The first month of World Cup Qualifying matches has concluded, a moment US Soccer and USMNT have waited to embark upon after that embarrassing night losing to Trinidad and Tobago in the final qualifying match four years earlier. The program was rebuilt under a new coaching regime with the team built around the next generation of talent such as Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, Zack Steffen, Josh Sargent, and Brenden Aaronson. Coming off a successful summer winning both the CONCAF Nations League Final and Gold Cup to a very strong Mexico National Team with a deep roster of talent, many assumed the USMNT would take qualifying by force. Three matches in and the US perhaps have made the road to qualifying for Qatar harder than it should be.
The first three matches saw the US playing El Salvador, Canada, and Honduras. The US opened with a 0-0 draw in El Salvador in the first game and then drew to Canada 1-1 in the second game sitting in 5th place out of the 8 teams qualifying in CONCACAF. This is where fears of the same mistakes the US made four years earlier felt like they were resurfacing. It never mattered nor anyone could assess the progress the USMNT under Gregg Berhalter until World Cup Qualifiers began. That’s also being said regardless if the USMNT won Gold Cup too. Now winning your confederations national competition has a nice ring too it, but it doesn’t give the victor automatic qualification for the World Cup.
The United States didn’t lose their first two matches but two draws were the potential of digging themselves into a hole in the standings they couldn’t afford to do. Eighteen-year-old striker Riccardo Pepi put the USMNT on his shoulders in the third match against Honduras scoring a goal and providing 2 assists in a resounding 4-1 win. A win which saw the US grit their teeth responding with 4 goals in the second half in which 3 were scored in the final 15 minutes. It was an impressive performance but it doesn’t absolve US Soccer, Berhalter, or anyone currently on national team duty from the mistakes of four years earlier. Qualifying is the only chance at redemption.
Up until that fateful October night in Trinidad and Tobago in 2017, the US had qualified for nearly 30 years being one of the top countries in the region to qualify. Perhaps being naïve that no other country besides Mexico would provide any obstacles to qualifying was the US’s downfall in recent years. When that ballooned pop in 2017, the US had to reexamine their opponents. With the growth of the Major League Soccer more players from other countries in the region are getting called in for their respected national teams. Countries such as Canada, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and others have seen players from MLS and other leagues not only be called in but also be key players in their countries hopes of qualifying for a World Cup.
Now qualifying won’t be any easier and the USMNT no longer has the luxury of taking every other country in CONCACAF lightly. That ship has sailed. With a hectic 14 match qualifying schedule in a 6-month span there aren’t any favors. In just the first month of qualifiers two of the three matches saw the US conceding the opening goal of the match. The ability coming from behind is a positive trait for any team to have as it displays resilience but it’s not a trait that be can be the primary tactic. If the US wants to have any hope of qualifying for Qatar, then the mistakes from previous world cup qualifiers can’t be repeated. They would have to win 2 out of their 3 matches from every round right from the opening kickoff.
It’s far too early to tell that their resounding win over Honduras in the first round of qualifying matches has resonated within the group. The next round of matches in October against Jamaica, Panama, and Costa Rica will be the moment of truth.