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With 12 games still left in the final round of World Cup qualifying, it’s not time for the U.S. men to panic.
But it’s getting close.
A team so loaded with talent it was certain to make U.S. fans forget the nightmare of 2018 has just two points after its first two games, one of which was at home. Now it heads to Honduras, where the field Wednesday night will be scruffy, the atmosphere hostile and the conditions challenging.
Oh, and the Americans will be short-handed, too, with Gio Reyna (hamstring) and Sergino Dest (ankle) injured and Weston McKennie suspended for a second game after violating COVID-19 protocols. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen is also out after testing positive for COVID, while Tim Weah, Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola and Aaron Long were unavailable for the entire window because of injuries.
“We wanted to win both these games,” Christian Pulisic said Sunday night after the USMNT tied Canada 1-1, conceding a goal just seven minutes after Brenden Aaronson scored. “Obviously two points isn’t exactly where we want to be. But it’s just the situation we have to deal with now.
“We’d love to have six points and be sitting at the top but, yeah, we have to really turn it around and we need to start winning games.”
Currently fifth in the standings, the Americans would miss the 2022 World Cup in Qatar if qualifying finished today. The top three Concacaf teams get automatic spots, and the fourth-place team goes to a playoff against a team from Asia, Oceania or South America.
Fortunately for the Americans, qualifying has just gotten started and, as coach Gregg Berhalter pointed out, they haven’t lost yet – something the USMNT couldn’t say at the same point four years ago.
But that’s not the point.
The qualifying campaign for 2018 was such a debacle it resulted in the U.S. missing the World Cup for the first time in almost 30 years, one coach being fired and another resigning and an overhaul of the entire men’s national team. Of the 26 players on Berhalter’s initial roster for this first window, only six had played in a qualifier before. Thirteen were 23 or younger.
The upside of this youth movement is that this was the first team to fully reflect the U.S. rise as a soccer nation. The Americans might not have had experience in World Cup qualifiers, but they’d been through the gauntlet of the Champions League and Europe’s top leagues, facing the likes of Messi, Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski on a regular basis.
They’d also beaten archrival Mexico in two different tournaments this summer, with two different teams. The expectation was that when Berhalter harnessed the best the Americans have to offer, they’d quickly show they are the best team in Concacaf and one that is ready to make a deep run in the World Cup.
Instead, the U.S. men have triggered a wave of anxiety with their lackluster and disjointed play, to say nothing of the disappointing immaturity of McKennie, one of the squad’s leaders. Rather than the “nine-point week” some players spoke of, the Americans will be lucky to come away with five.
“It’s a team sport. Doesn’t matter where we come from,” said Tyler Adams, one of 17 players on the original U.S. roster who plays in Europe. “If we don’t go out there and do the things we’re good at, then we’re just a group of names on a piece of paper.”
A lack of cohesion seems to be the biggest issue so far. The U.S. depth has allowed Berhalter to do a lot of experimenting with his rosters over the last few years, but that also means the Americans are still getting a feel for one another. Couple that with the tight international window – three games in seven days – and time zone changes, and the Americans don’t yet look like a team that has found its rhythm.
The defense has had a couple of instances of guys not recognizing when they need to cover for someone, something that will come the longer they all play together. The attack isn’t seamless, as if players are thinking more than playing on instinct.
None of this is an excuse, however. Every team has to deal with the hostile conditions, quick turnarounds and changing rosters, and the USMNT has too much talent to look as mundane as it has.
Berhalter isn’t immune, either. Pulisic mentioned that the team needed “new ideas,” and it was hard to believe he was referring to anything other than the USMNT not changing its approach after taking the lead against Canada. Berhalter also waited until there was just 10 minutes left to use his substitutes, while Canada brought on fresh legs almost immediately after scoring.
“I can understand how it looks like we should have acted quicker. 100 percent,” Berhalter said.
And while Berhalter needed to send a message to McKennie, who had been suspended by Juventus in April for a breach of COVID protocols, his decision to send the midfielder back to Italy before the Honduras game will leave him open to criticism if the USMNT doesn’t come away with at least a point.
“There are high expectations for those who are a part of the U.S. Men’s National Team,” Berhalter said in a statement Monday announcing the additional discipline for McKennie, “and in order to be successful, it’s important that everyone in the group is accountable."
It’s quite possible the U.S. men will find their groove and, come next March, the disappointment of these first two games will be long forgotten. But qualifying for the World Cup isn't a given, as the USMNT learned the hard way four years ago. These talented young Americans are going to have to earn their spot in Qatar.
Honduras would be a good place to start.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Don't panic yet. USMNT can still make next year's World Cup in Qatar