US National Team Survives Sticky Wicket vs El Salvador
The recurring theme in World Cup Qualifying for the US National Team has been "Underwhelming"...Thursday night's home qualifier offered the team, but more specifically, manager Gregg Berhalter, an opportunity to rectify the tactical errors that cost the USA precious points in San Salvador last fall.
The final score may have read 1-0 following a volley from Fulham defender Antonee Robinson, but the theme remained. Throughout the contest, the Yanks controlled the bulk of the possession, had numerous chances and felt very little pressure from their overmatched opponent. That said, the USA was disjointed and out of sync the entire match, squandered the chances and have yet again been lulled into a false sense of security after a victory where the players forged through in spite of Berhalter's ineptitude.
The decision to first and foremost include 21 year old FC Dallas attacker Jesus Ferreira in the 28 man roster was mind boggling. Not because he lacks talent and isn't a rising prospect in the US player pool---but because he hasn't played a competitive fixture since November 7th and there are a plethora of attackers playing at higher levels in Europe, including Josh Sargent, Nicholas Gioacchini and most notably, Jordan Pefok, who has been lights out for Young Boys this season in Switzerland(11G in league, 5 G in Champions League).
The decision to start him over Ricardo Pepi was even more shocking, and the ring rust showed. Ferreira squandered enough chances that would have rendered Robinson's winner, which he had a hand in, irrelevant. It wasn't a good night for him and in a game where he could have raised his transfer stock for summer, it probably dropped a touch.
Secondly, Berhalter's decision to include 13 MLS players, most of whom have not played a match in two months, was far less shocking given the extremely close ties between the USSF and MLS, but still equally troubling. With a player pool as deep as the US has in its European bound youth movement, the American soccer community should be extremely frustrated that these talents, whom should be getting experience and minutes to prepare for this and the next two or even three cycles, are being passed over.
The inclusion of Columbus Crew striker Gyasi Zardes was laughable and as soon as his name was included, with a game in Columbus, anyone in the know had a hunch that Berhalter would show his weaknesses and ensure that Zardes was inserted to create a cheap pop from the home crowd. Jordan Morris was another of Berhalter's head scratchers who saw minutes and produced little to nothing. Morris is an above average player for Seattle but both he and Zardes are at a point where their ceiling is the B-Team, guys who can win you the Gold Cup group stage games against Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba but who lack the killer instincts to make it at the next level or in Europe.
The MLS vs Europe argument aside, the burden of this and all the other poor performances thus far in Qualifying lie on the lap of Berhalter. His attempts to play a very specific style that is nearly impossible to implement with a national team that only gets together for about 25 days a year are the first strike. The second strike is how it translates into games--It's not pretty and it means players have to make individual moments of brilliance to save face for him--See the Dest blast vs Costa Rica or even Robinson tonight. Berhalter has been criticized at the club level for being too defensive--That's the reason that he was let go at Swedish side Hammarby. His unwillingness to turn his far younger, far more talented and far more athletic roster loose is raising serious questions among those knowledgeable about the sport in this country. Out of 9 games, the only time Berhalter truly "hit a home run" was the Mexico game, where dos-a-cero returned. He was masterful with his tactics that night and the USA ran circles around El Tri. Outside of that, it's been a rocky road.
The casual fans may shout from the rooftops about "We're in qualifying position! We're winning the games and that's all that matters!"--Qualifying from CONCACAF should not be a struggle any longer for the US National Team. The talent pool is now significantly deeper than every other nation we face--Yes, that includes Mexico--Canada may be more of an equal at this point on paper. The poor performances should raise the alarm that while the USA, barring a capitulation, will return to the World Cup this year in Qatar, the stay will likely be brief unless major changes are made by Berhalter and\or the federation on tactics, player selection and pressing the game.
Also...When did simply qualifying out of CONCACAF become good enough? Did missing 2018 change everything? We used to talk about making the quarterfinals as a goal with a player pool that wasn't half as deep or talented but was doubly tough. The kids coming through have the grit necessary to get across the line and the talent that the generations before only dreamed of, but Berhalter continues to hamper them.
Don't be surprised if Canada beats the USA in Hamilton, even without Davies. It's certainly possible.
If the USA plays in Qatar the way they have played in qualifying and continue to utilize the sub standard domestic based talent, they'll go home 0-3-0 with a -9 goal differential. It's that simple.