Gregg Berhalter is cerebral and levelheaded by nature. And he seems resolved to remain so as the US men’s national team close out their first window of 2022 World Cup qualifying with a massive visit to Honduras on Wednesday night (10:30 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo, Telemundo), where they feel compelled to claim all three points after settling for draws against El Salvador and Canada.
He knows why many USMNT supporters aren’t in quite the same mind frame, however.
“If I'm a fan, I’m not happy with two points after two games. I’m not. And I can understand frustration,” Berhalter admitted during a testy pregame press conference on Tuesday evening. “That's completely normal. But you have to look at the big picture. This is a marathon, it's not a sprint. You don’t qualify in one window. There's five separate windows that you get a chance to qualify for.”
He also knows that the program’s disastrous 2018 qualification campaign is the elephant in the room, and probably will remain such until the current group stacks up a few positive results while chasing a ticket to Qatar, at the very least.
“I can see it being just memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back and people say, ‘Oh, we're in the same situation.’ I can understand that completely,” added the coach. “What I’d say is that this is a different group. And we're focused on winning games, we're focused on getting points. And the thing is, we haven't lost a game in qualifying. Sometimes I have to remind people that, we haven't lost a game yet.”
A big factor for Berhalter and his squad is that each international window carries its own gravity. By failing to beat Canada on home soil, the USMNT have dialed up the pressure on themselves by requiring a win in San Pedro Sula, a particularly hostile environment where Los Catrachos are 9W-2L-4D across the last three qualifying cycles, in order to return to their respective clubs feeling good about the path to Qatar.
That task has been further complicated by injuries to Tim Weah, Gio Reyna and Sergiño Dest, as well as the ongoing controversy around Weston McKennie, who was suspended for the Canada match then sent back to Italy after violating “team policies,” a vague explanation which has only amplified the swirling rumors and chatter about what happened.
“There's no doubt within this team,” vowed Christian Pulisic. “We’re a confident bunch of guys, we know that we’re a good enough team to go in tomorrow to get three points. That's it’s, that’s our mindset. We're going to win the game. We're going to have to fight, though. Nothing's going to be easy, we know that. That's how these games are. But we have no excuses and we're going to go and try to win the game.”
While they bested both of their first two opponents in expected goals – a statistical category Berhalter has repeatedly referred to – the Yanks have been cumbersome and unproductive in attack, often failing to convert long stretches of possession into clear, high-quality scoring chances, let alone goals. Their approach to fixing that was a prime topic of conversation on Tuesday, especially in light of Honduras’ stingy defending.
“When I look at the execution against a compact backline and a compact team, against Canada, we could have been better. Instead of moving the ball side to side slowly, we should have tried to break lines,” said Berhalter. “We should have been trying to draw out their backline, trying to get behind the backline, could have been more accurate with our diagonal passing, we could’ve got more crosses, and quicker crosses, in.
“All these things – when we got crosses in, we were disrupting their backline. They had a really difficult time dealing with that, we just didn't do it enough. So some of it I’ll put down to execution, some of it I’ll put down to the opponent being very compact. But we certainly want to improve.”
He pointed to Brenden Aaronson’s goal against Canada as a case study.
“For me it’s always about creating movement behind the opponent’s backline, that’s how you create goal-scoring opportunities,” he explained. “When we do that, we score. We’ve seen it – the goal against Canada was an example of that, great overlapping run by Antonee Robinson, good ball into space, ball crossed in front of goal, goal. So that’s what we do focus on, and we need to improve in it. And the closer you are to the opponent’s backline, I think the higher percentage of pass and the more effective you can be in playing passes behind the backline.”
Unleashing Pulisic, who tends to be the subject of close attention and occasionally brutal physicality from Concacaf opponents, is a high priority.
“One thing he's really good at is arriving in the penalty box – you saw the chance that he had the other night when he's arriving and hits the post,” said Berhalter of his star creator. “So we know that if we can get behind the backline on the opposite side that he's on, he's going to get some goal-scoring opportunities. Look at his last goal for Chelsea, it was very similar. We also can move him wide and put him in 1-v-1 situations, we can also play him between the lines.
“What we saw against Canada is they were very physical with him. We got two yellow cards against the opponent on fouls on him, very little space that they gave him, and we can expect that more often in Concacaf. So for us it's about really the guys around him understanding where he is at all times and really making the effort to get behind the backline, from any side that we can create some space for him when the backline drops.”