The USMNT Has Some Pretty Bad Vibes Heading Into The World Cup

Things could be going a lot better for the United States men’s national team right now. In a major improvement on how things went in 2018, the team is headed to the World Cup this year — it’s in Qatar, it starts in November, their group includes England, Iran, and Wales, all that stuff. It must be stressed that after the catastrophe that was not making the last one, going to this World Cup is a gigantic improvement, even if that should be the team’s expectation and is therefore like saying “paying your rent is an improvement on not paying your rent.”

After drubbing Panama, 5-1, on March 27, the U.S. basically needed an all-time catastrophe to miss out. They avoided that, but still, here is how things have gone since then:

  • Costa Rica 2 – 0 USMNT (World Cup Qualifying)
  • USMNT 3 – 0 Morocco (friendly)
  • USMNT 0 – 0 Uruguay (friendly)
  • USMNT 5 – 0 Grenada (CONCACAF Nations League)
  • El Salvador 1 – 1 USMNT (CONCACAF Nations League)
  • Japan 2 – 0 USMNT (friendly)
  • Saudi Arabia 0 – 0 USMNT (friendly)

So, basically, they beat one of the two teams they played that are not going to the World Cup (I’m gonna toss a big ol asterisk on the El Salvador one because, well, look at the conditions on this bad boy), they rinsed a Morocco team that is headed to Qatar, and the rest has gotten progressively worse and worse. In 270 minutes against Costa Rica, Uruguay, Japan, and Saudi Arabia — four countries that will be represented at the World Cup — the team has put 11 shots on target for zero goals. Six of those came against Costa Rica back in March. In the last two games, which served as the Americans’ final tune-ups before they kick off against Wales in November, the United States registered two shots, both of which came against the Saudis on Tuesday.

It’s not good! Some of these are growing pains for the youngest team to qualify for the World Cup this time around, because outside of right back DeAndre Yedlin (who, despite starting on Tuesday, is almost certainly a backup), no one on this roster has played in that tournament. There are also major caveats about important players who are either injured (Gregg Berhalter has said five starters were unable to participate in this camp) or on some sort of restriction due to injury (Christian Pulisic missed the first game, Gio Reyna was subbed out 30 minutes into the second for apparent precautionary reasons). It is worth mentioning that when the Americans tore up Morocco, it came with first-choice players basically everywhere, with one or two exceptions.

But there are still major, major questions about how this team plays, whether it is getting the best out of its players, and whether they are capable of getting out of their group in Qatar. Berhalter, a former national team player who was part of the team at the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, is a romantic about the game if nothing else, and has said on multiple occasions he feels some sort of grander responsibility than just managing the team. “What we’re looking to do is change the way the world views American soccer,” he said in 2019 during his first camp after getting hired. “I don’t mean we qualify for the next World Cup. I don’t mean we go to the second round of the next World Cup. What I’m talking about, guys, is how we play, how we act, who we are as a group. And results. That’s the whole picture. And it starts now.”

It is, despite the nobility of all that, safe to wonder if changing the world’s view of the team is too grand of a task to take on in one cycle. Once defined by a constant, never-ending sense of pride — run fast, run hard, throw yourself at every ball, be generally better than the sum of your parts through sheer force of will, don’t worry about how pretty your football is — the team has wanted to adopt a more progressive, attack-minded approach that is, in theory, more befitting of a collection of young, ultra-talented players in the top leagues in the world.

The argument can be made that you should strive to be far more pragmatic on the international stage, although the folks across the pond are currently mad about being too pragmatic right now. Regardless, in the last few games, the Americans’ approach has run into a number of issues. The team struggles to build out of the back, can find itself far too open as a result, and allows opposing teams to create good chances. A potentially big problem here is one theoretical way to fix this, starting Zack Steffen in goal, means removing Matt Turner, who is a much better shot stopper and the sort of player you want to rely on to clean up messes, while Steffen, who is more comfortable on the ball and as a passer, is known for having a mistake or three in him. Berhalter’s belief that his system, one that you can read about here, is capable of creating ample chances with the players involved has not worked out, and is presumably behind this quote about prodigiously talented but out of form striker Ricardo Pepi.

The implication: If our striker is doing what we ask him to do, things will take care of themselves. It is not an inherently bad thing to believe, but when the team is struggling to create chances (let alone finish them), it is fair to wonder if there would be some merit to throwing the baby out with the bath water. Add to that a collection of questions about players: Will Turner get the goalkeeper job over Steffen, who Berhalter has seemed to prefer when he’s been healthy? What’s the best center back duo? Who is the striker? There are more, and they are not things you want to be asking with less than two months before a World Cup.

Compounding all of this is that the team does not have another game before they step onto the pitch in Al Rayyan to play Wales on Nov. 21. Players will return to their clubs. Some, like Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson, will play a lot. Others, like Pulisic and Sergino Dest, will need to fight for time. The guys in MLS will see their season end early enough that they’ll get some time to rest up. Other than the ones who are teammates (Adams and Aaronson at Leeds, Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira at FC Dallas), none of them will step on the pitch alongside one another between now and then. In all, the youngest team in the field will end up playing six games between qualifying for the World Cup in March and the World Cup itself in November.

So, yeah, could be going better. A potential reason for optimism is the quality of players, and the hope that they will raise their games when the lights are brightest. Maybe through heart and determination, those players will outperform what is expected of them. This would not change the way the world views American soccer, but considering how things have gone recently, leaning into that reputation might not be the worst idea in the world.