The US Men’s National Team’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign is off to an absolutely disastrous start, and the pressure’s mounting on Bruce Arena to reverse the trend. That said, it’s important to keep things in perspective. There are still nine months of qualifying before the first game kicks off, and the USMNT has never failed to qualify for the World Cup. Even if Arena’s team loses every game, it should be able to qualify. The problem is the upcoming qualifiers are the USMNT’s first chance to test itself against the best teams in the world, and it’s not clear if the team is ready for that.
In the wake of the USA’s opening day defeat to Honduras, there have been a lot of questions asked about why there is a disconnect between the players and the coach. Of course, the answers are going to be incredibly complicated, but a few things really caught my eye.
The United States men’s national soccer team’s World Cup qualification hopes seemed to be in dire straits after Tuesday’s 0-0 draw against Honduras in San Pedro Sula. That was until the U.S. stormed back for a 2-1 win against Panama on Wednesday afternoon. The victory, which guarantees the team will play in next summer’s tournament in Russia, means the U.S. will play in the next round of qualifiers in early March, with the final group game to be played in Panama on March 24.
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE – Christian Pulisic seemed to be exhausted. Disappointed. Frustrated.
As he slipped into a chair late Sunday night, his shoulders were bent. His remarks sounded tired.
Questions were raised about why the US men’s national team is failing to score goals, and why it can’t manage more than one in 180 minutes against two teams rated 59th and 64th in the world (the U.S. is 10th). Why can’t this team, which is packed with youthful talent, promise, and skill, perform better than a 1-1 draw against Canada in front of a home crowd in a crucial World Cup qualifier?
Pulisic was questioned about his personal fitness as well as the absence of his teammate Weston McKennie, who was kicked from the squad for breaching the COVID-19 procedure of the United States Soccer Federation.
Then Pulisic was asked how he and his teammates felt after two draws, one of which was even more vexing than the other. In other words, how awful are two points from two games when you’re on your way to Honduras and urgently need to win the third?
He said, “Of course, we anticipate more.” “However, we’re in this situation right now.”
Because he didn’t have to, he didn’t speak the final part of that statement. Everyone was aware of the situation.
“This is where we are right now…”
To put things in context, two World Cup qualifiers out of 14 equals 23 games in a baseball season. Or 11 NBA games in a season. Alternatively, you may play the first ten holes of the Masters. It’s not insignificant, but it’s barely distinguishing.
Even in a normal year, World Cup qualifying is a mystery, and this year’s coronavirus-affected, ultra-compressed schedule is ridiculous. According to soccer statistical expert Paul Carr, the United States and its CONCACAF counterparts will play 14 games in 209 days in this edition, compared to the 10 games in 333 days needed the previous time. As a result, the differences between teams and games will inevitably become even more apparent.
The United States tied Canada and El Salvador, which isn’t ideal. However, there are certain outlier outcomes in World Cup qualification throughout the world, such as European champion Italy tying Bulgaria. Azerbaijan and Ireland were tied. Austria didn’t just tie Israel; it was thrashed 5-2.
Qualifying for the World Cup is difficult. It’s sometimes necessary to say it aloud. The “you don’t even know how cruel CONCACAF is” cliche is used far too frequently by US Soccer, but even if it has become a tired excuse — Mexico didn’t appear to have much of an issue beating Costa Rica this weekend, after all — there is some truth to it. Perhaps poor fields, rough play, or angry spectators, particularly in Central America, make games like Wednesday’s in San Pedro Sula more difficult than they seem.
They are, nevertheless, still winnable. Clearly a winnable situation. And if the US beats Honduras on Wednesday night, it will have five points from its first three games and will be in a strong position to qualify at the end of the first window of games. Anyone would have accepted that situation if it had been presented to them beforehand.
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So the sky isn’t falling in a number of ways. But here’s the thing: Here’s the thing: Memories are lingering. In October of 2017, the United States faced Panama in a World Cup qualifier in Orlando. The stadium erupted with excitement. In the ninth minute, Pulisic scored. The crowd was ecstatic and euphoric. The ambiance was appropriate.
The entire affair seemed like a cresting wave to me: qualifying had started off badly with two terrible defeats, but that Panama match — which ended in a 4-0 win — was meant to be the start of everything coming into place. Panama was the first step; all the US needed was a positive outcome in Trinidad, and everything else was irrelevant.
We’re all aware of how it turned out.
The United States’ national team has struggled to two draws in its first two World Cup qualifiers. Is it necessary to be concerned? ISI Photos/Getty Images/Brad Smith
It was difficult not to believe this game would be another Panama, another night when the US started pushing its wave toward the crest, as I watched the US take on Canada at Nissan Stadium on Sunday. Instead, it felt like the dreadful aftermath all over again. The US was unable to move the ball or put pressure on Canada’s defense. Although it possessed three-quarters of the ball, it only had two shots on goal. Without Gio Reyna (out injured) and McKennie (out for poor judgment), the US was “in urgent need of some fresh ideas,” as Pulisic put it, since this seemed all too familiar.
The writing had an antiquated feel about it. Even though US Soccer may (and should) come up with as many “Only Forward” slogans as it wants, Pulisic couldn’t help but bring up the previous qualification loss while discussing Sunday’s setback. It’s imprinted on his mind the same way it’s imprinted on ours.
Pulisic was a teenager at the time, a rising star amid a seasoned bunch. Now, at the age of 22 — only 22! — he’s one of the more experienced players; he’s the captain, and others look up to him. This US team is young — just two players have ever participated in a World Cup match, and only six have ever played in a qualifier going into this window — but I often wonder whether any of it matters. I often wonder whether it isn’t preferable to simply go for it with (relatively) blind skill, passion, and whimsy. I sometimes wonder whether ignorance isn’t a gift rather than a curse.
After all, the 2017 US squad had battle-tested veterans like Tim Howard and Jozy Altidore, as well as Michael Bradley. They possessed all of the necessary experience. They were well aware of how difficult CONCACAF was to play in. The circumstance did not overwhelm them in any way.
So, what did they get out of it?
Some soccer fans believe that everything is simply a lengthy build-up to the 2026 World Cup. Soccer’s development as a sport in the United States has been phenomenal over the last three decades, and hosting the World Cup in five years (alongside Canada and Mexico) is regarded as a logical apex. Even U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter has talked about how he thinks the United States may develop into a squad that can “shock the world” in 2026.
That attitude is aspirational and upbeat, just what a US fan would desire — can you image the significance of the US playing in a World Cup quarterfinal on home soil during the Fourth of July weekend? — yet that style of thinking also ignores what is now going on. Even with the disappointing results of the previous week, there is — or at least should be — some enjoyment in all of this.
These games are important, as frustrating as these two performances have been. When the United States scored its first goal of the cycle on Sunday, the 40,000 supporters in attendance erupted in a manner that was unlike a Gold Cup or Nations League audience. The athletes have various ways of celebrating. What’s to stop you? Every few years, the United States does not host the Euros or Copa America. There isn’t a competition that draws the whole sport’s interest. It just has the World Cup. As a result, these games — the ones that serve as stepping stones on the way there — are among the few that the US national team plays that seem really memorable.
On Wednesday, there will be another one. And while the United States faces challenges in Honduras, including injury (Sergino Dest is out with an ankle injury), substitution (Konrad de la Fuente comes on too late), discipline (McKennie is sent home after violating team protocols), and leadership, it also faces the same opportunity it did a week ago.
Christian Pulisic did seem weary on Sunday. Disappointed. Frustrated. He did, however, seem determined. He seemed to be someone who understands that this is just the beginning. Like someone who understands that current group still has time to create the conclusion that the previous one couldn’t.
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