Weston McKennie gets around Darwin Ceren on Thursday night. (© Kyle Robertson/Columbus Dispatch / USA TODAY NETWORK)
By Michael Lewis
The U.S. men’s national team finds itself in a position to sweep all three of their games in the World Cup qualifying winter window.
Nine points within a week.
Now, that would be quite a feat and a giant step toward booking a spot in Qatar.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially after Thursday’s rather underachieving performance in the Americans’ 1-0 win over El Salvador.
If the USA plays like it did in Columbus, you will have to hold your breath hoping even for a draw, let alone a victory and three qualifying road points.
Of course, every game and opponent is different.
That means different tactics, lineups and formations and motivation.
Many factors can be attributed to the USMNT’s subpar performance on Thursday.
Sometimes teams play up or down to their opponents. While the USA players tried, you need to remember the Americans are in second place in the Concacaf Octagonal while the Central Americans are in seventh place and just about out of the picture for Qatar.
But give El Salvador and head coach Hugo Perez, a former U.S. international and National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee, a lot of credit for making it difficult for the hosts. The Salvadorans played as though the sub-freezing temperatures didn’t affect them, which is something Honduras, the USA’s Feb. 2 opponent in St. Paul, Minn., will take note.
The USMNT looked out of sync at times, players not hooking up with their teammates.
Christian Pulisic, the man whom the team trusts to fill the net or set up teammates, but has experienced trying to break into the Chelsea lineup on a regular basis, was far from top form. Sometimes he tried to do too much, dribbling into a pack of players, instead of passing off to a teammate. And he did not link up well with left back Antonee Robinson on the left side. Robinson had a match to remember, owning that flank and scoring the lone goal.
The midfield, particularly Weston McKennie, Yusus Musah and Tyler Adams, needed to be more consistent moving forward.
There were some bring spots. Tim Weah proved to make some plays on the right side.
The defense was solid, team, backline and goalkeeper Matt Turner, who weren’t tested much.
Which brings us to Canada, which has turned into a formidable foe over the last three years.
In the midst of a golden generation of players, the Canadians will be motivated to show the USA who’s boss. Games between those two border rivals have been close – including a USMNT 1-0 win in the Concacaf Gold Cup this summer and a 1-1 qualifying draw in Nashville, Tenn. Yep, the Americans dropped WCQ points at home.
True, the Maple Leafs will enter the match without their best player, Alphonso Davies, sidelined with a mild inflammation of the heart muscle after a bout with COVID-19.
But they have plenty of potential headaches to worry about, including Cyle Larin, who scored the equalizer in Nashville and has become a lethal international goal-scorer, Jonathan David, who scored the insurance goal in Canada’s 2-0 win in Honduras Thursday night, and former New England Revolution standout Tajon Buchanan, who set up the first tally in that match, an own goal.
The Canadians are just too good at many positions.
Looking at the match wearing my pragmatic glasses, I still think a draw in Hamilton should be considered a success for the USA.
A win? It’s something to hope for, but if the USMNT doesn’t improve its play, that’s what it will be, just plain hope.
The USMNT can’t afford another El Salvador performance, or it will suffer the consequences.