Before we jump in on this, let's get context: The US national team still control their own destiny in the Hexagonal. If they win the next two games, they win third place and punch their ticket to Russia. If they win the first of those games, at home against Panama, and then go down to Trinidad & Tobago and draw on the final day of the Hexagonal, they're almost certain to get at least fourth place and the subsequent playoff against either Australia or Syria.
So qualifying isn't over yet. They haven't made the World Cup, and they haven't missed the World Cup. They are merely teetering on the edge.
Yet. "Yet" because just three points from these past two games would have put them in complete control, "yet" because the attack that had been humming along for the past eight months found no answers when it really mattered, "yet" because the defense full of EPL and Liga MX and World Cup veterans that had been airtight did not plug a single hole, "yet" because possession with purpose was not a thing that the US had in either of these two games, not really.
"Yet" because they managed just one point thanks to Bobby Wood's scrappy, opportunistic strike in the 85th minute down in San Pedro Sula, giving the US a 1-1 draw at Honduras. It was one of the bigger goals in recent US history, or maybe in any US history.
A road point can paper over a lot of cracks, can cover over a lot of flaws. It's fair to say that the final 15ish minutes, after Bruce Arena had made some subs and change the team's shape, the US showed more more intent, more speed and less fear. They fought back on the road in a tough spot in 117 degree heat, and got a point, and that shouldn't be minimized.
The first 75 minutes, however, were abysmal. All the flaws that cropped up in Friday's 2-0 loss to Costa Rica – an individual inability to make plays; constant slow feet and reactions on 50/50 balls; lack of decisiveness in the final third, and just an overall lack of "energy" or "commitment" or a certain robust je ne sais quoi – all of that dominated the day from a US point of view.
A few scattered thoughts because I am otherwise too shook to string together a whole, coherent column:
• One of the fundamental things any team has to ask itself is "how do we build with the ball?" The end goal is to get possession in the final third with options and angles, to do so quickly against a scrambling defense and to make that defense pay. The best way to do that is to get the ball to the creative types and, uh, yeah:
*ALL* of Morris & Dempsey's touches in the 2nd half. pic.twitter.com/AbhETjdb5Z— Matthew Tomaszewicz (@shinguardian) September 5, 2017
That above tweet was sent at about the 73rd minute or so. Seconds later the US started figuring out ways to get the ball to Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey, and though neither had what could be termed a "good game", just putting the ball at a playmaker's foot can and often does create opportunities.
It was Pulisic, after all, who earned the foul that led to Kellyn Acosta's free kick that led to Wood's goal.
First, Costa Rica and then Honduras painted the US into a corner in this "how do we build with the ball?" sense by doubling their pressure on Michael Bradley. They forced the US to confront that question, and the US had no answer. If you rewatch either of the games you'll see a huge number of passes played back to the goalkeepers, and a huge number of slow, tentative builds. This is because Bradley was frequently unavailable, and until shifting to that 3-5-2 for the final 15 minutes, nobody else was in a position to pick balls through the lines.
Arena should have been better prepared for this tactic from teams. Acosta did what he could, and was both smarter and more active in trying to find space to get on the ball than he was in this summer's Gold Cup, but it's still not his strength. So the first 75 minutes of the US day was "pass it around the back, play to Brad Guzan, long ball, lose 50/50, fall back and force turnover, slow build, play it around the back, play back to Guzan, rinse repeat."
I think Alejandro Bedoya would have helped. I think playing Geoff Cameron from the start – despite his awful performance on Friday – would have helped as well.
• I mentioned individual performances, sharpness in key moments, etc. I have no idea what this is from Omar Gonzalez:
Omar's won a lot on some big stages. He was on the podium in July's Gold Cup, and has won titles (that's multiple, with an "s") in Liga MX for Pachuca. He's obviously won a ton in MLS as well, and on down the line. That's why he keeps getting minutes.
He is, nonetheless, usually guilty of one colossal mistake per outing. This one nearly doomed the US.
• The biggest critique of Arena during his first tenure with the US, and with his days in LA, was that he was often too reliant upon veterans and too slow to integrate new talent into the team. He's struck sort of a middle ground in 2017, leaning heavily on guys like Pulisic, Acosta, Darlington Nagbe and Paul Arriola, and giving quick looks to the likes of Cristian Roldan and Matt Miazga.
But that conservatism is still a part of his DNA, and it showed in his fullback selections. Graham Zusi and DaMarcus Beasley were clearly put on the field for this game because they both have multiple "been there, done that" tattoos. They have been dogged and willing gamers and contributors, and after the loss to Costa Rica Arena, I'm sure, felt like it was imperative to get guys who wouldn't be scared by the atmosphere in Central America onto the field.
That's only part of the game, though. Another part is simply having the physical capabilities of keeping up with legitimate international caliber players, and both Zusi and Beasley seem to be past that part of their respective careers. Romell Quioto and Alberth Elis constantly got around the edge against both of them, and this is something that Arena should have anticipated, and something he'll have to rectify for October's games.
Obviously a healthy DeAndre Yedlin takes care of a good chunk of that. Perhaps returning Fabian Johnson to a left back role, as he was very solid defensively in last year's Copa America despite not liking the position, is another part of the answer. Jorge Villafaña has been fine thus far as well.
I am concerned, though, that this was so obvious – of course Honduras were going to attack down the flanks at pace! – and yet the US looked so unprepared for it.
• Pulisic was more dangerous once again as a No. 10, and he has been wildly ineffective as a right midfielder these past two games:
Green arrows are completed passes, and red are incomplete. All those reds aren't entirely his fault, but there was a lot of 1-v-2, "hit-and-hope" stuff from Pulisic when he was wide.
It is time for Arena to make him a fulltime, central player. If teams are going to sell out to stop Bradley and are going to sell out to stop Pulisic, put them in the same part of the field, compress them and open up the flanks. It will require better, quicker distribution than what the US center backs offered today, but guys like Cameron, Matt Besler (who was a rock today) and Tim Ream can manage that.
• Paul Arriola is part of the answer in some way. His relentless movement off the ball unsettles teams both offensively and defensively, and creates space for the US to actually build a little bit of possession.
Just as important: Arriola is not soft, and too often this US group looks and plays soft. If you told me he'd be on the field for either or both games next month, I'd be more than satisfied with that.
EDIT: I didn't hit this point hard enough in the first pass, so here goes: It wasn't just the formation switch and some desperation that changed the balance of the game for the US, nor was it the tired legs of the Catrachos. Cameron and Arriola both played with the bit between their teeth – they played angry and with purpose, and the US lacked that before they came on.
Add in their individual ability, and those were, perhaps, qualification-saving subs from Arena. And, perhaps, justified starters next time out.
• Here is the ultimate issue:
For 2 decades #USMNT has normally played better than sum of its parts. This team is much worse— Andrew Helms (@andrew_helms) September 5, 2017
This has been the case for the last three qualifiers (I'm including June's underwhelming 2-0 home win over Trinidad & Tobago here). This US group has more talent than any other in US history, and more depth, and more options, and in theory have more ways to get wins. They have more ways to control games.
They only infrequently show it. For the next 180 minutes, they have to rediscover that ability to be more than the sum of their parts or there will be no trip to Russia, and it won't be Jurgen Klinsmann's fault.
It will be on Arena and the players. A come-from-behind point in Honduras is nice and all, but it's not enough to change that immutable truth.