Soccer in the States: Weighing the good and bad of the U.S. Men’s National Team

A lot of the time being a fan of the United States Men’s National Team makes you feel like a cartoon character with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. The angel feeds you positive vibes telling you to look on the bright side, to celebrate victories and shrug off defeats. When you’re thinking like the angel, you accept that the USMNT isn’t perfect, and that’s OK (the healthy, rational way of thinking). 

The devil is the pessimist, giving into the pure frustration of bad results and the reactionary thinking that comes with them. When the devil’s in charge, you want every player benched and every coach fired, screaming at your TV as if any of the people on the field can hear you (I still haven’t got the memo yet). 

To love the USMNT is a polarizing affair, and it’s only expounded in times such as these. The United States has just three games left in its qualifying campaign: away at Mexico, home against Panama and away at Costa Rica. The USMNT stands in second place in the Octagon, and the three teams it’s about to play are below it, ready to pounce at any mistake and claim a spot in the 2022 World Cup. 

Both my angel and devil are engaged in a heated debate in my head, and I can’t decide whether to be more excited or afraid. Today, I’m giving the inside scoop on what my personal voices are telling me ahead of the final window of qualifying, and in doing so, maybe make a little more sense of the madness.

The angel says the U.S. controls its destiny

This team worked its tail off to get to this point. If you take a step back, being second place heading into the final window of games is absolutely acceptable, especially since the gap between the U.S. and fifth-place Costa Rica is 5 points. 

It’s easy to get caught up in all of the calculations — how many points each team needs, what results need to happen for the U.S. to definitively qualify for the World Cup — but it really comes down to just winning one of the final three. Gaining 3 points against any of the three teams gives the U.S. enough of a cushion to afford dropping the other two games. Let all the other chips fall where they may. 

The bar is so low. Sure, these teams are some of the best competition in the group, but 3 points from 9 possible is not in any way an unreasonable ask. This U.S. team is too talented to fail like in 2017. 

Manager Gregg Berhalter has the chance to prove himself once and for all and establish a good rapport with the USMNT faithful ahead of the World Cup. His team selection and tactical blunders have to end somewhere, right? He can learn from both his mistakes and successes. After all, his team won the reverse fixtures against Mexico and Costa Rica. There’s a clear instruction manual on beating the teams in front of them: Limit the defensive errors, get the ball to your creative outlets, take advantage of set pieces and secure a one-way ticket to Qatar. 

The devil says the U.S. is going to blow it 

The perfect storm is upon us. Brace for impact. It happened last time, and it’s going to happen again. 

Remember when the U.S. failed to qualify in 2017? How could you forget that dreadful night, the 2-1 loss in Trinidad and Tobago? What’s stopping that from happening again? The U.S. really needs at least 5 points to ensure they don’t slip out of the top four. That’s a tall task. 

This qualifying window is undoubtedly the most difficult the U.S. will encounter, with the biggest stakes. The team has never won at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. Never. Not once. That’s an automatic loss, no room for discussion. Panama was the first team to defeat the U.S. this qualifying cycle, and frankly, it wasn’t a fluke. The U.S. looked outclassed and outworked in that fixture, and the team hasn’t shown enough between then and now to assure fans that the same result won’t happen again. The last time the U.S. traveled to Costa Rica, they were sent home with a 4-0 thrashing. Enough said. 

Berhalter looks clueless, and he’s been carried this far by his talent pool. His tactical unraveling against Canada proves what we always feared to be true: The second things get tough, the U.S. folds. His team has no response when the opposition sits back in a low block; how can you expect them to get a goal when they need it? 

Back to reality

With all of this said, it’s never this black and white, even if it may feel like it is. There’s no telling what will happen from here, but one thing is for certain — the end is in sight. The grueling suspense of the World Cup Qualifying cycle is about to reach a merciful conclusion. Until then, I’m stuck with the angel and devil duking it out in my head, riding the fence between optimism and pessimism. Stuck in limbo, all we can do is wait. 

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