Everything we learned about the USMNT from the September World Cup qualifiers

Written By Harrison Hamm on September 12, 2021

Had it not been for their four-goal second half outburst in Honduras, the USMNT would have exited the September World Cup qualifying window with bad vibes all around.

Weston McKennie, one of the team’s best players, committed protocol violations so disappointing that he had to be sent back to Italy after one game. Two other starters, Sergino Dest and Gio Reyna, joined McKennie on planes back to Europe due to injury. If the US had just two or three points from their first three games, we might be speculating about Gregg Berhalter’s future as coach.

But that didn’t happen, and the US are tied for second through three games. The October cycle should be a bit easier, with two home games against struggling Jamaica and Costa Rica. The team, still very young, will find its rhythm and gain valuable experience playing in the intense, high-pressure environment of World Cup qualifying.

Here’s what we learned about the US from this window and what it means for the next qualifiers.

Keep playing that straightforward 4-3-3

Berhalter tinkered a lot over these past three games. He moved Brenden Aaronson centrally and Reyna wide against El Salvador, and he set the US up to dominate possession through fairly intricate moves in both of the first two games. After that didn’t work, he switched to a wonky 3-4-3 against Honduras, which went disastrously and was abandoned at halftime.

The 4-3-3 that they went to at halftime, with Ricardo Pepi leading the line, Aaronson on the wing, and Sebastian Lletget connecting the dots in midfield, worked wonders. It seemed to simplify the game. They forced more turnovers and got out in transition, and spread the field with substitutes Antonee Robinson and DeAndre Yedlin overlapping from full back. The players were in their best spots.

That will translate when, hopefully, most everyone is available in October. (A full-strength squad will always probably be wishful thinking.) Reyna or Yunus Musah, who missed this window due to injury, would fit in midfield as that Lletget-type connector alongside Tyler Adams and McKennie. Aaronson, Reyna, and Christian Pulisic can play wide. Keep it simple and avoid aimless possession.

Pepi is a must-start up top

It should be clear after just one game: Pepi is the No. 9. He is a smart, active mover who gets into good scoring positions. His passing is quality and his hold-up play is physical. He is an aerial threat on set pieces and crosses, and he is relentless as a presser, with limitless energy to force turnovers and get the US going on the counter-attack.

Josh Sargent is good defensively, but he isn’t a natural scorer or finisher. Those abilities don’t seem likely to come as he operates as a winger or backup forward on relegation-threatened Norwich City. Jordan Pefok didn’t perform in his start against Canada. In World Cup qualifying, you have to ride the hot hand, and Pepi is the clear choice.

Can Pulisic get it going?

It was a difficult window for Pulisic, who was coming off of Covid protocols and had to miss the opener, then fought through a lingering injury before ultimately being forced to come off at the hour-mark against Honduras. He looked lively and creative, as usual, but he didn’t contribute to any goals and was part of the malaise that affected the team against Canada and in the first half against Honduras.

As has been pointed out, Pulisic had a tendency to get caught up in his dribbling and miss passes that were available to him. The attack would flow better if Pulisic made quicker decisions after he bypassed defenders, and tried to initiate combination play with his teammates more often.

It will come — Pulisic is playing hard, and exudes quality. You can tell he’s a Champions League attacker. The US needs him to be their best player and lead the line.

A few final thoughts

  • Matt Turner should keep the starting goalkeeper job. He was solid across all the games and the two goals he gave up were not his fault.
  • We should be a little bit concerned about John Brooks, who struggled in the game and a half he played. It’s a luxury to have reliable depth, in the form of Tim Ream, Mark McKenzie, Walker Zimmerman, and Chris Richards.
  • Miles Robinson, on the other hand, was outstanding as he played every possible minute (one of three US players to do that, alongside Turner and Adams). Robinson is a starter in pen.
  • While Dest was subpar in his minutes before leaving with an ankle injury, he is still probably the starter at right back. He can pass and get forward, though his defense clearly needs work. Part of it is attentiveness. He seems likely to keep getting starter minutes at Barcelona.
  • Regardless of the defensive issues, I wouldn’t mind seeing Antonee Robinson start opposite Dest, which the US used against Canada only to see Dest have to exit after 40 minutes. Robinson had a great window.
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