This is it. (Sort of.)
The entire four-and-a-half year project undertaken since the United States men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018—the controversial and long-delayed coaching search, the lost year of the pandemic and lost weeks and months due to injuries, the players shipped in and shipped out and shuffled around—all of it comes down to the finest of points: three games over the next week to decide if the U.S. gets a ticket to soccer’s premier event.
Will the U.S. qualify for the 2022 World Cup? Maybe! Will we enjoy the ride regardless? Probably not. Will it at least be over by next week? Potentially no.
While a win and a draw over the next three games will almost certainly clinch the Americans’ spot, the variables of opponent and venue, of injury and squad rotation, of form and tactics all conspire to give this next few days the feel of a panel of talking heads discussing returns from Waukesha County and the Philly suburbs on Election Night. It all feels very complicated, and depending on how you read the signs you could easily convince yourself that the U.S. is going to storm into the World Cup or that it’s doomed to repeat the horrors of 2017.
Start with some good news: The U.S. currently sits in second place, four points behind first place Canada and ahead of third place Mexico on the goal differential tiebreaker. The top three finishers all qualify for the World Cup, and the U.S. has a bit of a cushion, as they’re four points ahead of fourth place Panama and five points ahead of fifth place Costa Rica. It is possible that one win from the next three games—especially if it comes at home against Panama—will be enough to guarantee the U.S. a spot in the World Cup. That’s eminently doable; the Americans have won five and drawn one of their games on home soil during qualifying.
However, it’s also possible that the team will need more. If Costa Rica wins its first two games against Canada and El Salvador, then it could be in a position to leapfrog the U.S. with a win when the two teams play next week in the final game of the qualifying cycle. (Costa Rica is pretty good at winning at home against the U.S.) That would confine the U.S. to fourth even if it beats Panama. That’s bad.
If the USMNT ends up fourth, then its spot in the World Cup will rest on a one-game playoff in June in Qatar. Their opponent would be the winner of Oceania’s qualifying tournament, which is being held right now, also in Qatar. (Four of that tournament’s games have already been postponed or canceled due to COVID outbreaks, so the fourth-place CONCACAF team may be matched up with the last healthy team standing.)
That’s all looking ahead, though. Before facing off with Panama or Costa Rica or potentially New Zealand, the U.S. first plays archrival Mexico in Mexico on Thursday night. This isn’t as daunting as you might think. Given that the U.S. beat Mexico three straight times in 2021, there may never be a better opportunity to pick up a first competitive win at the Estadio Azteca, which at 7,200 feet has historically offered one of the best home-field advantages in sports.
Except to throw the full weight of its squad into that match could mean ruining its chances in the other two, particularly the must-win home game on Sunday against Panama. Mexico looks vulnerable but there’s no guarantee the U.S. would get a result even with its starters. What is certain is that playing 90 minutes at that altitude can drain a player as surely as if he’d been hooked up to the torture machine from The Princess Bride. Whoever takes on that task is going to be mostly dead for a couple of days.
Plus, players like Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, and Zack Steffen are all one yellow card away from being suspended from the team’s next game. Add it all up, and you have a lot of people, Fox Soccer’s studio team among them, suggesting the smartest approach is to field a team of backups in Mexico and concentrate on the next two.
It would be easier to stomach that kind of squad rotation if the USMNT’s depth had proved to be the strength we expected. Instead, the team has looked poor when it has benched its starters, usually for the second of three games. A probably meaningless statistic that you can nonetheless attempt to weigh on the scales of your trepidation: The Americans have thus far failed to win any of their second games in World Cup qualifying, drawing Canada at home and Jamaica away and losing to Panama and Canada away. Is that trend more important than home-field advantage and lineup strength? Probably not. Throw it on the anxiety fire anyway!
Worse, the U.S. roster is thinner than ever. The team will be missing its qualifying MVP, Weston McKennie, who broke his foot last month while playing for Juventus. McKennie’s all-round excellence means that coach Gregg Berhalter will have to give up something no matter who starts in the midfielder’s place. Kellyn Acosta would provide defensive solidity and experience—he appeared in all three of the USMNT’s 2021 wins over Mexico, which has to count for something. Luca de la Torre, the breakout player of February’s freezing win over Honduras, brings dribbling and ball progression. Gianluca Busio provides passing range. The coach will have to prioritize: What does he feel his team needs versus Mexico, for the must-win home game against Panama, and for the (possible) final stand in Costa Rica? How do the absences of attacking fullback Sergiño Dest and pressing winger Brenden Aaronson, both injured just last week, change those calculations? What about goalkeeper Matt Turner’s ankle injury, which leaves the U.S. relying on an only recently recovered Steffen (and maybe his backups) in net?
The team’s high floor remains intact, led by the defensive efforts of midfielder Adams and center backs Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman. The U.S. has allowed more than one goal in just one of its 11 qualifiers, and that second came in the final minute against Canada while the U.S. was selling out for an equalizer. It would take an uncharacteristically poor performance for the Americans to find themselves completely overwhelmed in Mexico or Costa Rica.
The question is whether they have the firepower to pull themselves back into a game if they fall behind early, as they did in that demoralizing 2-0 loss to Canada. Eleven games into qualifying, the team still has no idea who its best center forward is. Nineteen-year-old Ricardo Pepi’s meteoric rise faded just as quickly. He hasn’t scored a goal for club or country since moving to Germany’s FC Augsburg in January, though he remains the USMNT’s leading scorer in qualifying with three goals. Jordan Pefok, back in the fold for the first time since September, has finished consistently in Switzerland, but his repertoire of putbacks and hard-charging headers makes him an imperfect match for Berhalter’s system.
FC Dallas’$2 21-year-old Jesús Ferreira is a more natural fit as a mobile, playmaking forward. But up until Saturday, when he netted a first-half hat trick for FC Dallas, he too was struggling for goals, picking up a headed assist in his one qualifying start against El Salvador in January but missing two golden scoring chances. Ferreira won’t score a hat trick in the Azteca, but if he can supplement his passing with this new scoring punch, then the job might be his for a while.
He’ll hopefully have help on offense. Gio Reyna, whose recovery from an injury suffered in the very first qualifier has been lengthy and arduous, started and went 90 minutes for Borussia Dortmund on Sunday, raising the hopes that he might be available for more than a late Kirk Gibson cameo. Christian Pulisic, a source of consternation last window, is looking dangerous again, scoring in both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League victory over Weah’s Lille. He’s scored twice in seven appearances, only half of them starts.
Now would be a great time for Pulisic to assert his dominance—to leave his stamp as indelibly as he did on the last, doomed cycle when he was still just a teenager. It hasn’t been for lack of trying. As he explained to ESPN after the last round of games, he thinks the pressure he feels playing for his country has hurt his performance. His desire to “do something special” too often leads him to play the soccer equivalent of hero ball, dribbling into congested areas until he either gets fouled or turns the ball over. He rarely runs behind the defense, spending too much time near midfield instead of creating danger near the opposing goal.
Without McKennie and Dest to carry the ball forward, there’s a chance the U.S. will need Pulisic to work more as a link player. Hopefully he’s able to find a balance—to trust his teammates to pick out his runs, to let go of the notion that he has to do it all himself. If he can spark the team in the right areas, the road to Qatar will be significantly smoother. They may even wrap it up this week.