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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

USMNT’s slow start in World Cup qualifying? It’s down to youth and inexperience

The player whose toes were responsible for the only World Cup qualifying goal to date by the United States men’s national team cannot legally buy himself a beer in his home state of New Jersey. He could not have done this in Tennessee, the state where he scored the goal, were he inclined to celebrate, which he probably was not.

The USMNT is attempting to qualify with a group of players who barely were teens when FIFA made the indefensible — but no longer inexplicable — decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar back in 2010.

The 1-1 draw against Canada on a Nashville Sunday night stood as both a disappointing result and performance on the part of the players involved and the coaches directing team. But to view it as some sort of surprise is shockingly naive.

MORE: CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying schedule & standings

By choice and circumstance, the U.S. coaching staff moved forward into this cycle with essentially no experienced veterans who had endured qualifying in CONCACAF, who had dealt with its challenges and could be counted upon to hold up under the extraordinary pressure. The closest thing the U.S. has to such a player is Christian Pulisic, who is 22 years old. This process is developing, though, with the most talented group of players in the history of the men’s program —  players who are regulars at some of the top clubs in the world.

Such youth can be counted on to produce both wonders and blunders, but because few assessments of international soccer ever can be subtle or nuanced, the USMNT’s failure to win either of its first two games was bound to be viewed as a calamity.

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Wonder: Aaronson, who’ll turn 21 next month, was called upon to play an essential role against Canada because of an injury to starter Gio Reyna, and his task was complicated by the Canadians’ decision to employ a 4-5-1 formation that jammed its defensive end with nearly all available bodies. The U.S. struggled to create meaningful chances against this “park-the-bus” approach.

Aaronson finally took care of that in the 55th minute by muscling a defender near the halfway line to get into space and create forward momentum. Kellyn Acosta eventually played the ball left to Antonee Robinson, whose low pass across the front of goal was directed into the net by Aaronson to complete the play he began. It was a delirious moment for the U.S. It should have meant more.

Blunder: Aaronson spoke after the game to Fox Sports and said of Canada’s approach, “They came here, they wanted to sit back, they didn’t want to play, and that was easy to see from the eye. It’s always hard playing against that.” Everything Aaronson said was true; the U.S. had 72 percent of possession for the game. None of it needed to be said, though, and one can be sure that quote will be recalled inside the Canada locker room from now until Jan. 30, when the teams meet again.

Wonder: Goalkeeper Matt Turner earned a second straight start after a back injury kept Zack Steffen out of the draw at El Salvador and then a positive COVID test ruled Steffen out for the rest of this international window. Turner now has taken command of the position, following his triumph at this summer’s Gold Cup and then a shutout in El Salvador in the qualifying opener. He was not at fault on the Canada goal, and his deft stop of a dangerous Canada move in the 13th minute by Alphonso Davies, which led to a sharp shot from Cyle Larin, was still another impressive moment for the player who now should be the U.S. No. 1.

Blunder: Midfielder Weston McKennie, who might have been able to generate some excitement against Canada’s negative approach, got himself suspended for a violation of team policy and was unavailable. Do you ever remember a men’s player being disciplined in such a manner by U.S. Soccer? It’s possible there’s been nothing of this sort since John Harkes was dropped in advance of the 1998 World Cup.

According to McKennie, it took a global pandemic to produce the circumstance in which his behavior would rise to the level of a team violation, but it’s not like COVID protocols represent some obscure technicality. This has been the guiding force on the planet for 18 months.

Wonder: U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter sent Sebastian Lletget into the void created by McKennie’s suspension. It seemed like this could be a reach, but Lletget delivered one of his best and most confident performances in a USMNT jersey. His clever control and forward ball to Aaronson in the 40th minute nearly created an opening goal, but Pulisic’s shot slammed off the right post.

Blunder: The coach is young, too. This is Berhalter’s first trip through qualifying from this perspective. He’ll need to be a faster learner. He had to remove right back Sergino Dest because of injury in the 44th minute, but waited until the 83rd to make a series of strategic subs. With the U.S. players tiring and Canada sending on talented attackers Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan in the 65th minute, it was the Canadians who generated the best chances after Larin’s goal had tied it in the 62nd minute.

Berhalter afterward (video below) offered no lucid explanation for his decision to keep Josh Sargent, Cristian Roldan and Konrad de la Fuente on the bench for so long. Remember, this qualification tournament allows coaches to make five substitutions rather than the long-customary three. Berhalter seemed to freeze on this decision. It might not have been costly; there’s no way to know if the subs would have generated a winner had they played longer. But it didn’t help.

Because Canada wound up with a positive result, there were some who declared Berhalter had been outcoached by John Herdman. Honestly, it’s easier to look smart when one’s approach is playing not to lose, and easier still given how often Canada’s persistent flopping — the Canadians dived after minimal or non-existent contact so often and effectively that it looked like they’d taken lessons from Olympic medalist Alexandre Despatie — enforced a change of possession.

Although the chances were not abundant against this defense, the U.S. generated five corner kicks and several dangerous free kicks but did little with them. The wonders and blunders were spread among all who participated for the USMNT.

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