Such is the pressure and constant analysis of World Cup qualifying, with the failure of the 2018 cycle still firmly in the rearview, damn near each and every window for the US men's national team has prompted quite the anxiety-riddled thrill ride.
The lows have been low, stoked by fears of a Qatar 2022-less existence. Remember being down 1-0 on the road to Honduras at halftime in the third September window game, staring down the barrel of potentially just two points from the opening three matches?
The winter window at the end of January and the beginning of February struck a familiar melody as the temperatures just kept dropping. The win against El Salvador got the job done to kick things off, but serious questions were raised over the performance and it certainly wasn't comfortable. A loss at Canada, frustrating in how it unfolded in that Canada hardly seemed threatened even as the USMNT held possession and chased an early deficit, sounded the alarms ahead of Honduras. The discourse was on fire on social media and in group chats everywhere.
Thanks to a truly dominant set-piece (they were due!) and defensive display, the USMNT coasted to a 3-0 win over Honduras. Honduras' only attempt at goal of note was from 40 yards, courtesy of center back Maynor Figueroa. It was one of the few times a clearly very cold Matt Turner had to do something... and all that amounted to was him lightly jogging towards the post and giving a perfunctory jump to the crossbar as the ball fluttered aimlessly past the goal. All of Turner's action was confined to him running sprints by himself in the 18-yard box when the USMNT had set pieces to stay warm in Allianz Field's tundra-like, subzero conditions.
It was a much-needed result and much-needed ease of victory.
This isn't to insinuate that (all) of the worrying was out of proportion! World Cup qualifying contains fine margins. Even a draw against Honduras in Wednesday's game would have raised the panic meter – and rightfully so.
As many have been quick to point out (correctly), this was a home game against the Octagonal's bottom team, one that was already eliminated from Qatar 2022 contention. Let's not go too crazy and it's concerning that almost half of the USMNT's 16 goals in this final round have come against Honduras: Seven goals in two games against Honduras, nine goals in nine games against everyone else.
Still, the window brought six points. I think most fans would have been content – not thrilled, but content – with that if offered when the 28-player roster dropped. The USMNT sit in second, firmly in an automatic qualifying place and four points ahead of fourth-placed Panama, who the United States host at Orlando's Exploria Stadium in their penultimate qualifying match of the March window.
Qualifying is a zero-sum game for me: Did you qualify or did you not? There are certainly concerns about this team not playing to their peak. But the first order of business is to qualify, then you worry about the rest later.
And with three games left in qualifying, the USMNT are on pace to reach Qatar. Let's see where the panic meter sits ahead of a March 24 visit to Mexico at Estadio Azteca.
The first-choice midfield picks itself for the USMNT: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah. Those three players complement each other well and are currently the best options.
But they can't and won't play every game. And few players can offer what Musah does in terms of ball progression and other dynamic attributes that compliment Adams' destroyer role at the No. 6 or McKennie's all-action, box-to-box dominance.
Luca de la Torre, for 90 minutes against Honduras at least, showed he can be a facsimile of Musah. Yes, it was against an overmatched and already-eliminated Los Catrachos in wretched conditions, but that performance alone should put him in line to start again the next time Musah sits. For most of qualifying, Gregg Berhalter has cycled different options at different positions. De la Torre took his chance firmly.
Heading into the summer, left back was a major question mark for the USMNT. It is not a question mark anymore.
Sergino Dest spent time playing inverted on the left and there were talks about fellow right backs Joe Scally and Reggie Cannon being options on their unnatural left sides. Now, Antonee Robinson is the unquestioned starter.
Robinson scored a rare goal in the 1-0 win over El Salvador. And while he may have been a bit wasteful with crossing opportunities over the window, he was a steady, solid force up and down the left flank for all three games.
George Bello, Sam Vines and Kevin Paredes are further options behind Robinson, but it's abundantly clear who the top dog currently is.
I hesitate to use the same player going in either direction in back-to-back windows. But, what else can you do?
McKennie was the USMNT's most important player again this window, the heartbeat of the team. The Juventus midfielder dominated the match against Honduras and was integral in plenty of good sequences in the first two matches. He's leveling up right in front of our eyes.
Plus he's a constant threat on set pieces, both in his aerial ability getting on the end of service and with his long throw-in on the other end. It's a great bonus.
McKennie is in the form of his life for club and country. It has been this way since his USMNT suspension in September. The way he's moved forward from that controversy and sustained this high-level performance is tremendous. A friendly reminder that he's still just 23 years old. He's not even in his prime yet.
Let's just lump them all together here. The last time a true center forward has scored for the USMNT was against Jamaica at the beginning of October. That was eight qualifying games ago.
Pepi will obviously have the biggest leeway given his age and projection. If there was a more defined senior option, Pepi may not have gotten a start in September to really push Pepimania into overdrive. A dry run for the 19-year-old, fresh off a $20 million transfer to FC Augsburg from FC Dallas, is not the end of the world.
It is unfortunate timing, however, given that neither Ferreira (also still developing) nor Zardes showed much in their opportunities this window. It's a concern heading into the match against Mexico. Hopefully club form from one of these three between now and the next window at the end of March makes the starting choice obvious.
Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent are among those who might get cycled in soon to get another chance. Daryl Dike, too, but he just picked up an injury after transferring to West Brom. Maybe Matthew Hoppe if he gets some minutes at the club level. Since it'll be the final Octagonal window, I'd be surprised if another player who hasn't been involved during WCQ gets a look (Brian White, Mason Toye, etc.).
This extends a bit to Christian Pulisic, who was ineffectual against El Salvador and Canada before starting from the bench against Honduras.
Pulisic's struggles at the club level under Thomas Tuchel are well-documented, with the Chelsea and USMNT systems maybe not getting the best out of him from his pressing/transition Dortmund days. He's at his best in the open field and balling. Pulisic seems to have found fewer and fewer of those opportunities lately – and when he's had them, he's slowed play down or been caught between two minds.
Popping up for a goal off the bench against Honduras, hopefully, will do wonders for Pulisic's confidence and form heading into the final window.
USMNT post-window depth chart
• I'm trying to not list players at multiple positions when possible, but obviously Aaronson has played more on the right wing with the USMNT after Reyna's injury. Though he's more natural when playing inverted on the left.
• Gio Reyna should be back in March, at long last.
• Sebastian Lletget didn't get off the bench this window. Cristian Roldan played six minutes of garbage time. Djordje Mihailovic was reportedly very good at January camp. Gianluca Busio would have been called up if not for COVID-19. Will we see different central midfield options behind the starters come March?
• Speaking of: That one performance against Honduras guarantees Luca de la Torre on the March roster, right?
• Kellyn Acosta as a No. 6 was reassuring in the absence of Tyler Adams.
• Aaron Long was a mainstay under Berhalter prior to his Achilles injury. He's back ahead of schedule. A quick start with the New York Red Bulls probably puts him back on the roster for March. But at the expense of who?
• John Brooks is falling further and further off the depth chart.
• Is Joe Scally really still around the fifth-choice RB? He wasn't called into the squad in favor of DeAndre Yedlin, Reggie Cannon and Brooks Lennon. I'm keeping him fourth for now.
• Will Zack Steffen or Matt Turner start against Mexico?