The United States men’s national team looks better than it has in ages and certainly has its deepest talent pool in years, but all that will mean very little without a win over Panama in World Cup qualifying on Sunday, something it’s done 17 times in 25 tries (losing only thrice, all in Gold Cup matches).
The Yanks will have gotten a stirring lesson from Italy’s exit from qualifying on Thursday, a reminder that programs with better history and accolades can miss consecutive tournaments if not at their best in the key moments.
[ MORE: How will USMNT line up against Panama? ]
And while Gregg Berhalter’s defenders rose to the occasion in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Mexico at Azteca, key misses from Christian Pulisic and Jordan Pefok mean the win that could’ve all but sealed a berth in Qatar is a draw that leaves open the door for sure.
Here’s where the strings come in, to borrow a line from Superchunk.
If you let them.
[ MEXICO vs USMNT: Three things | U.S. Player ratings ]
The United States men’s national team is the most talented team in CONCACAF right now. It will make some of you spit-takers out there even more alarmed and aghast when I add that it’s not even particularly close with anyone besides Mexico.
But the way the talent is assembled and motivated at times shows a weakness not in structure but belief, and it’s permeated the social culture around the team.
This USMNT has yet to take the leap into trusting their ancestry
It’s true and it’s not up for debate. From scheduling away games that risk hypothermia in the hopes of beating a team it almost always beats at home to social media considerations of whether to put their best lineup out against rivals because there’s another game in a few days — against a team that will have traveled just as far and played just as recently (but altitude, they scream!) — it’s a joke.
Look, Liga MX is strong and MLS’ growth has been impossibly fast but the clubs represented by the US roster alone shows you that the gap between the US, Mexico, and the field is huge. Yes, even you Canada, but this is a compliment. The Canadians are almost everything we loved about the USMNT in the early 2000s — out-performing their talent with guile and self-belief that borders on arrogance.
That’s the good way to border arrogance. We saw the bad way in 2017 from a waterlogged pitch in Couva and perhaps it’s made the team and federation sheepish to acknowledge the truth: The money invested in American soccer might not be nurturing the best talents but it’s turning out talent from all corners of the world.
No team should play down the competition and yes, every team is going to talk about how difficult it is to win. The next time we hear “We’re going to take it three games at a time because El Salvador at home shouldn’t be an issue” will be the first.
But look at the Yanks’ best games. They come with either the implementation of superiority or the swagger of a team who wants the world to know it’s superior. Both silverware-collecting wins over Mexico, the pounding of Honduras at home and away.
And the Yanks have been ascending (without finish)
The numbers would have a hard time telling any story other than the Yanks are better than the rest. Home or away, the Americans are delivering more danger than the opposition in nearly every match (Stats via Sofascore.com).
at El Salvador — Draw 0-0 — — Shots +6 (13-7); Big chance +3 (3-0)
vs. Canada— Draw 1-1 — Shots +5 (11-6); Big chance E (2-2)
at Honduras—Win 4-1——Shots -6 (12-18); Big chance +1 (3-2)
vs. Jamaica—Win 1-0—Shots +12 (17-5); Big chance +5 (5-0)
at Panama—Loss 0-1——Shots -3 (5-8); Big odds -2 (0-2)
vs. Costa Rica—Win 2-1——Shots +8 (12-4); Big chance +2 (2-0)
vs. Mexico—Win 2-0—Shots +10 (18-8); Big chance +1 (3-2)
at Jamaica—Draw 1-1——Shots +3 (9-6); Big odds -1 (0-1)
vs. El Salvador—Win 1-0——Shots +11 (17-6); Big chance +5 (5-0)
at Canada—Loss 0-2——Shots +5 (13-8); Big odds -2 (0-2)
vs. Honduras—Win 3-0—Shots +14 (16-2); Big chance +2 (2-0)
at Mexico — Draw 0-0 — Shots -2 (9-11); Big chance +2 (2-0)
The shot attempts across those games? 152-89
The total for big chances across the first dozen games of the Octagonal? 25-11.
The combined scoreline? 14-7
The Americans have been out-shot twice in 12 matches, and have produced more big chances than the opposition in eight of 12. Five times they’ve allowed zero big chances.
CONCACAF will fear a USMNT that knows it’s better than the opposition and acts like it. We have a feeling that’s what we’ll see on Wednesday against Panama, a team that knows itself and is ready to cast aside the historical failings of 2017.