Before the impending January/February window, the USMNT are second in the Octagonal table with 15 points from eight matches, one point behind first-place Canada and one point ahead of both Mexico and Panama.
An automatic bid for Qatar 2022 that goes to the region's top three finishers is within reach, but head coach Gregg Berhalter emphasized that perch could just as easily slip away. Concacaf's fourth-place team goes to an inter-confederation playoff against Oceania's representative.
"I know if we continue with this points per game, we'll qualify for the World Cup," Berhalter told reporters Monday from their all-MLS January training camp in Phoenix, Arizona. "We know that. So for us, it's about closing this out. We don't want to get ahead of ourselves.
"I think one important lesson we learned from September camp and the September qualifying window is take it one game at a time. And things change very quickly. We're just over halfway there and after this window I think we'll be 78 percent there, so we're getting closer. But for us it's about [being] steady, take it one game at a time and prepare to win that next game."
Like all teams around the world, January camp has forced the US to contend with the Omicron variant of COVID-19. And Berhalter noted they've faced some positive cases, even though most aren't encountering serious symptoms.
When WCQs return Jan. 27 at Lower.com Field, home of the Columbus Crew, the same worries could very well still linger. In turn, that could necessitate an expanded roster as top overseas-based players convene from their club season and join MLS call-ins.
"We'll be ready to adapt, we'll have a contingency plan in place," Berhalter said. "We're not exactly sure how many extra players we'll take. But we're going to be thorough and make sure we have a roster that can compete."
As for MLS players featuring when Octagonal points are on the line – this January camp includes several closed-door scrimmages, though no friendlies – Berhalter said the league's offseason doesn't necessarily mean MLS players won't be tasked to contribute. The 2022 MLS campaign begins Feb. 26, while five clubs begin Concacaf Champions League Round of 16 play in mid-February.
Keeping those players fresh and in rhythm was part of the motivation for holding a December camp in California that allowed them to continue to get reps and stay fit, with Nashville SC center back Walker Zimmerman as one example. The two-time reigning MLS Defender of the Year has emerged as a first-choice option alongside Atlanta United's Miles Robinson for much of qualifying, and could still stand to play in the upcoming games, although the plan is to evaluate it on an ongoing basis.
"I think the important thing is just to understand why we did the December camp and why we had these guys playing," Berhalter said. "Some of the European guys, Brenden Aaronson for example, hasn't played in a month. A guy like Walker Zimmerman his last game was December 18 and now he's back in camp January 7.
"So there wasn't that much time off for these guys. But what we're going to do is use these next two weeks to evaluate where this group is at. We're going to play three scrimmages and get them up to close to 90 minutes in the last scrimmage and then we'll be able to tell."
Aaron Long, meanwhile, might be a longshot to play as he continues his return from an Achilles injury that sidelined him for most of 2021, but Berhalter said he's been pleased with the New York Red Bulls defender's progress.
While playing in World Cup Qualifiers might be a big ask, Berhalter expects Long to return to competitive action sooner rather than later.
"He looks great," the coach remarked. "His progression from Cincinnati to December to now has been right in line. For us, it's about having fit players, having guys in rhythm available. I'm not sure he's going to get there but hopefully he'll be close. Then we know he goes back to preseason with his team and he'll play games there at the start of the season and hopefully March we're having different conversations."