If you draw on the road, you are fine. Want proof? If the US men’s national team had drawn on the road at Trinidad & Tobago four years ago, they’d have finished third in the Hexagonal and would’ve directly qualified for the 2018 World Cup. There’d have been no catastrophic failure, four years in the sporting desert trying to figure out how it all went wrong.
There wouldn’t even have been a play-in round against Australia. There just would’ve been a trip to Russia, alongside Mexico and Costa Rica.
That is the power of collecting a road point. And so by that standard, the USMNT’s scoreless draw on Thursday night at El Salvador, the program’s first qualifier since that failure in Couva, was a fine start to this cycle.
I am too tired after doing a late-night Extratime brown liquor special to write a coherent column, so we're going with bullet points.
• A young US side went on what was, for most, their first WCQ adventure and pitched a road shutout against a good team (remember how much pressure El Salvador put Mexico and Qatar under during this summer’s Gold Cup?) in which Matt Turner’s goal was never truly threatened.
• All those young US players have now tasted the intensity of a full, sweaty and rocking Central American stadium. There will be less of a shock next time, which happens to be next Wednesday at Honduras.
• The US created the five (or so) best chances. Single-game expected goals can sometimes tell lies, but in this instance there is truth in the numbers, both in terms of the xG the US generated and the xG they conceded:
• There is a new-ish public metric called “Expected Threat” that the nerds at AmericanSoccerAnalysis introduced a couple years back, and that the folks at Tifo Football did a very useful explainer on this week. I would say that going by xT — basically the number of times they get in good positions, whether or not the sequence ends in a shot — the US were even more promising than they were by xG.
Time after time they got into the final third at pace, which is pretty much exactly what you want to see.
• The subs worked. Antonee Robinson, Jordan Pefok and Kellyn Acosta changed the game over the final half-hour.
• Pefok, Miles Robinson and Weston McKennie all had fairly open headers, and you’d have expected (heh) at least one of them to end up in the back of the net. Robinson’s was a carbon copy of his winner in the Gold Cup final, while Pefok’s was somewhat similar to the one he buried vs. Honduras in the Nations League semifinal.
It’s frustrating. The US were hardly dominant on the night, but they created the types of looks you want for your Champions League midfielder, and your Champions League center forward, and your aerially dominant center back. Coming away with one point instead of three despite that… yeah, frustrating.
• Even more frustrating is the cascade of attacks that generated all that xT for the US and ended up in nothing. I didn’t bring up a new stat just for fun; I brought it up because both Konrad de la Fuente and Josh Sargent did a lot of the things you’d want to see from starting attackers in terms of finding space and battling the opposing backline. But both had a habit of taking extra touches – many, many many extra touches in most cases — to over-complicate what could’ve been good looks.
This break is so promising. But Sargent’s run isn’t quite wide enough, and Konrad’s ball is behind him:
If Sargent’s a yard or two wider he can step into that short pass and wrap his right foot around it. If Konrad’s pass is in stride, Sargent can touch it toward the endline and then smash a hard cross across the six to Gio Reyna at the back post.
Time after time after time these two guys, in particular, got into good spots like that and either engineered a worse shot than they should’ve, or sometimes no shot at all.
• Head coach Gregg Berhalter got too cute with his squad selection. Brenden Aaronson was in central midfield because he has a ton of energy and is a good pressing and transition player. Berhalter knows that El Salvador like to play; they were never going to sit in and bunker no matter how great the perceived talent gap, and so Berhalter’s gameplan was to take advantage of that by inserting a guy who is, in theory, suited to exploiting the types of midfield turnovers Tyler Adams and McKennie create.
The problem is that Aaronson, when in central midfield, simply does not find the ball. He completed all of five passes in the first half, and was similarly ineffective in 18 second-half central midfield minutes before he moved to the wing after Acosta was subbed in for Konrad.
• Aaronson as a transition-heavy central midfielder still could’ve worked if the US midfield balance was good! Adams and McKennie were duel-winning monsters for the first hour, and Adams in particular is world-class at creating transition moments with his front-foot defense. “Start Aaronson at the 8 and damn the usage issues” is not a choice I’d ever make if I was coaching, but it’s understandable.
The problem, though, was Sergino Dest. He was so poor defensively – late to every 50/50, afraid to put a foot in on challenges, generally disengaged once he’d been beaten – that Adams had to shade almost entirely to the left side and babysit.
This sequence is fairly emblematic of what became Adams’ main job through the first hour:
Dest steps into a duel and is immediately eliminated, so Adams has to track back 40 yards and slow down the play. When Dest catches up, he… just does a fly-by and doesn’t physically re-engage.
Because Adams was so busy out on the left, McKennie had to drop deeper and more central in order to pick up some true d-mid duties. Aaronson dropped deeper himself but was never really around the ball much.
And thus with Adams fighting fires out on the left, midfield turnovers from El Salvador dried up and the US gameplan kind of went up in smoke. There were no transition moments after around the 20th minute because Dest’s defensive weakness compromised the entire midfield shape from the US.
• I don’t know that Dest would’ve been better at his more natural right back slot – Barcelona fans have the same issues with his defense I’m expressing here – but I do know that he added little going forward in large part because both he and Konrad wanted to occupy the same spots, and neither created true width or verticality. Whenever the US pushed up their left side through the first hour, it resulted in a traffic jam.
It was a breath of fresh air when Antonee Robinson came on, and while the US weren’t exactly rampant after his introduction, they were generally a lot more dangerous from open play. Watch how his direct, decisive overlap pins back the El Salvador right back, which allows Reyna a little bit more room to dance:
That was Gio's first real chance of the second half to go 1-v-1 or even 1-v-2, so of course he was going to cut inside and shoot. It wasn't the optimal decision, but that's fine! At least it was a chance to do something against a set defense, which the US weren't really managing until Robinson came on.
• I think the way of looking at it is like this: The US weren’t good, but they played well enough to win and probably should’ve, given the balance of the chances created. And while Berhalter has clearly done an excellent job of building a resolute defensive structure – they’ve conceded just three goals in their past 10 games dating back to the Nations League semifinals – his tinkering with player roles (most notably Dest at LB and Aaronson at CM) made it less likely the US would win this game, not more. And in the process he subverted his own gameplan.
So yeah, it’s a fine point. Winning in World Cup qualifiers is hard; only one team managed it last night, a Mexico side at home against a shorthanded Jamaica team. And Mexico needed an 89th-minute bail-out from Henry Martin to get there.
But if the US were a little bit sharper in front of net, or cleaner in the final third, or a little less clever in terms of the gameplan, it could’ve been three. Honestly, it should’ve been.
• One more note: Hugo Perez appears to be a very, very good coach. I hope at some point this winter there's an MLS team or two that puts him on their shortlist of potential head-coaching candidates.
And it's a damn shame the USSF weren't able to keep him in the USYNT fold. He's done superb work with this El Salvador side.
Win at home, draw on the road, right? The US were always going to look at this game as a necessary three points. The Canadians, meanwhile, had an even more frustrating start to their qualifying campaign, as they suffered a 1-1 home draw against Honduras at BMO Field despite (or maybe because of) Jon Herdman YOLO’ing all his attackers into the starting XI.
It didn’t work. Canada were poor in the first half, but Herdman made a good halftime sub and changed the team’s shape, and was rewarded with a very promising second half. Truth is they should’ve had the full three points, but just like the US, they were a little sloppy, a little selfish and a lot unlucky. Much of it was self-inflicted.
Bear in mind that for both teams, there will be significant squad rotation. Here’s my guess at the US XI:
• The best defensive game Dest has ever played for the US was two years ago in the second leg of the Nations League series against Canada. He took the match-up against Alphonso Davies personally, and showed that when he’s engaged – when he takes it personally – he can do the job.
The other point I’m going to make here is that Dest is still just 20 years old and is in a certain amount of flux with his club situation and role. And he flew across the Atlantic, then flew over the Gulf of Mexico to play in his first-ever World Cup qualifier.
He didn’t acquit himself well, but nobody’s suggesting he should be thrown in the trash for one bad performance. And it’s not like DeAndre Yedlin, who has plenty of qualifying experience, was much better at right back (though he was significantly more attentive).
Anyway, I’ll be surprised if Dest doesn’t get the start in this one. How long he lasts, though, is an open question.
• Pefok impressed me with his defensive work vs. El Salvador, but Sargent is still a level above in terms of what he brings on that side of the ball. And pressing the hell out of Canada’s backline is the right way to attack them.
• Sebastian Lletget gets the start here over Acosta because Acosta’s the more versatile sub – he can come on for anyone in that central midfield trio – and because I’m planning to need Acosta for the full 90 at d-mid in Honduras on Wednesday.
• Obviously John Brooks is back into the XI. And a hearty “well done!” to Tim Ream for deputizing at the Estadio Cuscatlán.
• Fingers crossed Christian Pulisic is good to go.