National Writer: Charles Boehm

"Nine-point week, bottom line": USMNT set high standard for opening World Cup Qualifiers

Earlier this year the US men’s national team won both of North America’s top men’s international tournaments, claiming the inaugural Concacaf Nations League title with a nail-biting extra-time final win over Mexico before a dramatically different squad reclaimed the Gold Cup, again via a dramatic defeat of El Tri.

They stand atop the region, and as different an animal as World Cup qualifying might be, the USMNT plan to stay there.

“Our goal is to prove also that we’re the best in Concacaf, and I think the only way to do that is to dominate it – and to dominate you’ve got to win your games,” influential midfielder Weston McKennie told reporters from Nashville on Tuesday ahead of Thursday’s Octagonal round opener at El Salvador (10:05 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Universo, Paramount+).

“That’s what we're here to do.”

Along similar lines, McKennie’s expected central-midfield partner Tyler Adams did not hesitate to lay out the team’s approach to this September window, the first of several to feature three qualifiers instead of the previous norm of two, with the USMNT also hosting Canada in Nashville on Sunday before visiting Honduras on Tuesday.

“We've talked about it as a group, how in the last cycle, they [the US] didn't win one game away from home. So going into this window, right off the bat we have two opportunities to win two games away, and that puts us obviously in a good position,” said Adams. “We're looking for a nine-point week, bottom line … We want to set the standard.”

Having previously visited Central American locales with youth national teams and the New York Red Bulls on Concacaf Champions League duty, Adams is acutely aware of the difficulty that target entails. Both San Salvador and San Pedro Sula are known for challenging environments and passionate crowds – though the COVID-19 pandemic has imposed attendance limits for these matches – and the USMNT tend to be welcomed with particular gusto.

“You can't be naive in these games,” Adams said. “When you go into these games being naive, thinking that they're going to be an easy game or that there's going to be opportunities for a lot of goals, I think this is where you’re able to make a lot of mental mistakes. And for us, going into this game, we need to be prepared for a challenge, for a battle.

“It might not be pretty football, that we're going to have to win our duels, that these guys are going to be hungry to come out, that when they [face] the US it's like playing Manchester City or playing one of the best teams in the world, because that's just how it’s always been in Concacaf.”

Jittery USMNT fans have inevitably suffered flashbacks to the disastrous 2018 qualifying campaign as a new cycle begins. Noting that this is a “new generation,” however, McKennie served up a striking reminder of how far removed this confident young side’s outlook is from that fretting.

“Our mentality, the coaching staff’s, I think, from top to bottom, throughout the US organization here, I think our mentality is to go in and win all the games that we can,” said McKennie when asked about the old Concacaf conventional wisdom that winning at home and drawing on the road is the recipe for successful qualification. “I don't think we really have a formula of, you know, let’s win our home games and grab a couple points on the road.”

Not only that, McKennie – one of the United States’ most visible players, a Juventus regular – maintained that he didn’t even watch the action in previous cycles, including the infamous 2-1 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that denied the Yanks a place at Russia 2018.

“I don't really watch sports, so I didn't really tune in last time to the World Cup qualifiers,” said the 23-year-old. “I watched highlights of the Trinidad game, obviously, I think like everyone else did. But yeah, I don't really watch sports, I didn't really catch a lot of them.”

Adams pointed to the soaring sense of belief in the group as head coach Gregg Berhalter’s slow build reaped rewards in his third year in charge of the program.

“I think there's an evolution with everyone in the group,” said the RB Leipzig star. “Our confidence in the group is growing a lot, the team chemistry as well is starting to grow. There's a huge belief in every single player and every single staff member that's involved.

“As far as Gregg goes, I think that he's more and more excited about the group every single day. When we started it was just at the grassroots of the project that he was trying to build and I think that when he sees that his plans are working and coming to fruition, he has a huge belief in the group and exactly what he's doing.”