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World Cup Qualifying: Midterm Round Table

We asked our staff to grade the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying campaign thus far. Here’s what they thought.

Mexico v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team just passed the halfway point in World Cup qualifying. We here at Stars & Stripes FC figured know would be a good time for a moment to evaluate and reflect how well the team has done so far. To that end, we’ve asked several of our writers to give the USMNT a grade based on how well they’ve done through the first 8 games. It’s our form of a midterm evaluation, if you will. Our responses reflect how well the team has met our individual standards of expectations. – Adnan

Brendan Joseph: B-

Against a 90%-strength Mexico, the USMNT performed with a confidence and sure handedness that has been lacking for quite a bit of time. The forwards and midfielders pressed with intensity and control, rarely overrunning the passing lanes or overcommitting. A constant stream of attacking opportunities was generated from a variety of sources. The defense bent but did not break. Accusations of playing to the level of opponents tend to be softer following wins against higher quality competition.

Assigning a “B-” grade seems a bit harsh to a team that at second place in the group and a hypothetical six-to-seven points away from qualifying for Qatar. However, that speaks to the overall potential of the squad, where the unrealistic standard of an undefeated record could be possible. These players are so young by comparison to past cycles that there has to be room left on the grading curve to accommodate the full potential for growth and development.

Some will quibble about Gregg Berhalter’s player selection and tactical ideas, but, for now, the program is trending upward. The standard of “win at home, grab points on the road” is being met, outside of an early blemish of a draw against Canada that was compensated by a 4-1 result over Honduras at the Estadio Olímpico. The back half of the schedule provides more of a challenge, but the strong start to qualifying should help to weather any future storms.

Justin Moran: C-

The USMNT has the best individual talent in the region by far, with more than twice as many players in both UEFA Champions League and top 6 European leagues as any other Concacaf nation. However, more than halfway through qualifying, it’s completely conceivable that the U.S. could fail to qualify for the World Cup — again — if things don’t go right in the final two qualifying windows. The top four teams are incredibly tight (Canada on 16 points, U.S. 15, Mexico 14, Panama 14), and the most difficult games are ahead. The U.S. has yet to face Mexico away, Canada away, or Costa Rica away.

Dropped points against El Salvador and Jamaica, Canada at home, and the loss to Panama aren’t catastrophic individually, but together show a very concerning pattern. Even more than the results, the team’s performances have left much to be desired, especially away from home. There is more than enough individual talent to breeze through the rest of qualifying, but the challenge for Gregg Berhalter will be how to set up that talent to get performances like we saw against Mexico at home. All in all, it’s been a disappointing qualifying campaign from a big-picture perspective. The team should have had its sights set on dominating the region and preparing for a World Cup run, but must now fight to make sure it even qualifies.

Adnan Ilyas: B+

Halfway through World Cup Qualifying, the USMNT has been that student that read through the entire assignment and tried to show their work. For me, qualifying isn’t about standing out and showing off. It’s about getting the job done. The truth is that, for all their faults, the team is being effective and completing the assignment. I feel my grade reflects how strongly they’ve taken to that task. Indeed, if this had been written before the Jamaica game, back when the US was on top of group standings, I would have given the team an A-.

Right now, the team is on track to secure qualification with a game or two in hand. Actually, that’s probably underselling it. The team is currently on 15 points with just over half their games played, and there’s an outside chance that that 15 point mark itself could ultimately be enough to finish in 4th, the play-off spot. It’s not always been smooth and the team hasn’t put out a true blow-out win, but that makes this qualifying campaign markedly different than four years ago. The USMNT of the 2016/17 qualification campaign had the talent and the ability to get through qualifying, even played some stellar matches, but they didn’t make it. That team didn’t read the directions properly; they didn’t follow through. They failed. They got an F. This team, however, looks to have learned a lesson or two from that previous experience.

Of course, a D is a passing grade, as I so often heard while in organic chemistry in college. Merely qualifying will get you a passing grade, but it will not get you high marks. That B+ grade comes partly from just how much work has been accomplished towards the ultimate desired result (qualification). But part it came from moments of genuinely good play. The US has been a defensive stalwart, tied for fewest goals conceded. The team’s depth has been tested by significant player omissions in every single window, yet they have successfully managed their talent and continued earning results. Individual players have not only performed well, but improved over the course of the campaign. And the team not only beat Mexico, but dominated over their arch rivals in a way I’ve never seen before. This has all been done with a team that is whole-sale young and inexperienced. However, while a B+ represents a promising grade, it isn’t close to a perfect score. The team still appears to struggle to create chances and they haven’t figured out how to replicate their best moments while on the road. Those issues represent places for improvement.

Donald Wine: B+

Qualifying for the World Cup is difficult, especially in Concacaf. Every team can beat you either on the field, through “gamesmanship,” or by just seizing the moment. Through it all, the USMNT is right where they want to be: in 2nd place in the Octagonal. Has it been easy? Of course not, but the hard is what makes World Cup qualifying great. And, they’re still in a position where they could qualify for the World Cup during the January/February international window.

Gregg Berhalter hasn’t coached the best in each match, and the players he has called in have not always performed to the height of their abilities. But, Berhalter fields a team that plays their tails off for him and for the goal, and it has yielded some incredible moments. And that’s still without putting a complete match together where they perform well for the entire 90 minutes. Still, I return to the simple goal the USMNT had: qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Full stop. Nowhere in that goal exists the requirement that it be pretty or dominant. It just has to happen. And so far, Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT are doing what they need to do to separate themselves and put themselves in a position to potentially achieve their goal with 3 matches to spare.

Rob Usry: A-

Considering all the factors, I’m very pleased with the team’s qualifying campaign thus far and Gregg Berhalter’s mentality of giving young players the chance to sink or swim. Sure, when you compare some of the results we’ve seen to the previous cycles where the USMNT dominated the region it’s been mediocre at best. But when you rely on so many young and inexperienced players there’s bound to be hiccups in the process. So for Berhalter to be introducing so many new faces into the team and still have them in a great position to qualify midway through, I think it’s a bit harsh to ask for much more at this point. With that said, I’m banking on the early struggles and bumps to lead to better performances and results in the final half of games. That period did great things for the team’s chemistry and will pay dividends down the road.

So that’s what we think. Now what we want to know is how YOU grade the team so far. Let us know in the comments below!