Lessons from Concacaf qualifying: US insecurity in the cold and Canada’s surge

<span>Photograph: David Berding/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: David Berding/Getty Images

The US shouldn’t chill out

The wound from the failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup is still raw, elite sport is a business of marginal gains and the USMNT is often forced to play road games in heat, humidity and at altitude. But the choice of freezing St Paul for this game exuded insecurity when the US should have projected strength.

A nation that beat Mexico three times in 2021 felt it should make the worst team in the qualifying group – one that is winless with eight losses in 11 qualifiers – trek to the frozen north in the hope of demoralising them and to ensure they’d have less support in the stands than if the match was played in California, Texas or Florida.

This was underdog behaviour and a gratuitous, contrived gut check given the talent gap between the sides. The spectacle of players in head and face coverings and the goalkeeper Matt Turner being told by the referee to take off his handwarming quarterback pouch was absurd.

It was also an irresponsible choice as the windchill dipped to -14F (-25C) at kickoff. The Canada-adjacent location reduced the travel time for Gregg Berhalter’s side after their loss in Ontario last Sunday but at the cost of the weather raising the injury risk given the strain that low temperatures place on the body.

Not to mention the threat to fans and stadium workers from conditions the National Weather Service described as “dangerously cold”, with the chance of “frost bite in as little as 20 minutes for those without sufficient clothing”. Indeed, two Honduran players had to come off, reportedly to be treated for hypothermia.

The “Snow Clasico” is legendary but the frost fetish has gone too far. It’s the World Cup, not the Winter Olympics. After this, and Canada’s hosting of Mexico in frigid Edmonton last November, it’s time for Fifa to set minimum temperature rules in the interests of safety and fair play.

Canada will qualify for Qatar with games to spare

When you’re hot, you’re hot – as they don’t say in Minnesota in February. While the USMNT’s record deep freeze dominated the American agenda, Canada are in such scorching form that they’re scoring by accident. In one of the strangest goals of this (or any) qualifying campaign, the ball arced over the goalkeeper and into the net from an acute angle after a deflection hit the 38-year-old captain, Atiba Hutchinson, in the back while he was lying on his side and facing away from the goal.

If that opener for Canada in their 2-0 away win over El Salvador was a fluke, their table-topping status is not. They’ve won six successive games and are the only unbeaten team in the Octagonal. John Herdman’s men are eight points clear of fourth-placed Panama with three fixtures left. Jonathan David’s solo injury-time clincher was a goal more reflective of the team’s character: direct, fast, self-assured and gleefully seizing the moment.

Canada’s win over El Salavador has almost guaranteed them a place in Qatar
Canada’s win over El Salavador has almost guaranteed them a place in Qatar. Photograph: Rodrigo Sura/EPA

Even if the scoreline suggests it was an easy game, it was tough to adjust from Sunday’s win over the US in freezing conditions in Hamilton to the heat and humidity of San Salvador.

“This was one of the toughest places I have ever been,” Stephen Eustaquio said after the game. “Hard grass, hard environment, the weather was very hot. ... A lot of noise everywhere. But we stood together. We had some hard moments during the game, but at the same time we knew it was normal and we wanted a nine-point window and we got it.”

The Americans have one foot in Qatar

While Canada are all but assured of a place at Qatar 2022, the US aren’t in a bad position themselves even if this has been an uneven qualifying campaign so far. Berhalter’s team were effective on Wednesday and the bold decision to name the out-of-sorts Christian Pulisic among the substitutes paid off when he scored soon after coming off the bench. But Honduras are so bad that it would be rash to attach great significance to the performance and premature to declare an end to the squad’s persistent difficulty with scoring in first halves and from set pieces. The US have found the net 16 times in 11 qualifiers and seven of those goals came against Los Catrachos.

Turner didn’t get to warm his hands by making a save. It was so easy that Berhalter snapped a selfie with fans late in the second half as the US led 3-0. Still, the result means the US can feel confident ahead of a tricky concluding trio of fixtures next month: away to Mexico, home to Panama and on the road against Costa Rica. Canada are almost out of reach but three more points will probably be enough for the US to qualify automatically as one of the top three.

Panama’s 1-0 loss to Mexico left them four points adrift of the second-placed US. However, the plausible scenario of the Americans losing to Mexico next month while Panama beat Honduras would send stress levels soaring. If that scenario plays out avoiding defeat in Orlando against Panama will be imperative before a tricky trip to Costa Rica for the final qualifier.

Acosta and De la Torre enhanced their reputations

The midfield pair impressed on Wednesday with Yunus Musah on the bench and Tyler Adams injured and looked like viable back-up options. De la Torre was kinetic in his first international start while Acosta was involved in all three goals.

His free kick was superbly headed in by Weston McKennie for the opener. Another Acosta set-piece was turned in by Walker Zimmerman later in the first half. An Acosta delivery led to the third goal as well, as Berhalter’s side finally figured out how to score from set pieces in this qualifying campaign.

Dallas is a contender to host a semi-final in the 2026 World Cup and it’s having a big say in 2022 as well thanks to the city’s MLS club’s impressive youth development. Acosta, McKennie and 2013 first-round draft pick Zimmerman were among five FC Dallas alumni named in the US starting XI, with a current Frisco-based young player, Jesus Ferreira, making a substitute appearance. (Not forgetting the injured Chris Richards.) The pipelines in Texas aren’t only delivering oil.

McKennie is a man for all seasons

The freezing temperatures in Minnesota meant it was not a night for delicate touches on a lumpy, concrete-hard surface. The ball must have felt like a rock, if numbed toes could feel it at all. Yet McKennie’s jinking run and delicate pass to set up a chance for Tim Weah in the 50th minute was a highlight. With Pulisic a spectator until after the hour mark, McKennie ran the show and scored a soothing early goal. It would be no surprise if the Juventus midfielder is the US’s most indispensable player in Qatar, if they make it, this autumn/winter. Without the kind of midfield control that McKennie can provide, Pulisic’s influence on games is liable to be sporadic against strong opposition.