USMNT analysis

Analysis: Despite loss to Ticos, the USMNT books a spot in Qatar to return to the FIFA World Cup

The U.S. team did not get the result it wanted in the final game of the Octagon, but it achieved a goal it set for itself four years ago to qualify for the World Cup after an eight-year absences. That black cloud has now been lifted and for that the fans should celebrate. ASN's Brian Sciaretta puts it into perspective and also talks about what lies ahead after qualifying.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
March 30, 2022
8:10 PM

THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team will return to the FIFA World Cup after formally sealing qualification on Wednesday night in Costa Rica. While Gregg Berhalter’s team lost 2-0 to the Ticos, the goal differential proved to be an insurmountable obstacle for the hosts. The result was easily enough for the Americans to qualify and Costa Rica will now face New Zealand in a playoff for one of the tournament’s final spots.

Gregg Berhalter fielded the exact same starting XI as he did last week against Mexico at Azteca. For the first 45 minutes, the performance was roughly the same. The U.S. was comfortable defensivel,y but the attack was not clinical enough. Against Costa Rica, the U.S. team even managed to maintain 60% of the possession in the first half.

The second half proved to be far more difficult, however. The U.S. team had a great series of chances in the 49th minute but Keylor Navas proved to be up to the task with a series of saves. Two minutes later, the Ticos would have their revenge when Juan Pablo Varagas would head home a corner to send Estadio Nacional into eruption.

In the 59th minute, the Ticos put the game out of reach with another goal from a scramble after a set piece. Steffen punched a ball into the box away, but it didn’t get far enough away. He was forced to make another quick save which he also did not push out of danger. The rebound went a cross the box and a low cross went through a slew of American defenders before finding Anthony Contreras at the back post for a close finish.

The U.S. team wasn’t able to mount a comeback but it was able to settle the game down and limit further damage. It was a disappointing result for the U.S. team but it was more than enough to ensure passage back to the World Cup.

Here are some thoughts on the game


U.S. was gassed/ Costa Rica hungry


The U.S. team played a smart first half. They maintained possession, limited Costa Rica’s chances, had strings of passes in the attacking third, but were still unable to move ahead. Combined with the strong first five minutes of the second half, the game was very reminiscent of the Azteca game last week. But, unlike Mexico, a hungry Costa Rica team was able to make the U.S. team pay.

The U.S. team also looked out of gas. It is easy to forget that the U.S. team opened camp in Houston, played in Mexico, returned to Orlando to train and play, and then returned to Costa Rica to play. Four international trips and three games inside of a week . This was always scheduled to be the hardest qualifying window for the U.S. team in terms of strength of schedule and then further challenges were added when a nasty stomach bug ripped its way through 30 members (players, coaches, staff) of the U.S. traveling delegation throughout the window. There were also injuries to Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Sergino Dest, along with only the recent return of Gio Reyna which limited his minutes.

It’s not to make excuses either. If anything, it was all a positive that will make the team and its players better over the long run. The team learned tough tests of regeneration, the need for rotation, and the challenges of playing on the road.

On the flip side, the U.S. also learned how difficult it is to play against a motivated opponent with momentum. Costa Rica was long thought to be out of the running in qualifying with Panama seeming a lock for the fourth-place playoff spot. But since the 1-0 loss to Canada to start the November window, Costa Rica rattled off six wins and a draw over its final seven games to surge into the fourth spot. Just getting to the fourth spot had fans of the team very excited for this game. 


Yes, Costa Rica played a lot of reserves against the U.S. team but as the saying goes: a rising tide lifts all boats. Costa Rica’s improved performances made the entire team better – starters and bench players. The bench players can also smell a World Cup spot and want to prove their case to earn a spot on the team. The U.S. team talked about winning in San Jose, but the team was visibly tired and its motivation was to not lose by six goals.

The U.S. team might have fielded more talent in this game, but momentum and motivation are just as important in single games (unlike a long season where talent typically wins out over the long haul).


U.S. team passes the test


So much has been written about how young this team is. When fans look at rosters, they see players attached to super huge clubs like Chelsea, Juventus, RB Leipzig, Lille, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund, and Manchester City. The expectation is that these players will have an easier time in CONCACAF.

There is also truth that undertaking a qualifying campaign with a squad this young is difficult and presents its own challenges despite the quality of players. At huge clubs, typically there are veteran players to balance out the talented young players. With the U.S. team, these young players are then being asked to do all the heavy lifting without much of a veteran presence. It’s a completely different environment.

But this young group learned some tough lessons that will only help them in the future. Mostly importantly it passed the test.

World Cup qualifying is completely pass/fail and things generally do not correlate to the finals. World Cup history is full of teams that had strong tournaments that looked shaky or vulnerable in qualifying. On the flip side, there are even more examples of teams that were dynamite in qualifying but crashed in the finals.

Even among CONCACAF teams, Mexico was set for elimination in 2014 qualifying like the U.S. team suffered in 2018. The only difference is that the U.S. bailed them out with a miracle goal from Graham Zusi. Mexico handled the playoff vs. New Zealand well and then managed to get seven points from a World Cup group that included Brazil, Croatia, and Cameroon.

The U.S. team’s strongest World Cup was in 2002 and that team struggled in qualifying towards the end with three consecutive losses late in the campaign that jeopardized everything. It took a fluke of results on the second to last round to qualify.  The U.S. qualified for the 2006 World Cup with three rounds to spare and failed at the World Cup.

In this pass/fail test of qualifying, the U.S. team passed. There is nothing to suggest that either winning or losing will have any impact on the upcoming World Cup. If anything, dealing with adversity, the tough circumstances of the game, and the struggles of road qualifiers will make the players better.

U.S. fans might not want to celebrate after a loss, but it’s has been a long process in qualifying and the past four years were a dark period for the team after 2017. It’s now over, and for that fans should celebrate.


Lessons learned


The U.S. needs to work on things in the months ahead and the lessons from the Costa Rica loss only made clearer the lessons that were apparent all throughout qualifying.


No. 9 needed

A lot will be written about this in the months ahead but perhaps it is most disappointing that not a single No. 9 candidate has seized the position in recent years (predating qualifying). Josh Sargent, Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok, Jesus Ferreira, Gyasi Zardes, Jozy Altidore, Sebastian Soto, and Daryl Dike have all been given chances by Berhalter to seize the No. 9 position and none have firmly answered the call. A few have played well in short runs, but none have yet to look to be the permanent answer in a way Brian McBride or Eric Wynalda were generations ago.

This has been a problem for the U.S. team for 15 years. Altidore has missed key tournaments with injuries and injuries cost Charlie Davies and Aron Johannsson the prime of their careers.

This is not to say that Pepi, Sargent, Pefok, Ferreira, Dike, or Ferreira should be discounted. Any or all of them could get hot in the months ahead and become a dangerous threat come November. But the U.S. team is not any closer to having an answer with the end of the Octagonal.


Midfield must be more dynamic

It was a problem for most of qualifying and again against Costa Rica, but the U.S. team needs to generate more opportunities for the number of passes it completes in the final third. The link between the midfield and the front three needs to be sharper, especially with the final ball.

McKennie’s injury hurt the team against Costa Rica. He is strong on both the offensive and defensive side of set pieces. He also provides a lot of energy. But the team still needs better passing in the midfield with more dangerous final balls.

Musah is an expert dribbler and is comfortable with the ball, but can he be the creative link that is needed? He showed a lot of talent but was inconclusive in this in qualifying? Can Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna become options in the attacking midfield for the national team (where they play with their clubs) or are they wingers?

Berhalter will need more offensive bite from his midfield ahead of the World Cup.


Set pieces


Aside from the 3-0 home win against Honduras when Kellyn Acosta had a huge game with his dead-ball deliveries, set pieces were woefully disappointing during qualifying – both offensively and defensively.

Christian Pulisic’s deliveries haven’t been great. Acosta has been inconsistent as well. The deliveries also do not find either Walker Zimmerman or Miles Robinson nearly enough.

Defensively, the U.S. was poor with its set pieces against Costa Rica and at the end of the Panama game.

Reversing this is going to be so critical for the U.S. team at the World Cup. When the team has to play quality teams like France or Poland, chances will be fewer and set pieces can help equalize a talent deficit (as they did for Costa Rica).


Emotion as a tool


Finally, the U.S. team must learn to both play with emotion and a chip on its shoulder. That was always a hallmark of the team in generations past. In single games, emotion can be more important than talent. On the flip side, the U.S. team must also have to learn how to deal with emotional opponents.

Consider a World Cup draw where the U.S. could face an excited host in Qatar from Pot 1 of the draw who will have a fired-up home crowd behind it. Or the U.S. could face Iran from Pot 3 in a politically charged game with Iran only a stones’ throw from Qatar. Or the U.S. could be drawn with Ukraine from Pot 4 and the Ukrainians will have the world behind them if they win their playoff. A potential rematch with Ghana also looms from Pot 4.

In these games, the U.S. will have both show emotion but also have the maturity to deal with adversity.

In World Cup qualifying, the U.S. team struggled on the road. The U.S. team will have fans in Qatar and only drawing the hosts would give the U.S. a true road game at the World Cup. The U.S. has learned to deal with rivals Mexico at unneutral places like Denver and Las Vegas, but still must grow up quickly to deal with the emotion of some of the potential outcomes of the World Cup draw.  


Friday’s draw


In case you needed a reminder, here are the pots for Friday’s World Cup draw

Pot 1: Qatar, Brazil, Belgium, France, Argentina, England, Spain, Portugal

Pot 2: Mexico, Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Uruguay, Switzerland, USA, Croatia

Pot 3: Senegal, Iran, Japan, Morocco, Serbia, Poland, South Korea, Tunisia

Pot 4: Cameroon, Canada, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Scotland vs. Wales/Ukraine, Costa Rica vs. New Zealand, Peru vs. UAE/Australia.


Post a comment