One win, two draws, one draw that felt like a loss. After three games of World Cup Qualifying, the USMNT has emerged from the hype and bluster with something of a reality check. The other teams are also trying to qualify, making it to the World Cup won’t be a victory tour for the Stars and Stripes.
From these matches there has been information and feedback that is evident in how the team played and was managed. The assumptions and expectations about what should have happened have been put in check by the actual results. Where the team goes from here and what happens next will be informed by what actually happened and is helpful to measure where the team stands before the next three matches.
One obvious thing the matches say is that striker is a problem. Josh Sargent has been crowned the next big thing in terms of goal scorers for the USMNT, but that hasn’t panned out for the youngster. As a pro he’s struggled to score, not all of that is his fault obviously as he’s played for some awful teams, but it’s beginning to look a lot like his record with the youth national teams is pushing his status on the senior team rather than anything he’s done recently. Jordan Pefok has been a hero off of the bench for the Stars and Stripes, but underwhelmed in this window. Meanwhile, Ricardo Pepi is in the form of his life and put together a truly remarkable performance against Honduras. If that happens consistently, he is the missing piece for the team.
The MLS talent is pretty solid. Throughout the first set of matches, the best defender on the field was Miles Robinson, Matt Turner showed he can start any game for the team, Ricardo Pepi was the best attacking threat, and even Sebastian Lletget scored a goal. Kellyn Acosta was less than impressive, but still solid enough during what for him are poor performances to have helped hold down the midfield defensively.
There’s lots of European pedigree across the roster, but so far that hasn’t translated to great performances for the USMNT. Regardless of where they play, this is still a young team. Christian Pulisic has also yet to emerge as a true difference maker for the USMNT. He’s good, and was kicked a lot by the opposition, but is yet to put forward a world class performance for the national team.
The depth falls off sharply even though it is a strength of the team. Despite the MLS talent being pretty solid, the deeper down the depth chart the further the talent divide shows in how the team plays. This may obviously improve if young players in Europe emerge, but that is far from a guaranteed proposition.
It also seems clear that while rotation is inevitable, a first choice backline of Antonee Walkes, Miles Robinson, John Brooks, and Sergino Dest is a much better option than playing Dest out of position on the left in order to shoehorn a second choice right back in the lineup.
The assumptions about the roster don’t exactly match up with how the team performs and that has to do with the reality of the talent level of the players. Pulisic wears the no. 10 shirt for Chelsea... where he comes off of the bench and is being considered as playing right wingback; McKennie starts at Juventus... a team that didn’t play up to expectations last year where the midfielder got his first taste of the Champions League in four starts and seven appearances. Dest plays at Barcelona... where he is a young and promising player who has a long way to go developmentally. Brenden Aaronson is lighting up the Bundesliga... the Austrian Bundesliga. Konrad is making strides for his new club team... but is being asked to fill a different role for the USA.
If there are two players who truly excel in their positions: Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams. Their names are in permanent marker on the depth chart, but that alone won’t win games at this point.
There is no doubt that this is the best USMNT roster ever, but compared to the rest of the top 10 FIFA ranked teams, they are young, inexperienced, unproven, and a few steps away from being truly special. They may very well be there one day, but they are not exactly there yet.
To start with, Berhalter announced a roster that seemed to not include enough players. Perhaps this goes to one of his weaknesses, that he seems to stick to rigid plans and not make contingencies for the unexpected, but central midfield was a little thin and another right back may have been a welcome addition. The players Berhalter did call in have proven themselves on the international team or with their clubs. The manager did not bring in promising players that are recovering from injury, or just getting a foothold as professionals or those who underwhelmed with the national team before moving abroad. Berhalter seems fairly pragmatic and cautious with who gets called into competitive sides and the players he choose reflect that.
Every manager has their strengths and weaknesses tactically and in managing games. This round of qualifying sharply exposed those of Gregg Berhalter. At his best, Berhalter is a diligent planner with clear ideas of how he wants the game to carry on. He’s shown that he can execute a plan, as in the match against Mexico in the Nations League when he crucially subbed his outside backs. In the Gold Cup, he established the team’s defense and took things from there. The team didn’t score bunches of goals, but they also didn’t have to.
At his worst, Berhalter seems paralyzed by indecision and is slow to make needed changes. Against El Salvador, the team more or less tried the same ineffective thing for 90 minutes regardless of who was on the field. The Canada game was a case where Berhalter’s inability to have his team adjust and failure to make timely subs cost the team a chance at three points. Canada played dead in the first half, the US got complacent, and when the opposition sprang to life in the second the US scored, but failed to hold the lead or make subs that could have regained it until too late. Still, give Canada credit. It is not easy to pull off what they did and the USA played right into the trap they set to make it happen.
It took two games and a nearly must-win situation for Berhalter to step up and take a risk deviating from his typical tactical set up. While the first half lineup in Honduras did not work out, it clearly showed that the manager was aware that three center backs would give him the width from wingbacks that the team was lacking against sides that bunker and possibly get more service to the strikers. It didn’t work, but the changes at halftime that he made led to a memorable and massive result for a team that typically does not win very often away from home during qualification.
In the end, team USA got five points, what seemed like the least acceptable result based on the opposition. However, stepping back and looking at the level the player pool is at and how the team is managed, it’s fair to say there were points left on the table without catastrophizing the results. They managed to do it the hard way, but five points is five points.