Fans of the United States men’s national team, if not the team itself, may be having a crisis of expectations following several disappointing results through five matches of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
A potential golden generation has not been at full-strength for all of qualifying and has not performed at its best for more than a match (Jamaica) and a half (the second 45 minutes versus Honduras).
[ MORE: How will USMNT line up vs Costa Rica? ]
Those two wins are joined a home draw with Canada, an away draw with El Salvador, and Sunday’s ugly 1-0 loss to Panama in Panama City to leave the Yanks second in the race for three automatic qualifying spots for Qatar 2022.
That’s fine. Good, actually, considering that proving that the failure to qualify for France 2018 was a fluke.
But there’s a larger question in play here, one that outweighs those of Gregg Berhalter’s status as coach or any individual players’ spot on the team.
Continued after the lineup…
USMNT lineup versus Costa Rica
The Yanks start Zack Steffen in goal for his first action in some time and Berhalter will give Chris Richards his first cap at center back next to Miles Robinson.
Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson flank the duo, and Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, and Weston McKennie are in the midfield.
Paul Arriola and Brenden Aaronson are out wide with Ricardo Pepi at center forward.
Feels good to be home. Let's get the job done.
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) October 13, 2021
Isn’t the idea of the program and men’s soccer in this country that the team should at least appear to be the better team in almost every game, especially considering the Yanks have so far played everyone but the two teams to most often qualifying out of CONCACAF in Costa Rica and Mexico?
The United States ranks in the top five for number of registered soccer players in the world and Mexico is sixth. So it’s become logical to figure that a big, rich country would produce better players and that objective has been achieved for sure.
The Yanks are -223 to win through PointsBet, with a draw an unlikely +320 and a Costa Rican win even less so at +600. Yes, the bookmakers want to entice you to bet, but those odds are basically the same as these top European league matches over the next two weeks
- Man City to win at Brighton
- Dortmund to win at home to Mainz
- Sevilla to win at home to Levante
- AC Milan to win at home to Hellas Verona
- Napoli to win at home to Torino
- Gladbach to win at home to Stuttgart
- Barcelona to win at home to Valencia
(PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links).
It follows that the hope for this qualifying cycle, given the historic embarrassment in 2017, the much-improved player pool depth, and the twin wins over Mexico in two trophy matches with different rosters this summer, that the goal wasn’t merely qualifying, but showing the strength of a knockout round contender.
That’s not happening yet.
Enter Costa Rica, who beat the U.S. 2-0 on American soil in 2017 qualifying and pasted the Yanks 4-0 in San Jose.
Los Ticos are not on the talent level of the U.S. and are certainly not at the heights that saw them a World Cup darling in 2014.
And they along with Mexico are the last two opponents the USMNT is yet to face, opponents that neutral observers would expect to beat or draw most other teams.
That means that failure to beat Costa Rica at home on Wednesday and Mexico at home on Nov. 12 wouldn’t just see the States shy of expectations, but likely the top four as the six teams below them on the table claim points off each other.
This is not simply to put a doom-and-gloom scenario out there, as El Tri have also faced home struggles en route to a World Cup.
Mexico’s lone dropped home points in the 2018 qualification cycle may’ve come off the long Michael Bradley bomb in a 1-1 draw at Azteca, but El Tri also won only one of five home qualifiers en route to an inter-confederation playoff win over New Zealand in 2014.
It happens, but it’s not supposed to happen to a potentially golden generation, even one on its way up. And those are the expectations that Berhalter and Co. are contending with now, even if they’ll rightly drown in sports cliche about the challenges of CONCACAF and plane flights and humidity and whatever.
Because we can concede that the Yanks, even in a golden generation, would need masterplans, performances, and maybe even a favorable draw to win a World Cup any time soon (even with home soil approaching in 2026) given the strength of talent and experience on France, Germany, Brazil, Belgium, and the like.
But the fan base will be expecting the team to not just show itself capable of qualifying for Qatar 2022; It’s about showing the world that the Yanks are the class of CONCACAF.
We wrote that the Yanks had done the lion’s share of moving past Couva with their summer triumphs in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup, but looking mediocre at best through five matches starts to color the runs to those trophies in a different light.
The Yanks won the Gold Cup semifinal 1-0 over Qatar on home soil despite being outshot 18-6. USMNT B-team? Sure, but Qatar went on to be pasted 4-0 by Serbia, 3-1 by Portugal, and 3-0 by Portugal again with a 0-0 draw with Luxembourg also part of that five-match run.
Their only recent non-CONCACAF opponents outside of Qatar — which is not their fault but a combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the clogged international calendar thanks to the birth of the Nations Leagues — were friendlies against Northern Ireland’s B-team, Wales without Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, and Switzerland. A 2-1 win, 0-0 draw, and a 2-1 loss, respectively.
If we’re being realistic, the USMNT being at the height of its modern power isn’t about being favored on neutral ground versus Italy. After all, CONCACAF teams — yes, even Mexico — have done better than a World Cup quarterfinal on one occasion: The USMNT’s third-place finish out of a 13-team field in 1930. Nineteen–thirty. MCMXXX. Obscene.
But it’s about winning most of your CONCACAF games or at least clearly out-performing the opposition. And it’s about having more than long odds against the world’s next tier of teams.
What does that mean? Here are the World Cup group draws for every CONCACAF team since 2000. The italicized draws are the USMNT.
- Serbia, Switzerland, Brazil
- Sweden, South Korea, Germany
- Belgium, England, Tunisia
- Brazil, Croatia, Cameroon
- Uruguay, Italy, England
- France, Switzerland, Ecuador
- Germany, Portugal, Ghana
- Uruguay, South Africa, France
- England, Slovenia, Algeria
- Spain, Chile, Honduras
- Germany, Ecuador, Poland
- England, Sweden, Paraguay
- Portugal, Angola, Iran
- Italy, Ghana, Czech Republic
- Brazil, Turkey, China
- South Korea, Portugal, Poland
- Italy, Croatia, Ecuador
From how many of those, right now and given each country’s typical strength, would you expect to net the USMNT’s a likely knockout round berth? Because that’s the aim (For what it’s worth, we’re setting the over/under at seven).
The truth is that the team’s status in the World Cup draw is well and good if and when the Yanks beat Costa Rica at home, but its status as finding its potential as a deserving top 25 team in the world is well and good only if the performance is good without Christian Pulisic, John Brooks, and Giovanni Reyna.
A win would mean 1.83 points-per-game through six matches without facing Mexico. Awesome. But the question is: Is a place in Qatar and hope for over-performing enough? Anyone who called getting out of the Germany, Portugal, Ghana group and losing to Belgium in 2014 anything other than a success needs to answer that question with a resounding no.
How to watch USMNT and CONCACAF World Cup qualifying
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying: NBC’s Telemundo Deportes and Universo + ESPN2, TUDN