Is USMNT’s biggest World Cup obstacle between its ears?

Photo by Christian Hofer/Getty Images
2 Comments

Picture this, and forgive yourself if it’s a bit too easy: The United States men’s national team seizes control of its World Cup destiny with a decisive home win Friday against Panama, then needs very little from Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.

That second match sees the Yanks off to a slow start at Ato Boldon Stadium, a defensive fluke sending them down early en route to a wild and entertaining ending, failing to find more than an equalizer once they snap out of their funk and get to playing their game.

[ MORE: Three keys vs. Panama ]

If you were to ask me my No. 1 concern for this week’s monumental World Cup qualifiers, the ones that stand between the Americans and their hopes for a eighth-straight World Cup appearance, that’s it: Entitlement.

I’m not sure when the mentality of the USMNT went from upstart grinders to presumed favorites, but it may have happened some time in the intense scrutiny of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. We have to wonder if, under any other coach, advancing from a group with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana would’ve been viewed as anything other than an unqualified success.

(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Klinsmann earned himself the opportunity to be rightly fired when his inconsistent teams looked either ill-prepared tactically or poorly-chosen toward the end of his tenure. The Mexico loss at home was disappointing, and the team looked like it hadn’t grasped what happened when it rolled into Costa Rica and got its guts kicked in by Los Ticos a few days later.

The choice of Bruce Arena as next man up was questionable in terms of ambition and scope, but would almost certainly settle the team. And it did. Though the performances were largely less than impressive, the Yanks didn’t lose for the better part of a pregnancy.

[ MORE: Who should start for USA v Panama? ]

But there were labor pains along the way, performances that raised eyebrows. For every tactically strong 1-1 draw in Mexico, there was the Gold Cup group-stage opening draw with Panama. For every 6-0 waxing of Honduras, there’s a self-satisfied 3-2 sleepwalker versus Martinique. And you could argue it birthed September’s home loss to Costa Rica and draw at Honduras.

Sure there are natural ebbs and flows to every team, but you need look no further than the top teams on the Hex table to see there are two gulfs of difference. In Mexico, there’s a top-to-bottom depth the Americans do not have, but in Costa Rica the troubles are, well, more troubling.

You cannot look at the Costa Rican squad and have much question that the best players are being called up, nor that they aren’t over-performing. Los Ticos did this at the last World Cup, and are doing it again despite changing coaches.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

With incredible respect to Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Oviedo, and Marco Urena, they aren’t touching the Yanks’ corps. And that’s what makes it all the more problematic. The U.S. won the Gold Cup with a B Team, but maybe would’ve been better suited to keep more main men in the fold to grow in cohesion ahead of September.

At the risk of turning this into a gripe fest, which would be wrong when I genuinely believe the Yanks should run riot on Friday and then bear down in T&T for another win, it stings to stand not too far from a cliff that would cost Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and Kellyn Acosta their first World Cups, and DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks their second.

Brooks and Fabian Johnson (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The average age of this week’s squad is 28. It’s good enough to get two wins, especially with clear-cut, no-doubt starters like Geoff Cameron, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood. Michael Bradley and Tim Howard likely fit that bill, too. So does Fabian Johnson, but that’s another story since he’s not up to snuff according to Arena.

The legendary coach penned an open letter to fans on Tuesday, and in it he hit on some of the talking points which have started to ring quite tiresome. CONCACAF is really hard. That other guy lost the first two games. We almost didn’t qualify before. So on, and so on.

[ MORE: Some roster gripes for Mr. Arena ]

Well, it’s 2017, and it shouldn’t matter if the other teams are a bit better because of Major League Soccer. So are your guys. The resources of U.S. Soccer, the laughably forgiving nature of CONCACAF qualifying, and the talent available dictate that the USMNT should walk to every single World Cup if it’s doing its job in an average fashion.

The U.S. is 2-3-3 in the Hex, snaring about 38 percent of available points. If it advanced with a win and draw or two wins, it will have headed to Russia with either 43 or 50 percent of possible points. Only a handful of nations are on pace to get to the World Cup with around half a points haul.

Even getting past the doubts that Arena is going to see past his tried and hopefully true philosophies and line up a team that doesn’t seem aimed at trolling his critics by becoming, as a friend put it, so anti-Klinsmann that it’s strikingly similar to Klinsmann, the Americans have the talent to pull this off and head to Russia.

Yet for the first time in a long time, it’s not skill, or tactics, or technique that I’m worried about when it comes to what could fell the USMNT; It’s mentality. And at this point, I’d rather have the crew of guys who thought they’d have to win despite their coach than the ones who feel comfortable with their boss.

The Yanks’ A Team hasn’t played well throughout consecutive matches in some time, probably going beyond Arena’s tenure and deep into Klinsmann’s (group stage of Copa America? The 2015 friendly wins in Germany and Holland?).

This week becoming a chance to try out young kids in serious competition was out of the window with September’s results, if not the opening losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Underperforming on Friday and Tuesday could close down Arena’s chances of meaningful experimentation in November friendlies because of an unnecessary international playoff (or worse).

Maybe it’s as simple as flipping a switch. Maybe I’m overemphasizing minor mental flaws that will be systematically overrun by the magnitude of this week. I hope either of those are correct, but for the first time in ages my anxiety goes beyond skill set. And that’s nerve-wracking stuff.