After nearly four years waiting for the chance at redemption, the United States Men’s National Team will begin their whirlwind qualifying campaign for next winter’s final in Qatar with a visit to El Salvador on Thursday night.
It’s been almost four years since the disastrous 2-1 result in Couva, Trinidad dealt the Americans the final blow in what had been a hugely underwhelming, shambolic and finally unsuccessful qualification attempt to reach the 2018 final tournament in Russia.
The sight of the shocked and demoralized team realizing the magnitude of their failure at the final whistle is a picture that is burned into the minds of many a US fan.
Actually, an image that is also likely burned into many, and which epitomizes the slowly withering flame which led to that moment over the course of several months is erstwhile captain Michael Bradley casually jogging to collect a corner in the final 90 seconds of that game, with little apparent energy left to motivate his squad to score the goal that would have completely reversed their fortunes.
Four years later, the old guard which was largely responsible for the previous disappointment has continued their slow jog right out of the picture, and the impending start to the Americans’ qualification is manned by a young, largely inexperienced, yet thus far encouragingly accomplished team, poised to avoid repeating the same mistakes.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter’s squad is shockingly inexperienced in World Cup qualifying, with only six out of the entire roster having ever stepped onto the field in this setting, and 11 of the players having under ten total caps for the national team in their career.
Nevertheless, given what has been a difficult task – effectively rebuilding an entire program around a new coach and tiny handful of experienced veterans – that was further complicated by disruptions caused by the global Covid-19 pandemic, they have already shown far more than only small signs of encouragement.
This summer’s Gold Cup and Nations League wins, achieved with effectively two very different squads, were solid displays of this new breed’s quality, depth and ability to carve notches into their belts against much of the very same CONCACAF competition they will face over the next 14 games.
This is a team made up of many players who either saw their early forays with the USMNT stung by the disappointment of four years ago, or were entering the fray during the process of fixing the systematic and individual errors that made it happen.
With that painful rehashing out of the way, hopefully for the last time ever, what’s in store for this young squad in the Estadio Cuscatlán on Thursday?
First, we have to address the elephant in the room….really two of them. The talismanic team captain Christin Pulisic and starting keeper Zack Steffen were both left behind at the training camp in Nashville due to fitness issues. In the case of Pulisic, it is most likely he is simply not back to full fitness after a short bout with a SARS-CoV-2 infection, while Steffen has suffered a flare-up of back spasms.
This is where the demonstration of depth in July’s Gold Cup win will be a visible asset.
In Steffen’s place, New England Revolution keeper Matt Turner will slot in with barely any loss in quality. Turner has played six competitive games in MLS over the last month compared to Steffen’s lone appearance for Manchester City in the recent Community Shield – a glorified preseason friendly. Thus, Turner’s freshness could turn out to be an asset.
Pulisic’s absences however complicates things on the other end of the field. Josh Sargent and Giovanni Reyna will certainly comprise the tip of the spear, as they have paired well in recent games. However the open question is whether Berhalter will let these two be the fulcrum, or roll the dice on one his currently well-performing, yet largely-inexperienced European commodities such as Brenden Aaronson, Konrad de la Fuente or Jordan Pefok, the as-of-yet-uncapped MLS phenom Ricardo Pepi, or the battle-tested attacking midfielder Sebastian Lletget.
Behind the attack, the midfield is blessed with a wealth of riches, in particular the dominant forces of Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, whose physicality in patrolling the middle combined with the occasional swift sting of a scorpion on the attack seem well-suited for the rough and tumble CONCACAF gauntlet.
This is not to mention the Berhalter-trusted Kellyn Acosta, who could slot in for either Adams or McKennie with a barely noticeable step down.
The back line is the most experienced of the bunch, and will have the advantage of being able to call upon veteran presences such as John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin to combine with up-and-coming commodities such as Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson, who are playing weekly either with or against some of the world’s top competitors.
What about the opponents?
With all due respect to El Salvador, who perhaps played within themselves in the process of crashing out of the Gold Cup at the quarterfinal stage at the hands of guest participants Qatar, the US squad would be, on-paper, favorites to win a matchup against them, on any field, in 100 out of 100 contests.
But it’s never that easy in CONCACAF qualifying, especially in the new format of 14 games spread out over seven months.
El Salvador has never beaten the US in World Cup qualifying matches, with their best historical results being two draws out of a total of eight meetings. Their squad for the game has no real stars, consisting mostly of a mixture of domestic players together with a handful of MLS regulars.
Their standout is 66-times capped, MLS veteran defensive midfielder Darwin Cerén, who is perhaps better known for an odd biting incident with American Omar Gonzales in the 2017 Gold Cup than for his international heroics. Otherwise, an intersting item to watch will be how defender Alex Roldan (brother of US squad member Cristian Roldan), currently having a breakout season with Seattle Sounders, will perform.
The main risk for the US is not likely a loss to their hosts – that would be a historical upset based on squad strength, current form and history – but rather an improbable draw or even a sloppy win that takes some air out of the team’s sail with two far tougher games left in this current break.
In less than a day, this young US team will have the opportunity to demonstrate to what extent they have learned from, and schemed to avert any potential repeat of the failures of four years ago.