The U.S. men’s national team’s 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle couldn’t have started much worse.
It began with two quick losses. The first was a defeat to Mexico, a 2-1 loss to El Tri in Columbus that ended all talks of Dos a Cero for the time being. And then came a disastrous trip to Costa Rica, a memorable 4-0 battering that served as Jurgen Klinsmann’s final game in charge.
And, through that lens, the USMNT’s start to the 2022 World Cup qualifying cycle doesn’t look that bad. Knowing what we know about previous cycles, things do require a bit of perspective as the U.S. prepares to host Canada for their second qualifying game.
In 2018, Mexico won just two of its five away games en route to topping the Hex, with one coming against the USMNT in that aforementioned opener. Costa Rica, who finished second, also won twice, including a win over the U.S. at Red Bull Arena late in the cycle.
This cycle is different, given the two extra teams, but a point on the road is never a crushing blow. And so the USMNT’s draw against El Salvador surely wasn’t the ideal result, given the talent gap between the two, but this is CONCACAF, where the talent gap doesn’t matter.
Points do matter, though, and because of that 0-0 draw in El Salvador on Thursday night, there’s a bit more pressure heading into Sunday’s clash with Canada. Hopes of a nine-point window evaporated with the draw, but anything less than five points would be a rough start from this opening three-game stretch.
To reach that five-point mark, the U.S. would need a win and a draw from their upcoming games against Canada and Honduras. If they reach that mark, the U.S. would feel just fine heading into November’s three-game set. Anything less and there would surely be reason for concern as playing catchup in CONCACAF is never ideal.
“Our intention on Sunday is to win the game,” said USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter. “That’s what we want to do. And I don’t think the result of Thursday night changes that at all.
“Our focus is on having a good game. We’re focused on winning this game. In our home games, and World Cup qualifying, you want to win.”
Through their last eight competitive matches, the U.S. has allowed only three goals, with two coming against Mexico in that back-and-forth Nations League final. Since that game, they haven’t conceded once from open play, and, with Miles Robinson and Tim Ream in central defense, they never looked too threatened against El Salvador. John Brooks, likely still the team’s best center-back, is expected to come in for the Canada game.
But the concerns aren’t in defense; they’re in attack. Josh Sargent was active, but relatively ineffective. Jordan Pefok has had bright moments to start his USMNT career, but is still an unproven commodity. And, in general, the U.S. lacked sharpness and fluidity against El Salvador, with Berhalter saying his team’s attack was too individualistic.
“Looking back on the game, we had 1.6 expected goals, so we were supposed to score in that game,and we didn’t,” Berhalter said. “I think we are creating chances. I would like even more chances, no question about it.
“When you look across the board and talk about qualifying, the games were tight. There wasn’t a lot separating all the teams in these games, so we know that games are going to be difficult. We know that, especially when you go on the road, we should expect the worst and still have the intention and the mindset to go out and win these games.
“We’ll regroup for Sunday, but also moving forward to Wednesday is another opportunity after Sunday for us to go on the road and have another experience.”
Before that, though, the U.S. will have to navigate another difficult game against Canada, a team that is undoubtedly on the rise in the region.
Featuring stars like Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin and Tajon Buchanan, Canada are a team loaded with top young players that play all over Europe and in MLS. It’s also a team with limited experience when it comes to World Cup qualifying as Canadian soccer as a whole has taken a massive leap forward in CONCACAF in recent years.
Like the U.S., this Canada team is young. And, like the U.S., Canada will be eager to bounce back after a disappointing draw in their opener, a 1-1 tie with Honduras in Toronto.
And so both teams face an early test in game two of 14 as the U.S. and Canada both have a chance to set the tone for the rest of qualifying after a tepid start.
“They are similar. We do have similar groups,” Berhalter said, “and when you look at the experience level in World Cup qualifying, it’s pretty equal. I don’t know exactly how they’re going to approach the game. I do know that they’re well-coached, I know that they have a good squad, and I’m sure there’ll be prepared.
“Now it’s up to us to do the same and for us to show the right mentality in the game, which we’ve been demonstrating for the last months.
“Now it’s a home game we get to play in front of our fans. These are the moments that we’ve been waiting for.”
As Berhalter says, it’s a game that the U.S. has been waiting for since Trinidad and Tobago four years ago, a game that gives them a chance to build their way towards Qatar 2022.
But, even though there’s still a long way to go, it’s a game that now comes with pressure as the U.S. look to reset the foundation for their qualifying campaign.