How happy should the United States men's national team be with a draw in their opening match of Concacaf World Cup Qualifying? On the one hand, the USMNT really should be a lot better than their opponent El Salvador. They entered the competition ranked 10th in FIFA's world rankings, and El Salvador were ranked 64th. And while FIFA's rankings don't have a particularly rigorous methodology behind them, looking at something like World Football Elo Ratings America 17th and their opponents 74th. However, you slice it, there's a giant gulf.
On the other hand, winning on the road in Concacaf play really is quite difficult. Teams play tough physical football, seemingly large talent margins get nullified and underdogs give as good as they get. On Thursday, three of the four matches ended in draws and Mexico needed a last minute winner to beat Jamaica at home. Or, to look at it historically, home teams win....a lot.
The final round of World Cup qualifying starts Thurs. It's worth remembering just how ridiculously hard it is to win on the road in #Concacaf. In 179 Hexagonal matches since the 1998 cycle, 33 (18.4%) have been won by the visitors. The home side wins 55.8% of the time. #USMNT pic.twitter.com/kgdZqziSYQ— Ben Wright (@benwright) August 31, 2021
So, which is it? Should the USMNT be thrilled that they are on track to advance, following the age old adage, win at home and draw on the road, or should they be disappointed that once again, despite a giant talent advantage, they're dropping points? The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle.
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Some draws are better than others
It doesn't matter on the scoreboard, but not all draws are created equal. Sometimes you play well and can't quite find the goal you need, and other times you play poorly, but the other guys forget their shooting boots and you steal a point anyway. For too long, the mantra that drawing on the road in Concacaf is a good result was used to justify poor performances. During the 2018 World Cup cycle the USMNT would travel to teams that were worse than them and play down to their level, dropping points in the process. Ultimately those poor performances should have been a glaring warning sign that something was very wrong and the team was simply not that good. Thankfully this is not 2018, and not just because a full nine of the starting 11 players on this side were playing in their first qualifier ever.
The USMNT did not play poorly against El Salvador. They outshot their opponents 13 to seven and absolutely dominated the xG battle 1.78 to 0.32. That's good enough to win the match on many many days. It happened not to be on Thursday. If the Americans were using the old trope about drawing on the road to paper over a mediocre or poor performance that would be cause for alarm. Instead, unlike last time around, it's getting trotted out to point to a somewhat unfortunate result which wasn't as strong as the underlying numbers. Sometimes a team plays well enough to win and they get a draw. That's what happened here. That's not to say everything is perfect though. The USMNT clearly did some things better than others, and there's definitely room for improvement. But at the end of the day, they played significantly better than an opponent that was significantly worse than them. Do that and you can live with only grabbing a single point.
Two things the USMNT did well
The first thing the USMNT did well was defend. When asked about it after the game manager Gregg Berhalter said that he'd need to check the expected goals numbers, but his sense of it was they gave up very little. The xG numbers agree. The team conceded only 0.32 xG on seven shots. More impressively from not dead ball situations they only conceded two shots and 0.08 xG. They were lights out dominant without the ball. They did that while having a left side of defense that consisted of Seringo Dest who is more at home with the ball at his feet in the attacking third than facing an opponent with the ball in his own, and Tim Ream, who is Tim Ream. At times this USMNT has a habit of being a bend but don't break defense, conceding space and chances but ultimately preventing great shots. Against El Salvador they didn't bend, didn't budge, and never came close to breaking. Can't ask for more than that.
The second thing the team did well was create chances. Taking 13 shots and running up 1.78 xG away from home in an incredibly hostile environment is nothing to sneeze at. It's encouraging that Josh Sargent who is quickly developing a reputation as a striker who does everything but the one thing good strikers have to do, get shots, managed to get off four shots of his own, all from inside the box, three with his feet. Now, as is generally the case with Sargent, he didn't score, but if he can consistently up his shot production to the level he displayed against El Salvador, he will. A striker getting four shots, a team getting up towards two xG, and a defense giving up less than a third of an xG, well that's just a recipe for winning soccer.
Two things USMNT can improve on
After the match Berhalter faulted his team for not calming down on the ball in the opposition half, saying that the match, "turned into too hectic of a game." The numbers certainly back that up. The possession battle between the two sides was largely even, and each team struggled to complete passes. Both teams completed around 72% of their passes. The USMNT was largely the better side because they tilted the field in their favor, completing 225 passes in the attacking half while El Salvador completed only 169 in the attacking half, but nevertheless, the lack of calmness in attack meant the Americans simply weren't able to apply sustained pressure the way they wanted to and the way they can when they're at their best.
That led to the second thing they did poorly, which was they failed to create very many good chances. Their two best chances of the match were a header early from Miles Robinson on a set piece and a header late from Kellyn Acosta. Those aren't exactly the guys you build your attack around. Meanwhile in the attacking band, Gio Reyna took two shots worth 0.08 xG combined, Konrad de la Fuenta took one worth 0.09 and Brenden Aaronson didn't have a single shot. And while we talked about Sargent's solid contributions already, it's also true that the three shots he took from open play only amounted to 0.17 xG and it was his one set play chance which was by far his best opportunity to score. All told it wasn't until a decent chance from Weston Mckennie late in the second half, and then Acosta's header close to the whistle that the team really created a good goal scoring opportunity from open play.
It seems fair to say that Berhalter's side failed to execute the game plan. Maybe that's not surprising. With Ream and DeAndre Yedlin as the only two players who had started a qualifier of this magnitude before, in a hostile environment on a patchy (at best) field, it's pretty understandable that a very young team might struggle to keep their heads, and end up not being as calm and composed on the ball as Berhalter would want. Throw in the lack of Cristian Pulisic, who didn't make the trip, and that lack of composure becomes even easier to comprehend. But, despite that, they were still handily the better team. That's ultimately the takeaway here. If Thursday's match in El Salvador is what a failing USMNT playing poorly looks like, a match they dominated defensively while creating a solid number of chances, then that suggests that they're a very good team indeed.