Road to Qatar: What will it take for USA to qualify? (Revisited)

On the eve of the Octagonal, Soccer America examined what it will take for the USA to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.

Here were five things we wrote that the USA must do -- and here is how it has done.

1. Bank early points on the road

For all the talk about the hazards about playing on the road in Concacaf, the USA historically did well on the road in the Hexagonal and before that the Pentagonal, at least through 2013.

Its record through games on the road, all in Central America, is on a par with its past record: a .500 record with one win, one loss and one tie.

The USA might rue its failure to get a point in Panama, where it had never lost. The difference between the 1-0 loss and a tie is the difference between a three-point lead and a six-point lead over the fourth-place Canaleros, who lost their other two games in the October window.

In the November window, all the attention will be on the USA-Mexico game in Cincinnati, but the second match -- at Jamaica -- is just as important. Panama is the team the USA must worry about, and it has already won at Jamaica (3-0) and tied Mexico (1-1).

The USA will want to finish the November window with four points -- there are only two games -- in order to match Panama's results in the same two games and be assured of finishing the year in the Octagonal's top three, no matter what Panama does in November against Honduras (away) and El Salvador (home).

The USA's final three away games will be its toughest -- against the other two teams in the top three -- Canada and Mexico -- and against Costa Rica, where it has nine-game losing streak in World Cup qualifiers.

2. Win the close games

Before the Octagonal started, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said very little will separate the eight teams.

At least in the first two matchdays of the two windows, he was certainly right: 13 of the 16 games were ties or one-goal games and they produced just 23 goals (average of just 1.4 goals a game).

The one result the USA will regret so far in the Octagonal is the 1-1 tie with Canada. It led on Brenden Aaronson's goal in the 55th minute but Canada equalized seven minutes later.

The Canada game marked the first time in more than four years that the USA led in a competitive match and couldn't hold on for the three points. (The last time? The 1-1 tie with Mexico at Azteca Stadium in 2017.)



3. Go deep into bench

In the knockout stages of the Nations League and Gold Cup, all the U.S. wins came very late in regulation or in overtime with subs making huge contributions.

The only time that has happened in the Octagonal was in the third game of the September window when Antonee Robinson, Sebastian Lletget and Aaronson came on to start the second half and each of them scored in the 4-1 win over Honduras. In the three games the USA has not won, the subs have had no impact.

More important, a team's depth has been measured in terms of how well it has helped it get through three games in seven days.

After the USA's one loss -- 1-0 at Panama -- Berhalter came in for heavy criticism for rotating seven starters. The starters he put out on the field -- and the five subs -- created nothing. Berhalter argued he did not feel the team would have enough to beat Costa Rica if he did not rotate, pointing to fatigue (Ricardo Pepi) and lack of load (Tyler Adams) in two specific cases as reasons not start key players every game.

In September, Matt Turner, Miles Robinson and Adams played every minute of every game. In October, only Yunus Musah started all three games and he was substituted in each game. (To the difficulty of starting all three games, Paul Arriola was supposed to start his third straight game against Costa Rica but was injured in warm-ups and replaced by Tim Weah in the starting lineup.)

Berhalter did not say so, but he may have been influenced by the experience of the third game of the first window when injuries to Gio Reyna and Sergino Dest and Weston McKennie's suspension depleted the U.S. squad so much that he had to throw out a patchwork lineup to start the game at Honduras. After tying El Salvador and Canada, the USA was so poor with that lineup that it trailed the Catrachos, 1-0, at the half and was in danger of finishing the opening window in disastrous fashion.  (Berhalter later suggested his starting team did its job in San Pedro Sula, weathering the Catrachos' storm and wearing them down so he could get to his bench.)

In the big picture, though, it's hard to argue that depth hasn't saved the USA so far. If you had told Berhalter before the start of Octagonal that Dest and McKennie would each miss three games and Christian Pulisic, John Brooks and Reyna would each play less than two full games in the first two windows and the USA would get 11 of 18 points, he'd have probably taken it.

4. Get verticality

The USA's attack sputtered this summer. Six of the eight wins in the Nations League and Gold Cup were 1-0. And the problems continued into the Octagonal against El Salvador and Canada. Honduras bailed the USA out in the third game when it self-destructed in the second half.

Verticality became the buzzword of the second window as Berhalter worked on getting his outside backs into the attack and the wingers behind the defense. The goals would have to come from somewhere as the USA has created little off set pieces in the Octagonal.

How did the USA do? Good enough in the two home games against Jamaica and Costa Rica that it scored two goals in both games though you could argue there were extenuating circumstances. The Reggae Boyz's shape disappeared after they conceded their opening goal. Costa Rica fielded a team that was so old that its youngest starter was older than the oldest U.S. starter.

Dest delivered two excellent games in October, being involved in three of the four goals, after two poor games in September. Antonee Robinson got into the attack in his three starts and at Honduras. Aaronson scored twice in September and set up Pepi's second goal against Jamaica, while Weah provided a new feature to the U.S. attack with his ability to get behind opposing defenses, ending with the play that produced the winner Wednesday night against Costa Rica.



5. Don't get Concacafed

During the Nations League and Gold Cup, the USA's young players didn't get rattled by the intensity of the matches or the gamesmanship that took place. The result? They won both tournaments, beating Mexico twice in intense finals.

The Octagonal is different for two reasons: Every game isn't a U.S. home game, and there is no VAR.

There were no critical incidents that affected the outcome of the game at El Salvador, but the moment -- the first game of the Octagonal, a packed house at the Estadio Cuscatlan -- certainly got to the USA, fielding 12 players in their World Cup qualifying debuts, and they produced a muted performance in a 0-0 tie.

VAR might have changed the decisions on several incidents. Two Jamaican players might have been red carded in the first half of the USA's 2-0 win in Austin for denying obvious goalscoring opportunities. In Wednesday night's game, VAR might have called a penalty on Chris Richards for his tackle on Costa Rican forward Jonathan Moya.

But so far, the young U.S. players --25 players made their World Cup qualifying debuts in the six games -- have not been overly fazed by the pressure of qualifying. Five players -- DeAndre Yedlin, Jordan Pefok, Brooks, McKennie and Adams -- received yellow cards in the first two games -- the one dumb play was by Adams for pushing Canadian Mark-Anthony Kaye off the ball on a promising U.S. counterattack -- but the USA received no cards in its next four games.

That leaves everyone available for Mexico on Nov. 12. The trick will be to get everyone carrying cards through the game in Cincinnati without picking up second cards so they will be all available for the Jamaica game four days later.

Photo by Jason Mowry/Icon Sportswire

11 comments about "Road to Qatar: What will it take for USA to qualify? (Revisited)".
  1. Kent James, October 15, 2021 at 10:43 a.m.

    Not to nitpick (okay, a little), but the Chris Richards tackle was clean and the ref was right to not call it.  He got there first, shielded the ball with his leg (even while he was not touching it, he was protecting it), and then swept it away.  If Moya trips over Richards' leg (which, by the way, was facing the ball not Moya), that's on him.  It was a well-executed tackle in a very dangerous situation.  

  2. Alfred Randall replied, October 15, 2021 at 10:27 p.m.

    I agree completely! I couldn't believe master referee Twellman imediately called it a penalty.

  3. Kevin Leahy, October 15, 2021 at 11:37 a.m.

    Will be surprised if we play Mexico without anyone getting a card. Think the Mexico match will bring out the best this team has to offer. At least I hope so because, it doesn't get any bigger.

  4. Soccer Joe replied, October 15, 2021 at 1:26 p.m.

    So the real question is will Greg Berhalter rise to the occasion with lineup, tactics, and substitutions, or will he prove himself unable to compete at a higher level.

  5. frank schoon replied, October 15, 2021 at 2:41 p.m.

    Soccer Joe, you assume that's it is only the coaching that keeps us from becoming a good team or great team. You might want to look at what he has to work with as well 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, October 17, 2021 at 12:12 a.m.

    The problem is that against Mexico we won't have Mexican or US officials. The Mexican crew especially impressed me with their ability to ignore the simulations, exagerations and dives. No doubt due to their experience, while we also saw the problem that relatively inexperienced officials have at this level.

    I admire Mexico (just not when play them). :)

  7. John Sabala replied, October 17, 2021 at 2:54 p.m.

      Joe, I concur with you as the coaching line-ups, tactics and adjsutments during the game will be pivotal for the outcome.  If the players get a crap tactical plan, it will be quite difficult to win and GB has shown his ineptitude on far too many occasions.  It is possible to get a result with the exceptional talent on the field.  You see top flight clubs come out with a poor plan in a match and get beat rather easily.  I did more research into available coaches at the time GB was hired......there is no way to not believe GB Berhalter's brother (Jay) influenced this hiring decision.  There were far more qualified coaches with real internataional and world cup experience out there.  

    Frank we see that GB will keep us from becoming a great team.  The writing is on the wall because he does not possess the necessary skills or experience to raise a team to the next level.  He is an MLS product plain and simple......I don't see GB getting buy in from the European players who train with superior coaches on a daily basis.  The US would have better off going with Tab Ramos since he knows the player pools better than just about anyone having coached so many US Youth teams and has done well at the Youth World Cups.  He does not need MLS club experience to run the senior team.

  8. Alex Michalakos, October 15, 2021 at 2:30 p.m.

    Most of the time the players seem to care much more about keeping possession than about trying to score--and they don't have an plan of how to do it. Short on complex ideas? You can't go wrong with the old English  model of getting to the endline and hitting a low (or high) cross--you'll get a corner, an own goal, or a chance on goal. If you can't play with a #10 in the modern game (supposedly) and you prefer McKennie bouncing around, you have to to be focused on getting some crosses in. We do have speed (sorry, 'pace').

    But thank goodness we've gotten somehat free of the recent worldwide plague of having your goalkeeper repeatedly ping the ball around to his defenders within 20 yards of his goal while four opponents press 3 defenders. We all can see that eventually a mistake will be made and lead to a goal--and to gain what?  10 yards?  So again, other than passing the ball around like a keep-away drill, what's the plan to score goals?

  9. R2 Dad replied, October 15, 2021 at 4:33 p.m.

    While I'm not a big GB fan, his expectation of playing out of the back, maintaining possession and advancing the ball on the ground past the middle 3rd is just modern soccer. Dest/Robinson proved that having competent outside backs is necessary to implement this strategy. We saw what happened in Panama (Bello/Moore). But also key are those personnel in the center who can do more than backpass. LLetget and Acosta could do little to advance the ball vs Adams and McKennie on Wednesday. To be fair, GB set up those Nats players to fail by swapping out more than half the team. To give those that played against Panama a better chance of sucess, GB should have let them play kickball as you seemingly prefer. At least it wouldn't have looked so bad to the eye and made our back line look not-so-lame. Even if the score was the same.

  10. Bob Ashpole replied, October 17, 2021 at 12:25 a.m.

    The problem lies with conventional USSF "wisdom" as to how to play "out of the back." Conventional wisdom calls for the team to be in a 70-yard large circle with 2-3 CMs in the middle. It guarentees that whoever has the ball with be isolated and makes it very easy for opponents to maintain numbers up wherever the ball is on the field. The CB passing the ball to a FB standing on the touch line is a classic attacking mistake. That is why the FBs end up passing back to the CB so often.

    I suspect that if coaches played a match on a 100 x 140 yard field that they would better understand the principles of good attacking soccer.

  11. Santiago 1314 replied, October 18, 2021 at 6:44 a.m.

    Yes Alex Game Plan is Simple...Ggg just needs to Pick the Players that are Fitting the CONcacaCrApF  Qualification Demands... #1; PRESS ALL OVER THE FIELD.!!! (Creating Early Turn-Overs, Which Negate having to "Build Out of the Back".... #2; RUN WITH THE BALL(Forcing Fouls and Defensive Domino Principle) 3#; SOME NICE LITTLE TIKI-TAKA COMBOS ON WINGS, followed by Slashing Crosses along the 6 yard line..... It's NOT Brain Surgery.!!!... K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)
    ...Don't Believe for a Moment that Ggg won't "Impose" playing Out of The Back, Even when it will be to the Detriment of Qualifying.(Hopefully, it won't cause USA "DIS-Qualification" like it Did with the USA Olympic Team "Mexican" Goalkeeper)

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