It took some time to get there, but the USMNT is going back to the World Cup!
It was a long road to qualifying and I thought it would be good to take a recap of the journey. So I’ve put together a brief summary of all the qualifying windows and matches. I’ve also included links to full highlights as well as the recaps from the individual matches from our team here at SSFC. I hope you enjoy taking a look back at how the US did through qualifying.
Of course, it would be amiss to recap qualifying without mentioning the changes to the format. Due to the Covid pandemic, CONCACAF qualifying was delayed and the format was heavily altered. Rather than a round of the top 6 teams in CONCACAF (commonly known as the Hexagonal), with a side tournament to decide the fate of the remaining CONCACAF teams, the format was heavily changed to allow for a more condensed qualification schedule. The final round grew from 6 teams, to 8 (you can call it the Octagonal, or the Ocho, your choice). The top 5 teams in CONCACAF in July 2020 (Mexico, the United States, Costa Rica, Jamaica, and Honduras) automatically advanced to the Octagonal, with an additional 3 teams selected through playoffs. That change in format proved highly influential. Canada and Panama were the additional teams who would have missed out of the Hex, joining El Salvador as the playoff winners. Canada and Panama’s inclusion proved to make the Octagonal a higher quality much more competitive qualification process. But I’m getting ahead of myself. With that said, here’s how the USMNT’s matches played out.
The USMNT’s qualifying campaign began with a bit of a whimper with a 0-0 draw away to El Salvador. The US controlled the game and created chances. However, of their 13 shots, only 2 made it on goal. As a result, the US walked out of the Estadio Cuscatlán with a scoreless draw. Which perhaps isn’t surprising given that the team was missing Christian Pulisic (recovering from Covid) and Yunus Musah (injury).
The team’s slow start continued, with a 1-1 draw against Canada in Nashville. While Pulisic came back for this one, the team lost Gio Reyna and Weston McKennie, to a long term injury and an internal suspension related to Covid protocols, respectively. With the team a little bit depleted of attacking talent, the USMNT found themselves stymied by an organized Canadian defense (and one of the goalposts). Finally, after a nice bit of flowing attacking play, Brendan Aaronson off of a cross into the penalty box from Antonee Robinson in the 55th minute. However, Canada equalized within ten minutes, with Bayern Munich’s Alphonso Davies burning past DeAndre Yedlin (who came on after an injury to Sergiño Dest) to feed in Cyle Larin. And that scoreline held to the end.
After two draws, the US sat on just two points, with a potential loss away to Honduras threatening to derail the start of qualifying. The team met that challenge and was able to pull out the result in San Pedro Sula, winning 4-1. However, the match did not start as well as it may sound. Forced to rotate due to injuries and tired legs, the US played a dismal first half, with Brayan Moya putting Honduras in the lead after the Hondurans took advantage of some midfield and defensive dysfunction on the part of the Americans. However, Berhalter made a suite of substitutions, changing the team’s shape to a more familiar 4-3-3, and was richly rewarded. All three of those half time subs, Antonee Robinson; Brendan Aaronson; and Sebastian Lletget, scored. Joining them on the scoresheet was Ricardo Pepi. Pepi was playing his first start for the national team and, at the age of just 18, he proved to be the match’s big breakout talent. In addition to his goal, Pepi registered two assists.
With the win over Honduras, the international window closed, with the US tied for second place with 5 points.
Away to Honduras may have been the first win, but the 2-0 win at home over Jamaica was the first game where you could really feel good about the USMNT. Those good feelings were continued in a 2-1 comeback victory over Costa Rica. However, in between was a 1-0 loss to Panama, the worst performance for the US through the entirety of qualifying.
Ricardo Pepi continued his strong form through the game versus Jamaica, scoring both goals for a 2-0 win in the USMNT’s first performance in the new Q2 stadium in Austin, Texas. That scoreline rather flattered the visitors who were forced to resort to fouls early in the first half. On two occasions in the first half (the first within the first 30 seconds!), the referee declined to give a red card after a Jamaican player fouled an American who was otherwise clear on goal. But bad refereeing aside, the US played well and came through with a deserved draw.
In contrast, the Panama game was markedly dispiriting. Berhalter chose to heavily rotate for this game in Panama City and the result was an incredibly anemic attack and midfield. The team failed to register a single shot on target. In contrast, Panama threatened, particularly off of corners. They converted on one such corner through Aníbal Godoy early in the second half to bring the game to 1-0. And from there, Los Canaleros were happy to close up shop and let the Americans dither away the rest of the game.
The home match against Costa Rica proved to be a much welcome return to form. With the team returning to the familiar and friendly environment of Columbus, Ohio (though at the new Lower.com Field rather than the hallowed old Crew Stadium), the team was able to return to winning ways. However, it all started poorly, with Costa Rica scoring through Keysher Fuller within the first minute. From there, the team equalized in the first half after a sublime shot from Sergiño Dest. In the second half, Tim Weah forced an own goal to bring the match to the final scoreline of 2-1.
With six games under their belt, the USMNT firmly sat in 2nd place on 11 points.
With the November qualifiers, the USMNT hit the halfway point of qualifying. After the game against Mexico in Cincinnati, Ohio, the US was to begin replaying teams, starting with Jamaica, this time away in Kingston.
The home fixture v. Mexico is always regarded as the biggest match for the USMNT in World Cup qualifying. And, after over 20 years, it’s well established tradition to play that match in Ohio, though it came in Cincinnati’s new TQL stadium rather than the usual Columbus. Also traditional was the scoreline: 2-0, or Dos-a-Cero. After missing that Dos-a-Cero for the first time in just over two decades in 2016, Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT brought it back in commanding style. In probably the most complete performance of qualifying, the US went out and imposed the game on Mexico. They pressed and suffocated the Mexican midfield, kept defensively alert and organized, and smoothly held the ball at length inside Mexico’s own defensive third. It took a while to get the breakthrough, but it finally came in the second half. Tim Weah whipped in an accurate cross to Christian Pulisic (who had just been subbed into the game) who nodded home a clean header past Mexico’s Memo Ochoa. Pulisic then celebrated, revealing a shirt that said “Man in the Mirror”, the same words Ochoa had used (in Spanish) earlier in the week while claiming that the US wished to be like Mexico. Just over ten minutes later, Weston McKennie slotted home a second after combining with Jesus Ferreira, completing the Dos-a-Cero.
For the following trip down to play Jamaica, the USMNT couldn’t quite keep up that same intensity, settling for a 1-1 scoreline. The team started off brightly, with Weah scoring in the 11th minute. That meant Weah was directly involved in goals for three consecutive games. Jamaica then leveled the score with an absolutely incredible shot from distance from West Ham’s Michail Antonio. With the US missing key players, particularly Weston McKennie (suspension through yellow card accumulation), the game stalled out and the Americans settled for a draw.
January 27– February 2
This window will probably be most remembered for the cold conditions. The 1-0 win v. El Salvador in Columbus, Ohio was below freezing, with the following trip up to Hamilton, Ontario to play Canada yet colder. The match vs. Honduras proved the coldest of the lot, with several players from both teams coming out having suffered for the single-digit temperatures.
The US controlled the match v. El Salvador, but, while they generated a full 17 shots, struggled to break through. Antonee Robinson broke the deadlock towards the start of the second half and the Americans were forced to walk away with the 1-0 win.
The second match v. Canada proved to be more frustrating, with Canada seizing a first half goal through Cyle Larin after a heavy lack of miscommunication between American keeper Matt Turner and his outfield players during a goal kick. After that, Canada closed up shop and, while the US got close (McKennie forced a brilliant save), they couldn't get that goal to get back into the game. With the US pushing numbers up, Canada converted an opportunistic counter through Sam Adekugbe in the 95th minute, ending the game at 2-0.
Though the Canada game proved to be a big disappointment, the following (frigid) match v. Honduras was anything but. The USMNT scored three goals off of brilliant set piece delivery from Kellyn Acosta, the only set piece goals scored by the USMNT through all of qualifying (excluding penalties). Weston McKennie got the first in the 8th minute, followed by Walker Zimmerman in the 37th. Christian Pulisic grabbed the last in the 67th, putting the scoreline at 3-0.
With 21 points, the USMNT was set to enter the last window of qualifying in second place, on the verge of securing automatic qualification.
The final three-game window is probably best defined as an exercise in managing exhaustion as the US sealed qualification for the World Cup. This started with a match vs. Mexico, in the intimidating Estadio Azteca. The US put out a similarly expansive performance as they did v. Mexico back in November, albeit, one a little constrained due to the thin, smoggy air of Mexico City. However, while the team was able to generate a number of threatening chances, specifically a tap-in for Pulisic and Jordan Pefok each, the team couldn’t quite get on the score sheet and the game ended 0-0. Normally, a point away against Mexico is cause to celebrate. But with how well the team played, it really felt like a missed opportunity (which says something nice about how the team’s shaping up).
While the trip away to Mexico was the fixture with the biggest names in the window, the matchup v. Panama in Orlando, Florida was the most consequential in terms of qualification. The 5-1 victory effectively (but not officially) gave the USMNT an automatic qualifying spot for the World Cup, knocking Panama out of contention in the process. The game itself was highlighted by a pair of first half penalties for the USMNT that Pulisic calmly buried in the net. That first penalty allowed the US to sit back a bit and conserve energy while forcing Panama to play higher up the field and risk space in behind. The United States was able to exploit that space, with Paul Arriola and Ferreira making the scoreline 2-0 and 3-0, respectively. The second penalty put the scoreline at 4-0 at halftime. Pulisic was able to complete his hat-trick, his first for the United States, in the second half after brilliantly controlling a pass from Antonee Robinson. To close out the game, Anibal Godoy, the player who conceded both of the prior two penalties, grabbed a consolation goal in the 86th minute.
Thanks to the heavy win over Panama, the USMNT’s match v. Costa Rica was nearly a formality. So long as the US didn’t lose by 6 goals or more, the only thing at stake were bragging rights, with the US otherwise guaranteed a spot at the World Cup come November. Costa Rica similarly could only move from 4th place (which gave them a playoff spot v. New Zealand for a ticket to the World Cup) if they beat the US by that 6 goal margin, or if results went their way (results did not go their way). Given those circumstances, the US chose to play a reasonably strong starting XI (albeit, hampered by some absences due to injury), while Costa Rica chose mostly to rotate their starters. While the US created some good shots in the first half, the game was scoreless at halftime. In the second half, the fresher legs prevailed, with Juan Pablo Vargas and Anthony Contreras scoring before the hour mark. That 2-0 scoreline prevailed to the end. The loss proved a moderately disappointing result that was completely overshadowed by the US’s qualification to Qatar 2022.
In the end, the USMNT finished in third with 25 points, the final automatic qualifying spot, behind Canada and Mexico, and ahead of Costa Rica on goal difference. Christian Pulisic proved the team’s leading goalscorer with 5 goals. Pulisic and Walker Zimmerman were also named to the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying Best XI.
With qualification wrapped up, the USMNT looks onward to the CONCACAF Nations League and to preparations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.