As many observers and players alike have noted, World Cup qualifying is at its core a pass/fail exam – either you made it to the dance or you didn’t – and the US men’s national team earned their spot in Qatar 2022 via one of the Concacaf Octagonal’s three automatic qualification slots.
Yet the Yanks’ 1W-3L-3D record in away matches was an unsightly blemish on their campaign, a dereliction of the region’s traditional “win at home, draw on the road” formula for success that left them third in the final standings, well back of Ocho winners Canada.
For head coach Gregg Berhalter, that raises the importance of both the performance and the result in Tuesday night’s Concacaf Nations League visit to El Salvador (10 pm ET | FS1, Univision and TUDN), where the US labored to a 0-0 draw on the opening matchday of the Ocho back in September.
The USMNT opened their CNL title defense with Friday’s blowout of Grenada, as expected, and now want to round out their June camp successfully with a solid outing in what should be a much more demanding task.
“We’re pleased with the game on Friday. Any time you beat an opponent 5-0 at any level, I think is good. Any time you limit them to zero shots on goal, that's important. So we were pleased with that performance,” Berhalter said of the 5-0 win over the Spice Boyz in Monday afternoon’s matchday-1 press conference. “You can only play against your opponent on the field, right, and we have to take care of business and we did that on Friday, we put ourselves in a good position.
“El Salvador will be a different opponent. They'll be more aggressive, I think they'll be a higher pressing, better counter-pressing, and away from home. So for us, it's how do we deal with those elements and then how do we put a good performance in a way from home, that we haven't always done since we've been together? So that's certainly going to be a challenge for this group. We know it's the last game before we go on break from each other, and we want to end on a good note.”
As the World Cup draws ever closer, assessment of both individuals and on-field relationships continues as well. Berhalter has already revealed that striker Haji Wright and goalkeeper Ethan Horvath will start on Tuesday for the first time in this international window, while newcomer Malik Tillman aggravated an injury against Grenada and is out for Tuesday.
Others on the fringes are also likely to get extended minutes in a setting that could prove much more demanding than Friday's in Austin.
“Everyone in this camp is trying to be an established player, and we have a lot of guys here that have been the core of the team for the last three years,” said the coach. “So I'd say that any time a player gets an opportunity with the national team, it's an opportunity for him to show that he belongs there and show that he has what it takes to play international soccer.
“When you're talking about the detail of chemistry between guys and certain partnerships working together, that's something that you don't always get in some of the lineups that you're playing. But it's still an opportunity for guys to show that they belong playing at this level … that's an important part of the evaluation process.”
With El Salvador having already dropped points on their visit to Grenada last week, a 2-2 draw in St. George’s, a USMNT win on Tuesday would effectively put them in the catbird seat for winning CNL Group D even with two matchdays still to play in 2023. Making games like this a proving ground for Qatar while also picking up positive results is a priority.
“The tricky thing about the national team is that you have to perform each and every time that you're in camp,” said Berhalter. “How do we get better collectively as a team, how do we evaluate players and then how do we start defending our Nations League title? And we're very much in the present right now and focused on, how do we win against El Salvador?
“That overall evaluation process will take place, it takes place after each and every game in seeing how players do and seeing how they perform in their positions, see if they’re executing the roles that we have them in based on what we're doing on the field. So all those things are daily work. We're not in a position right now where we're saying, ‘OK, this person's locked in or not locked in,’ or this person's out. I don't think we're there yet. But certainly we're using these games to evaluate performances.”
Who are the locked-in starters for the USMNT?