Four-and-a-half years after the USMNT got bounced from World Cup qualification on the final game of the cycle, the team once again enters the final trio of games with work to do. That may seem disappointing on its face, but it shouldn’t. This less-experienced USMNT has been far superior to that infamous group, and they’ve only put up one real stinker through the first 11 games. Canada’s ascension to the top of the continental pecking order has as much to do with the USMNT’s position as anything, and the team has been well on track to qualify ever since Ricardo Pepi saved the day in Honduras. But there is a problem that could haunt the U.S. in its efforts to book its ticket to Qatar: Several mission-critical USMNT starters have gotten injured in the past two weeks, and the once-comfortable margin for error is suddenly much tighter.
The task ahead of this group is reasonably simple: a total of three points from the next three games means they will finish no lower than fourth. A top-three finish guarantees a spot in the big tournament, while fourth place means traveling for a one-game playoff against the best team in Oceania. The USMNT currently sits second in the qualifying table, with a four-point cushion over fourth-place Panama and a five-point cushion over fifth-place Costa Rica. Since the U.S. gets to play both of them (Panama at home, Costa Rica on the road), a win against either probably secures a spot. The team begins the last push on Thursday at the Azteca stadium in Mexico City, where they have never won a qualifier. Given how the Americans essentially conceded three points in Panama, the theory is that Gregg Berhalter should repeat the trick and rest members of the A-Team in Mexico so everyone is good and ready to throttle Panama in Florida over the weekend for what is the team’s best shot at a win. This is where we start running into problems.
American players have been on a truly rotten run of luck lately. I suppose the current crisis can be traced back to Chris Richards’s injury against Canada two months ago. Richards, who had probably been the team’s best center back through the early qualifiers, hurt his ankle late in the Canada loss, and hasn’t played for club or country since. His absence isn’t team-breaking, as Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman have shown great chemistry at the back, though it’s never a good thing to lose one of your best performers.
Likewise, Sergiño Dest was on some of the best form of his Barcelona career when he hurt his hamstring in his team’s Europe League win against Galatasaray. Dest had regained Xavi’s trust after an uncertain early period, and had been consistently helping set up Barca goals and attacks with his dribbling ability on the flank. Even his suspect defending improved, and the thinnest silver lining on the dark injury cloud is that Dest hurt himself making a potential game-saving tackle.
Nobody else on the team can do what Dest does with the ball, and Berhalter has wisely gotten a lot of use out of the full back’s game-breaking dribbling. But right back is at least one of the team’s deepest positions, even if Berhalter has failed to integrate the second-best American right back (Joe Scally) into the team in favor of two guys who are far more limited (DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon).
Elsewhere, the essentially irreplaceable Weston McKennie is absent too. McKennie broke his foot in a Champions League match against Villarreal, which will likely force Luca de la Torre into a critical role in the U.S. midfield. Berhalter’s system relies on a certain degree of midfield dominance, with McKennie positioned slightly ahead of Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah. The three energetic midfielders are able to cover the ground of four players, which gives the wingers and fullbacks license to wreak havoc up high without worrying too much about the spaces behind them. It’s a style of play that only works when you can impose your will in the middle of the field, something McKennie excels at. De la Torre is good at running around and doing stuff, but he’s not at McKennie’s level. In addition, nobody on this team is as reliably great in the air as McKennie, and set-pieces could be crucial.
If the injury list wasn’t long enough, Salzburg pulled Brenden Aaronson out of the starting lineup right before kickoff on Sunday, citing a knee injury. Initial reports claimed he’d be out for the qualifiers; then U.S. Soccer said he would be joining the squad anyway; then Salzburg said he might not be making the trip at all; then Taylor Twellman said he’d be out at least two weeks with the injury; then U.S. Soccer opened their first press conference by saying Aaronson’s status is “day-to-day.” Even from his realm of quantum entanglement, I don’t think anyone really believes Aaronson can be comfortably relied upon to play 90 minutes at any point in the next week. Oh and also, starting goalkeeper Matt Turner is hurt, which means the USMNT will be missing best-XI starters at every line. It’s very worrying!
It is worth stressing here, now that we can see the full scope of the injury wave, that the USMNT should still qualify for the World Cup. Christian Pulisic is playing better than he has all season, and Aaronson’s best possible replacement, Gio Reyna, just went 90 minutes for the first time in six months. Getting four points from three matches and locking a spot in the World Cup is perfectly within even this injured USMNT’s grasp.
The real concern though is the margin for error. The fully healthy USMNT probably has enough juice to compete in all three matches, even while making a couple rotations. But now, with a few starters out and bench players thrust into the lineup, the team might have to think more strategically. Is it worth risking Tyler Adams in the Mexico game, when he’s struggled with back problems for going on two months now? What about Reyna or Pulisic, who are both somewhat fragile players even in the best of times? Everything is simply more strained now that five first-teamers are out with injuries.
The USMNT has the talent to beat Panama at home and Costa Rica on the road if necessary (remember how comically they dominated Los Ticos at home?), but I’m nervous that the efforts of the first two games will keep the team from a huge performance against Costa Rica. The last thing anyone wants is for the team to once again find itself needing a win on the road on the last day of qualifying. The U.S. has had a solid qualification cycle, and it would be a colossal disappointment if it all ended in pain because Gregg Berhalter has to play Kellyn Acosta 270 minutes in three crushing losses.