SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras – Even for the most assertive players and talented teams, a maiden voyage into the heightened drama of the World Cup qualifying tournament in North and Central America can feel like a splash of water cold in the face.
Here, the world rankings tend to lose their meaning. Club pedigrees and player salaries can quickly be forgotten. It is a rude awakening, a rite of passage. And the United States men’s soccer team is still experiencing it.
Starting last week, the Americans embarked on a three-day, seven-day qualifying streak that they hoped would establish a basic state of confidence for the long road to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The past week has left them rather flustered and unsure.
After draws in their first two games – on the road against El Salvador and at home against Canada – the Americans’ game on Wednesday night against Honduras at the Spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano represented a last chance to save the week. A victory would provide a core of positivity to cultivate in the weeks to come. A draw would prolong the slow boil of anxiety. A loss would send the team home at the start of a free fall.
Whatever the outcome, the most valuable thing players and their coaches could take home, however, could be the lessons learned: about the dangers of relying too much on past results; on the precariousness of the challenge that remains to come; and the fragility of a team’s best-developed plans and ambitions.
The biggest fear is that they are tiptoeing down the same path an earlier version of the team took three years ago, when they ran out of a point to qualify for the Cup. World 2018 in Russia, ending a streak of seven consecutive appearances at the world’s highest level. -watched sporting event. On one level, that seems irrational: Even with the disappointing results of the first two games, the United States is largely favored to qualify. But bad memories remain raw in the minds of many people.
“I can see it’s, you know, just memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back,” coach Gregg Berhalter, who was hired after the 2018 World Cup, said Tuesday night. , about these concerns. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can understand it completely. What I would say is it’s a different group, and we focus on winning games, and we focus on getting points.
Such a speech has not been convincing so far.
Few would go so far as to call Americans pride: The notion of this regional qualifying tournament as a gnarly obstacle course, with challenging factors unique to world football, has long been ingrained in the psyche of the world. ‘team and their fans, and the players last week spoke about the process with all due respect. They also know it will continue with three more qualifications in October, and two more per month after that.
But the high standards placed on the team, the high expectations and calls for perfection, are in many ways the work of the teams.
Berhalter said earlier this week that all 14 matches in the tournament should be considered by his players as “14 finals” – in effect qualifying the entire list of matches as content up for grabs.
Ahead of last week’s opener, midfielder Tyler Adams laid out the team’s ambitious to-do list: “We’re looking for a nine-point week, down the line,” said Adams, 22. years.
And Weston McKennie said last week that the United States must assert its position as the best team in Confederation. “The only way to do that is to dominate him,” he said two days before taking the pitch for the first World Cup qualifying game of his career. “And to dominate, you have to win your matches. “
These things, for various reasons, did not come to pass.
Being the best team and winning matches doesn’t just depend on having the best players. But it helps, and in that regard McKennie hasn’t helped the group’s cause. On Sunday afternoon, he was suspended for breaking team rules and had to miss the last two team games of the week. McKennie said on Instagram ahead of the game against Canada that he broke Covid protocols.
Berhalter said the disciplinary measure was for the long-term health of the team. In the short term, it hurts. The suspension deprived the team of one of their best players, and McKennie’s teammates spent the next few days awkwardly answering questions about his driving. Qualifying for the World Cup runs until March and Berhalter has suggested that McKennie, who plays for Italian powerhouse Juventus, will be back in the picture soon enough.
“It’s an open door policy,” he said. “There will very rarely be a situation where a player will never be allowed to return to the national team camp. This is not how we operate.
Yet McKennie’s failure was only the most publicized of staff headaches that have befallen the team since even before they met at the end of last month.
One of the team’s best forwards, Timothy Weah has never joined the squad after injuring his leg during training with his club team in France.
Christian Pulisic, captain and the team’s best player, missed the first game as he tried to get back in shape after testing positive for coronavirus.
Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was ruled out for the first game and then the rest, first with back spasms and then with a positive coronavirus test.
Gio Reyna injured his right hamstring in the opener against El Salvador and was sent back to his German club without taking back the pitch.
Defender Sergiño Dest sprained his right ankle in Sunday’s game and is also gone.
These issues made the situation particularly complicated during a restricted window of matches in which Berhalter made no secret of his intention to rotate his roster. But they were also just a taste of how things can escalate in the unforgiving World Cup qualifying landscape.
“It happens,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 20, said of his team’s latent turmoil. “You have to overcome things. I feel like as a team we just need to get over it. “
The next games will arrive quickly: Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica next month, then Mexico and a trip to Jamaica about four weeks later.
Before that, the team has a bit of growth to do. Only six of the 26 players initially called up to the squad had World Cup qualifying experience. Thirteen of them were 23 or younger at the start of training camp. Nine of the starters against El Salvador were in their first World Cup qualifying game. (The fact that 10 squad members are playing for European Champions League clubs this year reiterates the level of talent not achieved so far.)
One problem to solve when they entered the field on Wednesday night was to find goals: Before the game against Honduras, the United States had not scored more than one goal in any of their previous six games.
“At the end of the day,” said Pulisic, “we know how to play, and it’s our job to go out there and create chances and score goals.”
It may be, but as they return to their clubs on Thursday they know they will have a limited window of time to prove it.