USMNT’s goal should be wins in the knockout stages
The United States men’s national team, who happily qualified for the 2022 World Cup, is awaiting Friday’s tournament draw like everyone else.
They’re hoping for a cheap group – say, led by host country Qatar. It fears a difficult one – say, one involving Brazil, Serbia and Wales. As always, the goal of the group stage, be it dream or death, is progress.
“Everything starts with getting out of the group,” said coach Gregg Berhalter. “Once you’ve done that, it’s tournament time.”
Getting out of group play in November shouldn’t be the ultimate goal of this USMNT, though.
Winning a game in the round of 16 should. They haven’t done so in two decades, when Berhalter was a player and the Americans beat Mexico 2-0 before losing 1-0 to Germany in the 2002 World Cup quarter-finals.
This performance caused a surge of excitement and confidence in the national team, who finally seemed to be nearing their enormous potential. No country so big and so rich should not be able to compete with the best in the world. Finally, it was assumed, the future had arrived.
But over the next two decades, the USMNT has won just two games at a World Cup… in total.
They beat Algeria in 2010 and Ghana in 2014. Neither of them was a particularly good team. Both went winless and finished last in their group at those respective tournaments. (Algeria’s victory required late heroics from Landon Donovan, the show’s most memorable moment in the last two decades.)
So it’s understandable why Berhalter doesn’t talk about more than a group game. After all, a pretty bad American team didn’t even qualify for the 2018 tournament.
“I don’t want to pretend that I have low expectations, but again and again you see how top teams don’t make it out of their World Cup group,” said Berhalter.
Good. That should be the focus internally. This is about winning. Not the entire World Cup – that would be unlikely. Only a few games, mainly in the round of 16.
It’s fair to see this as a different group than before, one full of quality young talent. Never before have Americans had so many players signed to elite leagues and teams in Europe. This won’t be a collection of MLS All-Stars trying to claim victories.
But it has to be victories.
For too long, the USMNT has been able to appear to be making progress without actually making any progress. There’s no need to apologize for qualifying or progressing because of beating weak teams or finding random results against a favored team – like a 1-1 draw with England in 2010.
Everyone does. But that’s not how you make a deep run.
you have to win And you have to win against the world powers. After all, there is nowhere to hide in this tournament. Belgium, Brazil, France, Argentina… quite a number of them will be there.
The USMNT has yet to show they are capable of doing this, and until then there is only so much trust that anyone should place in them. A 2-0 win over Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying is the most telling indication that this is about to change. Still, the rematch was a draw and the US went 0-1-1 against Canada. The Americans qualified third behind their two North American competitors.
It’s progress, but not enough.
The US program hit rock bottom in 2018 with the humiliation of not qualifying. Even if it did reach Russia, it probably wouldn’t go anywhere. The USMNT finished fifth in CONCACAF and neither Costa Rica nor Panama, who qualified second and third respectively, won a game at the World Cup proper. Honduras, who finished fourth, lost in an actual play-in round.
Since then, the USMNT has replaced their new coach, most of their players, and even their president. The team is led by Christian Pulisic, the 23-year-old Pennsylvania top scorer for Chelsea in the English Premier League.
He was a teenager when the USMNT last failed. Now he’s the star… and for the upcoming World Cup cycles in a team that is expected to have an average age of under 25 next November.
Therefore, this World Cup should be seen as an opportunity. The tie will be the tie – celebrated or feared – but either way, USA should be good enough to get through their group.
They are very unlikely to win the World Cup, but they must be more than just trying to survive. Come tournament time, as Berhalter put it, and see what happens.
Above all, learn to win. In group play and then the knockout round.
Two decades after they seem to have started to meet this challenge, the next step still lies ahead.