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USMNT World Cup qualifying: Is the team on track? Berhalter safe?

The United States men’s national team finished the opening round of World Cup qualifying on a high note with a win at Honduras after drab draws against El Salvador and Canada. Amid mounting injuries and off-pitch drama, the team learned tough lessons as it seeks to book its spot at Qatar 2022. ESPN looks back and breaks down the big issues.

Jump to: Results OK? | Berhalter safe? | Stock up / down | Enough depth? | Hopes for October

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How do you feel about the results and the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying position?

Jeff Carlisle: If you’d told me before the start of the window that the U.S. would get five points from El Salvador (away), Canada (home) and Honduras (away), I would have been disappointed. But given where the team was at halftime of last night’s match in San Pedro Sula, being down 1-0 having been outshot 11 to 3, that mark is acceptable. The fact that out of six halves played, the U.S. performed well in only one of them is a concern as the search for consistency continues.

But the U.S. is tied for second place in the Octagonal, and while there are still some issues that have to be sorted out in terms of injuries and personnel, the Americans have a real opportunity in the October window to solidify that position. Seven points from Jamaica (home), Panama (away) and Costa Rica (home) should be the minimum obtained.

Kyle Bonagura: Prior to the first game against El Salvador, a five-point window would have seemed disappointing. That perspective changed significantly after the U.S. began the second half of the third match, against Honduras on Wednesday night, trailing 1-0 and on just two points in the standings. A loss to Honduras would have been disastrous; instead the U.S. emerged tied for second in the group (with Canada and Panama), behind only Mexico.

From a points and standings perspective, the U.S. is good shape. The way the team played, however, wasn’t exactly inspiring or confident. Until the four-goal barrage against Honduras in the second half, Gregg Berhalter’s side failed to generate consistent scoring chances, and that lack of ideas is a big reason for concern. Part of that can be attributed to the young team’s lack of familiarity from having rarely played together, but this is World Cup qualifying — there isn’t time to grow as a team; it’s about getting results.

Bill Connelly: It could have been much worse, and until the 75th minute in Estadio Olimpico Metropolitano, it looked like it would be. From a pure math point of view, you probably need to average about 1.7 points per game to feel comfortable about qualification, and if you round up, the U.S. did hit that target.

But considering the level of competition in this trio of matches — no Mexico, no Costa Rica, plus Canada at home — this was a massive missed opportunity for the U.S. to build a bit of a cushion for itself. The Americans eventually wore Honduras down, nabbed three points and cleared the “bare minimum” bar.

Dan Hajducky: Honduras victory notwithstanding, there’s still an urge to defy the edict of author Douglas Adams (of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame) and panic. However lofty the ranking, the U.S. is the 10th-best team in the world according to FIFA. Eking out ties against El Salvador and Canada, being outplayed and outcoached for half a game by Honduras — all ranked 59th or lower — is just not good enough. There’s time to correct course, but can Berhalter do it? Will Berhalter even get to?

This is still the most talented pool the USMNT has ever seen, but right now the results and statistics aren’t really good enough to be in Qatar, let alone compete there. Some of that is down to injuries, but squad selection, tactics and ultimately, execution have been suspect thus far. The turnaround in Honduras is a start; it was only the second time in USMNT’s World Cup qualifying history that the men have won after trailing at halftime. That USMNT? That should be the standard.


Is Berhalter the right man for the coaching job?

Carlisle: Yes, though even if the U.S. had lost on Wednesday, I don’t think he’d be fired. With the compressed schedule, there’s simply no time to change coaches with the qualification cycle in full swing. USSF sporting director Earnie Stewart isn’t the kind of guy to make knee-jerk changes to his technical staff, either, as was shown during his stint with the Philadelphia Union. However, there are some concerns.

Berhalter’s penchant for overthinking things tactically revealed itself on Wednesday night’s game, when he overreached by throwing James Sands and George Bello in at the deep end of a road World Cup qualifier. But give him credit for junking what wasn’t working in terms of personnel and formation and making the changes he needed to make, as those changes turned the game around. It’s a reminder that in these windows, there’s value in keeping things simple.

He also made the right call in sending Weston McKennie home. It sent the proper message to the group in terms of accountability, and the fact the U.S. won strengthens his position. The pressure has eased, at least for the moment.

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Taylor Twellman says USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter got his starting XI and formation wrong against Honduras, but his adjustments saved the match.

Bonagura: There’s a lot to like about the culture Berhalter has fostered and the results it has yielded over the past two years. The United States is unbeaten in its past 18 matches against CONCACAF opposition — including wins against Mexico in a pair of finals over the summer — and has generated at least some goodwill. That’s why it would have felt like an overreaction had Berhalter’s job truly been on the line after just three qualifying matches.

The obvious problem with changing a coach at this stage is that it guarantees nothing (see: Bruce Arena, 2017), though that doesn’t mean Berhalter is the right long-term choice, either. The team didn’t play to the sum of its parts in this window, and that’s on him.

Connelly: The bar for qualification is still pretty low for the U.S., and the Americans will probably clear it. But these matches rang some alarm bells. For three years, Berhalter has attempted to install his vision of a possession game, but he hasn’t been able to deploy it effectively in matches that genuinely matter (basically: World Cup qualifiers and any match against Mexico).

The U.S. found success against Mexico this summer with an old-school “directness and killer goalkeeping” recipe, but wasn’t able to retain the ball as he clearly wants to do. In the first three qualifiers, the U.S. (a) abandoned the possession game entirely against both El Salvador and Honduras, and (b) created no threat whatsoever from it against Canada.

Bad luck with personnel certainly didn’t help. Christian Pulisic lost some form while out with a coronavirus diagnosis, Zack Steffen was out, Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest got hurt, and McKennie got sent home. (Plus, Daryl Dike was out of form.) That’s an incredible amount of attrition in a short time.

But it also illustrated just how strange Berhalter’s overall roster selection was. Without McKennie, he had no other midfielder capable of reliably moving the ball into the attacking third — for the 1,034th time, I must ask why Julian Green isn’t involved — and while McKennie and Reyna each created three chances in one match, Pulisic was the only other player who managed to create more than two in three matches.

Creativity is a must when your pool of center-forwards is lacking, and creativity was almost completely lacking. There was some misfortune, it’s true, but with maybe the deepest pool of talent the U.S. has ever had, Berhalter had to improvise both a lineup and a formation in the first genuine must-win (or close to it) the U.S. has faced in four years.

Hajducky: A friend, 20 minutes into the Honduras match, compared watching Berhalter’s men to a crash in slow motion. The #BerhalterOut discourse seems to have mellowed since halftime on Wednesday night, but questions about his job security are legion and well-founded.

In this Octagonal, the U.S. men are CONCACAF’s last and first-ranked teams, respectively, in percentage of touches in the left- and middle-attacking thirds. They also led, by a wide margin, in possessions lost. Translation: Predictable. And, arguably worse, substitution management was baffling until Honduras, when three halftime subs — Antonee Robinson, Sebastian Lletget and Brenden Aaronson — yielded four second-half goals.

While injuries have limited both pool and starting XI selection, formations have been puzzling — and far too defensive-minded — and the McKennie situation has a whiff of impending calamity. It all feels a bit like the trash compactor scene in “Star Wars.” But, for the moment, the walls have stopped closing in and we should be grateful the cavalry arrived in time.


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Taylor Twellman reacts to Weston McKennie’s suspension from the USMNT after the team’s 1-1 draw vs. Canada.

Which players deserve a place on the plane? Who demonstrated they do not?

Carlisle: Let’s start with those whose stock fell. John Brooks was supposed to be a steadying, veteran presence during qualifying. He was anything but in these two games, raising doubts once again about his ability to cope with the difficulties and idiosyncrasies of CONCACAF. Josh Sargent is another. He looked lost out on the wing against Honduras, but even when he plays centrally, he rarely looks dangerous. He has logged minutes because no one else has really grabbed hold of the No. 9 spot, but that looks to be changing.

Ricardo Pepi, meanwhile, is the first striker in some time to really seize his opportunity. Sure, he has work to do in terms of his hold-up play, but he can sniff out chances and creates havoc in the box too. Antonee Robinson is another player whose stock went way up. The big reason Sergino Dest has played left-back is there didn’t seem to be any other options. There is now with Robinson, whose mobility allows him to get into the attack and put in dangerous crosses, as witnessed by his assist against Canada. His defending has improved as well.

Bonagura: The most obvious is Pepi, the 18-year-old FC Dallas striker. After scoring the winner against Honduras and being involved in all three other goals, he presumably went from debutant to starting No. 9. Aaronson has also proved to be a valuable option on the wing, and his emergence should make it easier for Reyna to move into central midfield, where he’s playing for Dortmund this season.

Robinson staked his claim to be the locked-in starter at left-back, which had been one of the biggest questions facing the team. After standout performances in the Gold Cup, Atlanta United center-back Miles Robinson and New England goalkeeper Matt Turner have both continued to excel.

Connelly: Beyond the obvious — Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Reyna, McKennie, Dest — it’s hard to say that anyone definitively snared a spot in this batch of matches. You could make the case for Turner, but he’s just shaky enough in build-up play that it wouldn’t be completely surprising if Berhalter still preferred Steffen. Obviously Pepi’s debut was lovely, but if you’re giving an 18-year-old a permanent spot in the lineup because of one good match, that speaks more to your own depth issues than anything else.

Hajducky: All aboard the Pepi train! Could he be the No. 9 the Stars & Stripes have long pined for? It’s early, but should his form continue, Pepi belongs in Qatar, and he might well have broken the MLS’ all-time outgoing transfer record by then. Aaronson is a shoo-in at this point, and it should also be noted just how ascendant Turner has been. Zack Steffen is still the No. 1 stonewall, but the chasm isn’t quite as vast, considering Turner’s leapfrogging of Ethan Horvath.

The most disappointing? Depends whom you ask. McKennie seems like both the fiery, bullish leader necessary of U.S. men on the field and entirely too immature off it. The moment has proved to be too big for Sargent, too, but for me, the biggest letdown has been Brooks. Both the Canada and Honduras goals were conceded due to his glaring defensive errors: a man-marking blunder and an overcommitment that left his teammates out to dry.


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Sebi Salazar and Herc Gomez assess Christian Pulisic’s not-so-subtle dig at the USMNT’s management.

In light of injuries and illness, does the USMNT have enough depth?

Carlisle: Yes. If you had told me beforehand that the U.S. would win last night’s game without McKennie, Dest, Reyna, Steffen and Pulisic (for part of it, anyway) I wouldn’t have believed you. The players who turned last night’s game around weren’t European stars, but rather guys like Pepi, Aaronson, Robinson, Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan. Mark McKenzie, in tandem with Miles Robinson, quietly put in a very effective shift as well. Turner’s play in goal was such that Steffen wasn’t missed.

It gives Berhalter a puzzle to solve ahead of the October window, but it’s the kind of problem any manager wants to have. It should also help avoid any complacency that might set in.

Bonagura: Regardless of the quality of the performances, depth remains one of the team’s strengths. Aside from maybe Mexico, no other team in the region could have weathered going without that many key players as Jeff mentioned above.

Connelly: We knew forward depth would be an issue in this cycle, especially without Dike, and it very much was. But the midfield issues — as in, the total lack of a cohesive buildup when McKennie was out — were alarming. Either the U.S. has poor depth there or, more realistically in my view, Berhalter’s midfield selections were dramatically out of whack. I would hope he brings in a completely different set of options there in October, and then we can decide whether it’s a depth problem or a selection problem.

Hajducky: It’s sort of hilarious that we’re talking about depth concerns; a year ago, we weren’t sure there’d be enough room on the field for all their emerging talent. But Jamaica is almost a full month away and three of the next four qualifiers are home games.

It would be shocking if the U.S. came out as flat in October, given Berhalter’s struggles and the home-field advantage. And make no mistake about it: This is a big moment for McKennie, no stranger to a captain’s armband. Does he make amends, hold himself accountable and reclaim his place as the team’s fulcrum? Pulisic might be the face and hope of men’s U.S. Soccer, but McKennie is its engine. The USMNT’s success hinges on McKennie firing on all cylinders.


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Herculez Gomez reacts to United States’ draw with Canada in their World Cup qualifier match.

What do you want to see from the October fixtures?

Carlisle: Assuming they’re healthy, reward the players who performed well in this window. Keep performers like Pepi, Turner and Aaronson, plus the Robinsons, in the lineup. And please keep Adams in the center of midfield. The U.S. is a better team with him in the middle, period.

And not that the U.S. has control over this, but a bit more health would be nice. Hopefully, the likes of Pulisic, Dest and Reyna can recover. If this window revealed anything, it’s how demanding triple-fixture windows are and the degree to which they can tax a squad. (Honduras found this out the hard way last night.) Getting some guys back to health will help the U.S. maintain some momentum.

Bonagura: It’s not so much what I want to see as whom I want to see: Yunus Musah. He provides a toughness and bite in central midfield that the team lacked outside of Adams over the past three games. His ability to progress the ball in an advanced midfield position was sorely lacking and would free up the wingers to work in more space. With McKennie’s status up in the air, a midfield trio of Reyna, Musah and Adams is very intriguing.

Connelly: Wins! It’s three more matches against Not Mexico, and the U.S. needs at least 5-7 points from the next nine to keep feeling good about its trajectory. Beyond that, though, I’d like to see a squad selection from Berhalter that acknowledges and adjusts for this week’s struggles. If his first-choice lineup is fully available again, then the backups he selects might not matter as much, but it would be good to see that he understands where things nearly went very wrong this time around.

(I’d also like to see an actually cohesive identity — it suddenly vanished — but baby steps. Start with the squad selection.)

Hajducky: More of Pulisic playing like a man possessed, for starters. We don’t know how serious the knock is that he suffered against Honduras, but the Chelsea forward has been transcendent of late. Four years after World Cup heartbreak, he’s no longer the baby-faced future; he’s the now, playing with confidence earned from that Champions League title with his club and not shirking from the weight of America’s soccer future on his oft-battered shoulders. But that’s a no-brainer.

I’m also all-in on the Pepi hype. There’s poetry in the U.S. scouring the globe for a true No. 9 and Pepi having just sprouted out of Texas, fully formed and lethal. Meanwhile, I’d love to see what Dike and Weah could create together when healthy, and also see Steffen get some quality minutes.

Will Berhalter be more discerning in squad selection, formation and tactics? Can the cornerstones get healthy by then? Can the second half of Honduras become the default pace and grit that this team kicks off with? How will the McKennie affair be resolved? Four weeks is somehow both an eternity and a blink of an eye.

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