NASHVILLE — If every World Cup qualifying campaign is a rollercoaster ride of highs and lows, then the US men’s soccer team hasn’t gotten off the ground yet.
The Americans have played two games in four days to start the final round of their regional qualifying tournament for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, and while expecting to win both games, they have instead settled for two disappointing draws.
It’s still early days. There are still 12 games to go. And two points are better than none.
But there was a restless yearning within the team and its fans for an assured start to this qualifying cycle, given the disaster of the latter, when the team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This group, made up of young talents employed by some of the world’s best club teams, had hoped to begin the healing process.
Instead, there are more questions about the team’s competence, more worries about history repeating itself, more desperation to win the next game, which arrives in Honduras on Wednesday night.
“There are ups and downs and bumps in the road, and we just have to keep responding when called up,” said Gregg Berhalter, the American coach. “We can do two things. We can feel bad about ourselves or we can continue with a positive attitude and try to get a positive result in Honduras.”
The stage was set in many ways for a restorative performance on Sunday night at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. The grass was lush. The home crowd was dignified. The nerves of the novice players were supposedly settled.
In other words, none of the excuses Berhalter had used this weekend to explain his team’s disappointing 0-0 draw in El Salvador last Thursday — about the knobbly playing field, the hostile atmosphere, the number of team members who played their first qualifier. – applied when the Americans recorded another unsatisfactory draw, 1-1, in their second game against Canada.
Since the team could not meet the moment, the search for answers continued.
The Americans seemed to pass the ball clumsily. They took the scenic route when shortcuts were needed, trudging around the perimeter of the Canadian’s dense defensive shell. It was a familiar set of problems: lots of ownership, little production. The United States held the ball for 71 percent of the game, but Canada’s sit-back and counterattack plan worked just fine, and the result seemed reasonable.
“We needed a much faster ball movement,” Berhalter said. “Everyone could see from the outside, we took way too long on the ball.”
He added: “We have to figure out ways to break down a compact defense because I’m sure there will be other teams that come to the United States and do the same.”
Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ captain and best player, who returned to the lineup after missing the game in El Salvador while recovering from a positive coronavirus test last month, was also critical – even if it was unclear whether he pointed it at the coaching staff. , his teammates, himself or a combination of the three.
“I think sometimes we need new ideas,” he said. “Today I think we didn’t test them enough, whether it wasn’t direct enough or not – I’m not sure. But it felt like we couldn’t tear them down. We just need some new solutions. It was clearly not good enough.”
Pulisic also suggested the team could have behaved differently after taking the lead early in the second half, making some adjustments and perhaps adopting a more defensive stance.
“I think it’s important in these kinds of games, difficult games, to just work it out and win these games 1-0 every now and then,” he said.
Such pragmatism requires some knowledge, and it is unclear how much this team owns. The squad is populated by intriguing youngsters, many of whom are technically proficient in a way that undermines long-standing stereotypes about American football players, many of whom play for high-profile clubs in Europe. Trophies in two tournaments this summer – the Gold Cup and the Nations League – sparked excitement at what the group could do.
But this month, the group’s youth and acknowledged naivety seemed at risk.
“It’s a team sport,” midfielder Tyler Adams said when asked about the players’ strong pedigrees. “It doesn’t matter where we come from. If we don’t go out and do the things we’re good at, we’re just a bunch of names on a piece of paper.”
It didn’t help that this team is exhausted by a combination of bad luck and indiscretion.
Ahead of Sunday’s game, the team announced that Gio Reyna, one of its best strikers, would be out indefinitely with a hamstring injury and that Berhalter’s first-choice goalkeeper Zach Steffen would also leave the squad after a coronavirus test position.
The squad also announced before kick-off on Sunday that star midfielder Weston McKennie would miss the game in Nashville after violating the squad’s coronavirus policy.
“I’m sorry for my actions,” he wrote in an Instagram post. “I will be cheering hard for the boys tonight and hope to be back with the team soon.”
For McKennie, who tested positive for the virus last October, the indiscretion (which the team declined to say in detail) indicated a worrisome pattern of behavior. In April, McKennie was suspended by his club team, Juventus, after throwing a party at his Turin home that violated a local curfew and had to be aborted by police.
Berhalter declined to say late Sunday night whether McKennie would be available for Wednesday’s game in Honduras.
These bouts of misfortune and personal missteps are hard to digest when every game weighs so heavily. There is only so much time to do things right, but so many setbacks a team can endure.
“The way we introduced it to the guys is that every game is a final,” Berhalter said. “Fourteen finals, that’s how we should do it. So the urgency will always be there until we are mathematically sure with the qualifier. ”
The Americans unveiled a marketing slogan last month: ‘Only ahead’. — that reflected a desire to put their recent failures behind them. But Pulisic on Sunday couldn’t help but dwell on the past, noting that the squad had lost its first two games in the final cycle. Those poor results led to the resignation of Coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
By that standard, Americans are now better off. By any other yardstick, they are alarmingly failing to live up to expectations.