It’s been nearly four years since the USMNT suffered perhaps the most embarrassing loss in its history, losing 2-1 to Trinidad and Tobago in the final round of World Cup qualifiers and getting themselves knocked out of contention for the 2018 World Cup. Thursday night, the squad kicked off their qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup in a game against El Salvador. A lot has changed for this team since 2017, but certain things haven’t.
The match ended in a 0-0 draw, and neither team should have left the stadium believing they deserved the win. El Salvador played with plenty of tenacity in front of a loud and encouraging home crowd, zipping around the field to press the United States and possessing a decent share of the ball, but never really did much to threaten the USMNT’s goal. The Americans created a handful of decent chances through little more than their physical superiority, but they never found the final pass or touch necessary to capitalize on any of those chances.
Viewed one way, last night’s result was an encouraging one for the USMNT. This is a young team that was playing without its biggest star in Christian Pulisic, and scratching out a point against a team as well-drilled as El Salvador in a hostile stadium is a positive first step towards the World Cup. It was the type of game than any long-suffering fan of the USMNT is used to seeing, and one that in years past would have left little to complain about.
On the other hand: C’mon, man! Look who’s on this team! Bobby Wood and Jozy Altidore weren’t out there last night. Neither were Darlington Nagbe or Michael Bradley. I didn’t see no damn Jorge Villafaña on my screen. In their place was a collection of young, talented players who have already begun their turns toward stardom on some of the biggest and best club teams in Europe. Brenden Aaronson recently scored a late winner for RB Salzburg that moved the team one step closer to qualifying for the Champions League, a feat that would have made him The Main Guy To Watch on past versions of the USMNT. But on this version, a guy that young and talented is still well in the shadows cast by the likes of Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Sergiño Dest.
Even without Pulisic on the field, the talent gap between El Salvador and the U.S. was huge. You couldn’t help but notice it every time Josh Sargent turned a defender, or when Konrad de la Fuente zoomed past some schmuck on the flank, or when McKennie out-jumped every Salvadoran on the field. It’s nice to see such obviously gifted players in a USMNT shirt, but it’s also hard not to grimace when those guys can’t put a few goals past a clearly overmatched opponent.
Such a dramatic improvement in the team’s makeup and talent level will naturally come with higher expectations, and why shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t Dest expect to whoop up on Málaga if he faced them in a Barcelona shirt? Would Gio Reyna not feel slightly embarrassed to see himself and his Dortmund teammates labor through a 0-0 draw against Paderborn?
There has been a lot of talk about how this version of the USMNT is different from any we’ve seen in the past, but at some point the team actually has to go out there and be different. Beating Mexico in the Gold Cup and Nations League this summer was certainly a fun time, but World Cup qualification season is where some bars need to start getting cleared. Because if the expectations for this team really are greater than “Let’s just try to qualify for the World Cup and then go out there in 2022 and have some fun,” then a 0-0 draw with El Salvador isn’t something anyone should be satisfied with. If this is to be a team capable of doing real damage in Qatar, then it needs to start cohering into whatever that looks like sooner rather than later. So go out there and hang four goals on Honduras next Wednesday, OK fellas?