Being panicky and reactionary about the USMNT is now part of the deal. Perhaps it’s a sign we’re growing up. Fuck, three weeks ago, the US qualified for next fall’s World Cup (and got something of a favorable draw), Christian Pulisic was starting regularly for Chelsea — looking good doing it, too — and Gio Reyna was healthy.
Fast forward to now: Pulisic can’t crack the Chelsea lineup, Reyna is hurt again, Weston McKennie is still on the shelf. The clouds are darker for sure, as it goes with a national team that only plays every couple months and is still relatively thin compared to the real powers. It doesn’t take much to expose what looks like a chastening and worrisome hole in the whole outlook.
Oh also, this happened:
That’s the US’s No. 1 keeper Zack Steffen, at Wembley Stadium in a FA Cup semifinal against Man City’s biggest rival Liverpool, suddenly seeing alien ships on the horizon or having an acid flashback or both with Sadio Mane, just one of the world’s best strikers, tearing down on him like a heat-seeking missile. It’s the biggest goalkeeping gaffe this season, probably anywhere. There were some arguments that Liverpool’s first and third goals were also due to Steffen mistakes, but that’s highly debatable, as both were pretty perfect strikes into corners. This one however, would head its own section of a goalkeeping book entitled “Historic Cockups.”
It also didn’t help that it took place in front of all the eyes in England that will be watching come Black Friday when the US takes on England in its second World Cup game. Not that US fans needed much help going into a panic over this, but there is no force for evil that’s more excited to mock than the English press. Doubly so if it involves a Yank. The US already had a problem at the other end of the field, not having a true, trustworthy No. 9 forward who can score regularly.
And now the fear is that they’re dodgy between the posts. And the fear isn’t that Steffen and Matt Turner aren’t good players. They couldn’t be complete donkeys and end up at Manchester City and Arsenal, respectively. The fear is that they won’t be playing at all.
Steffen’s mistake certainly is at least partially a product of rust. A keeper who is playing week in and week out has far better feel and touch and gets himself out of that, if only to boot the ball into orbit. But Steffen doesn’t play. He’s City’s No. 2 behind Ederson, and only gets the occasional Cup game. Saturday was only his third start for City in three months. Throw in the three US qualifiers last month and that’s still only six games in three months. It’s awfully nice of Pep Guardiola to remain loyal to Steffen as his cup keeper so he gets out there at all. But there’s a gear change to go from early round ties to a semifinal against a full-strength Liverpool. Steffen wasn’t up to it. Whether that’s simply due to going stale while on the bench or he’s just not that good… we won’t know until (or if) Steffen can go on loan somewhere and play regularly next year.
And Turner is going to find himself in the same situation come the summer. He’s been hurt and hasn’t played in MLS all season yet, and he won’t get that many games before his deal with Arsenal kicks in and he hops over to North London. But he’s not going to play more than the odd cup game either thanks to Aaron Ramdale being the Gunners’ #1. It’s not unheard of that a team like Arsenal would sign someone like Turner and then immediately send them out at loan. But that’s usually reserved for players seen as one for the future. Turner is about to turn 28. Bernd Leno, Arsenal’s current backup, is probably leaving after this season to find somewhere to regularly play himself. Arsenal clearly view Turner as a viable backup.
So can the US enter the World Cup with their top two keepers mostly being on the bench? The options behind those two aren’t going to quiet the stomach acids of any US fan. Ethan Horvath hasn’t played in a month for Nottingham Forest and only has six starts on the year. Beyond that are players that have either never been called up or used decidedly sparingly.
Sean Johnson is the veteran option, but has never wowed anyone. There’s been some clamor for Gregg Berhalter to turn to Sebastien Frei of Seattle, and he’s been in sparkling form so far this year, but he’s never played a game for the national team. Are you really going to toss him into a World Cup? The wildcard is Gabby Slonina, who can’t even buy smokes legally anywhere but is playing and excelling for Chicago (second best goals against-to-expected goals against difference in MLS). Can you really toss a teenager into this cauldron?
One mistake shouldn’t send anyone into orbit with anxiety and worry, but this is what it’s like when you have genuine expectations. And in a World Cup, one mistake can turn a whole tournament. Give away a stupid goal against Iran, a game the US have to win, and you’re up against it. The US has all this promise between the boxes. They had serious concerns about one of the sharp ends of the field, waiting for Ricardo Pepi to ever score again. Now it seems both ends are dangerous.