US men’s soccer team has slow start to World Cup qualifying

Mark Keplinger, Sports Editor

The USMNT won five out of nine points in their opening three matches. (Matthew Tate)

The United States men’s national soccer team drew twice and won once in their opening three games of World Cup qualifying. It is a slow start for a team that is expected to be one of the best in the region. Following a highly successful summer where the USMNT won two international trophies, the national team at times looked sluggish and disorganized against opposition they should have handily beaten.

To qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the USMNT must finish top three in a group of eight teams from around North America, Central America and the Caribbean. The fourth placed team will enter into an intercontinental playoff against a country from either South America, Asia or Oceania. The U.S. will play every nation twice, once home and once away for a total of 14 games. Following the opening three games of qualifying, the United States sits in third, level on points with Canada and Panama and two points behind leaders Mexico.

The United States had great expectations entering into qualifying, following a summer where the team won both the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football Nations League and Gold Cup in two dramatic finals against Mexico. Chelsea FC forward Christian Pulisic returned as the United States’ best and most important player, while other familiar faces such as Juventus FC midfielder Weston McKennie and FC Barcelona right back Sergiño Dest looked to contribute as well. Young talents such as FC Dallas forward Ricardo Pepi and FC Red Bull Salzburg midfielder Brenden Aaronson hoped to impress during their time with the national team.

The United States opened their qualifying campaign on Sept. 2 with a scoreless draw against El Salvador in San Salvador. Both sides missed good opportunities to score, with American midfielder McKennie missing a particularly good chance with 20 minutes to play, when McKennie glanced an unmarked header wide. 

Three days later, the U.S. hosted Canada in Nashville, Tennessee. Pulisic returned to the lineup after recovering from COVID-19 and looked dangerous against the Canadians. However it was Aaronson who scored first for the Americans in the second half after finishing off a sweeping team move. Seven minutes later, Canadian star Alphonoso Davies decisively cut through the American defense to set up teammate Cyle Larin for an easy equalizing goal. The game ended 1-1, with American head coach Gregg Berhalter receiving criticism for not introducing substitutions early enough in the game.

On Sept. 8, the Americans traveled to Honduras for the third and final game of this international break. Several key U.S. players could not play the match due to injury, while McKennie was sent back to his club in Italy for breaching COVID-19 protocols before the game against Canada. The Hondurans struck first when Brayan Moya’s unmarked diving header from close range beat goalkeeper Matt Turner. The U.S. responded emphatically after halftime when substitute Antonee Robinson scored three minutes after the break.  

Both sides traded good chances, with both goalies denying opposition attackers with fine saves.  Youngster Pepi broke the deadlock for the Americans with a well taken header 15 minutes from time, before setting up Aaronson 11 minutes later. Sebastian Lletget finished the turnaround when he tucked away a rebound from Pepi’s shot in injury time. The match ended 4-1, with the Hondurans thoroughly outplayed in the final twenty minutes.

The USMNT will be back in action with another three World Cup qualifying games in October. The U.S. will host Jamaica on Oct. 7 before traveling to Panama City to play a tough Panama side on Oct. 10. The Americans will wrap up the international break on Oct. 13 when they host Costa Rica.