Commentary

USA has the finish line in sight after a long road back

It has been a long road back for the USA after the debacle of 2017, but it will have to be patient for three more days before it's certain that it will be headed to Qatar in November.

“We know we’re not there yet," said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter after Sunday's 5-1 win over Panama in Orlando, "despite what that banner said."

The USA's fingertips can just about touch the edge of the Doha Corniche, but it has not yet qualified for the World Cup -- despite the banner "Qualified" the players briefly unfurled in their postgame salute to the Orlando fans.

The USA will have to lose by six or more goals to Costa Rica in San Jose on Wednesday to not to qualify as one of Concacaf's top three teams. Impossible? The USA has lost its last nine World Cup qualifiers in Costa Rica, mostly recently a 4-0 decision in 2016 that cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job. But the USA would have to pull off the greatest choke job in the history of soccer to not claim a top three spot on Wednesday.

The game will be played under different circumstances and with a different team.

The USA will head to San Jose after having played his best back-to-back games of the Octagonal. It could have scored 10 goals on Sunday night and it would not be in the position to qualify directly on Wednesday like it can now if it had not picked up one point in Mexico City.

Conventional wisdom was that the Berhalter should rest his stars against Mexico and save them for the Panama match, the game the USA had to win if it hoped to qualify for the World Cup. But Berhalter signaled his intentions in announcing his squad: "For us, it's not trying to get cute. It's trying to put teams on the field in each game we think can win the game."

Berhalter challenged his players to win in Azteca, which the USA has never done in qualifying. It didn't beat Mexico, but it certainly deserved a point with its best performance ever at Azteca, at least for the first 75 minutes or so.

There were only four changes from the team that started at altitude in Mexico City, but each of the new players had big roles in putting the game away in the first half, giving a lift to the other players struggling with heavy legs.

Paul Arriola and Jesus Ferreira scored the second and third goals, Luca de la Torre created fits for the Canaleros, buzzing around the edge of their penalty area, and last-minute replacement Shaq Moore, who had a game at beginning of the week in the Spanish second division and wasn't in the picture until Reggie Cannon's Covid-19 positive test, created havoc up and down the right side.

Ferreira was the fifth center forward to get a start in qualifying and the first to score since Ricardo Pepi had two goals against Jamaica in the fourth game against Jamaica, while Moore was -- at least before Sunday night -- No. 4 on the USA's depth chart at right back. De la Torre didn't get his first start of qualifying until the third game of the winter window in freezing St. Paul. And Arriola? He got his first start after seven straight games on the bench.

"We have a game plan," said Berhalter, "and we try to use the players that can most effectively execute the game plan."

Ferreira and Arriola provided that on Sunday night. Ferreira scored one goal and should have put away a second in the second half while Arriola added a goal and an assist.

"In both of their cases," said Berhalter, "it's arriving to get into the penalty box if you want to score. Jesus is a good combination player, a very clever player. He understands where space is really well. And Paul, the same thing. We've challenged him about arriving in the box, getting in good positions and he did that, getting great service on his goal."

Of the 16 players who stepped on the field in Orlando against Panama, half weren't even with the USA in the first window. And that doesn't include Zack Steffen, who couldn't play because of back problems and then Covid-19, or Walker Zimmerman, who was with the team but the only field player who didn't play in the opening window.

"We have complete faith in anyone who's called in," said Berhalter. "We don't call players in unless we trust them and we think they can perform at a good level."

If there has been one constant throughout qualifying, it's that the USA's depth has been the difference, particularly in the third games of the three three-game windows to date, where it has taken nine of nine points.

That depth should be the insurance card to get the USA over the finish line in the third game of the final window.

Photo: Brad Smith/ISI Photos

18 comments about "USA has the finish line in sight after a long road back".
  1. Wooden Ships, March 28, 2022 at 12:53 p.m.

    Good level and trust? That's not what non called in players want to hear. For me, that's an inexperienced comment. You can't trust Josh Sargent, Scally? Greg you'd be better off having a PR handler. 

  2. Kent James replied, March 28, 2022 at 1:11 p.m.

    Trusting everyone you call in doesn't mean you don't trust players you don't call in.  I think he also means (and has shown) that everyone he calls in will play a role; he doesn't call in players he doesn't expect to use.  I am hopeful Sargent will get another chance (and though I've not seen Scally, everyone is so high on him I'd like to see what that's all about as well).  I think that is positive thinking from a coach who believes in his players (this is where I think JK's approach was completely different; no one was ever good enough for JK, and while sometimes that can challenge players to get better, I think in the long run, that attitude is what hurt him more than anything).  

  3. Wooden Ships replied, March 28, 2022 at 2:41 p.m.

    I hear ya Kent but I believe he misspoke then, at least how you interpreted it. He said "We don't call in players unless we trust them and can perform at a good level." I'll stand by HIS statement. Yes, in hindsight, JK didn't get the response he hoped for. Not sure he was that great of a day in day out manager, with tactical awareness. But, probably dealing with U.S. players involves more cajoling and hand on shoulder whispers. Hope Greg's approach bears fruit in November. 

  4. Donald Lee replied, March 28, 2022 at 4:23 p.m.

    Wooden Ships -- GGG's statement is clear and unambigous. It says nothing about players not called in.  Your are creating something out of nothing.

  5. Wooden Ships replied, March 28, 2022 at 4:38 p.m.

    Maybe so Kent and Donald, I'll accept your view. But, you wouldn't call anyone in that didn't meet the trust and good performance contribution, which goes without saying. I'm mostly butt hurt that he seems to have moved on from JS. I'll get over it at some point and am not one to wish him failure. And, while not coaching in MLS, I've coached and ran a university team and semi pro club and personality-personnel management is mostly an innate skill set. I'm looking forward to another spirited performance in San Jose, just wish I was back down there for the match. 

  6. Bob Ashpole replied, March 29, 2022 at 1:43 a.m.

    Kent and Donald, you are ignoring the obvious. Saying that you have complete faith in everyone, is different than saying that you have complete faith in everyone called in. It implies a lack of trust in players not called. The implication is called a negative pregnant. I find it difficult to believe you are not familiar with this type of implication. 

    A more artful statement would be "We have complete faith in our player pool and trust them to get the job done when its their turn." Gregg isn't unusual. Most coaches are not artful speakers. 

  7. frank schoon replied, March 30, 2022 at 9:18 a.m.

    If those who think there is nothing wrong in how GB expressed himself, then don't bother applying  with the State dept. to work abroad..... The very fact posters are expressing a difference of opinion of what GB states oraactually means is prove what Ships states that GB needs to hire a PR dept.

  8. Tim Schum, March 28, 2022 at 2:50 p.m.

    I am assuming that all comments, positive and negative, regarding GB's handling of the USMNT are published, but it seems that the negativity dominates.

    Just a note that one of the tougher aspecting of coaching is instilling confidence in players. Not that that is hard to do with the relative handful of players who are obvious choices to play. But beyond those individuals there is a lot of players who may have obvious strengths -- and weaknesses. How to merge their skill sets with the "spear carriers" is an art unto itself.

    I think the genius of GB in the runup to Qatar has been that he has been able to instill in whatever roster he had for evey match a sense that "if I choose you, you are have value and a role to play if and when called on." Obvously he has an ability to communicate to the players the defined roles they will play in a match for their seemed little confusion (mistakes yes; confusion no) beginning last summer through Sunday.

    It is no easy task to manage at soccer's highest level, but it seems GB has stuck to the basics when handling our USMNT. Namely for evey match he has placed a host of different players on the field where they can best contribute individually to the collective good. Seems that is all one can ask of a coach.

    So I think that it is time of stop nit picking and congratulate GB on a job well-done - thus far.

    Ahead lies the WC where he will have to select the roster to meet that challenge. No easy task and one that he has created. Namely which of the many players that have emerged under his watch are up to the challenge? It's both a daunting - and exciting - prospect.


  9. Grant Heslin replied, March 28, 2022 at 7:24 p.m.

    Well said Donald and Tim. I read the articles and comments and Im surprised by the negativity towards the Coach. The results speak for themselves. Yes, we're sitting second in the Hex with a game to go. And maybe we could have expected to be first with the depth and talent in this group. But who else in CONCACAF can claim as much success since he took over - Nations League and Gold Cup titles...and thru Mexico to boot!  Well done GB!

  10. Santiago 1314 replied, March 28, 2022 at 9:19 p.m.

    No Nit Picking today.!!!.  Still drinking Margaritas and Celebrating Qualification.... BUT in the Immortal words of Monty Python; "WAIT FOR IT, WAIT FOR IT"... Tomorrow is Open Season.!!!

  11. Donald Lee, March 28, 2022 at 4:30 p.m.

    Berhalter would not have been my choice for USMNT coach because of his age and experience level. I have a bias for older more experienced coaches towards the end of their careers not beginning. Vermees, Kinnear, Sigi, Pereja.  But once named I support and cheer for him -- and I'm committed to supporting, not being a critic, and fairly evaluating.  The ONLY fair evalution of GGG's results are that they have been very very good -- especially with how young he has taken the player pool.  (Half and eye on 2026 perhaps?) 

  12. Ben Myers replied, March 28, 2022 at 8:08 p.m.

    Age is less important than experience. The young players on display last night are playing in the top level European leagues against some of the best players in the world.  Well, Antonee Robinson is in the English Championship after a year in the EPL, but headed back again.  Shaq Moore is playing in the second division in Spain.  Whether top league or second division, the pace of play in every one is much faster than either MLS or Liga MX, the players more fit. Having seen first hand an English Championship match several years ago, a Milan derby recently and a match in the Israeli first division long ago, I have to say that the two top North American leagues still need to improve and improve a lot.  But it is encouraging to see so many US players (and Canadian ones, too) now playing in Europe, so the very top level of MLS player is competitive.

  13. Ben Myers, March 28, 2022 at 7:56 p.m.

    If I read the standings right, the only way the USMNT can finish 4th is if Costa Rica wins by an 11 goal margin.  The odds of that happening are about as remote as they can get, but out of respect for Costa Rica, let's not celebrate yet.  Doing so would only piss off the Coata Ricans and get them hacking away at our best. And maybe this is the time to field starters, none of whom are named Christian or Gio, and give them cameo appearances, maybe?

  14. Santiago 1314 replied, March 28, 2022 at 9:43 p.m.

    Ben, because we are Playing Head-to-Head... Every Goal they Score on us Counts "Double"....
    For example; Current Goal Differential is;
    USA +13
    CR +3
    @ 1-0 for CR
    It's USA 12+; CR+4
    @ 2-0 for CR
    It's USA 11+; CR 5+
    @ 3-0 for CR
    It's USA 10+; CR 6+
    @ 4-0 for CR 
    It's USA 9+; CR 7+
    @ 5-0 for CR
    It's USA 8+; CR 8+(USA holds Next Tie-Breaker: Most Goals Scored: 21-to-11, going into the Game)
    @ 6-0 for CR(8-2, would be the same as 6-0)
    It's USA 7+; CR 9+(and we End Up playing New Zealand)

    It's "New Math".!!!! I barely understand it myself.!!!

  15. Ben Myers, March 28, 2022 at 7:58 p.m.

    Where does this SIX goals come from?  The current goal differential between the US and Costa Rica is TEN!

  16. Santiago 1314 replied, March 28, 2022 at 9:47 p.m.

    See above.../\ ^^^ ∆

  17. Bob Ashpole, March 29, 2022 at 1:53 a.m.

    It seemed impossible for us to not qualify in the last cycle. All 3 matches must have ended in upset victories on the last day for the US not to qualify. Guess what? Stuff happens. That is why they actually play the games instead of working out the likely outcome statistically. This isn't Football Manager.

    All this counting of chickens before they hatch disturbs me.

  18. Santiago 1314 replied, March 29, 2022 at 7:13 p.m.

    It's a NO Lose Situation;
    If we WIN or Tie... We IN 
    If We Lose by 6; Ggg Gets FIRED and We go to Beat New Zealand.

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