It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights, it’s time to dodge the bags of piss...wait, those aren’t the original lyrics, are they? Well, for the USMNT they might as well be.
For all the excitement the U.S. Men’s National team has created over the past year — the meteoric rise of talent in Europe, the moves to the biggest clubs in the world, the encouraging performances and debuts on European soil, and then the nitrous’ing of the engine with the two wins over Mexico this summer with both the A and B teams — the only thing that really matters starts tonight in San Salvador. It’s World Cup qualifying time, and none of that other shit matters until passage to Qatar is confirmed.
And it’s the most unique qualifying process we’ve ever seen, with 14 matches crammed into seven months instead of over two years as is traditional. And that’s an advantage for the U.S. in that, along with Mexico, they have the deepest squad in the region, and can more easily rotate lineups without their overall level dropping as much as other teams’ would beyond their first 11. On the other side, the U.S. will rarely field its first-choice lineup, while almost certainly facing every other team’s best. That can make things tricky.
The U.S. could also face the most attrition, with most players in Europe, and thereby some of our most important players, basically playing twice a week from here on out this season, until it’s time to show up for the national team, and then having three games in seven days. Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, John Brooks all will have Champions League responsibilities upon their return to Europe. How much are they going to have left in the tank when qualifiers roll around again in October, November and then January?
While this team’s promise has certainly set hearts aflutter, we haven’t seen them have to react from a bad result. They’ve barely been around. They had the Nations League, some had this Gold Cup, but very few have been through this process before. What’s the reaction if they suffer one of those weird-ass CONCACAF losses in Honduras or Jamaica with a bullshit penalty and a field that’s the shape and consistency of pudding or a quarry? Or the aforementioned bags of piss being hurled at their heads while taking a corner? Only Brooks and Pulisic, of the players who matter (sit down, Tim Ream!), have been through this. Thursday night in front of this can be a harsh wakeup call. And according to Grant Wahl, they’re opening the gates today eight-and-a -half hours before kickoff. That’s a lot of pregame time to get “warmed up” (read some of the replies to this tweet to get a better sense).
The U.S. rarely aces this, even when they qualify. They gobbled up 22 points in the run up to 2014, only losing two games in 10. But they only won two games on the road. In 2010, they only won two games on the road as well. There are more road games now, with seven instead of five, and you’d fancy the U.S. in El Salvador, Canada, Honduras, Jamaica, and Panama. But it never works out that way, and they will get those teams’ best shot and best lineups while the U.S. will have to cycle through their entire roster.
And still knowing all that, you still can’t help but bounce at the thought of what it could be. And even what the U.S. could achieve, though unlikely, and that’s grabbing a seed for the World Cup. Currently the U.S. is ranked 10th in the FIFA rankings, which determines which pot you go into for the World Cup draw. Should the U.S. lace qualifying, beating Mexico once or twice, and it might just flirt with the top seven to get a top seed in Qatar. Certainly staying in the second pot has its charm.
Perhaps what’s most exciting is that what the U.S. showed off most in its two wins against Mexico this summer is what they’ll need most through qualifying. And that’s balls. Chutzpah. Huevos. Neither win over Mexico, whether in Denver or Las Vegas, was exactly art. It was quite the opposite for long stretches. And yet both U.S. squads persevered, gutted it out, and found a way. That’s what will be vital throughout qualifying. Thanks to the frequency of matches, the unlikely sustained health and availability of players, the conditions in CONCACAF, the refs, the heat, the travel, it’s unlikely that we’ll see the U.S. truly humming on the field all that much. It’d be great, but don’t count on it. So a lot of the time, whether it’s in Azteca or San Jose or Kingston, it’s just about sucking it up, plowing through, and scrapping a goal in by whatever means you can, or defending a clean sheet until the whistle. No one’s going to ask how, because how is assuredly going to be ugly. It’s just the way.
Now we get to the truth of what this team is. Of what coach Gregg Berhalter is. Whether we can finally erase that 2018 debacle, when we failed to qualify. We know the talent is there, and now it’s about whether they can survive the street fight of CONCACAF. Bring a mop.