It’s not official yet. The USMNT still has to dot the i’s and cross the t’s and all that. Which means they have to manage to not lose to Costa Rica by six goals or more on Wednesday. Quite frankly, the more impressive feat than qualifying for the World Cup would be losing by six in Costa Rica, and even then the U.S. would still get the one-game playoff in June. it would be historic. It would be unprecedented. But nothing anyone wants to see. The USMNT basically punched its ticket to Qatar last night with a 5-1 ass-waxing of Panama in Orlando.
As with everything with the USMNT, there is an urge to attach a host of qualifiers (get it?) to the result, along with the draw at the Azteca. The fans can’t help it, the scars from four years ago still stinging and the struggle to believe that things are different now. Who wants to get that hurt again? It’s easier and more fun to be the first one in to shit on something, or to try to be. Coping mechanisms and such.
But any clear-headed view of this window so far is really nothing but positive. The U.S. controlled a game in Mexico City and then thoroughly whacked a team it had lost to earlier in qualifying, missing three of its best attackers in Sergiño Dest, Weston McKennie, and Brendan Aaronson. All will likely start the World Cup opener if healthy come November. They only had Gio Reyna for about 60-65 minutes over two games. Depth is not a bad thing and the U.S. showed it off.
The draw against Mexico showed the guts and determination that the U.S. has generally been known for. It also showed organization and tactical know-how. Last night, they showed swerve, creativity, and ruthlessness. Oh sure, they got a couple bounces. Anibal Godoy lost control of his elbows and hands twice, and the second penalty call was a tad soft. Jesus Ferreira got a nice bounce off Shaq Moore’s pass that left him with the challenge of finishing from five feet out. But as people like to say, you make your own luck.
Antonee Robinson was a terror down the left, creating a chance with every foray into the opposing half and with every cross. Tyler Adams cleaned everything up in midfield. Luca de la Torre was understated but metronomic in midfield. Christian Pulisic finally found his Chelsea form for the national team. Paul Arriola was lively on the other side and scored, and then when he was replaced at the half by Reyna the U.S. hit another gear. Reyna was just about the best player on the field, though Pulisic didn’t want to let him off that easy when he came up with this insulting bit of filth:
The U.S. hummed and purred. It all clicked. The frustration is that we haven’t seen it more often, but that’s a tougher needle to thread than anyone wants to admit, given the vagaries of international soccer. The second game of these three-game windows had been a real obstacle before, where the draws with Canada at home and the losses to Canada and Panama on the road had come. Last night was how you correct that.
With qualification all but assured now, the U.S. can look upon all this and see that their back four is basically cemented, with depth. Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson are locked in the middle, and Robinson has made left back his home. Dest will slot back in on the right, but there are options with Yedlin, Cannon, and Moore. Dest can also flip to the left when needed.
The midfield and wings are overflowing with options, especially when Reyna gets his wish to play in the center. Yeah, striker is still a problem, and probably still will be come the World Cup. And lacking a goalscorer, the one thing that could take this team from not just exiting the group stage and maybe making noise in the Round of 16, but to making some real noise beyond that, is a gallstone-sized issue. Maybe the answer is a false nine, if any of Aaronson or Tim Weah or Reyna are up for it. Maybe at the beginning of next season Pepi or Dike or Sargent in the Championship can catch fire. Joel Campbell once lit up a World Cup. You know who Denis Cheryshev is? He was the second-leading scorer in the last World Cup. It can happen.
That’s the thing about a team this young, or this new to each other still. It’s rarely going to put it all together. But it has the past two games. And it only has to put it together for a few more to go places it hasn’t before. Leave the doubts, criticisms, qualifiers to their accomplishments for another day. They’re always accessible. Right now, perhaps it’s best to turn around and see the ground already covered.