It’s hard to imagine how the United States men’s national team could have any more momentum entering the start of World Cup qualifying Thursday.
The team proved itself the best in North America twice over this summer, winning the CONCACAF Nations League finals in June and the Gold Cup in July. Coach Gregg Berhalter managed the wins with two broadly different rosters: a first-team featuring mostly European-based players for the former, and a second-team filled with MLS players for the latter. Forty-two different American players were on teams that beat archrivals Mexico to win a continental contest this summer, which is a lot of winning experience.
The world has taken notice of that success. Those tournament wins have bumped the U.S. 10 spots higher in the latest FIFA men’s rankings, climbing from No. 20 in May all the way to the outer edge of the top 10 in August. It’s an imperfect measure, and No. 10 feels high for this team at this moment, but by reaching that height the team is getting awfully close to the only point at which the rankings really matter. If the U.S. can secure a top-seven spot before the World Cup group draw next April, it will be placed in the first pot full of global heavyweights, avoiding a group stage matchup with, say, Belgium or Brazil.
Last week, the Americans capped off their golden summer with a final off-the-field win when 18-year-old dual-national forward Ricardo Pepi—scorer of 11 goals in 16 starts this year for FC Dallas—accepted a call-up to the USMNT instead of to his other option, Mexico. Everything’s coming up Berhalter. It was a summer so good, Christian Pulisic tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago and nobody panicked. (He was fully vaccinated and recovered in time to join the team, but he didn’t make the trip to El Salvador, presumably to work his way back to fitness after the weeks spent in quarantine.)
Does any of this guarantee a smooth ride through World Cup qualifying? Absolutely not!
International soccer is a game of sudden surges and abrupt, crashing halts. Lose Thursday in El Salvador, and the whole summer’s worth of good vibes gets thrown out the window, despite the fact that playing away games in CONCACAF is notoriously tough, as the U.S. finds out every quadrennium and especially in the most recent one.
Worst of all, those matches are tough in ways that superior talent can only help so much against. Experience in the Champions League isn’t the ideal preparation for the gamesmanship, the referees, the field conditions, and the thrown batteries from the stands to come. The U.S. team’s successes this past summer all came on American soil. If you were to pick one thing to worry about going into World Cup qualifying, it would be the general lack of experience that the young players—and they’re almost all young players—have in the kind of hostile away environment they’ll see Thursday and next Wednesday in Honduras.
If you were to pick two things to worry about—and since you have an interest in the USMNT, you absolutely should not limit yourself—it would be that the U.S. isn’t the only team that has seen its talent ceiling rise this cycle. Jamaica has recruited a host of England-born talents from the Premier League and the Championship to bolster its team. Canada’s squad features a tough, efficient midfield; key starters for the reigning champions of the top German and French leagues; and a star in the making in winger Tajon Buchanan. Mexico lost twice to the U.S. this summer, but both came by a single goal in extra time, the type of narrow margin that could easily go either way.
The Central American teams seem to be on the whole weaker than they were four years ago: Costa Rica is 44th in the FIFA rankings today compared to 21st four years ago, while Panama has fallen 13 places to 74th. But those two squads and Honduras lost just two of their combined
30 home games in the final round of the previous two qualifying cycles. Even if the U.S. plays well away from home, those teams know that if they can hold their nerve and frustrate the U.S. offense, then all it takes to turn the game is getting enough runners forward after one crucial midfield duel. If the U.S. doesn’t play well, then their opponents are more than capable of using their home field advantage to dominate the game.
The good news for the USMNT is that no one in CONCACAF is better prepared for the many unique challenges of the COVID-delayed qualifying cycle. The eight remaining North American teams will play 14 games each over the course of five FIFA-mandated periods between September and next March. Four of those five international windows will see each team play three games in the span of a week, a heavy lift for players even if they weren’t overcoming busy club schedules and complicated travel plans to join up with their countries. It was the tired legs of an under-rotated squad that doomed the U.S. against Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup qualifying four years ago, and that was only the second of two games. Even in an ideal world, player rotation will have to be heavy for the next six months.
You might have noticed that we are far from that ideal world. If the tired legs and increased chance for injuries weren’t enough, the threat of COVID is wreaking havoc on the rosters of some teams, too. The English, Spanish, and Italian leagues have backed their clubs in refusing to allow the release of players to international competitions if their travels will take them to countries on those nations’ respective watch lists, countries from which returnees would be required to quarantine, meaning they would miss multiple club games.
FIFA is pleading with clubs to respect the sanctity of the international window, and threatening sanctions if they don’t. The Premier League reportedly asked the British government for an exemption from the quarantine rules for players only to be denied. It’s all kind of a mess, especially since said watch lists seem to be based less on up-to-date data and more on lumping significant parts of the Global South in together. Several of those new Jamaican stars aren’t expected to make the trip to either Mexico or Costa Rica for their away dates there, which could mean the difference between facing Michail Antonio—star forward for the Premier League’s resurgent West Ham, and Junior Flemmings, star forward for the USL’s resurgent Birmingham Legion.
The U.S. is fortunate that El Salvador, Honduras, and the United States itself all fall on the U.K.’s amber list—the middle tier between “red” and “green”—but next month’s trip to Panama could be complicated if a compromise isn’t worked out between FIFA and the European clubs by then. (There will be bigger problems if the U.S. itself ends up red-listed. The European Union announced Monday that it was dropping the U.S. from its list of COVID-safe countries for travel).
Considering the harshness of the schedule, Berhalter’s decision to treat July’s Gold Cup as an extended preseason for qualifiers feels pivotal. It’s the USMNT’s depth more than anything that will sustain it through this compressed World Cup qualification cycle. Few of its competitors—Mexico, maybe Canada in some positions—can be as confident about plugging in its backups when the starters are unable to go.
In Pulisic’s absence Thursday, Berhalter can call on 20-year-old Brenden Aaronson, who scored twice in the two-legged playoff series that sent RB Salzburg into the Champions League. Lille winger Tim Weah got hurt last week and will miss this first window, but the U.S. has 20-year-old Konrad de la Fuente, who has two assists in three games for Marseille. Yunus Musah is recovering from injury, so Aaronson or Gio Reyna may get minutes in central midfield this go-around, and if they don’t, then dependable MLS veterans Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan will be there to soak them up. Defensive midfielder Tyler Adams finally has a real backup in veteran Kellyn Acosta, who played that spot throughout the knockout rounds at the Gold Cup. If Premier League forward Josh Sargent plays poorly, then Jordan Pefok—scorer of three goals in four games for Swiss superpower Young Boys—will take over, and if Pefok plays poorly then we’ll get a chance to see what Pepi can do at this level.
The U.S. may have the most talented starting lineup in its history, but nobody’s first 11 is going to be enough to get them into the 2022 World Cup. It will take more than the A-team, and likely more than the 23 players on everyone’s best-possible roster, to make it to Qatar. The team’s momentum might not last forever, but when it does finally run out, the USMNT has plenty of manpower waiting in reserve to push it over the line.