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Three Thoughts on the United States World Cup Qualification

The road to Qatar 2022 is not paved in style points, it’s a pass/fail course and the USMNT passed regardless of yesterday’s result.

Costa Rica v United States - Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team qualified for their first FIFA World Cup since 2014 yesterday.

After the disastrous campaign that ended in Couva, Trinidad and Tobago five or so years ago prior to the Russia 2018 edition, the USMNT rebuilt under Gregg Berhalter with a roster stacked with young talent that proved to be once again one of the best teams in CONCACAF.

There are no style points in this region. It is about survival, and needing to not lose 6-0 yesterday in Costa Rica, the USA had set themselves up to survive not getting a result in San Jose, CRC because they haven’t done so in my lifetime. The last time the USA got a point in Costa Rica during qualification was 1985.

We should not forget the following things about this year’s Octagonal - Canada had the best qualifying campaign and deserved to top the group; Mexico’s arguably worst squad in years still had the best road record in the region and went unbeaten at home; Costa Rica finished on a 6-0-1 stretch to make the playoff with their only dropped points a 0-0 draw at Azteca because Keylor Navas is god.

We can acknowledge that the USA is both deserving of qualifying for the World Cup this cycle and also lament the fact that at times during this cycle they were absolutely not good at soccer. Completely pants even.

So yes, there is still a lot of work to do for one of the youngest US squads ever to be ready for a World Cup. And that honestly might not happen over the next 6-8 months in Qatar, but surely there is a target for the USA (and Canada for that matter) to have one of their best generations in their prime during the 2026 edition in North America.

While there will be a time to reflect and judge just how much this squad has improved over the last few years of this qualification cycle, the players and coaches should celebrate the achievement of getting to the World Cup. As we’ve seen over the years, it is not a guaranteed thing for good teams to qualify (looking at you Italy) and doing so with such a young team deserves praise.

That said, here are three thoughts on the the USMNT’s qualification touching on both the big and small picture for the US as a whole. I hope...

GREGG BERHALTER UNDERSTOOD THE ASSIGNMENT THIS WEEK

I have constantly griped about Berhalter’s tactics being ineffective and ill suited for the players at his disposal but at times the USA’s preferred 4-3-3 formation is darn good. The fact is Berhalter is going to be one of the few individuals in the world to both play and coach his country at a World Cup and that is no small feat.

But more importantly Berhalter and the US went all out for a result in Mexico at a very vulnerable Azteca and outplayed El Tri in a 0-0 draw. It was that key point that meant the US did not need a result in Costa Rica yesterday and on tired legs the USMNT faltered in the second half but got their passing marks regardless.

Yesterday the USA ran into Keylor Navas on top form, got sloppy on some set pieces, and they lost. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s also something they do need to resolve. Their finishing this cycle wasn’t great, they need more involvement from their strikers (more on that in a bit), and the set piece thing is a problem.

Despite all of these issues, in the most important week of qualification, Berhalter got it right by going for a result in Mexico and hopefully that’s a positive sign of things to come from the US head coach who I think was too passive and reactive with his formations and tactics over the last couple of years.

THE USMNT RARELY HAD THEIR TOP PLAYERS TOGETHER FOR THE OCHO

Christian Pulisic missed time, Gio Reyna missed time, Weston McKennie missed time, both Matt Turner and Zach Steffen missed time...and yet the USMNT called up more youth and depth and still churned out results.

It wasn’t always pretty but it doesn’t have to be. The lack of consistency from the USA is concerning as far as big time World Cup results in Qatar but I already have tempered expectations for the long con that is getting this squad ready for 2026. That said, at full strength this is still a dangerous team that absolutely can get out of a group this winter.

I still think the USA will have to be a countering/pressing team at the World Cup as their possession based system hasn’t proven good enough at the CONCACAF level, but if the US is fully healthy going into Qatar there’s going to be a lot of very good selection headaches to have for this roster going forward and that’s because so many players were relied on to cover for injuries and rotation throughout qualification.

Hopefully that experience serves the US squad in the short and long term. Christian Pulisic was one of the few that was there for Couva, and in particular he deserves this relish in this moment knowing he’ll play in his first World Cup this winter.

THERE ARE STILL QUESTIONS AT THE TOP AND BACK OF THE FORMATION

Yeah, everyone knew this was coming:

I know we at TBM stan for Matt Turner as the USMNT’s #1 GK regardless but the evidence has been really damning of late. Zack Steffen was not good yesterday nor for the majority of the week save for a couple of good stops against Mexico. His distribution has been mediocre for a player of his supposed talents with the ball at his feet and his performances over the last several years for the US have been lackluster.

Now, in Steffen’s defense on the first goal, the USMNT ran the same awful zone marking scheme that allowed Panama to score their lone goal in Panama in a 1-0 loss. However this ball is right at Steffen and he needs to smother it. The second goal however is horrid.

This ball needs to be claimed and highlights I think Steffen’s greatest issue right now and that is box control and decision making. This ball should be caught even and his defender should be getting out of the way. The reaction save is nice but this is calamity for the US and far too common IMO when Steffen starts.

I don’t want to pin all the blame on Steffen here as there’s clearly some coaching decisions that aren’t working for the US as far as defending set pieces, but if Steffen isn’t going to be an elite shot-stopper (cause he’s not that), every other facet of his game needs to be on point. All the time. Otherwise, Matt Turner starts and it shouldn’t be debatable that a shot-stopper is what the USMNT truly needs at the back anyway.

The other problem is up top at striker...

The UMSNT got what I think was a total of four goals from true “strikers” out of a total of 23 the US scored during qualification. Ricardo Pepi’s breakout against Honduras and Jamaica last year was short lived as far as the scoresheet goes and Jesus Ferreria was the only other #9 to net this cycle during the rout against Panama earlier in the week.

Not finding the scoresheet however is not the end of the world...not getting your attackers involved is a bigger issue.

Okay, Gio isn’t a striker but the larger point remains. The USA does this a lot, where their front three and especially the striker, just don’t get involved in the game because I assume of some possession based scheme and the US not wanting to go forward and counter attack because reasons only Berhalter knows about. This can’t happen in Qatar and if it does the USA is going to crash out of the tournament sooner rather than later.

Whoever ends up winning the #9 job between Pepi, Ferreria, Pefok, Sargent or heck even Tim Weah or Christain Pulisc - Berhalter needs to get that position involved a lot more often. If the USMNT isn’t going to use a traditional target man, the game plan needs a false nine type to combine with the wingers and overlapping fullbacks.

If the strikers aren’t going to produce, they put someone there who will. Like Pulisic. It’s not the craziest idea, it puts your best player in a central and high position on the field and you have the depth out wide to move Pulisic centrally.

Overall, yesterday was a time for more celebrating that hand-wringing. It’s a marathon not a sprint and there’s still six months or so for the US to get healthy and improve their cohesion on the field.

The USMNT were far from perfect during the Octagonal but they didn’t have to be. CONCACAF is a pass/fail course on survival and this young squad did so with the requisite bruising and scars to prove it.

The USMNT is back at the World Cup and that’s all that really matters.