The US Men’s National Team enters the international break second in the Octo standings on 11 points. Concacaf World Cup qualifying is still tight though with up and coming Canada undefeated having two wins and four draws with 10 points in third and a still tough Panama hanging around with eight points in fourth. Of course, Mexico is in 1st place with four wins and two draws, three points clear of the USA with 14 ahead of the one vs. two matchup in Cincinnati.
Overall, the USA has gotten the job done, though there have been stumbles and outright bad games. On the road, the Americans have taken four points from three matches. That isn’t bad, but after six matches qualifying is getting into “table don’t lie” territory so looking at the results individually can help draw some conclusions about the state of the team, what it needs to do better, and what’s going right. In September the USA pulled a draw against El Salvador away and won in Honduras. The following month, the Americans had their worst showing of qualifying, and just in general under Berhalter, failing to do anything productive in Panama, losing 1-0.
The El Salvador game looks more and more like a lost chance as the 0-0 result came against a team that is now in 7th for qualifying. Meanwhile, the win against Honduras was a really good result against a team the USA typically struggles against, but that team is now at the bottom of the Octo standings.
The one USA loss away to Panama is also tough to take as they have been inconsistent with wins against El Salvador and Jamaica, draws with Costa Rica and Mexico, a loss to El Salvador and then a humbling defeat to Canada. Getting a point or three in Panama also would have given the USA 12 points or 14 in the group, and given the USA either six or eight points between themselves and 4th place.
At home, the Americans have done what they needed to do, with one exception. Of course, that’s drawing Canada. In that match, the US dominated the first half only to see Canada come to life, earn a draw and come close to taking all three points.
The overall results and way in which they have been delivered has opened USA manager Gregg Berhalter up for some criticism for how he manages games, picks starting XIs, and generally calls up rosters. The criticism is delivered in a mixing pot of valid concerns, inflated expectations of soccer dominance by a young and shallow roster that is potentially overrated by some fans, observations of consistent shortcomings, hyperbolic blame of the media, evidenced based criticism of players, and of course, toxic insults thrown at a “mainstream discourse,” reporters, MLS, USSF, and anyone who doesn’t agree with @CHADALPHAJUSTUSMNTBERHALTEROUT’s anonymous vitriol. Life is a rich pageant.
This comes despite a summer in which the Americans won the Nations League and Gold Cup against Mexico and what is generally an acceptable showing thus far in World Cup qualification. That said, there is absolutely reason to be critical of Berhalter and how the USA has gotten to this point.
Case in point are the matches against Canada and Panama. While El Salvador is mentioned above, it seems like that match was as much on the players as Berhalter with the manager taking a risk and starting Konrad de la Fuente in central midfield rather than an option that would be more effective in keeping possession. Canada and Panama are a different story. Against our neighbors to the North, the visitors were largely ineffective in the first half before going on the front foot in the second 45. Berhalter had no answer. He was out-managed, hesitant to make adjustments and it showed with 1-1 a fair scoreline in the game, though a missed chance to secure what should have been a win.
Then there was the game against Panama. First there was the lineup which was heavily rotated with the USA playing three games in six days.
It was not only heavily rotated, but the players picked were more or less a B Team minus some guys that should be on the B Team plus the MLS All-Stars. It made our friend @CHADALPHAJUSTUSMNTBERHALTEROUT look right for once about JFK Jr. or SUM or whoever picking the roster. Berhalter more or less managed the game like it was a mid-week MLS match making two changes at the half and then putting in his good players about an hour before the end to try and get a result. It didn’t work.
Obviously, some rotation is inevitable, but this was a case where the starting XI was out matched and seemed to be set up for failure by the manager leading to the worst game under Berhalter’s leadership.
The toughest qualification test to date
However things have gone up to now, the team will need its best showing in qualifying to come away with six, or at least four, points this window. The game against Mexico could see the USA climb to the top of the group and Jamaica will be a much bigger test at home with Michail Antonio than it was in the USA without him. This window also sets the stage for the second half of qualifying when the Americans will have to go to Costa Rica, Canada, and Mexico to secure their place in Qatar.
These are two huge games and they come amidst inconsistent results, flawed managing, and questionable roster choices. Fans seem... anxious and rightfully so. Uncertainty is a given in sports where randomness is so much of a factor. Gregg Berhalter has gotten some things right and made other serious blunders. The difficult thing to read from these two extremes is getting a sense of what to expect from the manager every game. He wavers from decisive and effective to hesitant and faulty at times from one match to another.
What’s more, at this point the players have given Berhalter a large enough sample size to get an idea of their strengths and weaknesses. Fans have been critical of players, guess what the have in common, that have been included as Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan, Paul Arriola, and Kellyn Acosta are on the roster. Meanwhile, Luca de la Torre, Julian Green, and others playing in Europe are off the list while an American who took a huge step forward in MLS, Djordje Mihailovic, has not been included.
Arguably Acosta’s inclusion shows more of the limitations of the team’s depth in central midfield where Berhalter’s choices are limited. On the other side, Lletget was OK on a poor team, Roldan is versatile but hasn’t been impactful for the national team, and Arriola is a defensive winger who seems like an odd choice backing up more dynamic attacking options like the injured Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic, who is still coming back from injury. The manager is taking the known, experienced players rather than bringing in those who have less time on the national team. Both choices have inherent risks, but in every case Berhalter has gone with the more cautious option rather than potentially taking a risk.
That said, so far Berhalter has won two trophies and is doing enough to get the team to qualify and even qualify well in a tough confederation. The next two games will show if the choices he made are the right ones for these two games and if the manager can take steps forward and be effective outside of being the subject of amusing videos of how he throws the ball to players for throwins or if the wins against Mexico in the summer were the exception rather than the rule for him.