When this World Cup qualifying cycle began, we had hoped that the U.S. would surprise us and break new ground on what they could do. And they’ve done that, we just didn’t know it would be showing us how bad they can play at times.
Last night, in Panama, the U.S. was wretched in a 1-0 loss, which was a worse showing then than their first half against Honduras in September (which they were able to turn around), which was worse than their stalemate against Canada, which in some ways was worse than their opener in El Salvador.
If you’re wondering how much they’ve played well over five matches, the answer is a resounding, “NOT ENOUGH!”
The urge is to join the #BerhalterOut crowd, but that’s too easy. Given that we’re even deeper into the European club season, at the end of MLS’s season, and with three qualifiers being turtlestacked into one window, Berhalter doesn’t have much choice in having to rotate the team between games. Your mileage may vary on how much, but he simply can’t run out the same 11 for three games in seven days. At some point, those who are called upon have to take it upon themselves to be something above the level of “Port-a-john liquid.” And yesterday, they were not.
That doesn’t mean Berhalter is blameless. So far in qualifying, the USMNT has looked troubled by teams that press them high up the field, and by teams that bunker in deep and dare the Yanks to break them down. Which only leaves disorganized mishmashes in the middle, like Jamaica and Honduras, that the U.S. have looked good against. That’s on the manager. Berhalter also seemed to get caught cold by Panama’s tactics, which did not involve sitting deep but pressing the U.S. as El Salvador did and Honduras did in the first half. The U.S. looked unequipped for it with huge gaps between U.S. players leaving those with the ball short on options.
But, again, they were always going to look unequipped when they got some of the stupefyingly incompetent performances they did yesterday. Kellyn Acosta is a confounding player for me. All summer I watched soccer observers I enjoy, respect, and dutifully follow, laud his performances in the Gold Cup and elsewhere. And I couldn’t see it. I thought it was a conspiracy being enacted upon me to delve me further into the madness in which I already inhabit. I was the guy staring at the 3-D art and wondering why the picture wouldn’t make itself known to me. They see an all-encompassing midfield destroyer. I see a slow-ish town drunk wanderer with the distribution skills of a screen time-addled toddler. But again, so many people say it that I feel like I have to keep looking.
So here’s a touch for you:
Or here is another passage of insipidness that causes my blood to thicken to concrete:
Charge! Into! The! Space! Turn at all! Anything! The U.S. was simply lost in midfield, and it wasn’t all on Acosta. Yunus Musah and Sebastien Lletget aren’t anywhere to be found in this second video to provide options, as they weren’t for most of their time on the field. They were seemingly hanging closer to the front line for a more direct style, or to collect second balls of headers, except there’s a difference between being direct and just humping long passes as high up the field as you can. But Acosta doesn’t keep the team ticking and moving the way Tyler Adams does, while also not providing the defensive shield Adams does either. The U.S. was engine-less.
Which we already knew from that Honduras game. There, Adams was deployed as a wingback and not in midfield to start the game. It was regurgitated foodstuffs. He moved into midfield in the second half, the U.S. scored four times. These are not coincidences. Adams was in the middle against Jamaica, and there was a clear path from defense to attack through him, Musah, and Weston McKennie, with some help from Jamaica.
We knew that this packed schedule would test the U.S. depth, and being without Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna only more so. If the U.S. can roll out its best 11, or close to it, and beat Costa Rica in Columbus, then this isn’t that big of a deal. If they can’t, it is, and it will be because the depth players are not grabbing their chances. I don’t know what Lletget does for a living, but I hope one day someone tells me. George Bello and Shaq Moore at the fullback spots either weren’t given clear instructions or forgot them, because both seemed constantly in between pushing high up the field or dealing with the wingers of Panama, which meant they didn’t really do either.
But the main problem was just how ponderous and sloppy the U.S. was with the ball. And that goes into the middle. There was just no rhythm or urgency. All of which Adams provides, and all of which the U.S. hasn’t found a backup plan for when Adams can’t play a whole match. Acosta appears intent on proving it can’t be him. How Luca de la Torre, who is starting regularly for a team in Europe (Heracles in Holland) can’t even get a look is a true mystery. Because he is calm and detailed with the ball, and can provide fluidity and rhythm. With the schedule the way it is, if you’re in the squad you’d better be used, and Berhalter’s insistence on trying to force Lletget or Acosta onto the field wherever he can and for however long he can is bordering on galling.
This was never going to be a smooth ride, and again, if the U.S. gets all three points against Costa Rica, you’ll live with it all. But Berhalter is making small mistakes, and his players are making them into large ones. Which is eating into the margin of error, and that’s the real problem.