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World Cup Anxiety Reaches Its Boiling Point For The USMNT

Since 1990, qualifying for the World Cup has seemed like a birthright for the U.S. men’s national team. In the three decades since it last failed to qualify for a World Cup (1986), all of England, France, Portugal, Uruguay and the Netherlands have missed the cut at least once. In fact, largely because of the comparatively easy qualification process for teams from this part of the world, only six countries have a longer active World Cup streak than the U.S.1

That run may come to an end this year. After taking just 1 point from its last two matches, the U.S. is running dangerously close to being left at home when the World Cup convenes in Russia next year. What happens in the Americans’ high-stakes match against Panama in Orlando on Friday night will go a long way to determining that. Here are three three factors that will bring you up to speed on the match.

1) Make no mistake — this one is really important.

ESPN’s Soccer Power Index projects that if the USMNT can win, the side will have a 93 percent chance of making the tournament. But a loss cuts the U.S.’s chances down to 44 percent.

Among the group of six in CONCACAF, Mexico has already punched its ticket to Russia, and Costa Rica needs only a single point from two matches to join El Tri. That leaves two remaining spots for the region: Third place gets the last automatic qualifier while fourth place will play in an inter-confederation playoff against either Australia or Syria. Panama is currently a point ahead of the U.S. in the table, and every team has two matches left to play. Here is how the result of this game will affect the various scenarios::

  • A win for the U.S. against Panama would boost the Americans into the third guaranteed qualifying place with only a relatively easy trip to Trinidad and Tobago remaining. Any other result will leave the USMNT scoreboard-watching.
  • If the two countries draw in Orlando, Panama will need only a win over an already qualified Costa Rica team to secure the third qualifying spot.
  • A win for Panama would clinch World Cup qualification for Los Canaleros for the first time in their soccer history, leaving the U.S. sweating Honduras’s results in hope of landing in the fourth-place playoff.

2) Home Pulisic is the best Pulisic.

In such a huge match, the U.S. will be looking to its young superstar to step up. However, Christian Pulisic has been a very different kind of star in home and away matches. Since Bruce Arena took over for Jurgen Klinsmann, he has kept Pulisic on the wing in the team’s three away matches in CONCACAF qualifying (against Panama, Mexico and Honduras). But during the three qualifying home matches (against Honduras, Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica), the Borussia Dortmund attacker has been free to roam infield in a free, creative role — and this has been true regardless of formation. In the three home matches, Pulisic had three goals and two assists. In the away matches, he had a clutch assist against Panama but has otherwise been kept off the scoresheet.

Here’s a look at all of Pulisic’s pass receptions (home and away) in those six World Cup qualifying matches.

In the home matches, Pulisic received 40 passes in the central area of the final third.2 In the qualifiers on the road, he received just 11 in that area. At home, he has been free to drop back in buildup, receiving 30 passes in the defensive half, compared with 12 while away. Pulisic is distinctly a winger in away matches, with 63 percent of all his away receptions (40 out of 64) taking place in wide areas; in home matches, that figure is only 35 percent (43 out of 123).

This is by design. With half the teams in the CONCACAF “Hex” qualifying group reaching the World Cup, a pattern of home wins and away draws is more than sufficient for a berth. In the recent away matches, the USMNT has taken a more conservative approach and kept Pulisic in his assigned position to protect the wing and offer a counterattacking outlet. Looking for wins at home, Arena has freed Pulisic to make plays either early in buildup (dropping back into the defensive half) or around the box (receiving passes in the center).

The U.S.’s attack has thrived with such tactics, outscoring its opponents 8-2 in home matches. Even in the 0-2 loss to Costa Rica, the Americans led the expected goals tally 1.3 to 0.8, meaning that they had more opportunities despite the result. Panama was able to slow Pulisic down in its home fixture (a 1-1 draw), but he will be much harder to contain in a less tactically restricted role on Friday night — assuming that Arena and Pulisic continue this recent pattern.

3) The U.S. needs to plug the holes in midfield.

The U.S. lined up in a 4-4-2 formation in both of its last qualifying matches, with a pair of strikers in each (Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood vs. Costa Rica; Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris vs. Honduras). Two strikers, plus the use of Pulisic in a more aggressive role, should strengthen the attack, but Arena will need to tighten his midfield at the same time. The opening goal against Honduras shows why U.S. fans should be a little worried.

Certainly defender Omar Gonzalez’s missed tackle was the biggest problem on this goal, but he was put in position to make this mistake because the U.S. midfield allowed a pass to be picked out under absolutely no pressure. The 4-4-2 formation gives the U.S. one fewer player to challenge opposition passers in midfield. What’s more, the U.S.’s back line has been shaky, which puts more pressure on the midfield to prevent the sort of attacking moves that can apply pressure on the defense.

And in the last two games, the two center midfielders — first Darlington Nagbe and Michael Bradley, then Bradley and Kellyn Acosta — have been unable to disrupt opposing midfielders, who have connected on many direct forward passes. Against Costa Rica and Honduras, the U.S. conceded 21 direct attacking moves driven by long, forward passes through midfield.3 In the four previous matches, the U.S. had conceded just 22 of these direct midfield attacks.

The USMNT should be favored against Panama no matter the lineup, but a susceptibility to direct, central attacks doesn’t bode well. One or two good counterattacks could be enough to get Los Canaleros their result. The solution here could be some sort of single-striker system. By not playing two out-and-out-strikers, Arena would have flexibility to get another presser into midfield without limiting Pulisic positionally. Of course, this puts more of the burden on the 19-year-old to create goals by himself, but ultimately, what else is a superstar for if not that?

Whatever he chooses, Arena needs to get this game right because a World Cup trip — as well as his legacy — may hang in the balance.

Check out our latest club soccer predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain.

  2. This refers to the area of the penalty box extended out to about 35 yards from goal.

  3. I am defining direct attacks as attacking moves in which at least 60 percent of overall ball movement is directly toward goal and long forward passes as passes that travel at least 15 yards forward toward goal.

Michael Caley is a writer whose work has been featured at The Economist, ESPN, the Washington Post and elsewhere. He is the co-host of the “Double Pivot Podcast.”

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