When the US men’s national team gathered in Nashville for the start of the Concacaf Octagonal World Cup qualifying round nearly five months ago, influential midfielder Tyler Adams set what seemed like logical expectations for his talented side’s opening matches – visits to El Salvador and Honduras sandwiched around a home date with Canada.
“We're looking for a nine-point week, bottom line,” said Adams. “We want to set the standard.”
That trio of games turned out to be tricky, with a frustrated USMNT forced to settle for draws in the first two matches before requiring a ferocious second-half comeback to beat Honduras and instead come away with five points.
Perhaps head coach Gregg Berhalter thought Adams’ honesty backfired, because he and his players have constantly, insistently repeated variations on the phrase “one game at a time” ever since. That mantra has returned in force this week as the Yanks prepare to meet that same trio of opponents in the reverse fixtures, starting with Thursday’s clash with Los Cuscatlecos at Lower.com Field in Columbus (7 pm ET | ESPN2, UniMas, TUDN,).
“I mean, I will tell you right away, I don't ever go into a game and say I want to tie or not get maximum points. For me, the whole point of playing and competing is you want to win and get three points,” Adams told reporters in a Tuesday afternoon media availability.
“[But] when you start to look too far ahead, and I'm already thinking about playing in a game against Canada, that's overlooking a good opponent in El Salvador, where we went to El Salvador and drew. So I don't want to have the mindset of looking too far ahead and creating a distraction for myself. I want to stay focused on exactly what's in front of me and what the aim of the target is.”
El Salvador and Honduras are currently stuck at the bottom of the Ocho standings and Sunday’s visit to Canada at Tim Horton’s Field in Hamilton is a much-anticipated meeting of the eight-team group’s current leaders. But taking maximum points at home has long been considered central to the recipe for successful qualification, making the game-by-game mindset a must in the USMNT’s eyes.
Nonetheless, the squad is riding a strong undercurrent of optimism and belief, thanks in large part to the performances and playing time many key contributors are enjoying at club level.
Antonee Robinson is a regular contributor for a surging Fulham side currently five points clear atop the English Championship. Chris Richards (Hoffenheim), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) and Brenden Aaronson (RB Salzburg) have racked up quality minutes for prominent European clubs this season and many among the United States’ MLS-based contingent are coming off career years.
“The expectations are different with the league we’re [Fulham] in at the moment, but playing in a winning team that goes on and feels like they should be winning every game, dominating every game, you do have a different mindset and it's definitely a confidence booster,” said Robinson on Monday. “And that is similar to how I feel with the US, because I’ll back the team that we have against any other team that we're going to play against. So the confidence I have in everyone else and myself on the pitch is a lot higher.”
Perhaps none are flying as high as the “MMA” central-midfield of Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah.
Adams has earned the trust of Dominico Tedesco since the Italian-German manager took charge of RB Leipzig in the wake of Jesse Marsch’s departure. McKennie is “probably in the form of his life,” in Berhalter’s words, doing a bit of everything – including some clutch goals – for Juventus. And Musah has clambered his way up the pecking order at CF Valencia, starting in their last three La Liga matches and scoring his first goal of the season at Atletico Madrid on Saturday.
“Right now Weston is scoring goals for fun, so I'm going to hold him to it and put a little bit of extra pressure on him that he needs to score some goals now,” said Adams with a smile. “So every time we get a set piece and there's a good delivery, I'm thinking that he's going to score. And as far as Yunus, obviously, he's had a great performance and a big game for his club and to see him playing regularly now at Valencia is super important as well.
“I think form coming into competitions like this is always super important because you come in with this confidence and a little bit of swagger and you help dictate games at the end of the day. And being a young team, I think it's important that all of our players have confidence.”
The MMA trio have been ferociously effective when all are fit and available for Berhalter’s selection, though that probably hasn’t been the case often enough for the coach’s liking during Ocho play.
When unveiling the current roster last week, Berhalter suggested that the circumstances of this winter window might allow players to start in all three qualifiers, a heavy level of use both Robinson and Adams said they would welcome – even in the heart of a heavily congested club calendar.
“I think when the three of us are out on the field, we feel like we have a strong chemistry and we're able to dominate games and that's important,” said the New York Red Bulls product of his engine-room partnership.
“But exactly like Antonee said, we have great confidence in our group when we're playing at a high level and we're all focused on that one goal, and what we need to do, and not looking too far ahead is when we've always achieved our best results.”