USMNT’s World Cup qualifying lessons McKennie is key, defense has depth, but will road form hurt them?

For the U.S. men’s national team, the just-concluded round of World Cup qualifiers finished much like the previous two. There were more positives than negatives even if there was a nagging sense that points were left on the table. In this instance, Friday’s 2-0 defeat of rivals Mexico provided its usual boost, but like most sugar highs, the buzz wore off. Tuesday’s 1-1 road draw with Jamaica was disappointing because the Americans were expected to perform better, and ultimately, the USMNT found itself fortunate to escape Kingston with a draw.

The most encouraging sign of progress arrived via Tim Weah. The Lille attacker was an absolute menace against El Tri, wearing a groove down the right wing with his persistent, positive runs and delivering a critical assist on Christian Pulisic’s goal that opened the scoring. He followed that up with the 11th-minute goal against Jamaica that gave the U.S. a brief lead.

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Weah’s performance built on his showing from the previous window, in which he forced the game-winning goal against Costa Rica, and such has been the winger’s play that the U.S. hasn’t really felt the absence of injured attacker Gio Reyna. On a team in which effective wing play is prized, Weah has cemented his spot in manager Gregg Berhalter’s rotation and looks a solid bet to head to Qatar, should the U.S. qualify.

The other source of comfort came from the team’s center-backs — in particular, Walker Zimmerman. This is a player who was left off the initial roster for the October window, was then called in due to John Brooks’ back injury and subsequently looked sharp in games against the Reggae Boyz and Panama. In this window, Zimmerman made the most of additional playing time and was a dominating presence in both matches, though he counted himself lucky to be bailed out by a foul call on Damion Lowe that wiped out what would have been a late, game-winning Jamaica goal.

Miles Robinson was solid against Mexico, his late red card notwithstanding, while Chris Richards has performed well in both of his World Cup qualifying starts. The center-back position has been touted as an area of strength and depth, and it became so clear in this window that Brooks, long thought to be a lock for the starting XI, arguably has some considerable work to do to win back his spot.

The progress showed by the likes of Weah and Zimmerman hints that there is indeed depth within the U.S. player pool, but like just about every team on the planet, the depth is uneven and there are certain individuals the U.S. simply can’t do without.

One of those is Weston McKennie. The Juventus midfielder rebounded from the two-game, internal suspension meted out by Berhalter, and he remains the emotional hub for this team — so much so that his absence was palpable against the Reggae Boyz. At present, there’s simply no other player who provides the same level of two-way play as McKennie, which is all the more reason he needs to compete with more discipline. It’s one thing to pick up a yellow card for a tactical foul; it’s another to be issued a caution for getting into a fracas with an opponent, which is what happened against Mexico.

Christian Pulisic’s value also remains immense, as his substitute performance against Mexico reaffirmed. The only concern is his durability. USMNT fans will be hoping that the two months between now and the next window will see the Chelsea winger build on his fitness and get a run of games with his club, which is no easy task given the talent around him.

The striker position has some questions around it as well. Ricardo Pepi spent the last two matches basically taking his share of lumps for the team and he held up relatively well, assisting Weah’s goal on Tuesday. But it seems as though the U.S. could benefit from having a different (read: more physical) kind of forward at its disposal. Berhalter loves his strikers to be mobile, which is better to help press from the front. It’s also why, at present, a player like Jesus Ferreira is in the mix while Daryl Dike isn’t. But there may be a time when the USMNT will need a scrappier kind of goal, and Dike seems much more likely to conjure up that kind of play than Ferreira or even Josh Sargent.

Through all of this, eight games into the World Cup qualifying campaign with six to come in early 2022, the U.S. finds itself about where it hoped to be, in second place. Achieving this while missing some key players like Reyna, Pulisic and McKennie for extended stretches leads to more of a glass-half-full perspective. Compare and contrast that with four years ago, when the USMNT was perpetually vulnerable and ultimately slid out of the top four.

However, there’s also a nagging sense of deja vu because the Americans seem unable to string together impressive performances. When the U.S. last qualified in the 2014 cycle, the team put its stamp on that qualifying campaign with a three-game winning streak; a similar run of form didn’t materialize four years later. It’s easy to pin this lack of consistency on the team’s youth, but the choice of young players isn’t something that’s been forced on Berhalter — it’s an approach he willfully chose long ago.

The reality is that the Octagonal is turning into a four-horse race with the U.S. challenged by Mexico, Canada and Panama. Just two points separate those sides, while Costa Rica still has a heartbeat following its dramatic home win over Honduras. One place the U.S. does not want to be in is fourth in the standings, which would force an inter-continental playoff. Circumstances can change quickly, too — look at how Mexico went from first to third in this window — and the U.S. doesn’t want to head into the last qualifying window in March needing a result at either Mexico or Costa Rica.

The 2021 calendar year has been one of achievement for this U.S. side. It claimed two trophies and fashioned a rare three-game winning streak against Mexico. Along the way, this group of players is maturing, too, but for all of this team’s growth, the USMNT needs to find more of a killer instinct on the road in World Cup qualifying that will create some separation between itself and the other contenders. Doing so will take the U.S. to its ultimate goal.

Jeff Carlisle’s latest projected World Cup roster (assuming all goes well)

Goalkeepers (3): Zack Steffen (Manchester City), Matt Turner (New England Revolution), Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest)

Defenders (8): Sergino Dest (FC Barcelona), DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), John Brooks (Vfl Wolfsburg), Chris Richards (TSG Hoffenheim), Antonee Robinson (Fulham), Joe Scally (Borussia Moenchengladbach)

Midfielders (6): Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Kellyn Acosta (Colorado Rapids), Gianluca Busio, (Venezia), Sebastian Lletget (LA Galaxy)

Forwards (6): Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Tim Weah (OSC Lille), Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)

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