Through the first five games of Concacaf World Cup qualifying cycle, the United States men's national team have just two wins. It's the same number of wins picked up in the previous cycle as a whole when they shockingly failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. And while the revamped format includes more teams (eight teams as opposed to six) and more games (14 now as opposed to 10 in the previous cycle), it means there are also more opportunities to slip up than ever before.
Ahead of Wednesday's crunch qualifier against Costa Rica in Columbus, Ohio, the team needs as big of a bounce back as we've seen in recent years after being exposed in a 1-0 loss against Panama. That was a match where the attack was anemic, failing to produce a single shot on goal, and the depth of the team was brought into question, as was the decision of manager Gregg Berhalter to use a starting XI largely composed of backups.
"Offensively I don't think there was enough movement off the ball [against Panama]," Berhalter told the media on Tuesday. "Our expected goal value (0.22) was very low, which is an issue.
"Part of the idea was to get seven fresh players on the field and make Panama pay, and we didn't do that."
The U.S. had averaged an xG of 1.88 per game in their first four qualifiers.
Up to this point, you can argue that this team has not quite lived up to lofty expectations brought on by having more talent than ever before. The injury bug has been persistent, but every team deals with them. It's about how you react to them that separates the quality teams from the also rans. They aim for nine points each window, but obviously know that 6 or 7 will do the trick. They only got five the first window, and they need a win against Costa Rica to reach six this time around. Dropping points here could put them in serious trouble, especially when you look at what is ahead, knowing four teams are within three points of them.
Every game in Concacaf is a challenge, but it isn't going to get much easier for this bunch. While there are favorable home games to come with teams you'd expect to win, specifically against Panama and El Salvador, the four toughest games also loom large on the schedule. There are home and away games against Mexico, and still to come are away dates to Costa Rica and away to a rejuvenated Canada (all on Paramount+). In fact, two of the last three games in qualifying are at Mexico and at Costa Rica. The U.S. lost at home to Costa Rica last cycle.
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The tricky finish to the schedule is why the urgency has to be there now, and Costa Rica pose quite a threat. It's an aging team filled with veterans. This team may be missing a key piece in Joel Campbell, but it also features one of the top goalkeepers in the world in Keylor Navas. A victory would take Los Ticos above the U.S. in the standings, so Berhalter knows things need to be clicking earlier.
"All of the games are tight. I think that is the first thing we need to understand," Berhalter said. "We are a young up-and-coming team and we have to use that to our advantage."
Berhalter knows, looking back, that the team selection against Panama was not practical. This team is not exactly blessed with tremendous depth to treat a triple-fixture window any differently than others. They have to face the same challenges that everybody else does. Tired legs and wear and tears aren't an excuse, they're the default state of every team in the fight for a World Cup spot. As simple as it sounds, you have to play your best guys or risk being a spectator for Qatar 2022. And to be clear, playing the best players possible doesn't guarantee a thing, as Berhalter learned the hard way when Ricardo Pepi and others entered in the second half against Panama. Having it against Costa Rica will be essential, and it is up to such a young squad to find it within itself and play with composure.
The USMNT have been widely inconsistent thus far in this cycle, with points dropped at home, a shocking loss on the road and having to settle for points against an El Salvador team they should have beaten. It's not time to press the panic button by any means, because there is a long way to go. But you must take care of business at home, and the U.S. failed to do that once already in this campaign. Here's a chance to get fully back on track and quiet doubters or potentially see the wheels start to come off ... again.
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