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United States v. El Salvador, 2022 World Cup Qualifying: What we Learned

The USMNT opened up World Cup Qualifying with a goalless draw away at El Salvador. It was a frustrating result, but not necessarily a bad one. Here’s what we learned.

El Salvador v USMNT Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The USMNT opened up their World Cup qualifying campaign with a trip down to San Salvador to face El Salvador in what turned out to be a stale and plodding scoreless draw.

Hey, welcome to CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

At kick off, I had the following three questions for the USMNT:

1) How does the team handle playing on the road?

2) How aggressively does Berhalter use his subs?

3) How well does Gio Reyna the team do in midfield on both sides of the ball? (I thought Reyna was in midfield when it was actually Aaronson... so, let’s be flexible here.)

We are going to tackle these three questions, but first, let’s talk about the opposition and context.

Setting the Stage

Let’s get this out of the way; The context for the USMNT in this match was that the national team missed the last World Cup after losing the last game against the worst team in the group. Feel free to insert your choice of expletives into that statement where appropriate.

Winning the Nations League and the Gold Cup were awesome, but they are a distant second to the World Cup and, by extension, to qualifying. These are the games that count and you need to make them count.

With that said, no match in qualifying is going to be easy, and that goes especially for the away matches. Every single team in the Ocho is good enough to qualify for the World Cup. That goes for El Salvador, who have been whipped into shape by former USMNT great Hugo Pérez. This team is talented and well organized.

As far as hostility goes, this one was pretty tame. El Salvador didn’t play dirty. The field looked decent. The weather was decently temperate. And there were no injuries. But let’s be real for a second. I mean, come on, did you see the riot police with the riot shields in the corners? While this may be gentle as far as CONCACAF goes, this is still a rough experience.

Credit to El Salvador, they came out and tried to play their game. They looked pretty decent against what has been the best team in CONCACAF this year. That said, they didn’t generate many chances. While Turner had to make one really good save, the MNT mostly succeeded in stifling the Salvadoran attack and generated a few really good looks. But they couldn’t turn any of those looks in. And thus, we walked away scoreless. The numbers reflect this.

With that said, let’s dig into those questions.

Far From Home

You are going to hear this a lot, both from me and from others: Win at Home, Draw Away. If you can do that in CONCACAF, you will qualify for the World Cup. Winning games away on the road is nice, but playing on the road in CONCACAF is hard. We’ve seen multiple instances where a player or a coach with a prestigious club background came into qualifying thinking they’d sweep the field, only to walk away humbled. And you know what? This time around, all these young players know it. Just look at what Tyler Adams had to say in the post-match interview.

I talk with my teammates in Leipzig all the time about which games I have during the international window and, you know, they sit there and laugh because they have to play against England, France ... and I tell them, trust me, I’d rather play against France, England in these games where the conditions and the fans and the pitch and the ball and everything is an ideal situation. For us, it’s never going to be an ideal situation on the road.

To get through qualifying, you need to respect the adversity when traveling and you need to have a game plan. That’s where Win at Home, Draw Away comes from. It’s a pragmatic strategy to pick up points. The big reason why the USMNT didn’t qualify for the last World Cup was because they lost two games at home and couldn’t get the draw against the weakest team in the round. If the US had been just a little bit better at winning at home and drawing away, they would have gone to Russia in 2018. This cycle of qualifying needs to internalize those mistakes, learn from them, and make pragmatic decisions that lead to effective outcomes.

I’ve been pretty vocal about my concern with the MNT’s performances on the road going back since before Berhalter. Because so many national teams prefer to play in the United States (where they make more money), the US doesn’t get a lot of matches away from home outside of World Cup qualifying. Since Berhalter took over in 2019, the team’s played just six away matches, including this one v. El Salvador. Two were in the Nations League, one against Canada and one that was actually played on neutral ground v. Cuba. We lost that match against Canada. That’s the extent of the team’s formal experience in away matches in CONCACAF. One loss v. Canada. Actually, that’s the extent of the experience of merely a few players on the squad. Of the players who took the field v. El Salvador, only 4 played in that match in Toronto: Josh Sargent, Weston McKennie, Tim Ream, and DeAndre Yedlin. So, really, this is a team that is very, very inexperienced with away international matches.

In that context, a draw on the road to open things up is a pragmatic outcome. I’m not really happy with the draw. The game left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth. And I wouldn’t say that it was a good performance. But it was a good enough result.

Put One Foot In, Put One Foot Out

There’s a lot that has changed with World Cup qualifying because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead of 6 teams in the final round, we have 8. Instead of playing in a qualifying round, the US had a straight bye to the Ocho. And instead of playing two matches per international week, starting in fall of 2020, we’ve got three starting in fall of 2021. That condensed schedule has a big effect, with players getting very little rest between club games and internationals ones. This is only exacerbated by the travel. Most of the players are based in Europe and have to fly into the US. And because the schedule alternates between home and away games, this necessitates even more travel, with players flying from the US to Central America, back to the US, and then back to Central America, before going back to their clubs. It’s a seriously grueling schedule.

Given the demands of the schedule, it becomes clear that there is a need for player rotation. Because if players play every single minute possible, their performances will decline and they will be increasingly susceptible to injury. This is actually someplace where the USMNT has an advantage. As demonstrated by both the Gold Cup and Nations League triumphs this summer, the USMNT has a deep pool of talent that can be relied upon to maintain a relatively high standard of play, a talent pool deeper than any other national team’s in the region. The MNT has an opportunity to leverage that talent pool into a significant advantage all throughout qualifying, but particularly in the second and third matches of each international window. However, that requires resting and rotating some of our best players. Indeed, Berhalter said that he did exactly that with John Brooks in the post-match press conference.

Doug McIntyre: What went into the decision not to start John Brooks? Is it a load management thing ahead of the next two games, or something else?
Berhalter: That was it.

Because Tim Ream stepped in for Brooks, Brooks will now be healthy and rested for the home match v. Canada in a couple days.

But that’s just one player. What about the rest of the squad? Well, Berhalter did call in an expanded roster of 26 players. However, with Steffen and Pulisic out for this past match due to back spasms and covid, respectively, that number is reduced to just 24. In comparison, El Salvador called in 28. I know that relatively low number is due to injuries to the likes of Yunus Musah and to the transfer situations of players like Hoppe, but I had really expected a larger roster. That said, Pulisic is expected back for Nashville (thank goodness for vaccines — if you haven’t gotten yours yet and you can, get it as soon as possible) so we should be bolstered by his return.

But feeding into the roster size question is the question of how Berhalter used his substitutions. A bigger roster means that the manager has more flexibility to rest players. Unfortunately, we saw a bit of an uneven distribution of subs. Berhalter called in a roster that was rather heavy on defenders and light on midfielders and wingers. On top of that, he played a winger in midfield (Brendan Aaronson), while playing both available right backs. As a result, Berhalter was limited in the substitutions he could make. While Konrad de la Fuente, Josh Sargent, and Sergiño Dest only played about 60 minutes, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Gio Reyna got a full 90. Those three are among our most important players and we will need them vs. Canada. It makes me nervous that they’ll be playing that game on short rest.

That said, those substitution decisions weren’t entirely based on managing minutes. Performances and game states played a part in it. If the team had put away one of their earlier chances, or if Konrad or Sargent had been a little more effective, perhaps Adams or McKennie could have gotten a bit of rest.

Stuck in the Middle

So ahead of the game, Justin Moran, one of the other staff writers here on SSFC, and I were talking on twitter about what we thought on a potential USMNT lineup. Justin had an attack with Konrad, Sargent, and Aaronson, with Reyna slotting in at midfield. That lineup made me a little bit nervous; I felt that it was unbalanced with too many players wanting to play in the same positions. As it turned out, Justin just about nailed the line up, with the exception that Reyna and Aaronson swapped. However, I was also correct with my concern that too many of those players would be trying to be in the same place on the field at the same time. Take a look at the passing network for the US for the game.

Passing Networks for El Salvador v. United States, from

As you can see, Sargent (9), Reyna (7), and Aaronson (11) are all really close to each other. You can throw in McKennie (8) into that list, too. As a result, the attack wasn’t really as dynamic as we needed, with these players actually sometimes getting in each other’s way. The problem is that they all want to play in the same part of the field. In every game he’s played with the senior team, Reyna’s pinched way inside, way into midfield. Meanwhile, Sargent wants to drop back into midfield. Add in Aaronson and McKennie rushing forward, and you have 4 players in the same place. And it’s rather easy to mark players out if they are all climbed together. Aside from Konrad (who was ineffective), you don't have any attacking players trying to stretch the field over to the end lines. Nor do you have players trying to play vertically, rushing past the striker, as Lletget does. And finally, as shown by the lack of connections between these players, there’s a lack of connecting players, like Musuh. Konrad, Reyna, and Aaronson all want to play the ball on the dribble, or to play the final pass. There isn’t a balance.

In contrast, you can see that El Salvador’s players mostly took very different positions on the field. And that helped make their attack more dynamic, even though they were at a major talent disadvantage.

In effect, getting that attacking balance right has been the defining problem for the USMNT this year. Through the Nations League knock out stages and Gold Cup, the team only scored multiple goals in a game twice. And they only won by more than one goal once. What’s more, the majority of those goals have come, not from open play, but from set pieces. Take the two finals against Mexico. All four goals came from set pieces — a penalty, a free kick, and two corners. Now, it’s fine that the US is relying on set pieces. It seems the international game as a whole might be trending towards set pieces, with set piece goals WAY up in the 2018 World Cup. The problem is that, all too often, it seems set pieces are the only way for the US to score. That offense needs some work.

Closing Thoughts

That may have been Sargent’s last chance at a starting role for a while. He really needs to work on his movement. He just isn’t threatening enough for me. It’s quite telling that the most consistent offensive threats for this team isn’t the strikers, but the box-box midfielders. That probably isn’t great.

Dest is a defensive liability. Considering he’s ostensibly a defender, he should work on that.

Tim Ream was good. Actually, for me, he probably was the best American on the field.

Scratch that, Alex Roldan was the best American on the field. Shame he was playing for El Salvador.

I’m really happy Cristian Roldan got to at least make a cameo. Given his Salvadoran heritage and his brother on the other team, I’m sure that was a big moment for him.

McKennie just looked ... off. I don’t know what it was, but he just didn’t look sharp out there.

That’s it from me. The USMNT will be back for their next World Cup qualifier against Canada on Sept. 5 in Nashville.