On Thursday, for the first time since 2017, the USMNT played a 2022 World Cup qualifier. It was refreshing because this is what we’ve been building toward since that fateful day in Trinidad — it was the sort of ultra-important match that carries the sort of cache that no Nations League or Gold Cup game can ever carry.
Not far into the game, though, we were reminded of the difficulty of Concacaf qualifying. Playing on the road against an underrated El Salvador team, the US quickly found themselves locked into a scrappy, physical affair. They put themselves in good situations but only put two shots on target in what ultimately was a disappointing, if far from disastrous, scoreless draw.
Let’s run through a couple of takeaways, and then preview what it means for the next game against Canada, which is on Sunday.
The US simply underperformed
It is fair to quibble with a couple of Gregg Berhalter’s lineup decisions. He may have been better suited playing Gio Reyna in midfield and Brenden Aaronson wide, rather than vice versa. Sergino Dest playing out of position at left back only exacerbated his defensive weakness.
But overall, this was a 4-3-3 with solid defensive structure and multiple Champions League players. Whatever tactical issues one could pinpoint, they aren’t enough to excuse a performance like this from the US. They were slow with the ball and indecisive in the final third. Josh Sargent was ineffective on the ball and rarely made threatening runs through the channels. Weston McKennie struggled, especially in the first half.
The talent gap and El Salvador’s respectable determination to play the ball out of the back meant that the US won the ball in good spots plenty of times. They kept the pressure on. But the US never looked fluid with the ball, and they struggled to do much better than crowding themselves out at the top of the box. Apart from a couple of Konrad de la Fuente flurries, no one dribbled past anybody.
Here are two potential solutions to this attacking malaise: 1) get Christian Pulisic healthy and in the starting lineup; and 2) find a way to spread the field and get players running and combining. The US looked like they thought they could walk the ball into the goal. They have to find a way to get healthier overlaps from the wings and more direct routes to goal.
That said, the US had multiple good chances that they might have finished on a good day, including headers from Miles Robinson and Jordan Pefok. We’d feel a lot differently about this game if one of those goes in and the US has a 1-0 win.
The US was better once the subs came on
A little after the hour mark, Berhalter made three subs: he put on Pefok for Sargent, Antonee Robinson for Dest, and Kellyn Acosta for de la Fuente. All three worked as intended, and might give us some clues as to how to get the team playing better on Sunday.
Pefok looked more threatening than Sargent overall. He has a better nose for goal, and his physicality on the ball created chances that Sargent couldn’t. It will be useful to sub on Pefok when chasing a goal, plus starting him sometimes — though, it should be said, Gyasi Zardes (who is currently injured) might have finished one of those chances.
Robinson is a natural left back, he’s not a defensive liability, and he provides more north-south abilities than Dest. Too often, Dest took up the same spots on the left as de la Fuente, further hurting the US’s spacing. Robinson, who is in good form for a Championship promotion contender, deserves a start against Canada, possibly with Dest opposite him on the right.
When Acosta entered, Aaronson moved wide while Acosta settled next to McKennie and Adams. The ball-winning and energy of Acosta was a good counter for El Salvador’s physical, defensively-adept style. Aaronson, as is his tendency, was completely invisible in the middle of the park. He has to play on the wing, where it is less necessary that he finds the ball all the time.
What this means against Canada
Only picking up one point against El Salvador means that three points at home against Canada is pretty much a necessity. Canada will also be desperate for a good result after picking up a disappointing 1-1 home draw against Honduras.
It’s a good bet that the US will look much better at home. They will be more fluid with the ball and generally more comfortable. That was the case during qualifying four years ago, and it’s likely to continue this time around. They will also be facing a team more predicated on attack, which should open space for counter-attacks.
Berhalter will rotate the squad. These games are coming in quick succession. We might see Sebastian Lletget in midfield, and hopefully Pulisic on the wing. As mentioned, Robinson should start at left back with Dest on the right, though it wouldn’t be surprising if George Bello got some consideration. John Brooks will almost certainly enter the lineup again for Tim Ream, who filled in well on Thursday.
Keep an eye on Ricardo Pepi off the bench as an attacking spark. Hopefully he won’t be needed and the US will take a comfortable lead.