Josh Sargent can’t believe he missed a header vs. Canada. Sunday night. (Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
The perfect storm of a World Cup qualifying nightmare came true so early for the U.S. men’s national team in this cycle.
The USA’s best player was just coming up a COVID-19 quarantine.
The squad’s second-best attacking option injured his hamstring in the previous game and is out of the next match.
One of the side’s best all-around midfielders gets benched for at least one for doing something stupid off the field.
Putting names to those examples:
* Midfielder Christian Pulisic played his first competitive match in 22 days, since Chelsea’s 3-0 English Premier League win over Crystal Palace Aug. 14.
* Midfielder-forward Gio Reyna can set up teammates or celebrate his own goals, at the tender age of 18 for Borussia Dortmund.
* And midfielder Weston McKennie somehow pulled off a stupid thing off the field, broke team rules and got benched for the 1-1 home draw vs. Canada Sunday night. His availability is in question for the third and final September game in Honduras Wednesday night.
Add injuries to Tim Weah, who had to drop out before WCQ began, and Sergino Dest’s sprained right ankle, and the depth starts to run rather thin, especially up front.
Perhaps youngsters Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Konrad de La Fuente or Ricardo Pepi (who hasn’t played in qualifying just yet), will step up. If not, the lack of a consistent striker up front will continue to haunt the team. Scoring by committee is nice, having someone who can score consistently up front is even nicer.
And perhaps it is time for head coach Gregg Berhalter to discover his inner Bruce Arena.
During the 2002 World Cup, the USMNT reached the Round of 16, but was quite banged up, with injuries and yellow-card suspensions. During its knockout round match against Mexico, Arena put on a master class of coaching as he was forced to use some players out of position. For El Tri, he made four changes from the previous match, a loss to Poland. Berhalter, Pablo Mastroeni, Eddie Lewis and Josh Wolff were moved into the Starting XI, while Frankie Hejduk (suspended), Jeff Agoos (injured), Clint Mathis and Ernie Stewart were out. Arena switched to a 3-5-2 formation, and it worked to perfection. And oh, Gio’s father, Claudio Reyna, captained the USMNT that day.
What transpired was the most famous dos a cero result of them all in Jeonju, South Korea, as the Americans moved onto the quarterfinals.
Landon Donovan and Brian McBride did the attacking damage, and the entire team did a job on Mexico. You might go out on the limb and say the match was a physical one. Referee Vitor Melo Pereira (Portugal) handed out 10 yellow cards — five to each team — and one red card — to Mexico’s Rafa Marquez in the 88th minute. It further limited Arena’s options against Germany in the quarters, but the Americans lived to play another day.
Does Berhalter have that vision and just as importantly, the players to pull off a draw or shall I dare say a win in Honduras?
I just don’t know. He has never been tested in such a situation.
Here’s a reminder for all you newbie USMNT fans who expected the team to crank out 2-0 or 3-0 victories over so-called inferior Concacaf opposition during qualifying: Having impressive credentials and resumes and playing on such high caliber teams such as Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and Barcelona is nice, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.
Taking those lessons learned in the UEFA Champions League and domestic league competition and adding some grit to your performance could help you grind out a win. Playing pretty soccer in Concacaf qualifying won’t win you many games, but out working and outwitting your opponents will.
There is plenty time to rebound, but there are legitimate questions as to whether this group of players has the grit to pull it off, even with a dozen games remaining. They certainly haven’t shown it yet.
If there is one good thing about Concacaf qualifying, it’s that three teams, and not one, will book an automatic spot in Qatar next year (with the fourth-place side competing in an inter-continental playoff).
So, the USMNT and its supporters must pray to the soccer gods that Mexico, which is 2-0-0 entering its Wednesday match at Panama, runs the table and gobbles up all the points while the other six national sides play as many draws as possible. It doesn’t matter if Mexico wins the group by one point or 10.
Why? Because only two points will be split for each tie, as opposed to some team registering a full three points. Of course, there might be times when the USA will need some help and hope for a squad to lose, most likely later on in the competition.
I learned that in my World Cup Qualifying Math 101 course many, many years ago. The enemy of your enemy is your friend, at least for the upcoming 90 minutes.
Meanwhile, the Americans must find ways to accrue points and figure out a way to finish among the top three by next spring.
It certainly doesn’t get any easier.
As much as the Honduras encounter is a must-win game, two of the USMNT’s matches in the October window are super must-win contests because of what has transpired in September. Two are at home – Jamaica in Austin, Texas Oct. 7 and Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio Oct. 13. Those games are sandwiched around a match in Panama Oct. 10.
If the USA can’t accrue at least six points then, its chances of spending Thanksgiving and December in the hot weather of Qatar will be greatly diminished, or perhaps impossible.
But first things first, which is trying to find a way to get out of San Pedro Sula, Honduras with at least a point, if not more.
Hey, stranger things have happened. After all, this is World Cup qualifying in Concacaf.