USMNT's World Cup qualifying: What's working, what's broken and the problem with playing it safe

We are now through two qualifying windows for the U.S. national team's men's team. Each window had two must-win matches. The USMNT has struggled and fallen and has suffered from many self-inflicted injuries. Gregg Berhalter & Co. wasted points in Panama with an overmatched, overthought lineup. They have suffered bad breaks in a draw at El Salvador. They have been subject to CONCACAF's rough pitches and other rough-and-tumble tactics.
Despite feeling in danger of spiraling downwards, the U.S. now has 11 points and is on pace to score 29 over the 14-match qualification. This is more than what the team needs to qualify. Next up? (Up next?) A home date with Mexico is scheduled for Nov. 12th in Cincinnati. Live on ESPN2.

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Let's look at six matches to see what's working and what's not.

What's not working

What's working well?

The U.S. has been moving at a rapid pace thus far

The most important part will be discussed first. The top three teams in the eight-team group automatically qualify for the 2022 World Cup. The fourth team will enter the intercontinental playoff, from which two of the four teams have qualified. Despite the ups and downs of the first two qualification windows, the U.S. is now second in the table. It is three points ahead Panama, fifth place Costa Rica, and five ahead of Costa Rica, respectively.

Tim Weah's 66th minute shot against Costa Rica in Columbus on Thursday night was converted into an own goal from Leonel Moreira. This gave the U.S. victory 2-1 and transformed what could have seemed a messy table into one of relative comfort.

From a points per-game perspective, they are also slightly ahead of the pack. Automatic qualification is a goal of 24 points total, or 1.7 per match. Right now, the USMNT stands at 1.8. (A loss to Mexico on Nov. 12 would bring them back to 1.6.

The statistics for the big picture are mostly good, but not great.

From match to match, the U.S. was almost impossible to recognize, shifting between possession principles (lots of shorter passing, high pressing etc. -- and the American, old-school "goalkeeping" and "counterattacks" approach. While this isn't always a good thing (as we'll see in a moment), it's worth taking a step back to look at the stats through six matches.

They possess the ball 58% of the times, which is second behind Mexico's 59%. Their possession rate has been as high at 71% (vs. Canada), and as low at 47% (vs. Honduras). They have completed 82.2%, which is second behind Mexico (85.7%). Their 80.1% completion rate in attacking third ranks third behind Canada and Mexico. Their 9.2 chances per 90 minutes (assists or key passes that lead shots) rank third, behind Mexico (12.3), and Honduras (11.0). Their 11.7 shots per match rank third. They average 0.13xG per shot attempt, which is second to Canada (0.15). They have placed 34% of their shots on target. This is tied for second with Mexico (35%). They allow 8.0 shots per match, second to Mexico (6.5). Opponents are allowed 0.10 xG per shot. Again, this is second to Mexico (0.09). Opponents complete 75.6% of their passes, second behind El Salvador's 74.8%). However, they are at 77.1% for the attacking third (fourth). They make 53.8 ball recovery per match. This is first in the group, just ahead of Panama (52.5) and Canada (52.5).

This gives a clear picture of the team that is... the second-best in the group. They haven’t yet played Mexico, so a poor performance could make them look like the third or fourth best team. Despite some disappointing performances, they aren't far from the standards most expected of them.

The U.S. ended the October break with two wins and one loss, keeping them on track for the 2022 World Cup. This group still has much to do to make an impact. Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

The U.S. is victorious when the shots are right on target

Their style has changed so drastically from match to match that it is difficult to draw any correlations between specific stats (possession rate or completion rate, etc.). Success. The USMNT has been successful in one important statistic: They have hit 20 of 41 targets in three wins (49%), while they have only managed four of 29 losses (14%)

Both the volume and accuracy of these numbers are remarkable. They have attempted 13.7 shots per match, and they've been successful in placing them. Ricardo Pepi played 245 minutes of the 270-minute wins. He has been the leader in shots (9), shots on target (66) and goals (3). Gyasi Zardes, a fellow forward, has scored two goals and one on target in these matches. A group of wingers (Brenden Arriola, Weah Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola), has also contributed six of the 13 goals.

The average shot count for the U.S. in matches has been 9.7, with the worst being a five-shot, non-on-target performance against Panama. These three matches saw Jordan Pefok and Josh Sargent place zero of seven shots on goal, while Aaronson scored against Canada. Zardes played for 67 minutes against Panama, and attempted no shots.

Play 1:04 Berhalter explains the decision to rotate players after USMNT's defeat Gregg Berhalter shares his thoughts on starting a substantially rotated lineup against Panama.

CONCACAF tournaments are filled with teams that are stifling your chances of winning. Canada does the same thing, but counterattacks are also possible with players such as Jonathan David of Lille and Alphonso Davies from Bayern Munich. The U.S. has prospered against the three teams that allow the most shot attempts and keep matches open -- Jamaica Costa Rica, Honduras and Honduras. The U.S. has done almost nothing against their less aggressive opponents.

The children came to play

It was easy to worry about the inexperience of some of America's most gifted players. Pepi, Giovanni Reyna, winger, and Yunus Musah, midfielder, are just 18 years old. Midfielders George Bello, Gianluca Buio, and Sergino Dest, fullback, are 20. Even veterans feel young. Tyler Adams is 22 and Weston McKennie is 23.

It was reasonable to expect that Berhalter, the manager, would try to ensure that there was a certain amount of veteran-osity on the pitch for the U.S. 26-year-old midfielder Kellyn Alcosta has played 302 minutes so far. This has been despite him being fielded out of position and having to take on more attacking responsibilities that suited his skill set. Sebastian Lletget (midfielder) has played 229 minutes, while Arriola (26) has played 135 minutes during the second match window. Defender Tim Ream (34) was present for the full 90 minutes against El Salvador. Cristian Roldan (26) made four substitute appearances.

Berhalter might want to be more cautious as the youth are starting to play.

Pepi scored three of the eight USMNT goals. Reyna has created 1.3 chances per match. In his last match against injury, Dest played 150 minutes against Jamaican and Costa Rican. Dest was hypnotized down the right-wing and displayed the speed that resulted in Barcelona purchasing him. Pepi's goal against Jamaica was his first assist. He tied the Costa Rica match in the second half. Musah, who completed 91% of his passes (95 percent in the attacking third), and advanced the ball as fast as anyone in his 200-minutes, might have been the best player for October's three matches. When Busio finally got a chance to play, he completed 18 out of 20 passes (6 of 6 in the attacking third). His prowess has made him a key player in Venezia’s midfield in Serie A.


The United States was especially dominant in the second match window. McKennie and Adams also played well.

What's not going so well?

Nothing has been achieved by set pieces

The USMNT had a brilliant summer, with eight wins and no defeats in CONCACAF Nations League or Gold Cup. They scored 15 goals. Two of those came from Miles Robinson and one from McKennie. It is not sustainable to have 0.62 set-piece goals per match -- in Europe's Big Five leagues last season, only one team (Monaco), averaged more than 0.45 -- but the regressive trend has returned with a vengeance. Through six matches, the U.S. has allowed only one corner kick against Panama and zero set-piece goals.

Although there is almost certain to be some randomness in this, it would make things much simpler if this skill returned.

Rotation needs to be tightened urgently

There are 16 qualifiers packed tightly into international breaks -- three matches per day in September, three matches in seven in October and three in seven November. It was obvious that rotation was essential for everyone, including the U.S. To date, each team has provided 70+ minutes to at most 17 players. Only Panama has provided 500+ minutes to more players than the other two.

This should favor the U.S. and Mexico with the most extensive rosters. Mexico has only given one player over 500 minutes (keeper Memoochoa), while Mexico has played 22 players at 70 minutes or more, but no one has played more than 488 minutes for America. Only two of the six matches have been played (Adams & Aaronson), and thirty players have recorded at most 69 minutes.

Berhalter was a part of some of this huge rotation. Pulisic and Reyna have played together for only 242 minutes due to injury and form problems, while McKennie missed two matches because she was suspended and missed the Panama trip due to a minor injury. Add in travel restrictions -- fullback Antonee (Fulham), and keeper Zach Steffen, (Manchester City), didn't travel to Panama because of the UK's COVID-19 "red list", and Berhalter was bound to have to play many players. Even after accounting for this, Berhalter's huge rotations seem like more than was necessary.

Berhalter's rotations are forced for the most part. However, he has been USMNT coach for 3 years and still doesn't know his ideal team. John Todd/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Only two of the eight best players against Jamaica were Aaronson, McKennie and Musah. Adams was able to play against Costa Rica because McKennie was unable to. It was a clear decision that Adams should start that match. This didn't happen. Berhalter instead started a line-up with just two players from the so-called first-choice team XI: Musah, and keeper Matt Turner. They had hoped for a draw right from the beginning, but they couldn't achieve it. For the Costa Rica match, there was a whiplash change with nine more players.

They have managed to get away with it, again, they are on pace for qualifying -- but Berhalter's purpose would be greatly served by tightening his rotation moving forward. This is considering that there are only two matches left in November and no other matches until January.

Who should be included in this tightened rotation?

Even though the sample size is still small, it's clear which players stand out. This is not a complete list of players who should be on the U.S. roster. It's more a general look at the priority of the top three.

Forward: Pepi is the most likely American attacker that can both create a shot and hit the target. Pepi is generating 0.71 xG every 90. Zardes generated more in a smaller sample, but he remains an American attacker with the most movement. However, Pepi's finishing skills stand out both during his brief stint in the U.S. and his 2021 MLS season at FC Dallas. After a difficult run in 2021, Daryl Dike has returned to the mean. However, his current form with Orlando indicates that he would be a good fit for the rotation.

Attacking midfielders/wingers The U.S. opened all matches in a 4-3-3 configuration with a narrow midfield and two wings. This trio could take up a lot of time, especially in a 2-match window. Although Weah was unable to defeat Panama in the first match, he performed well in the second and third matches. He would be a solid option as a fourth option, considering his performance as a replacement for Lille.

Adams, McKennie and Musah were the midfielders. The U.S. dominated the midfield against Jamaica and Costa Rica. It's no coincidence that all three of them -- as well as fullbacks Dest Robinson and Antonee Robbins, who provide great width -- were present on the pitch at the time they did it. This should always be the U.S. three-man midfield.

Acosta should only be used as a substitute for Adams in defensive midfield, but Busio showed his Musah-esque abilities when he was given the chance against Costa Rica. These five could easily fill the three-match time frame.

Berhalter has clearly shown admiration for Lletget, and will undoubtedly keep him in the rotation. But there is a case for one more ball progressor. Luca de la Torre, who has only seen 13 minutes against Jamaica so far, has completed 90% of his passes within the attacking third and won 56% -- with high ball recovery rates -- this season for the Eredivisie’s Heracles.

Julian Green is also a worthy candidate. His set piece delivery and progression skills (another necessity at this moment) allowed Greuther Furth to be promoted to the Bundesliga for only the second consecutive season in team history. Although Green's form has suffered in recent weeks, as Furth struggles to find its feet, Green's ball-handling skills remain.

However, the top three names are obvious, and Busio has earned far more minutes than he's received.

Fullbacks: The right side is all about Dest. He injured his ankle in a match against Canada. He has only played in four matches. Despite the defensive limitations that fullbacks often face, his speed is one the best matchup advantages for the team. In this October window, he was a huge success for the team.

Antonee Robinson, left, has recorded 341 minutes of qualification -- fifth most on the team. Berhalter clearly chose him as his first choice. The fact that he is leading the team in chances created (81) shows this.

The dealer can choose to have center-backs. Although the U.S. has done an excellent job in preventing counterattacks, it can sometimes be at the cost of offensive aggression. Adams' presence cuts off many counters before they even begin. Berhalter preferred Miles Robinson over Zimmerman, despite John Brooks having back problems. Both played well in the October window. Chris Richards failed to impress in his qualification match against Costa Rica. But, whether Mark McKenzie, Ream or Richards is the No. We know the top three choices, and we're confident in their solidity.

Goalkeeper: Zack Steffen was unable to make his debut against Costa Rica due to back spasms. He also received a positive coronavirus testing. Matt Turner, the most skilled shot-stopper in our player pool, was able to fill in for him. Turner's ballhandling skills are not great enough to affect the team's ability build from the back. However, they still won the ball game against Jamaica and Canada with Turner between the posts.


Goalkeeping was not an issue in qualification.

Personal plea: CONCACAF, stop showing CONCACAF so little damn respect

Berhalter's preference for ball possession and gradual buildup has been evident throughout his tenure as the USMNT manager. The U.S. had a possession ratio of 60% or more in 35 matches, including the Gold Cup and CONCACAF Nations League. They also fell below 50% against teams with less obvious talent advantages, such as Mexico, Chile and Switzerland. In a 1-0 win over Curacao, they had 47% possession. They had over 60% against Panama, and nearly 50% against El Salvador.

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These tendencies were expected to continue, given that all three of the previous years had been geared towards this particular tournament qualification cycle. They managed 51% possession against Panama and 46% when they tied the game. They had 47% against Honduras and 50% against El Salvador. They were at half of their capacity against El Salvador.

Sometimes, the U.S. was afraid to push too hard and overextend themselves. They started Jamaica with 15% of their possessions, but they only averaged 5% in three road matches. They have outmatched their opponents' caution.

This makes sense on the one hand. The U.S. has been through many frustrating and harrowing defeats against smaller countries in qualification over the years. But, it has not paid off. They managed to score just one point in El Salvador and Panama and had to play a late game (three goals in fifteen minutes) to avoid a draw with Honduras. These matches were dominated by inferior opponents in a way that was not possible in pre-qualification matchups.

I beg you to stop it You could have tried to push as hard as you can and played a very high defensive line against El Salvador or Panama, but still managed to score a point. You must play your part. Berhalter spent three decades establishing principles. But in the matches that matter most, they have changed their identity from match-to-match. While lineup changes, both planned and unplanned, played a part in this, Berhalter's excessive caution on the road has not paid off.

The U.S. could still qualify for the next round regardless of what happens in the two matches against Mexico. They can do so by putting forth strong performances against the less-rated teams on their schedule, which includes El Salvador on January 27, Honduras and Jamaica on November 16, and El Salvador on February 27. You have the best chance of getting there if you play with a tighter team and the identity that the team is most familiar with.