Although the United States men’s national team famously failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart said Tuesday that he “has no fear at all” that the USMNT won’t make the cut for Qatar 2022.
Stewart touched on a number of topics on a 40-minute conference call with reporters ahead of the men’s CONCACAF Nations League match against Canada [7.p.m. ET Friday, ESPN2/TUDN/UniMas and another vs. Cuba next week. The Americans must win both games to advance to the semifinals of the new regional tournament.
“I have no fear at all that we won’t qualify for the World Cup,” Stewart said. The Americans had reached the sport’s premier event seven consecutive times before missing out last year.
Stewart also said that coach Gregg Berhalter’s job is safe even if the U.S. doesn’t make it out of the Nations League group stage. Berhalter has been under fire since last month’s 2-0 loss to Canada in Toronto, the Americans’ first defeat to Les Rouges in more than three decades. That result came on the heels of September’s 3-0 friendly loss at home to chief rival Mexico. El Tri also beat Berhalter’s team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final in July.
Stewart hired Berhalter last December, his former teammate on the 2002 U.S. squad that advanced to the quarterfinals of that year’s World Cup.
“We’re looking at the future. So when I evaluate Gregg and the staff, what I've seen today, I'm a pleased man,” Stewart said. “I’ve seen that progress, and when you look at these individual results of the Canada away game, no, we weren’t happy. We weren’t happy at all. We have now a moment to rectify that as well. This Friday is about that. We need to perform.”
Stewart later added that “in games that we’ve played ... our players showed that they can perform at a really high level.” He pointed to the first 25 minutes of the Gold Cup final against El Tri as an example. “There’s been some other games,” he said. “The question for us more is not ‘can these players do that,’ because they’ve already shown that they can. However, what I would say is that we need to do that over 90 minutes. And that’s something that we’re constantly talking about.”
The loss in Canada and the most recent one against Mexico has led to questions about the possession-based style of play Berhalter has insisted on. Historically, the U.S. employed a defend-and-counterattack approach, relying on defensive organization, athleticism and set pieces to punch above its weight on the global stage. The U.S. was one of just seven nations to reach the knockout stage of the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, something many of soccer’s traditional powers didn’t manage.
The U.S. has struggled in Berhalter’s system. But Stewart suggested that changing course now would be a mistake. “When you have the ball, I feel you have the most control of everything,” he said. “I still think there's progress in this, I really do.
“When you don't win games, there's a certain pressure that comes with that, and we all understand that,” he added. “But that's also something we all need to get through and keep doing what we have to do.”
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