Almost five months after the team opened their World Cup qualifying campaign with an unexpected and disappointing draw at El Salvador, Gregg Berhalter and his USMNT squad have the chance to atone when they kick off in Columbus in a few hours.
Similarly to the previous meeting with the Salvadorians in early-September, the Americans are heavy favorites to take all three points, but are aware, particularly after the scoreless draw in San Salvador raised a lot of questions at the starting gates, of the trap this potentially sets.
In their comments over the last few days on the game and about their upcoming opponent, Berhalter and his players have made it clear that they are not overlooking the second-to-last place team, however are still exuding an air of confidence about the game, and the impact their process of preparing will have.
“The the way I see it, every game is extremely difficult,” Berhalter expressed when asked about the challenge the Central Americans would pose in Columbus. “When teams have nothing to lose, [or] when they need to win, whatever scenario you could imagine, it makes the game extremely difficult. We’re prepared for it.”
While El Salvador is, for all practical purposes, without any realistic chance to qualify, Berhalter believes that even the dimmest mathematical chance will give their opponents an extra drive.
“El Salvador is an example of a team that [is] not out of it,” he stated. “[Canada with] 16 points is in the lead, there are 18 points left to play [for], so they can get themselves back into this. It could happen, [but] they need to win.”
In terms of the Americans’ approach, the team’s captain, Tyler Adams, knows that effective preparation, not only on the field in the days immediately before the game, but those made weeks and months in advance, will help the team to avoid a repeat of September’s result.
“When you play teams multiple times in any competition, the key is adapting on what you didn’t do well the first time around, and looking to improve,” the RB Leipzig player assessed. “We’re going to watch some of the video of what we need to do against El Salvador, [and] we’re going to break them down.”
“One thing that the coaching staff does really well is they put a game plan in place that’s ultimately going to give us the best chance to succeed,” he continued. “Going into this first game [of the window] against El Salvador, the conditions when we played down there are going to be a lot different now.”
In terms of exactly how the Stars and Stripes plan to break down the Salvadorians’ defense, the offensive star of the team, Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, is certainly in a position to know, as he will be the focal point of the attack.
In his mind, apart from specific tactics to exploit identified weaknesses of Los Cuzcatlecos, the overall key will be to apply nonstop pressure, even if they are frustrated early on by an overmatched opponent that will play to disrupt, rather than to attack.
“It’s gonna take just being relentless, constantly asking questions of their defense, just constantly going at them, and putting a lot of pressure on them,” the 42-times capped star made clear.
“It’s not always easy against any team if they’re defending and sitting back, he continued, adding, “to score five goals is not realistic, so we have to be clinical.”
“We just have be relentless and just keep going time after time, even if it doesn’t work out early on in the game,” he concluded.
While the prevailing thought is that a team of much lesser quality in terms of individual talent, playing in a hostile environment like Columbus, will focus on defense, Berhalter sees it differently when analyzing El Salvador over the entire cycle. In particular, he is focused on the danger that the Salvadorians’ general tendency to aggressively press for possession will have on the flow of the game, particularly if his team are slow in the transition.
“We know it’s an opponent that’s going to be aggressive,” he appraised of the general style he expects from Thursday’s visitors. “They’re going to be pressing really high and we’ve got to move the ball quickly.
“They were the best pressing team in the first eight games in terms of amount of presses, so it’s an aggressive team and we’ve got to be prepared.”
Nevertheless, the most likely result after the 90 minutes is that Berhalter and his squad will have taken all three points. Historically, the Americans are highly successful on home soil in World Cup qualifying, even moreso in Columbus, and have superior quality at every position on the field.
Still, a strong performance will leave them with a lot of work to do in order to punch their tickets for Qatar, as another five games will remain. With, as of now, the top four teams separated by just two points, and fighting for the three spots for automatic qualification, the chances of gaining mathematical certainty from the three games in this window are minuscule, and would require a small miracle.
Pulisic is fully aware of this, and while he is confident they will reach their goal of experiencing a warm-weather November on the Arabian Peninsula, he is clear that the team won’t be tempted to get ahead of itself and thus fall risk of overlooking any opponent – even one that is near the bottom of the standings.
“I don’t know exactly the math,” he claimed, “but even with three wins it’s not guaranteed.”
“I think we’re [going to] qualify, so we we just need to take it game by game, win game by game, and put ourselves in a great position next camp to be able to to be able to have a couple good results and and get us to where we need to be.”
“And that’s qualifying for the World Cup.”