in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, its recent struggles have put the team in danger of missing out on the 2018 World Cup. We have also heard from pundits like Craig Burley of ESPN and former USMNT player Alexi Lalas of Fox Sports scream at the team and offer their assessment of the USMNT’s woes.
However, Burley and Lalas aren’t the only people who have opinions we decided to take it a step further and, as a staff, break down two all-important questions surrounding the USMNT:
1. Why, in your mind, has the USMNT struggled during World Cup qualifying this cycle?2. What does the USMNT need to fix to win next month and qualify outright for the World Cup?
Today, we’ll tackle the first question. So, let’s hear from the staff:
Why, in your mind, has the USMNT struggled during World Cup qualifying this cycle?
In CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, there’s a simple rule that is the goal for all teams, and it’s a rule that really applies to any league in any sport: win your games at home, get as many results as you can on the road. For the USMNT, the struggles come from its losses at home. Sure, you don’t like losing on the road to Costa Rica or drawing teams like Panama or Honduras. But, there are 15 possible points to be had at home, and through 4 matches we only have 6. Since 2001, we have dominated at home and that has led to our easier qualification roads in 2005, 2009 and 2013. Losing at home is about inconsistency, it’s about lazy play, and it’s about making terrible decisions with the ball. We have done all of the above, and we aren’t fighting for those precious points. That, among other reasons, is why this qualifying campaign has been such a struggle. If we beat Costa Rica or Mexico at home, we’re in a much better position to qualify directly for the World Cup. We didn’t do that, and now we’re on the ropes.
As much as I hate fence sitters, I have hedge my blame just a bit. The talent pool for the USMNT is very, very solid from top to bottom. So, I don't agree with those that say it's a talent problem. The problem for me, is consistency. The talent is there, but how much of it is established talent? Whenever we do our fantasy lineups, it's very telling to me that literally only two, maybe three players are sure starters for the majority of fans. Aside from Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, and maybe a healthy John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin, there are question marks all around the field. Lack of consistency in starting lineups and formations is the biggest reason for our up and down form, in my opinion. It seemed like Bruce had settled into a good routine of picking a certain style of play at home and then a certain style on the road. He abandoned that philosophy against Costa Rica and the team looked off. Pick as consistent of a lineup as possible and let the best players gel together and the results will improve.
The USMNT is in the middle of an identity crisis while the rest of CONCACAF are developing identities. Jurgen Klinsmann started the erosion and Bruce Arena has done a decent job corralling it but here we still are. International squads have very little time to prepare and build team chemistry so it's critical that there be a consistent expectation not only tactically but with the player pecking order. I think Jurgen Klinsmann destroyed that stability with experimentation to the point where the players didn't know what tactics would be deployed one weekend to the next and who would be standing next to them. This created the highly volatile outcomes that fans were uncomfortable with. Arena has fixed this but even the Costa Rica game was an example where confusion reigns. Arena had prioritized shape over possession during his fourteen game win streak but against Costa Rica the team pushed forward and left their shape exposed. While he was praised in some circles for being more forward, I think this kind of decision only makes the team less certain of how they are supposed to be playing, and the result is the timid play we saw in this last round. Changing out seven starters in Honduras didn't help.
Teams aren’t worried about anything the U.S. can do in attack and are exploiting errors on the backline. Costa Rica and Honduras showed they can neutralize Pulisic and the U.S. has no backup plan. Bruce Arena always been agnostic when it comes to a playing style, but there’s also been no consistency to the backline, tactics, or even starting goalkeeper. Arena has also made some odd decisions about his callups, and the all of these issues have hurt the team.
A team that has traditionally relied upon sound, specific tactical plans began the cycle with a coach who didn't believe in them. Then the coaching change happened, and it produced a bump in form (results against Honduras at home and Mexico away on short rest were particularly encouraging), but even a summer where the team won the Gold Cup didn't prepare them for a harsh September round where injuries along the backline and questionable coaching decisions left the team second-best against Costa Rica, and nearly in dire straights if not for a fortuitous bounce for Bobby Wood in the box. Yes, the 4-4-2 has been where the U.S. has looked most dangerous in the past two years, but it's also become increasingly clear that running such a formation with Michael Bradley as the sole defensive midfielder leaves the team wide open to counter attacks by teams with any sort of speed and attacking quality, from Argentina to Honduras.
One of the biggest reasons the USMNT has been struggling during World Cup Qualifying has been too much squad rotation, which go hand-in-hand. In the eight games the USMNT has played during the Hex so far, they have played eight different starting XI's. Considering that the majority of USMNT players do not play together on their club teams, it is important to build chemistry together during games with the national team. By changing the lineup every time, there is no XI that has a chance to learn how to work together. One area of special concern has been the defense (allowing 11 goals in 8 games). Defenders really need time to learn how to play together as a unit. However, there have been seven different defenses in the eight games, and the team has gone back and forth between a back three and back four. This doesn't give the defense a time to build cohesion.
A lot of this comes from the amount of injuries the USMNT has had during the Hex. Yedlin, Brooks, Lletget, have all missed significant time, and that has forced some players to be moved around. Add in the fact that there have been two coaches during the Hex and we can see some of the reasons why we have had so much rotation, but there needs to be some consistency eventually.
Well, honestly the USMNT roster is just not as good as Mexico or Costa Rica right now. Granted they should have at least achieved more than 1 point in those four matches. Those lack of points are now hurting the USMNT. The long-standing theory of winning at home and drawing on the road is a must against Panama, Honduras, and Trinidad. Additionally, the USMNT should be good enough to nip a game on the road against at least one of these countries. That win is going to have to come against Trinidad and Tobago on October 10th.
I feel that the main problem goes back to the fact that the United States youth development has been poor for its entire existence. It is definitely improving in the last few years with the academy systems making strides across the country. But there is still a long way to go. The players currently on the USMNT are not responsible for this lack of training/teaching at the youth level. They are simply a product of their own environment. Let’s hope that future generations of young American soccer players will have a better system in place than the current crop of USMNT players had. It looks like they will.
On a side note, I’m not a big Bruce fan. I see why he was appointed to get the USMNT to the World Cup, but I don’t want to see him in charge for the long term (Please don’t quote me on this).
Remember the good old days when the USMNT played their World Cup Qualifiers with a chip on their shoulder and trounced their opponents 6-0? Because I sure don’t. And those days were only six months ago. The most recent cycle of qualifiers was pretty awful - both in the results column and the on-field performances. And while the roster most certainly needs a thorough reassessment from Bruce Arena, I believe the main culprit for the team’s recent struggles is complacency towards CONCACAF teams. The Gold Cup win in July, and their strong performances in WCQ prior, gave a sense of false hope to the USMNT. They thought they were too good to lose during this cycle. Unfortunately, this bred complacency for whom they were facing. Urgency was nowhere to be found against Costa Rica. And once the team went down 1-0, the offense panicked, producing drawn-out dribbles and ineffective long balls. Honduras felt the same as well. While I may not agree with Alexi Lalas on all things soccer, I do believe he has a point in saying that the mindset of the USMNT needs to be stronger. With two games left, the team cannot afford their rut of complacency any longer.
In my mind, the USMNT has not had the fighting mentality this cycle.Whether in game or practice, this team has gotten too comfortable. By saying that, I mean, there is no punishment and when a game goes wrong, it is alright, there is also an excuse. However, this team needs to shake that mentality and players need to be dropped when not performing. In my opinion, it all starts in the MLS where not every game matters, you can lose a few and not make the playoffs. This gives those players the, it's okay we will get them next time attitude. These players need to wake up, play every game like it is their last and do this country right.
We will tackle Question #2 tomorrow. First, it’s your turn to give us your thoughts. Hit the comments and give us your take!