If it feels like World Cup qualifiers are boomeranging right back into your consciousness after not much of a break from the last ones, you’re not alone. This is the normal calendar, you just had a year off from it thanks to the pandemic, but just wait until qualifiers are crammed into January and February which they usually aren’t. Combine that with the fact that there are three games in each window instead of two, and yeah, it feels like it’s all spilling all over the coffee table and then the floor.
So the USMNT is gearing up for another set of three qualifiers next week, starting a week from tomorrow at home to Jamaica, then down to Panama, and then back home for Costa Rica over seven days. Considering the slate, the U.S. could really be on the express lane to qualification when it’s over. Then again, we said that for the first three games, and five points wasn’t exactly it. At least this one has two home games, but things are never as they seem in CONCACAF. Seven points should be the target and expectation, and should they get that 12 points from six games would be more than enough of a pace to book the flight to Qatar.
Thanks to the barroom ruckus nature of the schedule, with all these games crammed into just eight months amongst the normal club schedule, it’s been clear that the US’s depth-advantage over pretty much everyone else (save Mexico) was going to be the most important factor. And that’s going to whack the U.S. upside the head next week, as they’re going to have to go without both Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna for all three games.
Neither has played for their club teams since the last round of qualifiers, so it’s not a huge shock that both aren’t being called in. Quite honestly, the November qualifiers are in doubt for both at this point, but we’ll leave that heartburn for when we get to it. As excited as everyone was about the depth of this edition of the team, losing two of your three top choice attackers isn’t ideal. It’s tempting to point to the fact that the U.S. poured in three goals against Honduras after Pulisic left injured and Reyna wasn’t involved at all. But 25 minutes against a complete mess of a team which Honduras is right now isn’t three whole games. It’s a challenge.
New names in this squad from the last one are Matthew Hoppe and Gyasi Zardes. The US will have to use all their attackers to get around the absence of Pulisic and Reyna, and Hoppe comes with the sort of I-don’t-give-a-fuck style that the U.S. lacks, especially without those two. Brendan Aaronson is going to have to ball out for the U.S. once again up top for this window to go as well as it should.
Most of the eyes focused on the forward line will be on whether Ricardo Pepi gets to build on his debut in Honduras that had most of us frothing at the mouth in joy (frothing can go either way). He won’t play all three games, and Zardes’ knowable floor will probably be of use on the road and as a sub or starter in one other game. Josh Sargent wasn’t even called up thanks to his confused wanderings for both the U.S. and Norwich (though to be fair to him, Norwich confusedly wanders around as a team in the Premier League per tradition). This is going to be Pepi’s and Zardes’ show down the middle.
In midfield, probably due partly to those injuries, Gregg Berhalter did recall Weston McKennie after his late night snipe hunt in Nashville got him booted home last time. Underneath the intrigue/panic about the injuries at forward should be interest in how the midfield could look different. Both Yunus Musah and Luca de la Torre have been called in, and though it will be the first experience in qualifying for them, these are both guys who are good with the ball and can provide far more control than the US had last window. Either can be a solid connection between Tyler Adams/Kellyn Acosta’s deep-holding position and McKennie’s Braveheart-like charging into the penalty box without much plan or cause. The US has suffered from a disconnect in their midfield, with usually far too big of a gap between defensive midfield and the attack and lack of coolness when pressed. Musah and de la Torre both address this, at least in theory. That is, if they can get a handle on this madness at first asking, which their teammates will tell them took more than a smile last month when a lot of them went through it.
Perhaps more worrying than the lack of Pulisic or Reyna is just what the fuck Berhalter is going to do with central defense. John Brooks was auditioning to play Sadness in “Inside Out 2” in September, and he hasn’t gotten much better with Wolfsburg in the interim. Perhaps this is why Berhalter has opted for 10 defenders on this roster, with Tim Ream (barf), Chris Richards, and Mark McKenzie all options to partner Miles Robinson, who is now the automatic in central defense that Brooks was and played himself out of. It’s CONCACAF, so it’s never easy. And Jamaica will be boasting one of the Premier League’s hottest strikers in Michail Antonio. Keep the Pepto nearby. This is the way.