Soccer in the States: U.S. Men’s National Team off to shaky start in 2022 World Cup Qualifiers

The United States Men’s National Team might actually be good at soccer. Let me explain.

This is a bold claim, and for those who don’t keep up with soccer in the states, it may even sound ridiculous. Soccer has never been our forte, and after suffering heartbreak in 2017 when the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, it’s been hard to be optimistic about the team’s chances ahead of the next qualifying campaign. Nonetheless I, like many others, have stuck with our guys, patiently awaiting the revenge tour, our chance at redemption. 

2021 has been everything we’ve waited for. Two major wins in summer tournament finals — CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup — over our Mexican rivals should be enough to get anyone hyped about the talent the USMNT has at the moment. For the first time since 2017, there’s hope surrounding the American camp ahead of the Octagon — a 14-game World Cup Qualifying format in which the U.S. plays seven other teams from North and Central America, with the top three spots gaining automatic qualification for the 2022 World Cup. 

Now that I’ve laid down the context, let me catch you up to speed. The USMNT played its first three games of the Octagon this week: at El Salvador, home against Canada and at Honduras. And everything that I just said about optimism, hope and whatever just got kicked to the curb. I went from genuinely excited to watch a talented group of players represent our nation to dreading the next time we play from the first to third game. How did this happen, you ask?

Believe me, I’ve got plenty to say. 

Let’s first take a look at the roster we’ve brought into the qualifiers. The household names are all there: Chelsea star 22-year-old Christian Pulisic, 18-year-old wonderkid Giovanni Reyna,  23-year-old Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie and 22-year-old defensive midfielder Tyler Adams. The only notable absences are the likes of Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah, who has been recovering from an injury, and Matthew Hoppe, the breakout attacker from the Gold Cup campaign. The roster contains an unprecedented amount of players who are competing at the highest levels of European soccer, thus the excitement around this team isn’t misguided. 

Of course, if the individuals don’t mesh, problems will arise, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far in the first three matches. Individuals can’t lead an attack by themselves, unless they’re Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, and the team has suffered from a lack of scoring opportunities. It’s a challenge that we’ve yet to see head coach Gregg Berhalter solve at the highest level. 

CONCACAF away matches are no joke, especially in a raucous atmosphere such as the stadium in El Salvador. That statement was the prevailing excuse after a 0-0 tie in the first game of the campaign in which a clearly inexperienced U.S. team played a disjointed brand of soccer.

Throughout the game, link-up play was difficult because players were spread out, and the press from the opposition defense stifled any creativity going forward. It was a grueling game to watch, especially because it was the ever-so-hyped-up first game of World Cup Qualifying. It’s worth noting that Pulisic didn’t play against El Salvador, as he was still recovering from coronavirus. It’s also worth noting that, from the way that game looked, even Pulisic wouldn’t have made a difference in the result. 

So the next test was Canada at home in Nashville, in a game that already felt like a must-win. Dropping points at home simply won’t be enough in the Octagon without stellar road performances. And yet, to no one’s surprise by now, the Americans could only manage a 1-1 draw. I would call it an improvement, and this game was at least more fun to watch; However, this one probably hurt more than the first game. Winger Brenden Aaronson found the breakthrough, only for Canada to score a replica of the U.S. goal five minutes later. The U.S. once again lacked ideas going forward, and even with dominance in possession, they were unable to find the net when they needed to. 

But what could possibly be worse than a poor performance on the field? Well, of course, off-field issues. McKennie was sent back to Italy after playing in the first match because he was in violation of team coronavirus bubble protocols. After a full frenzy of rumors and reporters trying to figure out what McKennie did, it was discovered that he spent one night outside the bubble and invited someone into the bubble on a separate night. Berhalter had no choice but to send him back to his club, leaving the U.S. without their best box-to-box midfielder. This was literally the last thing that the team needed, and all the drama surrounding it couldn’t have made for a worse distraction for an already underachieving team.

Last but not least, Honduras. By far the most entertaining affair, this game ran the gamut of my emotions, from rage to sadness, then for a moment hope again (when will I learn?), then pain, then ultimately ecstasy. That joy was the result of a go-ahead goal by striker Ricardo Pepi in the 75th minute, leading to an eventual 4-1 win on the road. It was a huge three points — after a dreadful first half, Berhalter made all the right subs and the U.S. ultimately snagged its first win of the Octagon. The bad news (because of course there’s bad news) was Pulisic’s injury, which forced him off the pitch in the 62nd minute. 

So what did we gain out of these first three games? Five points total, a few injuries and a new dramatic storyline in the saga of McKennie. Where do we go from here? For starters, we need to have a moment of reckoning with Berhalter. It’s his job to inspire the team tactically, and if he can’t do that, we need to move on quickly. His questionable team choices and delayed substitutions have directly impacted results. The substitutions in the Honduras game are hopefully indicative of improvement from him in that regard. Some will say we need to give our managers time to work things out, but we don’t have time. Every single game in the Octagon is make-or-break, and we have to draw a line with poor results somewhere. 

It’s not just the manager, it’s the players too. These guys are competing in European competitions against the best players in the world, but when they come to represent their country, they look uninspired. That’s not gonna fly, especially with our top players who should be bossing it at this level of competition. Whether it’s a matter of dropping players from the starting lineup or from the roster as a whole, there has to be accountability. We saw first hand what passion and determination looks like in the second half against Honduras, as the players buckled down and completed the comeback.

Frankly, I was expecting a lot better from the U.S. in World Cup qualifiers, but there may still be reason for optimism. Let’s just hope the USMNT can get its act together so all of this excitement and talent doesn’t go to waste. 

Adam Jasper is a sophomore sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Soccer in the States” provides updates on the U.S. Men’s National Team and its road to qualifying for the World Cup as well as general U.S. soccer news.