What we learned from Concacaf qualifying: USA wobble as Canada surge to the top

<span>Photograph: Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Gilbert Bellamy/Reuters

The US will qualify for the World Cup

This is not the nightmare from the previous qualifying cycle. For one thing, the challenges are more or less the exact opposite. Then: reliance on a core of fading, dyspeptic veterans under an experienced coach on a rescue mission with a shallow talent pool. Now: abundant experimentation from a younger tactician with the time to winnow a wide array of improving and perky up-and-comers.

The trip to somewhere in Canada – Toronto? Vancouver? Nunavut? – on 30 January looms large, but this team are showing they can collect points on the road (albeit with a slice of fortune against Jamaica on Tuesday) and win at home.

More than halfway through the Octagonal only two points separate the top four nations, with unbeaten Canada top, a point ahead of the US in second. There is no rational basis to think the Americans won’t finish in the top three and reach Qatar automatically, while the idea this group of players could miss out on the top four is preposterous. The USMNT are not great, at least not yet, but they are good enough and trending in the right direction.

The jury still out on Berhalter

How good is the head coach, though? With Gregg Berhalter still arranging the puzzle pieces 43 matches into the job, watching the US is like the moment in Tetris when the game accelerates and the screen blurs with blocks. Do you end up with a coherent and logical fit, or a colourful mess?

Berhalter has an impressive record (30 victories) but continues to look like a man overseeing a long and involved internship program. After all, he has handed qualifying debuts to 26 players since September. Oddly, and borderline worryingly, in eight qualifiers his team have scored just twice in the first 45 minutes but 10 times in the second halves. In total this year the US have scored 16 goals in the first period and 29 afterwards. Berhalter’s in-game adjustments seem to be more effective than his pre-match preparations – he’s a man with a plan, as long as it’s Plan B.

The prime example was the trip to Honduras in September, when the line-up and formation were misjudged and the team were a goal down at the break before a turnaround inspired by the debutant Ricardo Pepi led to a 4-1 win. Also notable was the cohesion and confidence in the excellent second half against Mexico last week after the US were outplayed in the opening period. Against Jamaica the US did begin well and took the lead, only to be disrupted – for the rest of the night, it transpired – by Michail Antonio’s stunning equaliser.

Weston McKennie is indispensable

This was confirmed by his presence against Mexico and absence against Jamaica. The US looked their age after the equaliser in Kingston – the starting XI averaged 22 years 341 days, second-youngest in UMSNT World Cup qualifying history, according to US Soccer. McKennie, who scored in the 2-0 win over Mexico, missed Tuesday’s game through suspension.

Without the 23-year-old, the midfield exuded energy but lacked authority. The rough pitch did not help, but it’s hard to believe the US would have been so dominated physically or looked so harried in possession if the Juventus man had been available and played instead of the invisible Gianluca Busio.

Meanwhile, with continued uncertainty over who should be the first-choice goalkeeper, a solid pair of performances from Walker Zimmerman is a boost for the team’s central defensive depth.

Canada are legitimate contenders to win the group

Canada were too good for Mexico on Tuesday night and now top their group
Canada were too good for Mexico on Tuesday night and now top their group. Photograph: Jason Franson/AP

John Herdman’s side are the only remaining undefeated team in Octagonal Winter Olymp… sorry, World Cup qualifying, and the 2-1 win over Mexico at the Edmonton “Iceteca” delivered a couple of iconic sights: players celebrating by leaping into piled-up snow, and local hero Alphonso Davies running across the pitch waving a flag after the final whistle (sensibly clad in a puffer jacket).

Related: Canada are stronger than ever – and the best may be yet to come

Home advantage is holding a game in temperatures around -9C (16F) on artificial turf with gridiron markings. The visitors, smarting from their 2-0 loss to the US in Cincinnati last Friday, duly looked uncomfortable from the start as Canada outhustled them in a hectic clash, led by 38-year-old Atiba Hutchinson, who broke the CanMNT cap record with his 90th appearance.

It was the first Canadian victory over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier since 1976, and they have a seven-point cushion over Costa Rica in fifth place as they aim to reach their first finals since 1986. And, like the US, this Canadian team have plenty of excellent young players, led by Davies, a sign that they will stay a force in Concacaf for a while yet. North America now has a true three-way rivalry.

VAR is coming

Original refereeing is one of the quirks of Concacaf, but the governing body is reportedly introducing VAR for the remaining Octagonal games – adding the system mid-campaign, like Uefa. It felt like an aberration that Concacaf used VAR in the Nations League and Gold Cup but not its key competition, and Berhalter called that absence “an error” in September.

He was probably not too upset on Tuesday, though, given the dubious 84th-minute foul given against Damion Lowe that potentially cost Jamaica a win. Considering the number of brutal challenges that go unpunished or under-punished in Concacaf fixtures, with Tuesday’s games no exception, red cards as well as disallowed goals might have an impact on which teams reach Qatar next year.