Sports Nut

Coach Berhalter’s Risky Move Left USMNT on the Brink of Qualifying, or Possibly Disaster

Christian Pulisic of United States looks on during the match between Mexico and The United States as part of the Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers at Azteca Stadium on March 24, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico.
Will they be ready by Sunday? Hector Vivas/Getty Images

The United States men’s national soccer team took another step toward World Cup qualification Thursday with a hard-fought 0–0 draw in Mexico, but in doing so it may have made subsequent steps more difficult for itself.

There was speculation, and plenty of unsolicited advice, ahead of kickoff that U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter might be better off saving his starters for Sunday’s must-win game against Panama due to the quick turnaround and the exertions required to play at high altitude. Berhalter himself admitted in his pre-game press conference that he and his staff had considered playing a B-team which is not even a term he typically acknowledges. Instead he went for it—perhaps feeling hubris from the team’s relatively easy 2-0 victory against their archrivals in November—playing his strongest possible lineup and nearly coming away with all three points because of that decision. In a vacuum, it was a well-earned result, but the full ramifications of his gamble won’t be felt until the team plays again. If you start Chekhov’s XI in your first game, you can’t blame anyone for being worried about what that means for games two and three.

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Through much of the game, Berhalter’s decision looked primed to pay off. The U.S. controlled a sloppy and physical game for almost 70 minutes and finished with far better chances. All that was missing was the goal. The U.S. might have scored if its set piece delivery was on target; it went the entire first half without finding one of its players with a free kick or a corner. It could have scored around the 15th minute when Yunus Musah was allowed to run unimpeded onto a low Antonee Robinson cross, but his shot was too low and too slow and Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa got a hand to it.

It absolutely, positively, 110 percent should have scored 20 minutes later, when a nifty connection between Ricardo Pepi and Tim Weah ended with Weah crossing low for Christian Pulisic approximately nine yards in front of goal. Pulisic was free and clear of the Mexico defense, right in the center of the Mexican goal, but he hit his shot so poorly it hit Ochoa in the midsection as he fell to attempt the save.

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Pulisic never recovered from the miss. He certainly didn’t take over the game. Ochoa would save from Pulisic again after halftime, this time from a much tougher angle. Once the tiredness set in, Pulisic treated every touch in the center of the field like a chance to pause and survey the lay of the land while Mexico’s defense scrambled into position. His final act was dribbling around one Mexican defender then blowing the pass to a wide-open Yunus Musah. Ultimately, Pulisic’s only positive contribution to the game was drawing an early yellow card when Mexican midfielder Edson Alvarez horse-collar tackled him as he ran by.

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The foul was an early indication of just how much trouble the U.S. was giving its rivals. Mexico kept finding ways to blow its most promising chances before they turned into shots, and sent the rest high and wide of Zack Steffen’s net. Star winger Hirving Lozano seemed determined to make the worst possible choice whenever presented with multiple options. Its attackers executed a pair of community theater-level dives in desperate attempts to earn penalties, one of which earned substitute Alexis Vega a yellow card. Mexico finally wrestled the momentum away from the United States in the final 20 minutes as both teams tired, but not before it should have fallen behind again.

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Fortunately for Pulisic, if for no one else, he had someone to share his finishing blushes. Twelve minutes after both players were substituted on in the second half, Gio Reyna got behind the Mexican defense to cushion a cross back for forward Jordan Pefok, who was so ill-prepared for the pass that his shot from six yards nearly went out the side rather than the end of the field.

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These things are always harder than they look in slow motion, but Pefok should have done better and probably anyone else currently employed to score goals for a soccer team anywhere in the world would have done better. So bad was this miss that it elicited Reyna’s best LeBron impression. Reyna will probably never pass to Pefok again. He may never get a chance to if Berhalter’s hook for Pefok from the side is as quick as it was in September.

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Reyna would channel his frustration into the American’s last real highlight of the night, a mazy dribbling run that began just in front of his own box and saw him bypass four Mexican defenders, one of them twice, before finally getting tackled just in front of Mexico’s box.

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It was the sort of move that puts you vaguely, blasphemously in mind of another long dribbling run at the Azteca, though there’s not much point to the comparison without the end product. If Reyna plays like that against Panama––he’s still recovering from a long injury layoff, so it’s unclear whether he’ll start or be a substitute again––that’s an invaluable weapon the U.S. has been missing for most of qualifying.

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The team needs him to be good, because it’s unclear who else will be available. Weah can’t play against Panama after picking up a yellow card in this game due to the rule that a player misses the next match after picking up his second yellow card in the entire (quite lengthy) round of qualifying. So Weah is suspended for yellow cards against Honduras last month and Mexico Thursday, and DeAndre Yedlin is suspended for yellow cards more than six months apart, against El Salvador in September and in the Mexico game. It’s a bit silly, but here we are.

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More pressing for the U.S. is the fact that the other right back in camp, Reggie Cannon, tested positive for COVID before the game. Shaq Moore, who started the U.S. loss in Panama, is reportedly flying in from Spain as a last-minute replacement, but he’s at best the team’s fourth-stringer in the position, counting the injured Sergiño Dest.

Then there are the tired players. Musah, Robinson, and Kellyn Acosta all went 90 minutes at 7,200 feet. Pulisic and Tyler Adams played 80. Four of those guys are definite starters (maybe three, depending on how mad we are at Pulisic this time), and Acosta played well for a second-straight game. Are those guys at whatever percentage they’re able to get back to by Sunday going to give you a better chance to win than their backups? Or will the single point prove to be a Pyrrhic victory?

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Even the second-string U.S. squad should be enough to beat Panama at home Sunday. But on paper lots of teams should have been enough to beat Panama this cycle. Part of the reason qualifying has been so nerve-wracking for both the U.S. and Mexico is because Panama has exceeded expectations, playing with the nous of a veteran team that qualified for the World Cup in 2018 (where it got buzzsawed by both Belgium and England in its group, but that’s beside the point.) As Dan Hajducky pointed out during an ESPN pre-game roundtable, the USMNT’s points per game would have qualified them during each of the last two cycles, even if it lost all three of this month’s games.

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Qualifying for the World Cup is hard, no matter what region you’re in! Italy, winners of last year’s Euro 2020, unbeaten in World Cup qualifying until Thursday (but with four draws in eight games in the group phase), was eliminated from contention when North Macedonia scored a 92nd minute winner in their UEFA playoff semifinal. Australia, which has qualified for four straight tournaments, is going to have to beat another Asian third-place team and a South American side to make it five in a row. Africa’s unforgiving qualifying system is set to eliminate one of Nigeria and Ghana, one of Egypt and Senegal, one of Cameroon and Algeria by next week.

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The Americans’ road got even easier Thursday when Panama drew last-placed Honduras at home, dropping them off the pace of the leaders. The top three teams finish in qualifying and with two games to go the U.S. is in second, even on points with Mexico, 3 points ahead of fourth-place Costa Rica and 4 points ahead of fifth-place Panama, their next two opponents. With a win against Panama, the U.S. would be at least three points ahead of Costa Rica going into their final-round matchup, assuming Costa Rica beats El Salvador Sunday. Chances are it could even qualify with two draws, though that would certainly be the nervy way to do it.

The USMNT is doing better in the standings after Thursday than many dared hope. But as it found out against Trinidad and Tobago in 2017, a game in which its tired legs left it unable to claw back after surrendering two fluky first-half goals, the last hurdle is sometimes the hardest. The players are going to need to have their legs under them and their finishing boots on, to finish the job.

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