To make the World Cup every four years, the United States men’s national team needs to do the bare minimum — that usually entails not being worse than teams from a couple of Central American or Caribbean countries that have a GDP roughly 0.1 percent the size of ours. In Honduras on Tuesday night, the USMNT delivered on that promise: They accomplished the bare minimum.
A late Bobby Wood goal secured a 1-1 draw, salvaged a crucial road point and calmed anxiety about the U.S. qualifying for next summer’s World Cup. According to ESPN’s Soccer Power Index, the U.S. now has a 69 percent chance of qualifying. Of course, those odds are more a reflection of the forgiving nature of the Hex, the round-robin CONCACAF World Cup qualification tournament, than the U.S. men’s skill. Six teams enter, three leave with a World Cup bid, and the fourth-place team can still score a spot by beating the fifth-place Asian qualifier.
The path to qualification is easy, so it’s still likely that the U.S. team will be off to Russia next summer, but they’ve used up much of their margin for error. As it stands, there’s no scenario in which the U.S. can qualify for the World Cup before the final match in Trinidad and Tobago. The last time the U.S. was still hoping to clinch a spot entering its final game was heading into the 1990 World Cup, basically the dawn of modern American soccer. Even if things go perfectly next month, when they take on Panama and Trinidad and Tobago, this will still go down as the team’s worst modern qualifying campaign.
Now the U.S. is faced with two simple questions. What the heck is wrong with this team? And can it be fixed?
Where the U.S. went wrong
The problem right now isn’t so much that the U.S. team is bad. It’s not. The problem is that the U.S. was really bad last year when this phase of qualification started, and it hasn’t really ever made up for it. Jurgen Klinsmann was fired two games into the USMNT’s final-round qualifying bid, after a home loss against Mexico and a 4-0 thumping away to Costa Rica. The team was a mess, and Bruce Arena was brought in to stabilize the ship. And he did. In his first four games in charge, he led the team to two home wins and two road draws, the exact kind of record that leads to easy qualification. But the record didn’t earn back any of the points the team dropped in its first two games. Arena stopped the bleeding, but he didn’t fill in the hole that Klinsmann had dug.
That left that the men’s team vulnerable to a single bad match — like the match last Friday, in which Costa Rica beat the U.S. 2-0 in New Jersey. Realistically, Arena’s team didn’t play all that badly. The USMNT outshot its opponents 14-9 and produced a 1.26 to 0.62 expected goal advantage. Arena’s men conceded an early goal thanks to some poor positioning from central defenders Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream and some questionable goalkeeping from Tim Howard. Then they were denied a second-half equalizer when Costa Rica’s goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, made an absolutely inhuman save on a shot from U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic that took a wicked deflection. If either the blown defense or the amazing save had gone slightly differently, the game looks different, the qualifying campaign looks different, and the answer to the question of “What is wrong with the team?” is basically “Nothing.”
This team as currently constituted is just about good enough to qualify for the World Cup. The problem is that it isn’t much better than that.
Fixing what’s wrong
Arena’s emergency stabilization job was built around two main pillars. First, he handed the keys of the attack to teenage superstar Pulisic, and second, he narrowed midfielder Michael Bradley’s responsibilities, shifting him from the hub of the team to a more traditional deep-lying playmaker. Everything around them has been in flux. Personnel has changed, formations have changed, tactical approaches have changed.
Without much continuity, the team ends up in trouble when the game plan breaks down. Against Costa Rica last week, the defense was badly exposed without protection from midfield. Cameron and Ream were both called upon to step into midfield frequently and neither were able to do the job. And against Honduras this week, the attack sputtered when Pulisic wasn’t able to get on the ball. Since starting to play with the senior national team, he’s averaged 53 touches per 90 minutes, but against Honduras he only got 42, and the U.S. struggled to create chances without his influence.
The defensive problems will likely sort themselves out eventually. The team is currently missing half of its starting defense, as both John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin are injured. If they get healthy and back on the field, the defense will immediately take a step in the right direction.
On the attack side, the solution is less clear-cut. Pulisic is the team’s crown jewel, and it’s Arena’s job to figure out which players in his fairly deep attacking talent pool best complement the young star. Arena has yet to settle on the best combination. Pulisic has played as a winger in a front three, as a wide midfielder with two strikers in front of him, and as the attacking midfielder at the tip of a diamond. In the last two games alone, he played with four different strikers in Wood, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris. Settling on a more consistent lineup might not only help get the best out of Pulisic but also allow the U.S. to develop a more effective plan B for those times an opponent is able to take Pulisic out of the match.
Arena is facing the same challenges all managers do. He has to balance the need for short-term results against the desire to develop a team that over the medium term can steadily improve and peak at the right moment. Up until this week, it seemed like he had gotten the balance mostly right, winning enough to put the U.S. solidly on course while also developing a basic plan. This week, that plan broke down. Now October’s matches can’t serve as a platform to help build the team for the future; instead, they’re all about short-term goals.
There’s nothing wrong with this team that time can’t fix. But with two must-win games on the horizon, time is the one thing this team doesn’t have.