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Soccer

It Is Not Yet Time To Panic

NASHVILLE, TN - SEPTEMBER 05: Christian Pulisic #10 of United States protests a call against him during the second half of their World Cup qualifying match against Canada at Nissan Stadium on September 5, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. United States ties tied Canada 1-1. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Christian Pulisic
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team took the field for their first two World Cup qualification games with high expectations, a star in the making, and hopes of a redemptive run at the World Cup. Things did not go well. The United States scored a single goal across 180 minutes and all manner of anxieties mounted, about both the player pool and the coach in charge of marshaling them. They faced an even more uncertain path forward without their biggest ground-coverer. This all happened in 2016.

The USMNT is now—two games and two draws into the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign—in a softer version of that past predicament. I bring up the early results of five years ago (which were much more alarming than this year’s; the USMNT lost twice and Jurgen Klinsmann got canned) only to note that two points from two games is not on its own a worrying state of affairs. Even after mostly dropping mainstay Jermaine Jones and getting embarrassed 4-0 in Costa Rica in 2016, the team stabilized and got in position to qualify, even if they never, like, learned how to play together. That 2016 team eventually and infamously pissed away a pristine chance to qualify for the World Cup, but the important thing to remember there is not the pissing, but the existence of the chance itself. It was not time to panic after the first two games of the 2018 cycle, and it is not time to panic now.

The 2022 qualifying group is far different from the 2018 cadre, mostly for better. They are deeper, younger, hungrier, and led by a no-shit superstar in his prime, so naturally, expectations are high. Two points from two games now feels as bad as zero from two then, simply because the players on the field seem too good to not dominate El Salvador and Canada. The only real downside to stocking the team with hungry 22-year-olds is that they haven’t had as much experience playing in the uniquely suffocating barometric environment of CONCACAF qualification. The team’s few veterans have spoken a good deal about dealing with the grind and pressure of qualification, and the team’s first two games have been an education in frustration.

That frustration has coalesced around Weston McKennie. The USMNT is famously deeper than its past self at a few key positions, though central defensive midfield is the thinnest spot. McKennie was poor against El Salvador at everything except fouling, then he missed the Canada match after violating the team’s COVID-19 protocols. He will not play against Honduras, as he’s already been sent back to Italy. Jackson Yueill, who can do 15 percent of what McKennie does, will replace him, and the team is suddenly relying on Tyler Adams to a truly uncomfortable degree. “There are high expectations for those who are a part of the U.S. Men’s National Team,” coach Gregg Berhalter said. “And in order to be successful it’s important that everyone in the group is accountable.”

What McKennie did is still a mystery, though Landon Donovan weirdly hinted at it and said, “It is almost beyond repair and he has a lot of work to do with his teammates to make sure that he never does something like that again because you lose trust in your teammates.” I am not sure how much stock we should put in Donovan raising an eyebrow at McKennie, but he is right that missing out on a pair of games the program has been building towards for a long time is pretty dumb. It also throws the USMNT’s youth into a slightly harsher relief, which makes everyone’s jobs harder. Berhalter has been soundly outcoached twice now, but he now has to spend time mending fences instead of figuring out how to get his team to score goals.

The USMNT would be under Lake Baikal-level pressure right now even at full strength. Taking the field in Tegucigalpa for an unexpectedly pivotal game without Gio Reyna, McKennie, Sergiño Dest, or Zack Steffen, and with a half-strength Christian Pulisic, comes with more benthic stresses. It does not matter what club teams your young players play for if you can’t do it on a hot night in Central America, and now that the USMNT has gotten off to a slow start, the onset of must-win matches feels too sudden. This is what it takes. It’s not yet time to panic, but it is time to win.