Neil W. Blackmon
When the US assemble in just over a week’s time now ahead of their final two Hexagonal World Cup qualifying matches, they’ll do so in a precarious position, sitting fourth and needing two victories to qualify automatically for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Here’s how the CONCACAF qualifying standings look ahead of the final two American matches- against Panama in Orlando October 6 and away to Trinidad and Tobago on October 10.
|Trinidad and Tobago||1||7||0||4||15/-11||3|
The US, in other words, are relatively well-positioned to finish fourth and qualify for an intercontinental playoff, but have zero margin for error if they hope to qualify automatically.
Even entering the final two matches without qualifying assured is unusual for the Yanks, at least by contemporary standards. In the three cycles prior to this one, only the 2010 US team entered the final cycle needing results to qualify (they earned them immediately, defeating Honduras 3-2 in San Pedro Sula to seal passage to South Africa).
Whatever happens, one could fashion a relatively compelling polemic about the American struggle to qualify for this World Cup. Brian Straus’s column, published earlier this month at SI, is a strong preliminary primer.
And maybe the United States should have seen this coming.
The US has needed late victories just to reach the HEX in the past two World Cup cycles. They’ve earned them- in Kansas City in 2013 and Jacksonville in 2016- but nothing was assured.
A talented Mexico team needed an American miracle just to reach a playoff ahead of Brazil 2014. Mexico tip-toed past New Zealand in the playoff, and ultimately reached the round of sixteen. American fans, however, reveled in the schadenfreude of Mexico’s epic struggle. Perhaps the better lesson would have been that for all the talk about CONCACAF’s forgiving format, qualifying isn’t easy. Even El Tri, with all their talent, are vulnerable.
The format is less forgiving now because the soccer being played in what’s long been one of soccer’s final frontiers has improved.
Sacha Kljestan put it this way when asked about it in September 2016:
“Look how hard it has been to get out of the (Sub-Hex round). You play on cricket fields in boorish heat. The travel is insane, especially if you are coming from Europe to Central America or the West Coast to an outpost in the Caribbean. You’re a global power and there’s some resentment. Crowds are loud and like Mexico, the US is their big game, the one they want most. We get everyone’s best shot. And then the soccer is just so much better. Even from my first cap to now, there’s much more quality. Whether that’s because MLS is growing up or development is emphasized more or a combination of all of that, it’s just harder now. CONCACAF is better.”
Kljestan then went out and scored critical goals and helped the US secure passage to the HEX in a rousing win over Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville that also marked Christian Pulisic’s first start.
I asked Carlos Bocanegra the same question about CONCACAF and received basically the same answer.
“The US aren’t entitled to qualify for the World Cup,” the longtime American captain said. “And the region is generationally-better. The growth of the domestic leagues, especially in America, has changed things.”
Jorge Luis Pinto, who has managed Costa Rica to a World Cup quarterfinal out of this region and now has Honduras positioned to potentially qualify for a third-consecutive World Cup, agreed.
“More players have opportunity to improve their games in professional environments now,” Pinto told me over the phone last month. “That means better players, more quality players. MLS has opened a new world to them. The competition for spots is harder. They aren’t handed anything. Always the goal was Europe or Mexico or stay home. Now with MLS (an option), it elevates the whole region. The football is better.”
Pinto is correct. Whatever the flaws of the league, MLS has improved over the last decade and more players have a chance to compete against better professional competitions in first-class environments. The effect has been a region improved through healthy competition.
Results bear this out.
Costa Rica reached the World Cup quarterfinals, and did so winning a group that included England, Uruguay and Italy. Even after the near-fiasco in the 2014 Hex, Mexico weathered a group that included Brazil at the prior World Cup, and drew the hosts in the group stages. They have also won an Olympic competition this decade and played stylish soccer at various FIFA youth tournaments. The United States may have entered the October matches in the 2009 Hex needing results to qualify for South Africa, but once they arrived in Africa, they won their group. They also survived a tough group with Ghana, Portugal and eventual champion Germany in Brazil, and were a botched Chris Wondolowski sitter from the quarterfinals.
An improved region means a tougher qualifying tournament.
Of course, that alone isn’t to blame for the US struggles.
The Americans have, under both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena, played inconsistent soccer in the Hex, looking marvelous rarely (Home win vs. Honduras, opening half at Azteca) and poor too often (at Costa Rica, at Honduras).
Blame can be easily apportioned. It’s hard to identify an area where the Americans haven’t faltered.
With Tim Howard the incumbent starter, the Americans are old at goalkeeper, and against Costa Rica, for the first time in ages, a significant reason for a loss was that the US goalkeeper was definitively outplayed by his counterpart across the pitch. That Brad Guzan hasn’t wrested the job from Howard at this point in his career is increasingly more an indictment of Guzan than of Howard.
Coaching has been suspect too often, whether the tactical blunders of Jurgen Klinsmann against El Tri in Columbus or at Costa Rica days later or Bruce Arena’s willed refusal to change his set-up against Costa Rica earlier this month at Red Bull Arena.
So much blah, blah in American soccer about 'player development'. Where are the top level players?
— Simon Evans (@sgevans) September 6, 2017
The US have, as Simon Evans noted last month, a wealth of depth thanks to improved development but a dearth of high—level quality, and this shows most of all in the midfield, where only Michael Bradley seems willing to demand the ball and help the team build possession. When teams gang up on Bradley, he’s received little help.
Kellyn Acosta is a talented young player who can cut out a seam-busting pass or hit a beautiful free kick. But he isn’t the best at finding a game and delivering in traffic. Darlington Nagbe, a massive technical talent, is reputed to be one of the best ball carrying midfielders the US have produced in a generation. But he’s consistently failed to deliver against World Cup quality competition, the latest letdown coming against Costa Rica, where his performance ranged from anonymous to poor.
Arena compounds this problem by refusing to consistently play guys like Alejandro Bedoya who will show for the ball in the scrum and continually discounting other creative options, like Sacha Kljestan, who continues to rip apart MLS, or Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber. Neither of these players rates as “elite”, to be sure, but the task of a manger is to identify what a team needs and after making that diagnosis, using what he has at his disposal to fix it. It’s hard to argue neither Kljestan nor Feilhaber would help.
Danny Williams, a Premier Leaguer who is more a mover than creator, could also help, though it is more difficult to figure out how precisely Williams changes the look of the US midfield.
Fabian Johnson, who a US assistant told me is “easily the second most talented technical player the US have”, has struggled to make an impact. Fitness has been a problem, but at some point, the US need Johnson to deliver the way he does for his German club, where he was among the top fifteen chance creators in the Bundesliga for two consecutive seasons. Johnson is most comfortable running at players on the ball, which is difficult in a US midfield that seems more apt to look for triangles, but Johnson needs to find ways to get involved and provide the US attack balance. Whether he can do that at a time where he is struggling just to find playing time at his Borussia Monchengladbach is another complication.
Behind the struggling midfield, the US have leaked eleven goals in the Hex, the most of any cycle this century, save 2010, when Bob Bradley’s charges leaked thirteen (four of those came in the final two matches).
There are a host of reasons for the defensive issues.
Injuries – to John Brooks, DeAndre Yedlin, Fabian Johnson, Omar Gonzalez- have forced the US to mix and match throughout the Hex. The multiple combinations have hurt chemistry and communication.
When healthy, the US back four projects as DeAndre Yedlin, Geoff Cameron, John Brooks and either Jorge Villafana or Timothy Chandler. This back four would consist of two Premier Leaguers, a high-priced Bundesliga defender and either a quality Bundesliga starter or a Liga MX player. That’s pretty good but injuries- or simply not calling the player into camp- have prevented the US from utilizing the obvious best group.
Matt Besler, who would be fifth in a perfect world, is certainly a very good soccer player, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a better positional defender in the pool. When he fails, it is usually because someone is just more talented.
But behind the Sporting KC CB, the American talent and reliability drops off.
Omar Gonzalez is a fine league player, dominant in the air and an excellent emergency defender. But he struggles holding an offside trap, isn’t good with the ball, is erratic positionally and has looked out of joint internationally, even against weaker competition in this summer’s Gold Cup.
Tim Ream and Eric Lichaj are capable players in England’s Championship. Neither- save a quality shift from Ream at Estadio Azteca- have shown too much internationally to warrant continued trust.
Graham Zusi is a competitive, consummate team-first guy you want in a locker room. He is not, however, a quality option at right back, and his placement there not only hurts the US defensively, but it hurts the Americans attacking shape, as the wing in front of him continually has to drop and help on defense. The struggles of Christian Pulisic playing ahead of Zusi in wide positions in the September qualifiers are instructive. The experiment should end.
Apologists might suggest Zusi warrants a roster spot for what he offers getting forward, or argue that the position switch simply takes time. They point to DaMarcus Beasley’s transition two cycles ago. Zusi is good on a free kick. But the truth is Zusi isn’t as good a player as DaMarcus Beasley and never has been. Beasley played deep into the Champions League knockout stages. His quality is better and he was faster than Zusi. Speed, as DeAndre Yedlin reminds us, covers all manner of sins.
That the US still rely on DaMarcus Beasley as a left back in road World Cup qualifying matches is both a testament to Beasley’s prodigious talents and the dearth of options at a position the prior manager promised anyone could play.
And then there’s goal-scorers.
Jozy Altidore has been excellent throughout 2017, but his rash decision and yellow card late in the Costa Rica match was self-serving and hurt the Americans badly in Honduras days later.
Bobby Wood is battling an on and off injury since the Honduras match. His penchant for scoring big goals saved the US bacon in Honduras, but the knock on him at the club level continues to be that he’s wonderful at finding goal-scoring positions and less than good at finishing them. That’s unfortunate for a US team short on chances of late
Christian Pulisic’s positioning is the controlling domino, and while it’s tempting to note that he’s blossoming into a dominant young winger at Dortmund, it’s smarter to understand that he’s needed as a number ten for the US, especially if the manager is going to continually decline to call Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber to camp.
Pulisic’s struggles in September were related to positioning, but also about the US lacking creative advanced options. Defenses key on the youngster and, understanding his help options are limited, hack away. Against Panama, it won’t be any different, especially with Los Canaleros ahead of the Yanks on points. The US have to ease pressure on Pulisic by game-planning in a way that eases the pressure on him and gives him help.
Moving Pulisic inside, of course, requires better midfield play. Who is the guy who connects Pulisic to Bradley? Does the US play a lone-target man, and if so, who? How does the injury to Jordan Morris impact things? Can Dempsey and Pulisic coexist effectively in the center of the park? What is the role for Clint Dempsey?
These are difficult questions for Bruce Arena.
That’s the thing about tough qualifying tournaments. They ask tough questions.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.