SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — For even essentially the most assured gamers and gifted groups, a maiden journey into the heightened drama of the World Cup qualifying match in North and Central America can really feel like splash of chilly water to the face.
Here, world rankings have a means of dropping their that means. Club pedigrees and gamers’ salaries can rapidly be forgotten. It is a impolite awakening, a ceremony of passage. And the United States males’s soccer staff is experiencing it but once more.
Beginning final week, the Americans launched into a three-game sequence of qualifying matches over seven days that they hoped would set up a baseline state of confidence for the lengthy path to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The final week has, as a substitute, left them wanting frazzled and uncertain.
After attracts of their first two video games — on the street towards El Salvador and at house towards Canada — the Americans’ recreation late Wednesday evening towards Honduras on the spartan Estadio Olímpico Metropolitano represented a ultimate likelihood to salvage the week. A win would offer a kernel of positivity to domesticate within the weeks to come. A draw would delay the sluggish boil of hysteria. A loss would ship the staff house within the beginnings of a tailspin.
Whatever the outcome, essentially the most helpful factor the gamers and their coaches may convey house, although, could possibly be the teachings realized: concerning the perils of trusting an excessive amount of in previous outcomes; concerning the precarity of the problem that is still forward; and concerning the fragility of a staff’s best-laid plans and ambitions.
U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter informed his staff to deal with its 14 World Cup qualifiers as “14 finals.” They failed to win both of the primary two.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press
The largest worry is that they’re tiptoeing onto the identical path an earlier model of the staff traveled three years in the past, when it fell one level wanting qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, ending a streak of seven straight appearances on the world’s most-watched sporting occasion. On some stage it appears irrational: Even with the disappointing outcomes from the primary two video games, the United States is closely favored to qualify. But the unhealthy reminiscences stay uncooked in many individuals’s minds.
“I can see it being, you know, just memories of the past, memories of the last qualifying round coming back,” Coach Gregg Berhalter, who was employed after the 2018 World Cup, mentioned of these considerations on Tuesday evening. “And people say, ‘Oh, we’re in the same situation.’ I can understand that completely. What I’d say is this is a different group, and we’re focused on winning games, and we’re focused on getting points.”
Such speak has not been convincing to date.
Few would go so far as to name the Americans hubristic: The notion of this regional qualifying match as a gnarly impediment course, with difficult elements distinctive in world soccer, has lengthy been ingrained within the psyche of the staff and its followers, and the gamers over the previous week have spoken of the method with all due respect. They know, too, that it’s going to proceed with three extra qualifiers in October, and two extra a month after that.
But the lofty requirements imposed on the squad, the excessive expectation and requires perfection, are in some ways of the groups’ personal making.
Berhalter mentioned earlier this week that the match’s 14 video games ought to be regarded by his gamers as “14 finals” — successfully labeling the complete slate of video games as must-win contents.
Before the primary recreation final week, midfielder Tyler Adams laid out the staff’s bold to-do record: “We’re looking for a nine-point week, bottom line,” mentioned Adams, 22.
And Weston McKennie mentioned final week the United States wanted to assert its place as the most effective staff within the confederation. “The only way to do that is to dominate it,” he mentioned two days earlier than taking the sector for the primary World Cup qualifier of his profession. “And to dominate, you’ve got to win your games.”
These issues, for a number of causes, didn’t come true.
Injuries, diseases and a suspension have required the United States to depend on rising abilities like Brenden Aaronson.Credit…Mark Humphrey/Associated Press
Being the most effective staff and successful video games doesn’t rely solely on having the most effective gamers. But it helps, and in that regard, McKennie didn’t assist the group’s trigger. On Sunday afternoon, he was suspended for violating staff guidelines and had to miss the staff’s ultimate two video games of the week. McKennie mentioned on Instagram earlier than the sport towards Canada that he had damaged Covid protocols.
Berhalter mentioned the disciplinary transfer was for the staff’s long-term well being. In the brief time period, it harm. The suspension disadvantaged the staff of one in all its finest gamers, and McKennie’s teammates spent the following days awkwardly answering questions on his conduct. World Cup qualifying runs via March, and Berhalter instructed that McKennie, who performs for the Italian powerhouse Juventus, can be again within the image quickly sufficient.
“It’s an open-door policy,” he mentioned. “There will very rarely be a situation where a player would never be allowed back into national team camp. That’s not how we operate.”
Yet McKennie’s lapse was solely essentially the most excessive profile of the personnel complications which have befallen the staff since even earlier than it gathered late final month.
Timothy Weah, one of many staff’s finest attackers, by no means joined the group after hurting his leg whereas coaching together with his membership staff in France.
Christian Pulisic, the staff’s captain and prime participant, missed the primary recreation whereas making an attempt to regain his health after testing constructive for the coronavirus.
Goalkeeper Zach Steffen was dominated out for the primary recreation, after which the remaining, first by again spasms, then by a constructive coronavirus check.
Gio Reyna injured his proper hamstring within the first recreation towards El Salvador and was despatched again to his German membership with out taking the sector once more.
Defender Sergiño Dest sprained his proper ankle within the recreation on Sunday and departed, too.
These points made for a notably sophisticated state of affairs throughout a cramped window of video games through which Berhalter had made no secret of his plans to rotate his lineup. But additionally they had been simply a style of the methods issues can spiral within the unforgiving panorama of World Cup qualifying.
“It happens,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 20, mentioned of his staff’s simmering turmoil. “You have to get over things. I feel like as a team we just need to get over things.”
The subsequent video games will arrive quick: Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica subsequent month, then Mexico and a journey to Jamaica about 4 weeks later.
Before then, the staff has some rising up to do. Only six of the 26 gamers initially known as into the squad had any expertise in World Cup qualifying. Thirteen of them had been 23 years outdated or youthful in the beginning of coaching camp. Nine of the starters towards El Salvador had been showing of their first World Cup qualifier. (That 10 members of the staff are taking part in for golf equipment within the European Champions League this 12 months reiterates the extent of expertise being unfulfilled up to now.)
One downside that wanted fixing as they took the sector Wednesday evening was discovering some scoring: Heading into the Honduras recreation, the United States had not produced multiple aim in any of its earlier six video games.
“In the end,” mentioned Pulisic, “we know how to play, and it’s our job to go out there and create chances and score goals.”
That could also be so, however as they head again to their golf equipment on Thursday, they know they’ll have a restricted window of time to show it.