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USMNT’s golden generation didn’t crumble in its qualifying debut, but didn’t shine either

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.

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

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.

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos

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.

Comments

  1. One thing that should not be lost is that Hugo Perez offered his services to USSF for years and USSF was seemingly uninterested. Maybe Hugo didn’t always go about things the right way but it sure seems that USSF didn’t really try to workout the differences.

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  2. I think a lot of the loose touches can be somewhat explained by the field conditions, especially with Dest and Aaronson. I think those guys need to learn and adjust what they do when playing on CONCACAF fields outside the US, Mexico, Canada, etc. Too much twinkle-toed finesse when playing on a bumpy, uneven surface. I think ES did very well with combination play while the ball was in the air, volleying it instead of trying to settle and make those smooth passes on the ground when the field is what it is.

    I also don’t think Konrad and Dest should not be deployed on the same side. They try and do the same things, cutting inside to beat people 2 v 1. If Konrad is going to cut inside, Dest needs to overlap on the wing to get open or drag a defender. The same is true of Konrad for Dest. They can’t just watch each other try and beat people to the inside while drawing 2 or 3 defenders.

    Hope the coach and players learn from this experience. I guess we’ll see on Wednesday in Honduras against a better team in a similar environment.

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  3. The bird with the inverted wing flew south. Most people- The bird had to get away from the cold. Lol. I like the word inverted. Intelligent people-Wait… Birds can’t fly with one wing!?
    The Delta jet with an inverted wing flew from LAX (LA) to Hartsfield-Jackson (Atl). Most people- I bet that was a long flight! Intelligent people- Wait a minute… A jet couldn’t get off the runway with one wing?! Looks up the definition.. Some of y’all are way to smart; not to be making any sense. When you use this term, either you’re an intelligent person, who sounds dum, or a dum person trying to sound intelligent. You’re already smart if you can explain your opinion! Don’t mess it up by sounding silly. I like watching all USA matches, a 2nd time, when my emotions are completely out of it. It always gives me better perspective. Sometimes I’m expecting too much, better or worse, other times it confirms what I saw. Having big expectations brings anxiety, high anxiety isn’t good. There’s a lot to be said about the ES match, that I didn’t say but I hope intelligent people got the point. I’m out, peace!

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    • “Well if you were directly above him then how could you see him?” “Because I was inverted.” If you know what movie that is from you probably saw Hugo Perez and Gregg Berhalter play live.

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    • Dikranovich, just meant the generation that watched the movie would have started watching the NT at the end of Hugo’s career and reached its total fandom with dos a cero in the WC.

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  4. ES is LEGIT! However, there’s a problem with the overall mentality within USSF – THEY play still NOT TO LOSE. It’s embarrassing. I’m glad ES got the draw those cats can play

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  5. Winning on the road in CONCAFAF is hard. It isn’t about who has the most talented lineup, as we saw on Thursday, but other factors.

    I am tempted to start Yedlin and Robinson at wingbacks on Sunday. Dest was a defensive liability, and caused the MF to shift to compensate for his defensive ineffectiveness. For Canada, we need to pressure their backs and midfield to disrupt service to their speedy forwards. That means the US needs solid defenders able to keep pace with the Canadians, and no Dest. This is also a game to bring on a fresh midfielder for Aaronson, either Lletget or Roldan, who will help stabilize the midfield.

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  6. I think the thought was put Dest and Konrad on the left and they would be comfortable with each other from their year at Barca together. That did not happen obviously. Too much dancing from both, both Dest and Konrad had moments where they just made one move and then went. Dest then hit his hopeful shot was probably our best shot from the run of play. Konrad did it and got a decent cross. You could see Reyna begin to understand this in the second half. Dest seems to play better on defense when his offense is going well. He’s been playing almost exclusively on the right for Barca and think he’s showing some rust. Robinson was poor as well with a couple simple giveaways but at least he was physical presence.
    —————————
    Aaronson isn’t an 8, I could see him central if we used a # 10, but he’s not strong enough to battle in CM. But if we’re going to adjust our MF to a double 6 instead of a double 8 then I’d rather have Reyna as the 10 who can at least create and is more physical presence.
    ————————————
    Maybe we’ll see clarity with the Canada lineup but we didn’t see a lot of evidence of having a month since the GC to prepare.

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    • hey johhny, I hope/expect to see Gio play all out defensively on the flank, up and down and up and down until he can’t anymore, that total impact effort in this next game. Same for CP on the other side who is rested (managed minutes well by GB imo re. CP and his health history). And no more Dest on the LB ever again; GB asking what Dest can’t give can’t be asked again for this team imo, even with someone besides Konrad out there with him. Also think we can score in the air dialing in Weston, Prefok. And I wonder how GB goes with Ream not in there and instead Brooks/Robinson…maybe just Adams and then Weston/Lletget above him

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    • Tab Ramos had the blueprint on how to use Konrad & Dest and most of these players. Remember U20 WC? Sargent was the CF! Konrad was doing all the tricks w/ the ball as the starting RW. Dest was the starting RB and both combined for a few plays but no chances created? (Alex Mendez was the right midfielder). ‘Slimy yet satisfying!’ I would’ve enjoyed seeing McKennie, Dest, KDF combination play vs ES. Just like in the ‘19 GC final, I didn’t enjoy are best player CP being hacked to death by El Tri. I wanted CP to be the 10 pulling the strings. CP was going 1 v 4. I felt the exact same way watching BA last night in the midfield. I’m a big fan of his as a RW. He’ll get stronger on the ball to play against CONCACAF competition but right now. Let the dawg hunt for goals! Traditionally, RWs have always been future attacking midfielders. Reyna is my pick as the left side midfielder! He has more options, when he has 3-4 players in front of him, similar to FCD & Ferreira, huh?!

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      • If we truly want to play possession we need a creative player in the middle. Ferreira did cross my mind, he’s athletic enough to put in a defensive shift but he’s not tremendously physical. I think Clark is also more physical and more prepared to battle in Concacaf midfields because of his physical strength. Wes and Tyler are great but they’re not creative. If Yunus is healthy he’s an upgrade as the 3rd MF but he hasn’t shown the ability to make the final pass yet. It looks like Valencia is going to play him centrally so the pt in CM should help with that. I had hopes Mendez would make a jump playing Portugal but he’s finding minutes tough to come by so far.

  7. I’m a little worried about Dest. He just doesn’t seem to fit on this USMNT team. I’m really hoping he breaksout in the Canada game but theres time where he just gives up and doesn’t go back in defense and thats not what I want out of our fullbacks. Btw I’m pretty happy with the result, winning on the road is just going to be too hard. Look at the results from last night, everybody picked up a point except Jamaica who should have picked up a point

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    • I just think he’s a right back and not a left back, simple as that, really.

      Playing him as a LB works against lesser teams, not against anyone good, because he morphs into a deep-lying winger and forgets about defense when you put him at LB.

      We just need to put him back at his natural spot and start Robinson/Vines/Bello on the left. Just my .02 worth. I’m in agreement with those who are saying it just doesn’t work to have both an inverted right-footed winger and an inverted right-footed LB playing on the left side because they take up the same space and don’t complement.

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      • Quozzel- I cringed when you compared Dike to Lukaku. I spit up my beer, when you compared Busio to Pirlo. When you said Miles Robinson started under Tata’s time during Atl United, I thought you bumped your head. I was like ‘Wuz up, wit’ my dawg QZ? (LGP, Parkhurst, Escobar were the starters). When you posted that this current squad reminds you of the 02 squad, I was like ‘O no! The 02 squad was an aberration, an anomaly, an outlier! … I’ve respected all your posts but this post is A1. As a left footed person, thank you. It’s like no other commenters are lefties in this community. I’ve been talking about this for awhile! Now, if you can help me get this word INVERTED out of the US fan bases lingo?! Wholly Jason Kreis!

      • Uh…you’re putting words in my mouth. I did compare Dike to Lukaku and I’ll stand by the comparison, the difference right now is Dike doesn’t have a full skillset and he’s not a finished product, and some of the holes in his game became readily apparent when he got up to International level. Still think that’s his ceiling but he needs to go somewhere he develops…his touch playing with his back to goal is off – dunno what that is, but he lets balls get into him too much and his feet turn into wooden paddles in some positions – and when he’s struggling to receive the ball you can watch him get visibly frustrated and his whole game goes to sh!t. I love his movement and his natural finishing, though, and if he can patch up a few aspects I still think he can hit that level. His movement, IQ, and natural nose for the goal is too good. (Truthfully I could see the Bundesliga being real good for him. I know he’s not Dortmund level yet but I’d love to see him somewhere like that, heck, I think even the B2 might be good for him.)
        I also said “Busio has some Pirlo in him”. And he does, though obviously he’s a mile from that now. Kid is still very much a kid, though I think Italy is going to be very good for him. He’s gotta get some more lead in his butt, be more physical winning challenges, and stick in more. And he’s obviously gotta clean up those extra touches and get rid of the ball faster but that’s every MLS guy who ever went to a Top 5 League.
        As for Robinson, I didn’t think Tata ever started him. I know Tata DRAFTED him, mind, but I didn’t think Tata ever really rated him or played him much when he was there.

      • By the way…I also made no comparison whatsoever at any point to the ’02 squad as far as I know. Was not me. Truthfully I wasn’t really following the USMNT very close at that point so I couldn’t even tell you beyond a couple guys who was on it.
        What gives with all these attributions, anyhow?

  8. will the rookies grow from the El Salvador game and is the road experience then a unifier in their response to recognize what these games are vs. what club games in Europe are (they are different tests). I think yes, and it’s a big moment for GB and the team building from this summer too, to get real with themselves and their performances and what is required here in CONCACAF. they did it this summer many times, learned, adjusted, grew, matured, as a group together. we’ll see

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  9. Interesting Ives didn’t see the team’s push to win as GB said he did repeatedly in his post game comments. I tend to agree with GB. They were pushing hard for a goal but they were doing it as individuals and that strategy wasn’t working. It improved briefly once Acosta and Pefok entered the game. At that point Reyna was too tired to continue to try to do it all himself so he started dishing more. It looked better and was more threatening at that point how ever briefly it lasted. They were trying and there seemed to be a sense of urgency. I hope this team realizes nothing is going to be given to them because of what their club teams are. We know from the US’ own history that better technical teams can be beat if they play as individuals (the US beating past Mexico teams and Spain come to mind). Being able to gel as a team is the key to this group’s success. This is what separated good teams from great teams. It hasn’t happened yet on the field and the longer it takes the more likely rifts will form and prevent it from ever happening.

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    • Yes, the U.S. in a transition phase with no end in sight to when they exit. Going from low individual offensive skill players, with emphasis on defensive shape, physical play and hope to score on counters and set pieces (most successful iteration for 270 minutes vs Egypt, Spain and 1st half vs Brazil at Confed Cup 2009), to high individual skill, less physical, possession based.

      Yet, the players who are skillful enough to overcome a bunkering defense are lacking, Ex Pulisic. They’re, as a collective, not good enough to break people down 1 on 2 or 3. Dest is the poster child. So much fancy dribbling, such ball control and absolutely nothing to show for it. How many dangerous chances has he actually created versus teams of CONCACAF Octagon or better quality?

      The USMNT used to shut such players down then they played counter-focused, and the same is happening with Dest. Skillful enough to have fancy moves, not physically strong enough to get past anyone and blast a shot or lay off for an easy assist.

      There’s a reason why U.S. needed set pieces to beat MX. They’re not ready to win a ground game versus good to great teams.

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    • You are getting to a point that I think Ives has missed in this article. He focuses on the individuals and their performances. The biggest problem is that they played as a collection of individuals rather than an organized team working together. Playing individually you have a sum less than the total of all the parts. Playing well as a team multiplies the efforts of the individuals so that the sum exceeds the total of the individual parts. ES did more of the latter and the US much more of the former. Add to that the fact that a lot of the US players did not play to their potential and you have a drab 0-0 draw, even though one team has better players at every position. And a lot of this has to fall on the coach for not getting them ready to play the right way.

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      • @Gary, we’ll see on the coach you’re calling out, but with 9 newbies in a road WC quali and getting a point sure beats losing at home to Mexico while rolling out a new formation that failed and then getting rolled on the road in CR…do you agree? This next game is THE key, and we’ll see if it works or not or if it’s another failure like last WC quali start, but there is a lot worse than taking a point on the road to start.

  10. I too was disappointed with the result. Too few corners. I seriously thought Pefok’s entry would be a spark… and it looked promising at first, but no goal scored. We really need to step it up. I like Berhalter, but we can no longer say the players aren’t good enough…

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  11. Disappointed….

    Had US bombarded the goal with many chances and was only stopped by outstanding keeping, a 0-0 tie would have been a fluke.

    This whole shtick about road ties being OK is nonsense. This ain’t Mexico or Costa Rica or Honduras, it’s El Salvador. This team playing this way against the others in the group would get bombed on the road, so the slogan of going for ties on the road won’t hold. This was a winnable game and I thought they’d win by one goal, so not expecting a blowout, but expecting a positive result.

    This, in some ways, is a young and soft team and lacks the bite, outside of Reyna and Adams. Kinda like in the Wales and Switzerland games, lacking Pulisic as a catalyst, all the other fancy parts come unglued and all those fancy resumes can’t ship in goals and get the W

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  12. re the truth lies in between, it’s about expectations. if we are content with what we have usually done, well, this is a return to churning road ties that is historically sufficient to qualify. if we buy the 2026, i am making this team better with a new way, spiel, or see this talent as requiring big things, yeah, that was underwhelming and not the sales pitch.

    personally to me it’s telling we just have never looked crisp and on a page under this guy. “costa ricas” are rare and not played like first team games. like it’s subs who don’t play like they are supposed to and we put up 4. this would be sufficient over time to advance, but that to me is bare minimum competence, i think we have better talent than squeaking by, and i thought we had bigger aspirations than the old formulas.

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  13. aaronson was in the wrong spot. he is not a mid. he’s a wing. other than a couple reyna crosses, they lacked precision service and we piled up corner kicks and headers rather than balls into the box to feet.

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    • Im fine with playing him there, he played their for Philly and if he can prove he can be effective their it allows us to play Reyna and Pulisic on wings OR play weah or Konrad opposite Pulisic IF reyna is out. Aronson to me is more suited for a midfield role than a true winger role but we’ll see. This idea about so many players be out of position is a wierd one for me. Playing an inverted winger with close control and a high workrate as a dual 8 isnt that big of a change is it? Playing a right footed fullback who loves to cut inside and combine on the left isnt that big of a deal is it? These guys are pros they can play multiple positions

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      • I think the subtle difference is that for Union and Red Bull he plays as a 10 not an 8. It’s not much of a difference on paper, but as 10 he’s able to hound the CBs in the press and he has dual sixes behind him to cleanup the opponents MF. For the US as an 8 he’s got regular defensive responsibilities were his lack of physical strength comes into play. As 10 in possession he can find space cleared by the CF as an 8 he’s got midfielders tracking and muscling him all the time.

      • he hasn’t done anything when we play him at 8. he has at LF. he’d be marginal to make a roster as a M under a different coach because he has no impact there. re johnny’s point, part of my argument is if you committed the full defense to….being defenders…..then maybe the mids are freed up to be more attacking. if part of the mid job is covering for the wingbacks then they will run their legs off on defense.

      • I go by the latest on a player. Players grow and change, hopefully for the better.

        Brenden played midfield for Philly. He did well. But as a #8 for Salzburg he’s exceptional. Reyna has played as a “winger” for BVB but he’s now playing more centrally in midfield and doing very well.

        Having them in their club roles for the USMNT seems only logical. Reyna and Green are the only logical candidates for creative central attacking midfield.

    • IV: Doyle had a theory that it was Dest’s poor defending that drug Adams wide, forcing Wes deeper to cover for Tyler and then brought Aaronson deeper to try to stay connected with Wes and Ty. I guess if that’s really what happened switching Reyna and Aaronson just makes the offense even more inept because now Gio is even further from goal. I’m not sure why we brought ARob and Bello if we were still going to use Dest as LB. Feel like we’ll see 3 back formation against Canada. Hopefully Dest on the right and Bello or Robinson. If he then has a bad game on the right then we need to move on from him as a FB for awhile. I’m not sure where we’d go if we tried your defense focused FBs though. I mean Chase Gasper maybe, Bello, Robinson, Yedlin, Dest, Reynolds, Moore, Cannon, Tolkin, Duncan all offense first FB. Gloster can’t play for NYCFC, I heard Kobe got released by Wolfsburg. Scally had 3 games, 1 ok, 1 great, 1 poor so who knows what he could be. Someone put a post on Twitter that this game was just GGG’s attempt to show Araujo how much we really need him.

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    • Vacqui, he was almost always a 10 or a wing for Philadelphia and he’s playing as a 10 for Salzburg now. RBS and Union typically play a 4-4-2 Diamond, neither even use an 8 role. Last year Marsch used a 4-4-2 double pivot without an 8 or 10. The responsibilities and space in the two roles are quite different. Aaronson was played as a 10 because of his ability to high press but he and the rest of the MF were dragged out of position to cover for others mistakes. However Brenden consistently mistimed his runs and was indecisive on the ball both of which are on him.

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  14. I’ll be the first to admit I was impressed by Ream. He didn’t really put a wrong foot forward. I’m not saying he’s the surefire starter as that’s Brooks position. But he definitely stepped in and played well. I do like how he didn’t telegraph passes as our centerbacks have done before. He was about to pass, but would survey the opponents’ positions quickly, and then switched the other direction if need be. That’s actually good fortitude regarding mental quick thinking and technique. He definitely knew his limitations and played smart. For someone not being the biggest fan of his, I was impressed.

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    • Ream like you, me and the rest of the universe, knows he is not the fastest player on the pitch and that puts him in a position of backing off attackers a bit, he did slow them up, but by not being able to get tight in 1v1 situations, he gave the attackers time and space to make crosses, fortunately those crosses mostly came to nothing, but a better team would have punished him for that. But other wise, he did well, reading the game well and connecting on his passes.

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    • Ream has always been known for being a great passer, but not our best defender. Gooch could lock things down but when he had the ball, he pretty much looked to whack it 50 yards upfield.

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