USMNT's World Cup qualification is off to a rocky start, but here's why it's not time to panic

NASHVILLE (Tenn.) -- Christian Pulisic seemed tired. Not satisfied. Frustrated.
As he slid into the chair, his shoulders were bent. His words were tired.

There were many questions about the U.S. men’s national team's inability to score against two teams ranked 59th (the U.S. is tenth) and 64th (the U.S.). This group of young talent is full of potential and skill. They can't win against Canada in front a home crowd during a crucial World Cup qualifier.

Pulisic was asked about himself and Weston McKennie's absence after he was suspended for violating U.S. Soccer COVID-19 protocol.

Pulisic was then asked how he and his team felt about the two draws. He was then asked how bad it is to lose two games while you are heading to Honduras and desperately need to win the third.

He said, "Ofcourse we expect more." "But this is where we are now."

Because he didn’t have to, he didn’t say the final part of that sentence. Everyone knew.

"This is where we are now ..."

Yet again?

First, some perspective. Two World Cup qualifiers from 14 is the equivalent of 23 games in a baseball season. Or 11 games in an NBA season. Or the Masters, 10 holes. Although it isn't perfect, it isn't defining.

Even more, World Cup qualifying is an enigma even in a regular year, and this year's coronavirus-affected, ultra-compressed schedule is outrageous. The U.S. and CONCACAF will play 14 games in the new version of this format, which is a significant improvement on the previous version that required 10 games in 333 days, according to Paul Carr, soccer statistics expert. This means that there will be more variation between teams and games.

It is not great that the U.S. tied Canada or El Salvador. You also see some outlier results in World Cup qualifying around the world: The European champion, Italy, tied Bulgaria. Ireland tied Azerbaijan. Austria did not tie Israel, but it was battered by them, 5-2.

Qualifying for the World Cup is difficult. Sometimes, it is necessary to say that out loud. U.S. Soccer uses the "you don’t even know how brutal CONCACAF can be" excuse a lot too often. However, even though it has become a common excuse (Mexico won at Costa Rica this weekend after all), there is still some truth to that statement. Perhaps the poor fields, the physical play and the hostile fans make games like Wednesday's at San Pedro Sula more difficult than they seem, especially in Central America.

They are still winnable. They are clearly winnable. The United States will be able to win Wednesday night against Honduras. It will have five points from its three first games and will likely be in the qualifying positions after its first window. Anyone would have accepted that scenario.

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In many ways, the sky isn’t falling. Here's the truth: Memories last. Nearly four years ago in October 2017, the U.S. faced Panama in an Orlando World Cup qualifier. The stadium was buzzing with energy. Pulisic scored in just eight minutes. The crowd was raucous and excited. It was a perfect atmosphere.

The whole thing felt like a cresting wave. Qualifying had been so difficult with two losses. But that Panama match, which ended in a victory of 4-0, was supposed to be the beginning of everything falling into place. Panama was the first step. All the U.S. needed to win in Trinidad was enough.

We all know what happened next.

Two draws were recorded by the U.S. National Team in the first two qualifiers for the World Cup. Do we need to be concerned? Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

It was difficult not to feel that Sunday's U.S. vs. Canada game in Nissan Stadium was going to be yet another Panama. Another night when the U.S. was pushing toward the crest. It felt more like the ugly aftermath. The U.S. could not move the ball and couldn't test Canada’s defense. It only had two goals and three quarters of possession. The U.S. was without Gio Reyna (out injury) and McKennie, who were both out for poor judgment. This felt too similar to what we had seen before.

It felt outdated. The script felt old. U.S. Soccer could (and should!) come up with any "Only Forward” slogans it likes, but Pulisic couldn’t help but mention Sunday's defeat unprompted. It is as ingrained in his brain as it is on ours.

Pulisic was just a child back then. He was a rising star among an elite group of veterans. Pulisic is now 22 years old. He is among the most experienced players. He's the captain and the one everyone looks up to. The U.S. roster has a young roster -- only two of the players have played in a World Cup match and six had played in a qualifying tournament before this window. But sometimes, I wonder if all that matters. Sometimes, I wonder if it's not better to keep pushing forward with relative blind talent, verve and whimsy. Sometimes, I wonder if ignorance doesn't make you a better person.

The U.S. team of 2017 included battle-tested, grizzled veterans such as Jozy Altidore, Tim Howard, and Michael Bradley. They had every experience possible. They were able to see how difficult it was to play in CONCACAF. They weren't overwhelmed by the situation.

What did they get?

Some soccer circles believe that this whole thing is part of a long run to 2026. The growth of soccer in America over the past 30 years has been incredible. Hosting the World Cup together with Canada and Mexico in five years is considered a natural milestone. Gregg Berhalter (the coach of the U.S. national soccer team) has spoken out about how the U.S. could become a group that can "shock the whole world" by 2026.

This sentiment is optimistic, ambitious, and all that a U.S. supporter should desire -- can you even imagine the U.S. hosting a World Cup semifinal at home over July 4th weekend. But this way of thinking overlooks the reality right now. Even with the disappointing results of the last week, there is a certain pleasure to be had in all of this.

These games matter, despite how frustrating these performances were. The 40,000 supporters here were ecstatic when the U.S. scored their first goal of the cycle on Sunday. It was a different crowd than a Nations League crowd or a Gold Cup crowd. The players celebrated in a different way. Why not? The U.S. does not have an annual Copa America or Euros. It does not have a competition that attracts attention to the whole sport. It only has the World Cup. These games, which are the blocks on the road to getting there, are the ones that the U.S. national teams plays and feel like they are special.

On Wednesday, there will be another. The U.S. leaves with problems in Honduras. There are injury problems (Sergino dest is out of action with an ankle injury), substitution issues (Konrad de la Fuente arrives too late), and problems with leadership. But it also leaves with exactly the same chance it had one week ago.

Yes, Christian Pulisic did look tired on Sunday. It was disappointing. He was frustrated. He looked determined, but he was also frustrated. He seemed like someone who is aware that this is only the beginning. He looked like someone who recognizes that there's still time for this group of people to write the ending they didn't.