Sports

Oof Canada

What the U.S. men’s national team needs to change after its second troubling draw in World Cup qualifying.

Christian Pulisic stretches his arms out wide to protest a referee's decision.
Even Christian Pulisic doesn’t understand the Americans’ game plan. Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Now the U.S. men’s national team is in trouble.

It’s possible that it’s not a lot of trouble. There are 12 games left in World Cup qualifying, plenty of time to rally and earn a comfortable berth in Qatar. But with its 1–1 draw against Canada in Nashville on Sunday, coming after a 0–0 draw in El Salvador on Thursday, the team has stumbled on the “win at home, draw on the road” path that’s the surest route to qualification. Worse, it has fallen into a familiar, unthreatening pattern on the field, one it needs to jolt itself out of to make it to the 2022 World Cup.

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The USMNT did get a dose of good news just before Sunday’s kickoff: Christian Pulisic, who sat out against El Salvador as he regained full fitness after a positive COVID test in England, was ready to rejoin the squad. The U.S. wasn’t nearly at full strength, though, after a tumultuous few days in Central America and back home. Prodigy Gio Reyna was deemed unfit for the Canada game and Wednesday’s qualifier in Honduras with a pulled hamstring. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen, for his part, was ruled out after testing positive for COVID-19 and Weston McKennie was suspended for violating the team’s COVID policy. Although McKennie has not tested positive for COVID, it’s unclear whether he’ll join the team in Honduras. The dynamic midfielder was also disciplined by his club team, Juventus, for hosting a party with teammates in violation of Italy’s COVID rules back in April, which is not the sort of habit you want one of your star players to develop.

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Once kickoff arrived, though, the game played out exactly how you would expect from these two teams: the U.S. passing the ball in an unthreatening U-shape around Canada’s packed-in defense; Canada tightening the spring that would launch Bayern Munich speedster Alphonso Davies forward at pace. Canada got just one real chance in the first half, when Davies raced past the U.S. defense at the halfway line in the 14th minute. But U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner—FiveThirtyEight’s “most valuable soccer player in America”—shut down the promising play almost single-handedly. First, he spooked Davies out of a try on the initial run, then got a hand up to stop Cyle Larin’s shot from seven yards after Davies’ cutback, demonstrating the type of reflexes that win you all the tickets on the Cyclone machine at the arcade.

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Otherwise, the U.S. defense, led by centerback Miles Robinson and defensive midfielder Tyler Adams, kept Canada and Davies quiet in the first half. The U.S. hit the post through Pulisic, and forced Canadian goalkeeper Milan Borjan into a couple of diving saves, but pretty much all of its chances came from in front of the Canadian defense, not behind it.

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The problem for the U.S. through two games of World Cup qualifying has been a familiar one, dating back to the early days of coach Gregg Berhalter’s tenure: a stagnant offense, long on ball circulation and short on big chances. Too many passes go to players who are standing still. Defenses get one man in front of the ball, or on the receiver’s back, and the U.S. players hesitate as they try to remember what their second and third options are supposed to be. That gives the rest of the unit time to recover. Double teams, when necessary, have plenty of time to arrive. Everyone is allowed to play in their comfort zone. The U.S. rarely creates moments in which its opponents have to scramble.

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The Americans’ goal, 10 minutes into the second half, was one of those rare moments. It started with winger Brenden Aaronson pressing high and winning the ball off a hesitant Canadian defender. Aaronson, who plays for FC Red Bull Salzburg—the Austrian talent factory that fostered the careers of Sadio Mané and Erling Haaland, among others—has the jittery energy of a Fortnite avatar, a hyperactivity that sometimes means he can seem out-of-sync with the rest of his teammates. He was ineffective against El Salvador, and struggled a bit in the first half against Canada. But here, his tackle created a moment of chaos, and his teammates met him on that wavelength, pinging it quickly until Kellyn Acosta found Antonee Robinson surging down the left side. As soon as Acosta released the ball toward the left back, Aaronson started his run, and met Robinson’s perfect cross with a sliding finish.

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At the time, the lead seemed like it might hold up. The difference between today and two years ago is that with Adams and Acosta (and sometimes McKennie) in the midfield, the Americans’ defense is harder to break down. In a 2–0 win over the U.S. in the CONCACAF Nations League in 2019, Canada gummed up the center of the pitch, won the physical battle, and surged forward after pushing the U.S. off the ball. Sunday, the U.S. midfielders were not intimidated. Its attempts to press Adams were almost entirely fruitless, despite his teammates putting him in some dicey situations. Canada’s best chances all came from countering on the flanks and trying to beat the U.S. fullbacks one-on-one.

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Which, granted, worked. Canada’s goal came just minutes after Aaronson’s opener. Davies found space where Adams and Robinson couldn’t help and ran by substitute DeAndre Yedlin, long heralded as the USMNT’s fastest player. More egregious was center back John Brooks shutting down and letting Larin, Davies’ best possible target, jog away from him at the back post to turn the cross home.

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On the other end, Canada shut down the most dangerous American attacker by playing Pulisic rules, fouling him nearly every time he found the ball. Even on the U.S. goal, his one touch saw him flattened by Mark-Anthony Kaye’s forearm; Bill Laimbeer is probably still slow-clapping. (Adams earned a yellow card for a retaliatory knock-down on Kaye after yet another foul on Pulisic, a moment of revenge that halted play and shut down a promising U.S. break.) The U.S. needed to work harder to find Pulisic further up the field, where conceding those fouls could be more dangerous. His delivery on set pieces also needed to be better, save for the last U.S. corner kick of the game when he found Miles Robinson, whose header sailed over the bar as he was getting cross-checked in the box.

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Despite the U.S. needing a win at home, Berhalter seemed unwilling to break his typical patterns. After subbing Yedlin on for the injured Sergiño Dest just before halftime, the U.S. manager waited until past the 80th minute to make another substitution, despite the fact that injuries are starting to pile up and his team plays for the third time in a week on Wednesday. The U.S.’ depth helps only if it’s managed smartly. This wasn’t smart.

Sunday was one of the most tumultuous days in recent international soccer history. Brazil’s World Cup qualifier against Argentina was called off when Brazilian health officials stormed the field during the game and attempted to corral four Argentinian players, while a qualifier between Guinea and Morocco was called off due to fighting in the Guinean capital from a coup d’etat. The U.S., meanwhile, played once again like a team whose first priority is the maintaining of its own internal order, not winning games. There could be patience for that sort of thing as long as there was the promise it was building to something. But these are the games the U.S. has been building to since its loss to Trinidad and Tobago in 2017, and now something has to change. Norman Dale didn’t make Hickory High pass the ball a certain number of times before shooting in the state championship game. Berhalter needs to find a way to encourage improvisation, to get his players to attack space instead of slotting into their set positions, to get rid of that hesitancy in his players even if it means risking failure. The USMNT’s attempts at order have made life relatively easy for its first two qualifying opponents. It’s going to need to create more chaos to get to Qatar.

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