The highs and lows of World Cup qualifying were on full display during the United States’ two-match November window. The games were four days apart and the post-game vibes were vastly different than the three-game sprints of past (and future) windows.
A dominant 2-0 win over Mexico on Friday was the high, made even sweeter by Christian Pulisic revealing a “man in the mirror” undershirt after scoring, a taunt of Mexico goalkeeper and longtime USMNT antagonist Memo Ochoa saying Mexico were the mirror that the United States wants to see itself.
That will go down as an iconic moment in this rivalry, it doesn’t get much better than that.
“Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack,” Tim Weah told media after the Mexico match. “Beating them just shuts them up.”
And the “low” wasn’t even really that low. The old trope is win at home, draw on the road to qualify for the World Cup (or win trophies). That’s what the window was.
Admittedly, the USMNT may have been a bit lucky to escape Jamaica with a 1-1 draw. Bobby Decordova-Reid missed a sitter, then Jamaica controversially had a late winner called back for a foul. The performance wasn’t entirely convincing, with Jamaica the better side after Michail Antonio’s 35-yard howitzer to equalize out of nowhere in the first half.
Still: Win at home, draw on the road.
“We’re not looking at it as a disappointing result, we’re looking at it as a good result,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “Anytime you get a point away from home, it is a good thing in Concacaf qualifying. And I want to be very clear in saying that. I think, you know, for the guys to have their heads down because they wanted more is completely natural, but this is a point that we will absolutely take on the road.”
The United States sit second (15 points) behind Canada (16 points) after eight matches. Mexico and Panama are level on points at 14 in third and fourth, with a drop-off to fifth place Costa Rica (9 points). The top three qualify for Qatar 2022, fourth place heads to an inter-confederation playoff.
“Now we have six games left, two windows, and that’s where we want to hopefully seal the qualification,” Berhalter said.
After violating COVID-19 protocols in September and being sent away from the group, credit to McKennie for putting his head down and working. And credit to the coaching staff for the way they handled it and the locker room leaders for moving forward seamlessly.
There was a violation, there was a punishment. Then it was over. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
McKennie played one game this window thanks to a yellow card suspension, but he was integral against Mexico and sorely missed against Jamaica.
Extratime analyst extraordinaire David Gass brought up this point and I’m going to take it and run with it: It’s easy to forget, but Weah was supposed to be The Guy. He was the USMNT’s potentially elite prospect. Obviously development is not linear and youth national team success does not guarantee anything, but he was The Guy behind (alongside?) Christian Pulisic when we all projected forward to 2022 and beyond after failure to qualify for Russia 2018.
Injuries have slowed Weah’s progress (and stardom), and he wasn’t available enough to be mentioned in the Pulisic, McKennie and Tyler Adams elite young core that Gio Reyna and Serginio Dest have since joined. This window reminded us why he’s a starboy.
Weah’s game-winning assist against Mexico and goal against Jamaica were two moments of brilliance and dynamism. Weah works well in the system because of his IQ and movement, but he also has the extremely valuable quality of breaking the game on his own. Those two moments were microcosms of that. Please stay healthy for a full year.
Did anyone see Chucky Lozano between the hours of 9 and 11 pm ET in Cincinnati last Friday night? DeAndre Yedlin had it locked down and earned another start against Jamaica. Rising fullback Joe Scally was called into this camp but didn’t debut with Yedlin playing every second across the two matches.
Yedlin emerged with the national team at a young age and was pretty quickly a regular starter. It feels like he’s been around a long time because of that, but he’s still 28 years old. The Seattle Sounders product remains in his prime. Right back is wildly competitive and Yedlin remains a strong option. Yedlin, Sergino Dest, Scally, Reggie Cannon and more are all fighting for minutes.
The general idea is to do three up and three down, but this is all arbitrary anyway and I’m making an executive decision to go four up and two down for a few reasons.
First, Zimmerman pretty firmly ensconced himself as the starter. I tabbed Zimmerman as "Stock Up" after the October window, but he hit another level here. Second, it was a struggle to find three players for down. Third, credit to Matt Doyle for imbuing the idea of changing the rules in my own space here.
Zimmerman was fantastic over these two games against Wolverhampton's Raul Jimenez and West Ham's Michail Antonio. Positively immense. It took him a bit to get into Berhalter's plans over these few years but he's played so well that the Nashville SC center back seems undroppable at the moment.
After a dominant performance at the Gold Cup, plus starting each of the USMNT’s opening three games of World Cup qualifying, it looked like Turner had taken over as national team starter. Instead, Zack Steffen started both games this window.
Here’s what Berhalter had to say on the matter, tipping the Manchester City goalkeeper's strength:
“There are a number of possessions we could be keeping in these games that we’re not. We think Zack is stronger with his feet. There’s not much separating them, but in this particular area, where we think it’s an area of need, we felt Zack was ahead.”
For now, the New England Revolution star has to wrestle the spot from Steffen's grasp.
Please know that “up” and “down” are relative terms. What could Pepi have done to push his stock up from the past few months? It was at an all-time high for a player in his first few games.
Pepi didn’t leave a mark in either game this window. That’s okay, that happens, particularly for an 18-year-old in the middle of his first full season of top-flight soccer and first three months of international soccer. January is a couple months away but I'd be shocked if he wasn't the starting center forward against El Salvador on January 27.
Post-window depth chart
Disclaimer: This is so fluid, and we'll disagree a bunch. With all the squad rotation necessary, a general picture is more important than getting stuck into whether one guy is a 2nd or 3rd, etc. when there'll be a ton of playing time to go around. For the sake of not having every roster spot go 10-deep, I tried to keep every guy to just one position, but that was easier said than done. So that attempt failed. More guys than I listed can, obviously, play multiple roles.
• I imagine there’ll be a bunch more names to add after the December camp is named; We’ll know who is challenging that we may not have seen yet.
• After the last window, I asked: “Is John Brooks still the first-choice starter?” when my question should have been “will Brooks make the squad?” Crazy how quickly things change.
• Zimmerman and Miles Robinson have to be the center-back pairing for the foreseeable future, right?
• And Chris Richards now the first choice backup?
• Steffen appears to be the first-choice keeper ahead of Turner… but Berhalter himself said it’s “really close."
• When was the last time it truly felt like the USMNT had a reliable starter at left back? DaMarcus Beasley, right? Anyway. Antonee Robinson is firmly first-choice at left back.
• Jesus Ferreira shot up the center forward depth chart by way of being the only option behind Pepi called in…
• … But that group is so fluid. It would not surprise me at all if Daryl Dike and Josh Sargent get called the next window.
• The winger group is looking strong with Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson leading the way.
• Right back is incredibly strong as well.
• I’ll ask again: How close is Djordje Mihailovic, Luca de la Torre (again) or Julian Green from getting a call in the midfield?