The players on the US men’s national team, when asked, said they were aiming for nine points this week. Certain segments of the fanbase seemed to expect, I don’t know, like 42 or something. Head coach Gregg Berhalter wouldn’t put a number on it but was openly confident heading into the trio of games in this now-closed September World Cup qualifying window.
It didn’t work out as any of the above planned. And truth be told, for two-and-a-half pretty miserable games the whole endeavor was teetering on the brink of disaster. Not a Couva-sized “oh god we actually missed the World Cup!” disaster, but one similar in scope to the September window catastrophe from last cycle, in which the US took zero points, stapled themselves to the bottom of the standings and earned themselves a new head coach for their troubles.
That US team dug a hole that they never quite managed to climb out of. This US side at times seemed determined to do the same thing.
Thanks to a second half in San Pedro Sula on Wednesday night that was record-breaking in its dominance, that disaster was avoided. Berhalter subbed and simplified and the players, with their backs against the wall after a week of off-field turmoil and on-field underperformance, finally stopped digging. They turned a 1-0 halftime deficit into a 4-1 win at Honduras, and finished the week tied for second in the standings.
"We did a lot of talking before the camp ... about it being a 9-point week,” Berhalter said afterward. “And I think that's great to have high expectations, everyone wants to win games, right? But the other side of it is, it's just talk, and then you have to go out and do it, and it's very difficult to do"
And somehow, after 35 years of trying to do damn near this exact same dance through the final round of qualifying and it literally never being anything less than “very difficult,” this was the biggest thing we learned from this first round: it is still very difficult!
It doesn’t get easier just because you can now make a graphic that shows a USMNT XI with 11 logos from Champions League clubs, or just because Transfermarkt has the US as the most valuable team in the region. The players have to actually show up and show out, and prove that they have the mental and emotional fortitude to scrap through these games to the point that yes, finally, their superior talent will be the difference-maker.
That’s hard for any team. Jamaica, remember, was supposed to roll through qualifying after filling their roster with dual-nationals who primarily play in England’s top two flights. Those guys got on the field once during this window and promptly got smoked 3-0 at home by a Panama team that, frankly, isn’t all that good.
So yeah, if you’re not prepared for the intensity of World Cup qualifying -- a level higher than the Gold Cup, or basically any club game -- you’re going to be lucky not to take a big L. The US at least scrapped enough to avoid that, and then after 225 minutes finally found the gear they’d been promising the fanbase was there.
"If we want to write stories, I think we should write stories about this group and just how young this group is and trying to do what we're trying to do. Traditionally, we're going into qualifying with a team whose average age is three to four years older,” Berhalter said after the win on Wednesday night. “This is an extremely young group and has no experience going through this before.
“They're grinding, and it's not always going to be pretty, and it's not always going to go our way, and there's going to be more ups and downs throughout the course of qualifying, but the key is just keep going and focused on improving and getting better. And if we can do that, we'll be fine."
He’s right, and US fans should take heart not only from the pretty adequate (standings-wise) five-point week, but from the fact that so many kids got their qualifying debuts and so many of them showed progress over the course of the window. There will be less of a culture shock next time, and more on-the-job knowhow. And that’s just as valuable a takeaway as the points.
• Berhalter has it in him to simplify when he needs to, but boy did he leave it late. I thought he overcomplicated things in the first game of this window, the disappointing scoreless draw at El Salvador, and wrote as much. I thought he was too slow to make necessary adjustments in the disappointing 1-1 home draw against Canada, and wrote as much.
And in this one… man. Playing a 3-4-3 with multiple guys getting their WCQ debuts, several of them in positions they hadn’t played for the US before? It’s no shock at all that the first half in Honduras was a disjointed, miserable mess.
But then Berhalter made three excellent subs at halftime and reverted to a bog-standard 4-3-3. He then made two more good subs as the second half played out, calling on the experience of Cristian Roldan over the plausibly higher upside of young Konrad de la Fuente when Christian Pulisic picked up a knock and had to shut it down just past the hour mark, and then once again opting for experience when he brought in DeAndre Yedlin at right back and finally slid Tyler Adams into defensive midfield.
There was nothing ground-breaking there, just a case of a manager playing a simple, familiar formation with basically all his players in their best spots. That, combined with the desperation of the moment, finally allowed the US to push numbers up and attack in concert, and at pace.
So here’s what it comes down to: my biggest question going forward with this team isn’t the talent or the knowhow, since the talent is there and the knowhow is rapidly accruing. Rather, it’s whether Berhalter can tame his mad scientist instincts and get this squad to do all the basic things right before adding a reasonable amount of bells and whistles.
I don’t feel great about having to ask that question almost three years into his tenure, but here we are.
• Adams was the best US player this window, with the silver medal going to Atlanta United center back Miles Robinson. Both of those guys played all 270 minutes and are basically undroppable, though my hope for the October window is that Berhalter will remember what worked so well in the Gold Cup and will actually give Kellyn Acosta a game at the 6 in order to rest Adams’ legs a bit.
Acosta was ineffective through these three games playing as a No. 8. Drop him deeper, though, and let the game run through him -- as it did this summer -- and I don’t think there’s a reason to expect he won’t thrive. Remember how legitimately great he was against Mexico in the Gold Cup final? Like, “best player on the field for either team” great? That guy’s still in there.
Managing minutes is tough, and it’d be brave to rest Adams. But Berhalter has to be prepared to do it because it’s unfair to ask Adams to do as much in the next window as he did in this one. And it’s unfair not to ask Acosta to do the things he was so good at in the Gold Cup.
• I don’t think there’s a question at left back anymore. Antonee Robinson has struggled mightily for the US, including back in the spring in the Nations League semifinal against this same Honduras team, but he was right up there with Adams and Miles Robinson as the best US field players this window, and has been in fine form for Fulham.
He actually looks more confident now, as he’s dominating at a lower level, than he did last year when he was mired in a year-long relegation fight. I would wager that this is Antonee’s final season (maybe even final half-season) in the second tier, but sometimes it makes sense to drop a level in order to find a clearer path toward becoming the type of player your talent says you can be.
• Speaking of, let’s talk about Josh Sargent. He is a demonstrably less effective No. 9 than he was three years ago, and it seems to me that’s in large part because he doesn’t really get to play as a No. 9 very much, and hasn’t for the past 18 months. Sargent was sort of a positionless attacker for Werder Bremen, and parlayed that into a big-money move to Norwich City, where he is… kind of a winger? Maybe the back-up center forward? Either way, it’s tough to tell at this early stage.
What’s not tough to tell is that Sargent is a non-threat off the ball, an attacker who doesn’t know where to go in order to actually enhance the attack and create danger. And I’m worried he’s in the same situation in Norwich that he was in with Bremen: a utility-man attacker who’s not going to get enough reps in training and especially in games to improve upon his obvious weaknesses.
Ideally he'd have gone to one of the top Eredivisie teams where they’d have drilled him, session after session, on off-ball movement and finishing patterns that he'd then get to apply every weekend in games.
But it's not that way. It's the other way. And it showed every time he stepped on the field in this window.
• Of course it might not matter anymore what Sargent does or does not do, because Ricardo Pepi announced his presence and showed what a true No. 9 looks like in a way that US fans have literally been praying for. You want to know the value of reps at center forward in a good league, even if it’s not quite as good as the EPL? Here you go:
I have buried the lede here, obviously, but since every other story about this game on this website (and every other one) starts with Pepi, I don’t mind making you scroll a bit.
Pepi, at 18, makes Gyasi-like precise runs, and has a Wondo-like ability to stay on his toes and never give up on a play. When he is in the box he is never just drifting; he is always creating space or finding space.
It’s what he does every week with FC Dallas. It’s what he’s done at every level of his career, and it’s why every time he’s taken a step up in level (age-group play to USL to MLS and now to the USMNT), he’s constantly found chances and made his team better. He has an exceptional soccer brain.
The US are very lucky to have him.
• The US are also lucky to have guys like Sebastian Lletget and Roldan, both of whom take exponentially more criticism in certain corners of the internet than they actually deserve. Lletget changed the game with his calm and incisive play through central midfield when he came on at the half, and Roldan proved his worth as an all-energy battler, both on the wing and coming inside to add numbers.
Both of those guys have CCL experience, by the way. So do Adams and Miles Robinson, and so does DeAndre Yedlin.
I like a goalkeeper who leaves you without much to say.
• It is a great compliment to Brenden Aaronson that I expected almost exactly the performance he gave once he was subbed in for Sargent. He is energetic, skillful and plays with complete clarity of purpose.
His former Philadelphia Union teammate Mark McKenzie surprised me, however -- in a pleasant way. McKenzie had better a weak link on the backline in the Nations League final, and has been poor to start the season in Belgium. He was then poor in the opening half.
It was a great risk from Berhalter to leave McKenzie on and take veteran John Brooks off, but it proved to be the right choice. I’m still not convinced McKenzie is a long-term starter, but I’m a good deal more convinced that he can be a long-term contributor.
• Okay, now to the most unpleasant part of this: John Brooks was very poor through two games. Well, one-and-a-half games, because he was so poor in the first half in Honduras on Wednesday night that he rightfully got the hook.
He was the second or third name on the teamsheet for a lot of folks, myself included, but I don’t think he has any more mulligans left. At some point he has to show that he’s truly up for it in qualifiers, but he never has. It’s been the opposite, as he’s consistently failed to meet the energy of the moment and always managed to make at least one colossal error. In this case it was his half-hearted step into midfield and failure to recover that left the door open (and to be fair to Brooks, he got zero help from Bello in shutting it).
I don’t think anyone should go into the next window assuming Brooks is first choice. I think he has to earn it with his play for the US.
• We’re not at that point with Pulisic, who I actually thought was much more effective in the first 20 minutes of the second half before he finally had to come off with that knock. I also give him a ton of credit for trying to play through that knock -- I think stuff like that matters, emotionally, to the guys on the field.
But it’s been a long while since Pulisic looked anything like the US’s best attacking player, let alone best overall player. And I’m not saying he has to dominate entire games like Claudio Reyna or peak Michael Bradley used to. What I’m asking for is, instead, the ability to either find those moments to blow games open, or to become such a focal point that his gravity opens up the field for his teammates.
Both of those were hallmarks of Landon Donovan’s qualifying presence. I think Pulisic wants to do that, but his propensity for taking extra touches that slow the game down means he doesn’t actually open space. And right now if anyone is reminiscent of Donovan, it’s Aaronson.
• It’s kind of wild how far down the depth chart Berhalter’s already had to go at a couple of spots. By the end of this window Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Jordan Morris, Tim Weah and Paul Arriola were all injured. That’s five of the top six wingers.
Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike were presumably two of the top three strikers entering the summer; Gyasi’s still hurt and Dike just got back onto the field for Orlando City. Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah were the presumed starting 8s, and played a combined 90 minutes this window. Zack Steffen was the actual No. 1 ‘keeper as per Berhalter, and didn't play a single second. Sergino Dest was the obvious starting right back, and guys like Reggie Cannon and Shaq Moore had made compelling cases to be next in line. Dest played a game-and-a-half, and those other two guys didn't make the trip for club limbo reasons.
No other Concacaf team has been bit as hard by the injury/absence bug. Credit to the US for having enough depth to survive.
• And what that points to is this: The talent development pipeline in the US is finally fully open and fully working. The US finished the game (and blew it open) with six guys who play in MLS and four others who came through MLS academies, along with Antonee Robinson. When the Premier League striker (Sargent) and the Champions League striker (Jordan Pefok) didn’t produce in the first two games of the window, the 18-year-old MLS academy product who just got into his team’s XI on a permanent basis in May stepped in and did the job.
I started following this league before this league actually existed, and this is always the pipeline I was desperate to see. I don’t think it’s possible to compete at the highest levels of the international game without a domestic league that produces this kind of talent as the rule, not the exception.
It feels like we might’ve just crossed the threshold. It feels like that moment might finally be here.
Now, over the next six months, the guys lucky enough to wear the jersey just have to go out there and keep proving it.