Perhaps I doomed them last Wednesday when I told my editor the US Men’s National Team would qualify for the World Cup easily. The power of the motherfuck grows every day. That won’t comfort anyone, especially me, as the US has certainly stubbed its toe in its first two qualifiers, even if it hasn’t fully tripped over its own dick as some might have you believe.
The easy reaction is to panic and decry that it’s 2017 all over again, where Jürgen Klinsmann lost his first two games of that cycle, which set the US on the path to a series of calamities that ended in Couva, Trinidad, and not qualifying.
There are some differences, obviously. One, the US hasn’t lost, and has only one truly bad result in a home draw to Canada. A draw in El Salvador isn’t great or ideal, but it’s just as far from disaster. The context will come tomorrow night on the road in Honduras. Should the US win, five points from the first three again isn’t ideal, but isn’t so far off the seven that most would have reasonably targeted.
Second, this round is 14 games instead of the 10 it’s always been in previous. There’s more time, or at least more games, to make up the ground. But the “time” aspect is what’s scary, as the packed nature of this cycle with its three games in seven days has already come to bite the USMNT in the ass against Canada.
There’s nothing US fans love more than calling for the manager’s head, and we’ve gotten good practice at it over the years whether it was Bruce Arena’s nonchalance, Klinsmann’s weirdo, new-age training that involved everything except actual tactics, or Bob Bradley’s odd fascination with Jonathan Bornstein. National team games don’t come around often, important ones even less so, so every reaction gets bumped up a couple levels. That doesn’t mean Berhalter is blameless, and we’ll get to that.
But he had his hands somewhat tied through injury, idiocy, and the schedule. One, he lost Gio Reyna to injury before the game, and Weston McKennie to being an absolute moron FOR THE SECOND TIME when it comes to COVID protocols, leading to his suspension. Apparently he just couldn’t resist Bachelorette-palooza that is Nashville every Saturday night. The manager then lost Sergiño Dest during the match, and Dest is a major attacking outlet. This meant he was short on personnel in the four attacking spots, or from fullback. The US needed something close to a true #10 in midfield to break down Canada’s organized, determined, and rugged defense, which Brenden Aaronson can do and started there against El Salvador. But with no Reyna, and Konrad de la Fuente so inexperienced and having started against El Salvador, there really wasn’t anyone else to occupy the wing opposite Christian Pulisic other than Aaronson. Too many holes for too few solutions.
Thanks to McKennie depriving the US of his company, that left the attacking midfield role bereft. There just isn’t really anyone else to be there when the US doesn’t have all of Pulisic, Reyna, Aaronson, and McKennie to call upon (especially Yunus Musah out entirely with injury). It’s a debate whether McKennie’s often headless chicken running around would have helped all that much in the tiny spaces Canada allowed, but it would have been better than whatever Sebastian Lletget was doing.
In addition, Berhalter can’t create a central striker out of thin air. Jordan Pefok tried hard, had some good hold-up moments, and played a key role in setting up the lone goal. But he doesn’t, yet, have the touch or nous to drop into the space between an opponents’ defense and midfield and generate a quick and delicate interchange with midfielders to open up a packed defense (and the US didn’t have those midfielders on the field anyway). Josh Sargent isn’t really that guy either, though closer. And this was a tough spot to debut Ricardo Pepi.
Which left the US pretty stupefied against Canada’s 5-4-1 formation. Their only conclusion they found regularly was for their centerbacks to try desperate and frustrated 40-yard diagonals to the wings, except with Canada’s wide midfielders sitting right on top of their fullbacks, there wasn’t any space there.
That doesn’t mean Berhalter got it all right, or close. Kellyn Acosta and Tyler Adams are redundant, especially against a team playing like Canada. Acosta isn’t an attacking midfielder, and his inability to try and sort of defense-splitting pass when not in acres of space showed that. Lletget is just not good enough for this level, or at least not against a defense like this. Maybe moving Aaronson to the middle and trying De La Fuente for a second straight match would have left the latter unavailable at all for Wednesday’s road game. But getting a win at home was pretty vital.
There was a lot of furor over Berhalter not using a tactical sub until the 80th minute, but that assumes there were definite solutions on the bench. Does Sargent solve all that much? Is Christian Roldan really a game-changer at this level? Was this the setting for Pepi’s debut? All of that’s debatable.
Perhaps any criticism of Berhalter should be over a longer term view. While this US team certainly comes with promise and excitement, does anyone remember a game where they played well for the whole thing? The friendlies in Europe last winter and spring had flashes and spots, but certainly not a full 90. They weren’t very good in the Nations League semifinal, and while they beat Mexico in the final and were gutsy and determined, those games are so chaotic it’s hard to generate any type of stretch of fluid, sexy attacking soccer. The Gold Cup, with the B-Team, was more functional than inspirational. The final saw the US play well, but in a defend-and-counter method that won’t be the order of the day in a lot of these qualifiers.
For all the promise and bluster, the likes of Pulisic, Reyna, McKennie, Aaronson, Dest, and whoever is up top have yet to really put an opponent to the sword. Can Berhalter get that out of them? Will he even get the chance? Because this schedule is going to leave him with tired and injured players every game. There’s still a drop off from the first 11 to the backups.
Both Berhalter and the team may just not get a chance to find a true rhythm. They may just have to gut it out a lot more than we’d hoped. But at least they’ve shown they can do that. They just had better do so again soon.