The U.S men's national team are approaching the end of World Cup qualifying and -- surprise surprise! -- their trip to Qatar is still not booked after Sunday's 2-0 defeat in Canada. The USMNT are in second place, level on points with Mexico, with the top three teams guaranteed a World Cup berth. (Fourth place means a one-off game against Oceania's representative in June.)
With the U.S. making heavy work of booking their spot at the 2022 World Cup, ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Caitlin Murray, Kyle Bonagura, Bill Connelly and Danny Guerra offer their thoughts on this international break so far, as well as what they're looking for in Wednesday night's clash with winless Honduras in St. Paul, Minnesota.
So ... are you still feeling good about qualifying?
At the risk of taking a trip to meme-land, "Not great, Bob!" The reason for such sentiment is simple: The U.S. is one slip-up at home away from letting the whole qualifying process spin out of control. The U.S. has two such encounters left: Wednesday's match with an already eliminated Honduras, and then what is going to be the big one, the March 27 matchup with Panama in Orlando, Florida.
For the most part, the U.S. has defended its home turf -- the one blemish being the 1-1 draw with Canada back in September. But not only is the specter of the 2018 cycle still hovering in the background, but the U.S. looks to be playing worse of late, not better. The U.S. will collectively breathe easier with a win on Wednesday, but the Octagonal appears to be going to go down to the wire, and away dates with Costa Rica and Mexico make it imperative that the U.S. takes care of business on home soil. -- Carlisle
The odds are still in the USMNT's favor even if the table looks tighter than anyone would've wanted. But USMNT fans don't need to be reminded: The odds were overwhelming for the U.S. to qualify for the 2018 World Cup going into the final match day of qualifying then, too. Of 27 possible results-based scenarios on the last match day, only one would've resulted in the U.S. missing the World Cup -- and that's the one that happened.
But here's some more math: Historically, averaging north of 1.6 points per game has been enough to qualify automatically in CONCACAF, and the USMNT is averaging 1.8 so far. The USMNT just needs to stay the course. -- Murray
About reaching the World Cup? Yes. It's not a foregone conclusion the U.S. will qualify, but I have little doubt the team will be in Qatar.
The reality is that the U.S. is in second place, plays an eliminated team at home on Wednesday and has the fourth-place team (Panama) at home in the final window last month. That should be enough of a recipe to finish in the top three and progress automatically. There are treacherous trips to Mexico and Costa Rica, too, but Panama has the hardest remaining schedule (at Mexico, Honduras, at USA, Canada). If disaster strikes and the U.S. falls to fourth, it will still have a chance to punch its ticket with a game against the Oceania winner (likely New Zealand) in a one-off match in June. -- Bonagura
The odds are still very much in the United States' favor, obviously. But such consistently dreadful results on the road have created a situation where they're just one poor home result away from drama. Obviously qualification matters far more than scoring style points, but the "two steps forward, 1.9 steps back" routine has made things more dramatic than they need to be. -- Connelly
A little qualifying drama never hurt anyone (until you don't actually qualify, that is). But overall, yes. The U.S. is still in a position to pick up six points out of nine from what has been a unique window. There has never been a January window in CONCACAF qualifying, wedged in because of the calendar delays brought by the pandemic. The weather, logistics and lack of form from some key players haven't helped, but with the home game on Wednesday and one more in March, things remain in their hands. -- Guerra
Is Gregg Berhalter still the man for the job based on promises/delivery?
Let's be clear: Berhalter is not getting fired, nor should he be. Getting rid of him now would be a massive mistake, and here's why. This team is still playing hard for him. Are they making some mistakes? You bet. Is he making some mistakes? Yep -- his choice of striker being the biggest one right now. But there also seems to be less "throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks" decisions. Getting rid of him now would create considerable upheaval ahead of the final fixture window.
There have been moments when Berhalter has delivered on style. In others, he's gotten results. Delivering on both of those aspects consistently has been the challenge, but I think he's done enough to still be the man for the job, at least for the moment. Let's not forget: some of what is transpiring right now is on the players. He can't wish better performances from Pulisic into existence. -- Carlisle
The question of whether Berhalter is still the man depends on whether you ever thought he was the man to begin with. We're here now, and although Jurgen Klinsmann was deservedly dumped in the middle of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, the truth is that once the USMNT has started down a particular path, it's hard to get off it. With only one more window left to go, Berhalter is going to have to be the man.
That being said, the players -- at least from the outside -- seem to have bought into what Berhalter is doing. That's important. There have been bumps along the way, but the USMNT has never qualified for a World Cup without such bumps. The players and Berhalter are on a shared mission to take the USMNT to new heights and change the perception of a team that was previously a laughing stock. If the players are on board, we should be as well. -- Murray
Considering the U.S. won two trophies over the summer and sits in second place in qualifying with four matches to go, it's simply unrealistic to allow for the possibility that a change will be made. That said, nothing about the way the U.S. has played during qualifying has inspired confidence that Berhalter has the ability to raise the team's play to the point that it can make a run in Qatar. While the U.S. has mostly dominated possession, that possession doesn't mean much when it doesn't lead to consistent chances.
In its last 14 competitive matches, the U.S. has scored more than one goal just four times and just once (against Honduras) has scored more than two. For a coach who made grand statements about changing the way the U.S. plays, this clearly falls short. -- Bonagura
Obviously he's going to keep his job as long as the team qualifies, but each window of qualifiers has brought a new series of "Wait, what?" decisions that make it seem as if he's making his job harder than it needs to be. We have no idea what his goals are for the center-forward position, and he has in no way cracked the code on how to break down packed-in defenses. There's obviously no easy answer there and while injuries have impacted lineup choices, his vision gets blurrier with every set of matches. -- Connelly
Berhalter had two road losses and some not-so-pretty performances in qualifying, but remember: He has three wins over Mexico across three different competitions. That's to say, he has shown he can lead various versions of the team over its biggest rival, aside from emerging Canada. There are plenty of valid arguments over his tactics and player selection, but there's been no visible or reported discontent among the players and staff that marred the 2018 cycle. A coaching change before that tough March qualifying window won't help anyone; the same perhaps can't be said about Gerardo "Tata" Martino with Mexico, though... -- Guerra
The USMNT's starting striker should be...
Ricardo Pepi. There really isn't anyone else with the ability to get on the end of things and be a force in the box. Sure, guys like Jesus Ferreira might link up with their teammates better and Gyasi Zardes is more adept at doing the hard work defensively, but the U.S. attack is in a dreadful slump, and needs someone capable of being a threat in front of goal. One only had to watch Pepi's substitute appearance on Sunday to see that he's the guy to occupy the center-backs and be dangerous.
One thing that I'd like to see in the future is a forward who can be a battering ram when the situation demands, like a Daryl Dike (yes, I know he's out for a while with injury) or Jordan Pefok. Right now, there's nobody on this roster who can deliver an ugly goal. -- Carlisle
Berhalter's decision to start Ferreira and Zardes so far in this window was surprising. Both are out of season with their clubs, and it was predictable that neither were particularly effective against El Salvador and Canada. Now, Pepi hasn't scored in roughly his last 500 club minutes for FC Dallas or Augsburg, but of the USMNT's three goals from a center-forward in this qualifying cycle, Pepi scored all of them. Few of the USMNT's existing options at No. 9 -- players out of season or with lower ceilings -- are better.
The only other option is Tim Weah, who couldn't travel to Canada due to his vaccination status and was sorely missed. He's been one of the USMNT's brightest attacking options lately despite his own club struggles. The problem is Berhalter has preferred to play Weah wide. -- Murray
It's got to be Pepi. One of the biggest issues this team deals with -- and a common one in international soccer -- is that the players don't play with each other often. It's a problem that has been compounded by Berhalter's insistence to cycle through striker after striker, providing even fewer opportunities for players to get comfortable together.
Pepi made an emphatic impact against Honduras and Jamaica and while those are two of the lesser opponents in the region, the team has generally looked better with him in the starting lineup. Pepi has been the starting No. 9 in four of the United States' five wins (Ferreira started against El Salvador) and his recent club form certainly shouldn't be held against him.
The one player who hasn't factored into the discussion, but I'd be curious to see get a crack, is Matthew Hoppe. He made a strong impression playing on the wing in the Gold Cup and plays with a confidence this team has lacked. -- Bonagura
Pepi, I guess? The main goal should be to choose a guy and stick with him as much as possible. Despite his obvious limitations, he's had some strong moments in qualification, and consistency in selection could go a long way even if the pool of options has lots of flaws. -- Connelly
For Wednesday's match? Pepi. He didn't enter the El Salvador game and made an impactful appearance in the Canada loss, so overall he's rested. As for March and beyond, the U.S. can cross that proverbial bridge later. Maybe that two-goal performance at Norwich City is what Josh Sargent needed to find his touch again, or Dike can bounce back after his injury. Jordan Pefok has double-digit goals once again in the Swiss Super League, though if Ferreira buries that early chance against El Salvador, this debate is way less stressful. All that said, the options and potential for the No. 9 position are still there. -- Guerra
What do you want to see vs. Honduras besides a victory?
Some fluidity in attack, especially in the final third. Granted, with game time temperatures expected to be hovering around zero degrees, that might be asking a lot, but the U.S. needs to generate some positive momentum that it can take into the final fixture window, and the offense is where the team has struggled the most.
It will help that Tim Weah will be available again. He missed the exertions against Canada due to not meeting the country's entry requirements regarding COVID-19 (but he met France's it should be noted), so he should be plenty rested. Christian Pulisic needs to find a way to get back to his old, marauding self. The absence of Tyler Adams to a hamstring injury is a big blow, but Kellyn Acosta needs to step up and provide the platform for Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie to contribute to the attack. -- Carlisle
The USMNT looked slow and static against Canada; instead of getting into space and exploiting it, they seemed intent to pass the ball laterally or sideways until everyone got set in pre-planned positions. The players seemed too stuck on Berhalter's system, which emphasizes sticking to assigned roles and zones to create the tactical overloads Berhalter wants. In addition to defanging the USMNT's bite in transition, it was also frustrating to watch.
The USMNT needs to show it has both the recognition and the license to take advantage of potential counterattacks when the opportunities arise. It should lead to more goals -- and more excitement. -- Murray
A goal from Christian Pulisic. It's clear he's off-form at the moment and he wears the appearance of a man who is experiencing very little joy playing the game. He remains the most talented attacker on the team by a wide margin and if he's able to get back on track, that should go a long way toward restoring a sense of positivity around the team. More specifically, I'd like to see him stay in wider positions and stop dropping so deep into midfield to receive the ball.
With McKennie and Musah playing centrally, they have players (in theory) who can progress the ball centrally without having Pulisic bog things down. When he's able to isolate in 1-on-1 situations, Pulisic can be a game-changer. That's been consistent throughout his career at Dortmund, Chelsea and the U.S., though he's not being used that way right now. -- Bonagura
Proper execution near the goal. Somehow, the cohesion in the attacking third has grown weaker as qualification has gone on. The U.S. actually generated plenty of threats against El Salvador, but couldn't finish chances; then, against Canada, they barely generated any quality chances. They "dominated," in Berhalter's words, but managed just three shots on goal. I want to see the type of confidence and creation we've seen sporadically (but haven't in this window), just to know it still exists. -- Connelly
A first-half goal and no more injuries, since European-based players will be thrown back into the mix come this weekend and the MLS guys are on the verge of preseason. Tyler Adams and Chris Richards will probably miss time with their clubs, and like we saw with Giovanni Reyna and Christian Pulisic, any knocks during international matches - especially against a tough-playing Honduras side - could cascade down the road. Get Luca de la Torre in there to create in the midfield. Maybe Sergino Dest can log some minutes at left-back to relieve Antonee Robinson, considering Reggie Cannon and Deandre Yedlin are options on the other flank. -- Guerra