The U.S. men's national team has had a interesting relationship with the World Cup. After appearing in three of the first four competitions (1930, 1950, 1954), the Yanks missed the next nine before returning, in 1990, thanks to a pivotal qualifying goal by Paul Caligiuri in Trinidad & Tobago. (You can see where this is going, right?)
From there, the USMNT represented at every World Cup from 1994 to 2014, going as far as the quarterfinals in 2002 ... only to infamously miss the 2018 edition after failing to win in -- you knew it was coming -- Trinidad & Tobago. (They only needed a draw that night!) That pivotal defeat in Couva reverberated around the hearts and minds of U.S. fans until qualification for Qatar 2022 began, and with it a brilliant new generation of American talent. Despite the emergence of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest and many more, their ticket to the World Cup this winter comes down to the final three games, including a game against Mexico in the fabled Azteca, and a potential winner-take-all clash in Costa Rica.
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ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Ryan O'Hanlon, Dan Hajducky and Bill Connelly offer their answers to the critical questions we're all asking ourselves this week.
Is this shaping up to be another Couva situation?
Carlisle: I think the possibility of overconfidence, which was the real culprit four years ago, is reduced this time around. The U.S. knows how difficult these three opponents -- Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica -- are, so the requisite focus and intensity should be there.
Now, could the U.S. mess this up? Absolutely. But I think this will be down more to the pressure of the moment and the quality of the opposition than the U.S. thinking it has qualification in the bag.
Bonagura: It shouldn't get that dicey, Jeff, but it's certainly on the table and it would be foolish to write off a repeat with the lesson from 2017 still fresh. The game to simultaneously watch is Costa Rica at Canada. If Costa Rica wins (unlikely) that one, things will get even more interesting.
O'Hanlon: In the most general sense, yes. Barring a win against Mexico at the Azteca, the USMNT is going to need a result, on the road, in their last match of qualifying. The big difference: This team, even with the injuries, is way better than the 2017 team that failed to get a result on the road in their last match of qualifying.
Hajducky: Whoa, whoa, guys: I thought we weren't going to invoke that name! Couva. Sneaky.
The Americans' track record in Mexico -- 0-12-3 at Estadio Azteca in qualifying since 1949 -- is stark. One point would be historic, three would initiate delirium. Canada, sans Alphonso Davies, will clinch automatic qualification with one more win; if they do so against Costa Rica on March 24, it could render USMNT's tango with Los Ticos on March 30 a ... sigh ... Couva situation. But that's assuming the U.S. don't take points from Panama, currently in the playoff slot and squaring off against already-eliminated Honduras and nearly qualified Canada in this final round. The Stars & Stripes get Panama on home soil in Orlando, Florida, in an absolute must-win.
Going back to 2002 CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, 1.3 points per game is the fewest an automatic qualifier has managed. Even with the new format (eight teams instead of six, 14 games each now), unless something goes wildly amiss, the U.S. men (1.91 PPG) are above that threshold. Even if they lose all three matches, they'd have managed 1.5 points per game -- good enough for automatic (or intercontinental) qualification in each of the past two cycles.
For now, let's breathe. Panic is reserved for March 30. (Have Taylor Twellman on standby just in case.)
Connelly: Look, the nightmare certainly isn't off the table! While the odds are certainly in the United States' favor heading into the final three matches, the number of injuries for this group heading into the final matches is incredible. We will go the whole qualification period without ever seeing Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest on the pitch at the same time, and that's absolutely incredible.
Bigger loss: Dest or McKennie?
Carlisle: OK, it's McKennie (no disrespect to Dest). Not only will McKennie's talent be missed, but he's been the heart and soul of this team since returning from his suspension last September. He has scored big goals and provided an emotional boost to his teammates on the field. He's irreplaceable really. Hopefully his teammates can combine to make up for his absence.
Bonagura: I hate to say it, but Jeff's right about McKennie! It's not close -- no one else on the roster has had more influence while they've been on the field than the Juventus midfielder during qualifying, and the drop-off from him to whoever slots in is more significant than when the U.S. plays Deandre Yedlin or Reggie Cannon in place of Dest.
O'Hanlon: Joining the chorus! McKennie all the way. During qualifying, he's second on the team in shots, expected goals, chances created, touches in the penalty area and passes into the penalty area. Oh yeah, and he's done all of that from midfield. There's no one else in the player pool even remotely like him.
Hajducky: Here's a fun note about Weston. Going back to Nov. 6, Juventus has lost one Serie A match he appeared in. One. The U.S. men are 5-1-1 with McKennie on-pitch in qualification. Dest has been great, too, and McKennie is this team's motor, but I'm going to suggest a more important absentee!
Losing Matt Turner is arguably the biggest tonal shift. Turner kept clean sheets against Canada and Mexico in the 2021 Gold Cup, racked up four more in eight World Cup qualifiers and kept Bosnia & Herzegovina off the scoreboard in a December friendly. Absent Turner, it's unclear who'll step in as of writing.
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When he's healthy, Zack Steffen can be, as Tim Howard said in 2020, the "crown jewel" of this side. He's a calm, steadying presence at the back, but he has been injury-hampered and a yellow card in this slate means a one-game suspension. Ethan Horvath kept Liverpool off the scoreboard for 77 minutes in FA Cup action Sunday, his only loss in 2022 thus far as Nottingham Forest's starter. Gregg Berhalter seems to hint recently that the edge is to Steffen. If the U.S. men emerge victorious at any point, whoever's in net will have been heroic.
Connelly: Stop it, Dan: it's easily McKennie. The U.S. is averaging 2.3 points per game with him (16 points and a plus-7 goal differential in seven matches) and 1.3 without him (five points and a plus-2 goal differential in four matches). He's been important in attack and absolutely vital in preventing teams from transitioning into attack. He has been the team's most important player, and he will be missed.
Who will score the goals?
Carlisle: This question should strike terror, but honestly, the U.S. has been pretty balanced in terms of where goals have come from in qualifying: Six from wingers, three from center-forwards, four from defenders and two out of central midfield (plus one own goal). Given the struggles of the No.9s in the talent pool and the loss of Brenden Aaronson to a knee injury, that means more onus on Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah. Perhaps Reyna will chip in, too, given his return to health.
Another thing to consider is how the U.S. team's prowess on set pieces perked up against Honduras. Getting more production from there could be huge.
Bonagura: With Pulisic in form headed into this window, the expectation has to be that he will carry the offense. With that established, it will probably be someone like Walker Zimmerman or Cannon who comes up with an important goal.
O'Hanlon: Gonna have to be Pulisic and Weah, huh? With McKennie and Aaronson out (the Salzburg kid is third on the team in xG during the Octagonal), they're the most reliable remaining performers in attack. Weah has been electric in qualifying, while Pulisic is a starting attacker for one of the four best soccer teams on Earth. Throw in a few set pieces. and it's not as bad as it seems!
Hajducky: Ah, that's the $2.5 million question, isn't it? McKennie, Dest and Aaronson have created almost 20% of USMNT chances in qualifying so far. An attack likely without all of them, and with so much uncertainty elsewhere, is terrifying. The hope is that Reyna, Pulisic, Weah and Ricardo Pepi -- the latter pair have seen inconsistent playing time recently with Lille and FC Augsburg, respectively -- seize the moment, and it's something to behold.
The metaphysical weight of Pepi scoring a decisive goal against Mexico, whom he snubbed when opting to play for the U.S., feels like a screenplay waiting to happen.
Connelly: You could make the case that Pepi is due, and it was good to see Jordan Pefok back on the roster -- he's been great for Young Boys this season. But ... the answer has to be Pulisic, right? Everything he's been through, with the doomed 2018 qualification and the injuries, has led to him coming through at exactly this moment, right? Maybe? Hopefully?
Pick your XI for the Azteca and explain
Carlisle: Horvath; Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, Antonee Robinson; Musah, Adams, Kellyn Acosta; Pulisic, Pefok, Weah
To rest or not to rest? That is the question. The selection of Horvath is down to the fact that he's been playing more than any other U.S. keeper, and also has good history against Mexico. Yedlin's experience gets him the nod at right-back, and the same is true for Acosta, who took part in the 1-1 draw at the Azteca during the last cycle, in midfield. This is going to be a grind-it-out affair, and Acosta is best suited for that.
It's been suggested that Adams be saved for Panama given that he's on a yellow card (and would face a one-game suspension if he picks up another), but then you run the risk of him playing in only one match in this window if he's saved and then booked against Panama. Aaronson's absence means Weah gets the nod at one of the wing positions. No central striker has really jumped out, but Pefok is in the best form of any of them, so he gets the nod up top.
Bonagura: Steffen; Yedlin, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams; Musah, Luca De la Torre; Morris, Pefok, Pulisic
The idea that the United States should rotate at the Azteca to give the team a better shot at three points in a more pivotal -- for qualification purposes -- game against Panama is completely logical. But with five subs available, this also doesn't mean it should be a full second-choice XI. I would plan to sub in Reyna (in central midfield), Weah, Pepi/Ferreira with the idea they will start in Orlando and earmark Acosta (for Adams) and another player (depending on the state of the game) for playing time.
Also, let Yedlin empty the tank and use Cannon against Panama.
O'Hanlon: Horvath; Yedlin, Zimmerman, M. Robinson, A. Robinson; Adams, Musah, Acosta; Pulisic, Ferreira, Weah
Jeff and I picked ours two weeks ago, but injuries to Dest and Aaronson necessitate a couple of tweaks. I'd swap Yedlin in for Dest, and I'd go with Jesus Ferreira as the third attacker. He has been lighting it up in MLS, and he was -- controversial opinion alert -- great in his start against El Salvador. His on-ball skills dovetail really nicely with Pulisic's world-class off-ball movement.
Hajducky: Steffen; Cannon, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams, Musah, Acosta; Pulisic, Pepi, Weah
Some combination of Pulisic, Weah and Pepi up top with Reyna coming on as a sub; in midfield, Adams and Yunus Musah most likely stabilized by Acosta, the second-most-capped player on this roster; in the back, Antonee and Miles Robinson, Zimmerman and Cannon, who has played the full 90 in each of Boavista's past six league matches. My gut's on Steffen in net, but I wouldn't be surprised if Horvath's form against Liverpool tilts the scales -- especially the gutty breakaway save to deny Roberto Firmino.
Connelly: Steffen; Yedlin, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams, Acosta, Cristian Roldan; Pulisic, Pepi, Morris
Berhalter tends to make pretty significant rotations from match to match, and honestly, the second match of the window against Panama is probably the most important. Assuming you're not playing Reyna for 270 minutes in three matches, lean on some grizzled veterans (and Pepi) here, then give players like Weah, Musah and Reyna longer runs in the second match.
Which player will Berhalter regret not calling in?
Carlisle: For all the talk about John Brooks, if Berhalter wasn't going to go in that direction, I'm a bit surprised that Tim Ream didn't get another look given how well he played in El Salvador as well as for Fulham. Out of the three center-backs backing up Zimmerman and Miles Robinson -- Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown and James Sands -- none of them have played in a World Cup qualifier, and the stakes now couldn't be higher. Ream has the requisite experience and leadership that could help this team navigate its way through these three games.
Bonagura: It's beginning to look like I'm on an island with this, but Matthew Hoppe was the only attacking player to make any sort of positive impression in the Gold Cup and would be a valuable asset in this window, especially now that Aaronson is out.
O'Hanlon: While the talent pool is deeper than ever, the USMNT still isn't close to being flush enough to ignore a center back who was starting for a Champions League team this season. Plus, none of the other center backs in the pool can pass like Brooks. Without McKennie, Aaronson and Dest, Berhalter is going to have to pull a couple new attacking levers, but he left this one in Wolfsburg.
Hajducky: Given the ballyhoo, it's easy to say Brooks, isn't it? If Thursday in Mexico City turns sour, dissent might reach a fever pitch. The U.S. are short on attacking options, and Josh Sargent has been influential for a woeful Norwich City. I'd rather have Sargent on the bench than at home.
Connelly: I realize Brooks' form isn't spectacular, but bringing in Long and Palmer-Brown instead of him seems weird, especially with the trip to Azteca. Having that security blanket would have been nice.
Three games for the USMNT. How many points do they get?
Carlisle: They'll get four with a tie in Mexico and a win over Panama. That still might not be enough to guarantee one of the three automatic spots, so they'll need some help from Canada to take points off of Costa Rica. Otherwise they'll be headed to Qatar for a playoff.
Bonagura: Based strictly on gut feeling: lose at Mexico, win against Panama, draw at Costa Rica, for four points. This is a team that has the capability to get results in both road games, but the historical track record is tough to ignore.
O'Hanlon: Betting markets give Mexico about a 45% chance of winning, with 28% on a draw and 27% on a USMNT win. Expected points from that, then, is a little over one. Let's say 2.5 for Panama -- it's home, and Panama will be pushing for a win, which theoretically helps the U.S. -- and 1.5 for Costa Rica. Add it all up, and we've got five expected points -- and a spot in Qatar.
Hajducky: Maybe I'm being overly optimistic, but I'm hoping for four points. Hell, I'm resorting to prayer for anything non-zero. Mexico is shaping up to be a heartbreaker, sure, but Panama on home soil (in a stadium they've never lost in) is an imperative three points. Still, Costa Rica might still be the most intriguing. The U.S. have only dropped one of the past six against Los Ticos back to mid-2017. They are, however, abysmal (and winless) in Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. They need to take maximum points against Panama in Orlando or March 30 is all-out mayhem, absent stars and nursing wounds.
Connelly: It feels like anything between one and nine is on the table, yeah? Mexico isn't exactly in great form, and the U.S. will be favored against Panama, but you'd love to have something a lot closer to your full-strength lineup available. Alas, injuries stink, and it feels like four points is somewhere between realistic and semi-optimistic. So four.