The United States men's national team was hoping that they'd look sharper Sunday at Canada in their World Cup qualifier than they did in a win over El Salvador last week. They looked worse. The Americans, with a chance to jump to the top of the table in Concacaf's qualifying round, lost 2-0 to their neighbors to the north, with Cyle Larin scoring the winning goal in the opening 10 minutes. Sam Adekugbe added the second on the counter in the fifth minute of added time in the second half.
The U.S. still find themselves in a good position when it comes to making it to this year's World Cup, but the result does two things. First, it adds pressure to an upcoming clash with Honduras. Second, it raises questions as to whether this youth-filled team truly has enough, at this time, to be consistently good.
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Gregg Berhalter's team had 13 total shots, five more than Canada, but they weren't of much quality. Outside of a Weston McKennie header in the first half, the visitors rarely produced something substantial, especially late. A Paul Arriola bicycle kick with just over three minutes to go looked close, but it missed well wide in the end. The U.S. finished with an xG of just 0.78, which is their third-worst mark in this cycle of qualifying. Their three worst performances in attack in terms of xG have all been on the road.
Berhalter, despite the loss, said he was pleased with the USMNT's performance.
Gyasi Zardes got the nod over Ricardo Pepi at striker, and it did not work out with the Columbus Crew man finishing with an xG of just 0.05 in 69 minutes. In contrast, Pepi finished with an xG of 0.12 in just 21 minutes, recording two shots to Zardes' one. Christian Pulisic also had a match to forget, finishing with an xG of 0.18 on three shots as the American star was constantly hacked to the ground via tactical fouls from Canada.
"We ask them to embrace the conditions, embrace the physical. I think we did that and more," Berhalter told reporters after the game. "It's hard for me to remember a performance away from home this dominant without getting a result. So the result hurts. The performance doesn't hurt. I'm proud of the guys proud of the way they competed."
Berhalter also lost Tyler Adams and Chris Richards due to injuries, complicating things for the match with Honduras on Wednesday.
Here are a few takeaways from Sunday's match.
1. Frustrated Pulisic struggles again
Losing the captaincy to Tyler Adams for the match, Gregg Berhalter tried to ease the pressure on Pulisic. But it was another subpar performance from the Chelsea player. While Pulisic did play a full 90 minutes this time out, three chances and no shots on target isn't what the United States expect from him. Pulisic was again on set-piece deliveries and struggled outside of one good corner delivery that found McKennie's head.
He got visibly frustrated with the lack of fouls being called even though the referee let a lot go for both teams, as Pulisic's form seems to be going to his head. Even when moving inside as more of a No. 10 to close out the match, Pulisic wasn't able to create much. The United States will need more production as Tim Weah and Aaronson are pushing for more minutes. Discussing a Pulisic benching in the future isn't out of the realm of possibility.
2. Was Zardes the best option?
Berhalter is familiar with Zardes from their time together at the Columbus Crew but on the national stage, it just hasn't clicked. It's not that Zardes didn't finish chances.
"We just picked right up and kept going in terms of the finishing that you're talking about it." said Berhalter, "That I don't think we created that that many clear-cut chances that we should have finished off. So like I don't think today was an issue of poor finishing."
And he's right but if you're not creating chances for a striker to finish, something like what Jesus Ferreira did against El Salvador would have been more valuable when it was clear that Zardes wasn't working. If Berhalter still wanted to bring on Pepi as well, there was space for both as they have chemistry playing together.
3. The U.S. are still on track for Qatar 2022
These are times when it's important to have perspective. No matter what the results are on Sunday night, the United States will occupy a top-three spot in Concacaf for World Cup Qualification. This means that they still control their destiny with four matches remaining. The lack of adjustments are concerning but this young team has responded well in the past.