When Weston McKennie took a moment to pose for selfies with El Salvador fans before Thursday’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying opener, he sent a not-so-subtle message that the atmosphere at the Estadio Cuscatlan wasn’t going to intimidate him or his teammates.
Unfortunately for McKennie and the U.S. men’s national team, the setting for Thursday’s match didn’t seem to inspire them all that much either, and rather than a rousing World Cup qualifying debut for the USMNT’s golden generation, we were subjected to a far-too-timid performance from a young team that played like it forgot three points were up for grabs.
On one hand, you can understand how a team that had a record-setting 12 players making their World Cup qualifying debut lacked the level of urgency required to thrive in Concacaf’s challenging World Cup qualifying environment, but at the same time Thursday’s performance still felt disappointing given the talent of the group.
Right now there are two prevailing schools of thought on Thursday’s result. On one side there is that thought that a road point shouldn’t be taken for granted, and earning one is an accomplishment. On the other side, there is something to be said for the idea that the Americans dropped points against an opponent that isn’t expected to be among the leading contenders for the three automatic spots in Concacaf qualifying.
The truth lies somewhere between those two. On one hand, the Americans were never truly threatened by El Salvador, and as young and inexperienced as this USMNT was on Thursday, it never really looked like a team overwhelmed by the stage.
The problem was the painful lack of urgency in the group, which manifested itself in Sergiño Dest’s careless attempts to pull off tricks rather than effectively threatening El Salvador’s defense, and in the seeming reluctance by U.S. attackers to impose themselves on the match.
Gio Reyna was guilty of this in the first half, but he stepped things up in the second half, growing into the game in a way his teammates simply didn’t.
Konrad De La Fuente and Brenden Aaronson were handed starts due to their impressive club form, but neither really showed the aggressive and dynamic attacking qualities that have allowed them to thrive with Marseille and Red Bull Salzburg respectively. You can chalk that up to growing pains for two players light on international experience, let alone World Cup qualifying experience, but that didn’t make their struggles any less surprising.
You also had Josh Sargent, who finished with a team-high five shots, but who failed to put away the one good chance that came his way. If Thursday was his chance to show he should remain the starting USMNT striker, then he failed to make a convincing case, and Jordan Pefok’s flashes of promise off the bench only served to strengthen his own claim to the starting spot for Sunday’s qualifier against Canada.
If there was a bright spot for the Americans, it was the play of the central defense, with Miles Robinson continuing to impress and Tim Ream rewarding Berhalter’s faith by playing well in what was easily the most surprising lineup selection the USMNT coach made.
Berhalter saw a chance to save John Brooks for Canada and its dangerous strikers, and gave Ream the nod even given his limitations. The Fulham defender stepped up to the challenge, and formed a solid partnership with Robinson. It was the only lineup gamble Berhalter took, and it paid off, but the USMNT coach can’t really take a victory lap on that win given how mediocre the team played as a whole.
Berhalter will have a much tougher set of lineup decisions to make for Sunday, when Canada comes to Nashville eager for points after its own disappointing result on Thursday, a 1-1 home draw against Honduras. Christian Pulisic, Brooks and Zack Steffen should be available and ready to start, while Berhalter decides which of Thursday’s underperformers he benches.
The importance of Pulisic’s return can’t be overstated, and not just because of the obvious quality he brings to the table. Pulisic is also a player who knows what World Cup qualifying is about, and he is familiar with the pain of World Cup qualifying disappointment in a way that the rest of the USMNT youngsters simple isn’t.
That was obvious to see on Thursday in El Salvador, when the USMNT’s youngsters played like a team that was content to survive its first World Cup qualifying experience rather than playing like a time eager to conquer it.