Editor's note: This story was published before Monday's news that Sergino Dest has been diagnosed with a right ankle sprain and will not be available for selection, while midfielder Weston McKennie will not travel to Honduras and is returning to Italy following a violation of team policy.
For a qualifying cycle that began with plenty of optimism and goodwill, the US men’s national team have wandered into some uncomfortable terrain.
Insipid performances marred the team’s back-to-back draws to kick off World Cup qualifying – first at El Salvador and then home to Canada – with more bad news on the table ahead of a notoriously difficult trip to Honduras on Wednesday (10:30 pm ET | Universo, Paramount+) that closes out the three-match window.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter could be without four first-choice starters, as goalkeeper Zack Steffen and midfielder Gio Reyna are both ruled out for the match against Honduras, while the statuses of midfielder Weston McKennie and fullback Sergino Dest are in question.
Steffen missed the first game with back spasms, then tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced on the roster by NYCFC's Sean Johnson. Reyna picked up a hamstring strain against El Salvador, was ruled out against Canada and will be returning to Borussia Dortmund for further treatment. Dest exited the USMNT’s 1-1 draw against Canada in the first half with an apparent injury, while McKennie was suspended due to violating a team policy, which the rest of the squad learned of only hours before kickoff.
“It was a team policy and I’m not going to get into specifics on it,” Berhalter said after the game. “I can’t speak for Weston but I know he wanted to be out there for the boys.”
Berhalter noted they're "looking into" calling in replacements ahead of Wednesday's match against Honduras.
McKennie himself revealed on social media that he violated a COVID protocol. It’s the second time an infraction has been made, with McKennie being reprimanded in April while at Juventus.
Berhalter added it “remains to be seen” whether or not McKennie will be available for the match against Honduras. Stalwart midfielder Tyler Adams opened up a bit more on the disappointment of being without his midfield partner and fellow team leader.
“He's such an important player, important character to this team,” the New York Red Bulls product said. “He brings obviously what he does on the field, but even off the field, how close he brings the team together. Everyone needs to be ready, but it's obviously very disappointing. … To be fair, it hurts us, him as a person, as a player.”
Being without so many key players brings the mood around the USMNT from bad to worse as they aim to overcome failure from the previous cycle in which they failed to qualify for Russia 2018. They built momentum by winning two trophies this summer, beating Mexico in the Nations League and Gold Cup finals.
Canada are a formidable opponent, of course, led by European-based stars like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David and Cyle Larin as well as a number of standout MLSers, like Tajon Buchanan, Mark-Anthony Kaye and Alistair Johnston. They, too, drew each of their first two qualifying matches.
“We tried not to let that whole situation affect us too much,” USMNT captain Christian Pulisic said of McKennie’s absence. “Obviously we missed him today but it’s about moving forward and trying to win games.”
The squad was already without Lille winger Tim Weah, who suffered an injury before the USMNT convened to start the Octagonal, as well as the long-term absence of first-choice center back Aaron Long due to a torn Achilles that's likely to keep him out the entirety of the World Cup qualifying cycle. Regulars under Berhalter like Gyasi Zardes, Jordan Morris and Paul Arriola are also out with injuries, while European-based players like Yunus Musah, Matthew Hoppe and Chris Richards weren't selected.
Even without key players, the USMNT have plenty of depth to cope and plenty of games to make the slow start a distant memory, having only played two of 14 matchdays in Concacaf's final round. But another disappointing performance and result against Honduras will make for an apprehensive wait until October’s matches, in which the USMNT travels to Panama and hosts both Jamaica and Costa Rica.
“Looking at this, keeping it in perspective, we knew it was going to be a difficult road. We knew that there would be tough games,” Berhalter said. “And we’re getting into it. We’re finding out these are tough games. That’s something we have to deal with. And I think our success is going to depend on how we’re able to deal with that as a team.”