Saturday, February 24

USMNT panic meter: Why there’s reason for hope and worry before USA soccer’s showdown in Mexico

World Cup Qualifying comes to a head this week as the United States men’s national team tries to secure their spot at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Sitting in second place in Concacaf, Gregg Berhalter’s team can avoid a playoff with four points in their next two matches as they would ensure that Panama can’t jump into the top three. But heading into a critical juncture, Berhalter will be without Weston McKennie, Brenden Aaronson, Matt Turner, and Sergino Dest as the team was hit by multiple recent injuries.

With a next-man-up mentality and deep talent pool to choose from, that doesn’t mean that the USMNT will be short on options during this crucial window, which starts Thursday night against Mexico (streaming on Paramount+). They’ll be getting a big part of the team back in Gio Reyna, who hasn’t featured since the first match of the Octagonal vs. El Salvador in September before picking up a hamstring injury. Setbacks during his recovery from him have caused Reyna to be on and off the pitch for Dortmund but after playing in their last three matches, he’s back in the national team picture.

With the USMNT facing Mexico, Panama, and Costa Rica, Reyna couldn’t be returning to the fold at a better time. But as there are reasons to be concerned with the team’s performance as well as reasons to expect them to finish the job and qualify for the World Cup.

So where’s the panic meter for the USMNT entering this qualifying window? Let’s address where things stand.

Why there’s reason for calm

defensive strength: Heading into these matches, the only team that has conceded fewer goals than the United State’s seven is Canada with five. Led by Tyler Adams making 33 tackles while playing in 10 of 11 matches and backed up by a stout central pairing of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman, the defense is hard to breach. Even with Adams being one yellow card away from getting a suspension, Kellyn Acosta and James Sands can fill in if needed. All of the keepers backing the defense are high-quality options and while the wing backs are Berhalter’s engines going forward, they aren’t slouches defensively, racking up plenty of interceptions and ball recoveries. Add in that Berhalter may opt for a stouter midfield in the absence of McKennie and the defense will be the strength of the team no matter what parts combine to make the whole picture.

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Finishing (on paper): After Canada, the team has also scored the second most goals in the Octagonal with 16. But not only is the ball going into the back of the net, the team is also taking up good positions in the box. The USMNT have taken 73 percent of their shots within the box and have also put 32.9 percent of shots on target to test keepers. Given that the United States have been able to take 143 shots, it should be no surprise that they’re within the top end of scoring in Concacaf. Ricardo Pepi, Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Weston McKennie, and Antonee Robinson have all scored multiple goals during qualifying also showing how unpredictable the scoring threats are.

Why there’s reason to worry

Finishing (on the pitch): The woes of the forwards under Berhalter have been well documented as the attack has been the second best in Concacaf while underperforming its potential so far. An xG of 17.51 ​​is the highest in Concacaf, and it’s clear that the United States would have already qualified for the World Cup if they were putting more of those chances away. Five strikers have logged minutes for the national team during qualifying with none logging more than 600 minutes. In fact, after Ricardo Pepi, no striker has logged more than 200 minutes as Berhalter figures out who needs to lead the line.

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Pepi has been the most effective of the bunch, but his Bundesliga acclimation isn’t going well and it has impacted his national team form too. Chopping and changing your strikers never lets them get into a rhythm but a striker hasn’t performed well enough to earn the spot yet. Jordan Pefok could get his chance during this window. His 20 goals scored for Young Boys and Champions League experience is more than other forwards can offer and while he isn’t as technical as other options at Berhalter’s disposal, as long as the ball hits the back of the net, him potentially being isolated won ‘t be an issue.

Injuries and tough decisions: Replacing McKennie is a tough job but it’s one that Berhalter has a few options for in Acosta, Luca de la Torre, and Gianluca Busio. But with so many options, it’s important that Berhalter gets the correct decision for these matches. Missing Aaronson, who has appeared in all 11 matches, will also be a heavy lift offensively and defensively. Reggie Cannon brings similar qualities to Dest, and there’s not much to separation between the keeper options.

Berhalter enjoys tinkering, but with three matches in six days, the entire squad will be needed to finish the job.

What to watch vs. Mexico

Mexico will have their own injuries to deal with as Andres Guardado, Rogelio Funes Mori and Julio César Domínguez will all be unavailable for Thursday’s match. Goals will be hard to come by as Mexico have only allowed eight goals while their scoring struggles have seen them score 14. Given the form or Raul Jimenez and the absence of Funes Mori, extra pressure will be on Hirving Lozano to find his form. Lozano only has one goal and one assist during World Cup Qualifying but more will be needed as he has the quality to catch the USMNT defense out in transition.

Hector Herrera and Edson Alvarez will anchor a strong defensive midfield for El Tri and if they win their battles on the night, it’ll be tough for the United States to score. Both have had strong performances in Champions League play that they’ll look to build on to help Mexico qualify for the World Cup. Berhalter will do well to attack through the wings in order to avoid this issue but Mexico’s defenders are no slouches and keeper Guillermo Ochoa seems to transform into peak Manuel Neuer vs. the United States, so the USMNT would be happy with a draw considering this is a trip to face Mexico at Azteca.

Panic meter (1-10 scale): 4

The team will be confident having defeated Mexico three times in a row but they can’t suffer from overconfidence as Mexico has never lost to the United States in World Cup Qualifying matches at Estadio Azteca. An early goal could change everything as both teams want to bunker down.

I’m not pressing the panic button yet because at the time of writing the USMNT are in a strong position to qualify for the World Cup. But the button is on my desk ready to be pushed if they end up losing to Mexico while also turning in a subpar first half vs. Panama.

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