The final score was even at 1-1, and the points shared were also the same, but to best understand why Canada can walk away from Sunday’s World Cup qualifying draw against the U.S. men’s national team feeling much better than the Americans, you need only recall two scenes from the second half.
The first consisted of Canada coach John Herdman turning to his bench and deploying star attackers Jonathan David and Tajon Buchanan in the 65th minute of their match. It was clearly a pre-planned deployment, and one you could see coming the moment Canada’s starting lineup was announced.
The second scene to recall was later in the second half, after the 70th minute, the USMNT had just seen a promising counterattack thwarted by an off-the-ball foul by Tyler Adams, and soon after Alphonso Davies was seen favoring a leg, suffering a knock that would eventually force him off, much to the delight of the American defense. Canada had already made three substitutions by that point, including the aforementioned double-sub of David and Buchanan, yet Berhalter stood pat, all five substitutions in hand, and waited for the moment to make changes.
Berhalter waited until the 83rd minute, which left Josh Sargent, Konrad De La Fuente and Cristian Roldan little time to make an impact.
The reason these two scenes are notable is because in them we saw one coach being proactive, and having a well thought-out gameplan come together, while we saw another coach be reactive, and ultimately react later than he should have.
The final result was a performance that exposed both a young team, and its coach. As much as it shouldn’t be a complete surprise a team as young as the current USMNT squad might have some growing pains adapting to the grind of World Cup qualifying, the “still learning the ropes” excuse will only ring more and more hollow as time goes on, especially if other teams in the Octagonal figure out the tough terrain more quickly than the Americans.
You need only look at Canada for an example of a team that responded quickly to a painful lesson. The home draw against Honduras last was bitterly disappointing, but the Canadians responded with a resolute performance in Nashville. Herdman deserves a lot of credit for having the humility to pass on the chance to simply deploy all his attacking weapons from the start in an attempt to stand toe-to-toe with the Americans, choosing instead to go with a defensively-sound 5-4-1 setup that frustrated the Americans, and left the attacking threat to Alphonso Davies’ speedy forays, while he kept Buchanan and David fresh for a second-half attack.
The Canadian game plan worked perfectly, and not only secured the road point the Canadians came to Nashville to grab, but very nearly earned the visitors all three points.
Meanwhile, the U.S. attack that had such a hard time in El Salvador on Thursday once again struggled badly to find solutions to crack Canada’s defensive wall. Once you factor in the struggles of the defense, which was exposed on multiple occasions by Canada’s speedsters, it’s tough to look at Sunday’s USMNT performance as anything but a major cause for concern.
In a vacuum, Sunday’s result would have been one the Americans might have been okay with surviving, especially given how many times Canada set up golden chances only to waste them, but what made the draw a panic-inducing result is the fact it came three days after the 0-0 draw in El Salvador, leaving the USMNT sitting on two points from two qualifiers, and sitting outside the automatic qualifying places for the World Cup.
It might seem extremely premature to even be talking about the standings when you consider the Octagonal consists of 14 matches, but tell that to fans who remember all too well what happened the last time the Americans began the final round of qualifying failing to win either of their first two matches.
The good news for the USMNT is that the Octagonal offers more margin for error than the old Hexagonal, with the four extra matches offering more points to grab. The bad news is there are more teams in the mix who can figure things out and potentially make a run at the top-three automatic qualifying spots, like Panama, which has jumped out to a surprising four-point start to qualifying.
What matters now is how the Americans respond as they prepare for a difficult road test at Honduras. The absence of Gio Reyna, the USMNT’s most creative player, certainly hurts, and McKennie’s uncertain status for the match, and the circumstance surrounding his suspension, continue to cast a dark cloud over the September qualifiers, but there is still enough talent on the U.S. team to win in Honduras.
The question now is will this U.S. team and its coach take the lessons learned from its opening draws and respond with the kind of performance expected from them when qualifying began, or will we see yet another lackluster performance to complete the kind of disappointing September few could have envisioned back when the USMNT was raising trophies in the summer?