Sports

The Danger of the USMNT’s Strategy

The draw Thursday night against El Salvador is fine—but the game plan could imperil their World Cup qualifying bid.

McKennie and Roldan fight for the ball, Roldan's legs outstretched and arms up, McKennie running straight at it with arms out
Weston McKennie and Alex Roldan fight for the ball during the match between El Salvador and the United States as part of the CONCACAF Qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup, at Estadio Cuscatlán on Thursday in San Salvador, El Salvador. Alex Peña/Getty Images

Fans of the U.S. men’s national team have seen plenty of games like Thursday’s 0–0 draw in El Salvador, though for the past four months, they’ve had a different ending.

The USMNT’s first 2022 World Cup qualifier played out in the usual pattern the team has found in tough, competitive games under coach Gregg Berhalter, one evident in nearly every meaningful match the team played this summer. It goes like this: After a brief opening salvo, the U.S. sinks into a sputtering grind, spending long periods on the back foot punctuated by isolated flashes of quality that rarely connect into a pattern of dominance. You can call it feeling out the opposition, if you’re feeling generous, or an extended attempt at time-wasting if you’re not. These first halves have rarely been pretty.

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Then, in the second half, once the first substitutions have been made, the U.S. finds it easier to seize the space left by tired legs. They reverse the momentum, grow into the game, and, all summer long, would find a late winner. This is how it went in its three knockout-round games in the Gold Cup. This is what it looked like for its two CONCACAF Nations League games. All of those ended in one-goal wins for the U.S. The earliest winning goal the team scored in those five contests came in the 83rd minute. (For its two 1–0 group stage wins in the Gold Cup, the winners were scored during the initial 10-minute flurry, including one after just 20 seconds against Canada.)

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That pattern held Thursday night, even if the outcome did not. After 10 minutes in which the U.S. looked comfortably better, El Salvador hoisted itself back into the game and made a contest of it by bypassing the USMNT’s midfield guard with long balls and big switches designed to make the U.S. fullbacks defend one-on-one. The plan did a good job at getting El Salvador open crosses, but the players taking them were less effective at finding their targets. They rarely troubled the U.S. center backs or goalkeeper Matt Turner.

El Salvador, by contrast, steadfastly refused to leave its fullbacks on islands. Every time the U.S. wingers or fullbacks got the ball on the flank in the final third down the pitch, they were doubled up as quickly as possible, forced to either beat two or three defenders or risk getting caught in a pocket of space with no exit but the sideline. Those players rarely moved the ball quickly enough out of these areas to exploit the extra attention they were drawing. Sergiño Dest, the U.S.’s glass cannon fullback, misfired the whole night, often waiting until the nearest Salvadoran was directly in front of him before he started to move with the ball. The U.S. as a whole needed to be quicker about switching the field, taking the big spaces instead of waiting for the right opportunity to attack the small ones.

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But sometime around the 65th minute, those chances for El Salvador disappeared, and the U.S. seized the game. The first wave of U.S. substitutions—which saw Dest removed for Antonee Robinson and forward Jordan Pefok inserted for Josh Sargent—reversed the momentum. Sargent was poor at receiving the ball and keeping possession close to the opposing goal with El Salvador’s center backs harassing him. To make himself an effective target, he had to drop deeper and deeper, which cut into the space his teammates had in front of the opposing defense. Pefok was a more effective hub, winning more of his individual battles with tired defenders and keeping the ball moving.

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But it didn’t translate to the scoreboard. The U.S. produced more than five times the expected goals of El Salvador, but left with little to show for it. Pefok, Miles Robinson, Kellyn Acosta, and Weston McKennie all missed relatively open headers that they’d like to have back. There is a version of this game where one or two of those chances hits its target and the team wins comfortably, but not in this particular pocket of the multiverse.

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Which is probably to be expected. It was inevitable that one day that late winner would fail to arrive. Nobody sinks the clutch shot every time. The players haven’t had to do it on the road, suffering through CONCACAF’s “no blood, no foul,” refereeing, in a hostile environment where Gio Reyna has to be protected by riot shields every time he takes a corner kick.

It’s also inevitable that some day soon the U.S. will play an opponent able to seize on its mid-game lassitude and ram a couple of quick goals home. Mexico got a pair during the Nations League final, and the U.S. turned its own isolated moments of power and artistry into equalizers twice. It needs to find a way to do more of that more often early, to play a hard-fought game in a pattern different from the one it has used for the past four months.

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Doing so would make its qualification journey a lot easier. With so many three-game weeks on the schedule, it’d be awfully nice to wrap some of them up early and get players like McKennie, Reyna, and Tyler Adams 30 minutes of rest in games they start. Instead we got McKennie trying to dribble guys with tired legs in the 87th minute. It made sense to try to wear teams down in the Gold Cup, where the second-string roster had plenty of energy and industry but little offensive creativity. It’s time for the team to reach for something more.

But more was not necessarily required from it Thursday. Few of the U.S.’s competitors gained much ground. Canada drew at home with Honduras. Mexico won at home with an 89th minute goal against an underpowered Jamaica team. Panama and Costa Rica played to another 0–0 stalemate. This is fine, genuinely. The room is not on fire yet. CONCACAF away games are soccer’s great equalizer. The World Cup qualifying mantra is always “three points at home, one point on the road,” though the benefit of getting three points on the road is that it gives you a cushion if you have an off-night during one of those home games. If the U.S. tries to leave it until late to score too often, then sooner or later it’s going to miss out on three points it actually needs.

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