The United States Men’s National Team took on Saudi Arabia in Murcia, Spain, to close up their pre-World Cup preparations, and they walked away with a 0-0 draw. The good news? It was a much more ... cohesive ... performance than the one vs. Japan. And, technically, a scoreless draw is still a result of sorts. The bad news... this was the last official friendly the team’s got before the World Cup kicks off in November and, even this wasn’t a very strong opponent. While Saudi Arabia will be at the World Cup, they aren’t exactly held as much of a power (they lost 5-0 vs. Russia in the 2018 World Cup). On top of that, this was a heavily rotated line up. So saying the US was able to stymie their attack doesn’t really mean that much. On the other hand, the offensive struggles against such an understrength side are concerning. We’ve talked about how the USMNT’s attack struggles at times. Indeed, I talked about the slow pace of play just after the Japan match. So for this one, I’m going to try and cover the bigger picture. Let’s talk it over.
The big story looming over this match, indeed this entire international window, has been who’s not been here. We had injuries to Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah, and Yunus Musah going in. Chris Richards and Cameron Carter-Vickers had to be replaced with alternative defenders. And, of course, Miles Robinson is out with a long term injury. Reggie Cannon dropped out after the Japan game due to injury. Christian Pulisic missed the Japan game itself due to a minor knock. And Gio Reyna was pulled in the 30th minute as a precaution due to muscle tightness. And this wasn’t just a problem confined to this past week. We’ve seen major absences for this entire cycle. All these omissions have wrecked havoc on the USMNT’s consistency and on-field chemistry. And it really showed against Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Aside from Matt Turner (and maybe Sergiño Dest), the only players who really staked their case for starting were those who weren’t here. Antonee Robinson, Tim Weah, Chris Richards, and Yunus Musah’s absences were deeply felt, with the team lacking the cohesion those specific players provided. Robinson complements Christian Pulisic well on the left, while Dest and Pulisic try to occupy the same parts of the field. Weah similarly has good chemistry with both DeAndre Yedlin and Dest when they play on the right, serving as an outlet high and wide to the right. Weah also provides a level of directness and urgency the team otherwise lacks. Richards’ calmness on the ball helps bridge the backline and the midfield, injecting pace into the team’s tempo that otherwise can become rather languishing. Musah similarly connects the attacking and defensive lines with his ability to carry the ball, even under pressure. Losing out on those players substantially hurt the team.
The USMNT needs those players to be back and healthy. Perhaps the team can function while missing out on one or two of them, but clearly, this many omissions is just well beyond the team’s ability.
What do we make of these matches?
The traditional schedule ahead of a World Cup is 3 friendly games in May/early June leading directly into the World Cup. Those games are all about getting the team in the right form and mindset to perform at the highest level at the tournament. Ideally, you get teams that offer a significant enough challenge, but not so significant that you actually lose those games. Over the course of those three games, you want to ramp up the energy and focus, all the while avoiding injuries.
However, because we have a winter World Cup (and an extra condensed international schedule due to the disruptions from Covid 19 in 2020), we don’t have an official international break before the actual tournament. While there may be something for MLS-based players, the European based contingent (the bulk of the USMNT’s starters) won’t be available until right before the tournament kicks off. That has brought a degree of attention to these September games, the last of which before the World Cup. And, as far as preparation goes, these performances have been concerning.
But how much do these particular games actually matter?
Yeah, the team played poorly, and it would obviously be far better to see the team come out and perform well for these matches. But how much will this actually translate to the World Cup? There’s a 1.5 months to go before the tournament kicks off, with players yet to play significant parts of their club seasons, whether in MLS or in Europe. Can we really say anything prospective about the team’s tempo from this? I am not sure. At the same time, I am not sure how much we should weight these games vs. the early matches against the likes of Morocco and Uruguay. I would say those performances were actually at least reasonably successful. So how do we square those performances with these more recent, poor ones? Which team will we see against Wales in Qatar?
Given the distance between now and the tournament, I think it would be wise to lower the anxiety level a bit. Yes, there are genuine concerns here with the USMNT, and those should not be ignored. But I think we should attempt to look at those problems with a degree of levelheadedness. There is time to address these problems and we have seen the team perform at a higher level before. The team we saw just now is not necessarily the team we will see in the future and we should not allow recency bias to unduly color our perceptions here.
It’s also worth taking a look at how our coming opponents are doing. And, uh, they aren’t doing so hot. Both England and Wales have been relegated in their respective Nations League campaigns, with neither registering a single win. Wales only managed a single draw in their entire 6-game schedule! England hasn’t won a single game since March, while Wales hasn’t won since they bunkered their way to a 1-0 win over Ukraine at the start of June. These are teams that are in far worse form than the US, who has comparatively been far more positive over the course of this calendar year. Admittedly, the US has had a significantly easier schedule, but crisis generally does not breed success. Wales and England further are potentially at risk of getting exposed by a different style of play because their schedules have been so Europe-focused. And that means they don’t have experience playing against countries from other federations. i.e. they may be vulnerable to being CONCACAFed.
Iran, on the other hand, is in a stronger position. While Iran similarly doesn’t have experience playing other federations (their match against Canada was cancelled), they are in much stronger form. They beat Uruguay and drew Senegal this week.
Now, of course the same caveats on what this form means in the future apply to the other teams, too. We are too far out to draw definitive conclusions here. But I’d personally rather have the USMNT’s form than Wales or England’s
I for one am looking forward to seeing The Return of the Jedi in the coming days.
Antonee Robinson is back in training for Fulham! pic.twitter.com/TwZSw713Rl— USMNT Otaku (@USMNTOtaku) September 28, 2022
These two games have really highlighted how important A. Robinson is for the USMNT. Sure, he’s a backflipping magician who flies along that left side. But he’s also a critical component of the US’s attack. Sergiño Dest is a good player and he can do a decent job on the left. But having Dest at leftback leaves both the left and right fullback positions in a suboptimal place.
Christian Pulisic plays like he’s a back-up wingback for his club instead of a sterling attacking player. Which, well, is his reality at Chelsea. I’m personally really disappointed he didn’t get a move to a less dysfunctional club, one that can actually see his strengths instead of slotting him in to make up numbers.
Ricardo Pepi highlighted why he maybe won’t be at the World Cup come November. It’s really difficult to justify a roster spot for him when he’s neither generating shots nor generating chances. Especially not with Jordan Pefok playing well in the Bundesliga.
Joe Scally looked decent after coming on as a sub at Right Fullback. When he played at leftback earlier this year, he looked out of his depth. But he seemed much more proactive in his limited minutes on the right. Perhaps he sneaks onto the roster as a back-up right back instead of as left back cover.