The United States Men’s National Team has two games left in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, two games against teams that, by all accounts, the USMNT should not have any problems dispatching. Trinidad & Tobago have gotten owned more or less nonstop throughout the Hex, and Panama were lousy enough to lose to T&T. Not exactly imposing foes for a team stacked with dudes who play in top European leagues and also CONCACAF’s greatest cyborg. CONCACAF qualifying is a joke, but it’s a joke that’s provided the Yanks with a cushy safety net.
The problem is, the USMNT could still fuck this up.
The U.S. have been punching far below their weight, and there’s not much about them right now that’s really worth believing in besides the brilliance of Christian Pulisic. If the USMNT is the sort of team that should waltz through World Cup Qualifying...why haven’t they done so? Why are they fourth right now, with a worse goal differential than Panama? If Pulisic is world-class, why do the U.S. struggle against the most mediocre teams in CONCACAF and lose to the good ones? If the USMNT has more talent than anyone besides Mexico, then why does this all feel like it could end in horrifying embarrassment?
Mathematically speaking, the USMNT still has a great chance to make it to Russia (83 percent, per ESPN’s SPI). However, that metric is probably overly generous to a group that hasn’t congealed well against worse teams, and it basically assumes that they’ll beat Panama on Friday in Orlando. It’s bonkers that the U.S. have fumbled their way through qualifying to the point that they need to take points from Panama at home in October to keep their chances above 50 percent, but here we are, facing a legitimate must-win game.
Of course, the USMNT should beat Panama with ease, but they haven’t really done anything they should be doing throughout qualifying. Eight of their 12 goals came in two games against Honduras and T&T, and they’ve conceded only two fewer goals than Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama combined. Pulisic has been one of the best players in the region, yet Bruce Arena has done little to tailor an attack around his talents. He’s a featured player, but not the focus of the offense, and when the gradient of talent within the USMNT is as uneven as it is, the team should orient itself around its best players and work with the goal of letting them be on the ball in their favorite places more than anything else.
Pulisic does get the ball a ton, but he’s played with uninterested runners and a slow group of attackers. I’d be more okay with this if the overly cautious lineup didn’t trip over itself to concede the dumbest goals possible, but a team that neither sells out to put its stars in the best possible position to score goals nor prevents goals on the other end is a poorly set-up team.
Bruce Arena not getting Fabian Johnson onto the roster is also concerning, because despite his wavering committment, he’s one of the U.S.’s best players. Gyasi Zardes wasn’t going to play against Panama so his surprise inclusion (and subsequent departure due to injury) doesn’t matter, but the best USMNT XI should feature Johnson, and the crucial one this Friday won’t. Arena was likely swayed by Johnson’s scant number of appearances for Borussia Mönchengladbach, although Johnson did log 90 minutes in a league win this weekend. Whether Arena doesn’t take Panama seriously enough to get Johnson (who is healthy) into the lineup or simply doesn’t believe that he needs him, it’s concerning. Johnson told Bild over the summer that he’d only get called up for the “more important games.” This is the most important game.
Johnson won’t be in Orlando this week, but the team will undoubtedly be better with DeAndre Yedlin back in the fold after some time out injured, streaking up the right flank and thwacking crosses in. I still think the USMNT will beat Panama’s ass and qualify for the World Cup, even if it wouldn’t be out of character for them to lose. Last time around, the USMNT had some troubles in the Hex and they managed to right themselves and get within a whisker of beating Belgium in the Round of 16 and booking a date with Argentina. All is not lost.
But just being this close feels dreadful. Without much real competition or many tournaments that grab the American sports world’s attention, the World Cup is the only thing that matters for the USMNT. We should be competing with Mexico for the confederation’s number one spot every four years, and instead this team is competing with Honduras to avoid staying home. The USMNT must win this week. And Fabian Johnson or not, they have no excuse not to do so.