Even if Concacaf had granted U.S. Men’s National Team coach Gregg Berhalter the wish of laying out his team’s World Cup qualifying schedule any way he wanted, Berhalter’s selections could not have been much different than the schedule the Americans were assigned on Wednesday.
An early schedule featuring the lower-ranked opponents in the field and a back-loaded schedule where the team’s toughest road trips don’t take place until later in the round is a dream scenario for a USMNT squad bringing along a talented but inexperienced generation of players into what will be for many players their first World Cup qualifying cycle.
The Americans received the most favorable draw in the group when you consider they won’t have to face either Costa Rica or Mexico until the sixth matchday, and those two Concacaf powers will face off in Costa Rica in the second match of the final qualifying round. The Ticos and El Tri will also each face a touch Jamaica side in the first three matchdays while the Americans won’t face the Reggae Boyz until a home game on the fourth matchday, and don’t travel to Jamaica until the eighth matchday, in October of 2021.
The USMNT’s schedule is far more favorable than the schedule it faced in the 2018 World Cup qualifying cycle, which saw the Americans begin the final round with matches against Mexico at home, and at Costa Rica. The United States lost both those matches, leading to Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing as head coach and setting the USMNT on a path leading to its first failed World Cup qualifying campaign since 1985.
Berhalter did his best to downplay the benefits of the schedule, stating repeatedly that all qualifiers are difficult, but he acknowledged that it is to the USMNT’s benefit not to have to travel to Mexico or Costa Rica until 2022.
“You have 11 games before that to get the group used to playing in these qualifying games and then you have two of the harder opponents away from home towards the end,” Berhalter said. “I think that’s certainly a way to look at it. Another way to look at it is if you can take care of all your business beforehand you can be in a very good position going into those games.”
The Americans have a wealth of young talent in the pipeline featuring several players 23 and under who should be important parts of Berhalter’s plans. Players such as Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Sergino Dest, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Zack Steffen are all leading candidates for starting roles, and none have played in World Cup qualifying before.
All those players, with the exception of Reyna, have experienced playing in official competitions, be it Gold Cups or Nations League, but the unique challenges of Concacaf qualifying make for notoriously tricky tests, even against lower-ranked competition.
The possibility of the USMNT’s opening qualifier being in Trinidad & Tobago, where the Americans saw their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign die, will make for a very intriguing subplot, but the current crop of young American talents have faced Trinidad & Tobago recently, having pummeled the Soca Warriors 6-0 in the 2019 Gold Cup.
“The potential to play Trinidad in that first game away from home is a nice storyline, but we’re focused on things much bigger than just that game,” Berhalter said. “For us it’s the total package of trying to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
“Every game is pressure. You have a lot of pressure to win your home games because that’s historically where you pick up the most points,” Berhalter said. “We’ll take every game and we’ll put all we got into each and every game and hopefully towards the end we’ll be in a good position to qualify.”
A potential second qualifying match at home against Canada would provide a good test as well, but the Americans already avenged their Nations League loss to Canada in October of 2019 with a resounding 4-1 win last November in Orlando.
As for the USMNT’s return trip to Canada for its first match north of the border since its ugly Nations League loss in October of 2019? That trip doesn’t take place until the 10th matchday, in November of 2011.
To be clear, the new Concacaf World Cup qualifying format has some challenges, starting with what will be a grueling stretch of four qualifiers in June of 2021. Berhalter’s younger stars will be faced with the rigors of hopping back and forth across the Concacaf region, but their opponents will be facing the same challenges in that opening month, and fellow regional powers Mexico and Costa Rica will be doing so against much tougher competition.
The Americans will be hoping for a fast start to qualifying, and comfortable booking of a place in Qatar for 2022, much like the comfortable qualifying campaigns the Americans enjoyed in 2005 and 2009 under Bob Bradley, when the USMNT qualified for the World Cup with games to spare.
In the past, an early qualification meant being able to use the final qualifiers to call-up prospects and rest some key players, but given the fact the final round of Concacaf qualifying will spill over into 2022, the same year as the World Cup, meaning even if the Americans qualify early, there will be an incentive to still deploy the strongest possible team in order to give the group more experience against top competition.
“It’s certainly something to consider,” Berhalter said. “As we get into 2022 there’s going to be limited opportunities to play difficult games. But when you think about Mexico and Costa Rica away, those are certainly difficult games so another opportunity for this group to test itself and push itself as you move toward the World Cup.”
First thing’s first, the Americans need to qualify, and as favorable as the schedule may have fallen for the USMNT, Berhalter’s team will still need to perform and avoid a slow start like the one that doomed the Americans in the previous cycle. If the last Concacaf World Cup qualifying cycle taught the Americans anything, it’s that nothing can be taken for granted.