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U.S. still lacks grit, resolve needed for World Cup qualification fight

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — The good vibes surrounding the United States men’s national team have evaporated following its 1-1 home draw with Canada, its second consecutive tie to start World Cup qualifying.

Yes, there are 12 games left. It’s not time to panic just yet. But this result, combined with last Thursday’s 0-0 draw in El Salvador, was disappointing on a multitude of levels, and as a consequence, alarm bells are already going off.

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Even as U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter tried to accentuate some positives — at one point he mentioned that the U.S., with two draws, was undefeated — he couldn’t ignore what was another sub-par display.

“We’re disappointed,” Berhalter said postmatch. “I think [we’re] disappointed with the performance, particularly tonight. I think the effort was good, [the] effort was outstanding, but the performance wasn’t up to what we expect.”

U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams was blunter, saying: “We got to have a long look in the mirror and really establish what our goals are here.”

For the second time in four days, the U.S. attack sputtered, even as Brenden Aaronson put the U.S. on top 1-0 in the 55th minute, stabbing home a low centering feed from Antonee Robinson. Canada made it clear from the start that it would sit in a low block and threaten on the break through Alphonso Davies. Chances were indeed hard to come by for the home side, though Berhalter said the U.S. didn’t help itself with some lethargic approach work.

“We needed much faster ball movement,” he said. “Everyone can see it from outside. We just took way too long on the ball, it allows Canada to shift, not skipping passes, not playing behind them enough, so we have to work on that. And we have to figure out ways to break down a compact defense because I’m sure there’s going to be other teams that come to the United States and do the same thing.”

The tried and true tactic of getting stuck into Christian Pulisic — he was fouled a game-high five times — was used to good effect as well.

“I think we need new ideas at times,” the U.S. captain said. “Whether it was not being direct enough or not, I’m not too sure. But it just felt like we couldn’t break them down. Obviously, they defended well. But yeah, we just need some new solutions and obviously it wasn’t good enough.”

Not even the effect of going up a goal was enough for the home side. Canada equalized just seven minutes later courtesy of an electrifying run from Davies that allowed him to set up Cyle Larin for an easy tap-in, though he was aided by U.S. defender John Brooks seemingly losing concentration on the play.

The visitors had indeed looked threatening all night, and only a fabulous save by U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner from Larin’s 11th-minute shot prevented Canada from taking the lead. There were multiple instances of low, inviting crosses that skipped through the U.S. box. A Canada win wouldn’t have been an injustice.

As much as this is on the players, Berhalter deserves some blame as well. He waited until the 83rd minute to make his first non-injury substitutions, giving Joshua Sargent, Konrad De La Fuente and Cristian Roldan little time to find any rhythm. It was as if Canada’s low block gave the appearance that the U.S. was playing well by dominating possession, even though it wasn’t nearly that clear cut. Expected goals were just 1.66 to 1.38 in favor of the U.S.

“They scored in the [62nd] minute, and we need a goal to end the game,” the coach said. “I can understand how it looks, like we should have acted quicker, 100%. In this situation we’re looking at the performance of the guys and trying to figure out who we’re going to take off the field.”

Injuries are also beginning to pile up. The return of Pulisic to the U.S. starting lineup after sitting out the El Salvador game counted as a massive boost, but that was tempered by the fact that Giovanni Reyna was ruled out with a hamstring injury he picked up against El Salvador — he’ll also miss Wednesday’s trip to Honduras — while goalkeeper Zack Steffen missed out after testing positive for COVID-19 and Sergino Dest was forced off in the first half with an ankle injury.

Then there is what transpired with midfielder Weston McKennie. He was left off the gameday roster due to what U.S. Soccer characterized as a “violation of team policy.” McKennie later confirmed via his Instagram account that he violated the team’s COVID-19 protocols, for which he apologised. In his postmatch comments, Berhalter declined to get into specifics of how McKennie broke protocol. But when asked if McKennie would be available for the Honduras game, Berhalter rather ominously said: “That remains to be seen.”

The suspension of McKennie for this match is infuriating in its own right, but it’s even more egregious given that he was disciplined by club side Juventus for a similar transgression last April, in that case for co-hosting a party in violation of the team’s COVID-19 protocols. To reiterate, it’s not known just exactly what infraction McKennie committed. He had also previously tested positive for COVID-19 last October. No matter. The fact that McKennie can’t be bothered to follow the protocols set up by U.S. Soccer for two weeks — especially during a World Cup qualifying window — is just inexcusable. His lack of discipline threatens to undermine his talent. And most importantly of all, McKennie hurt the team.

“Obviously, it’s not an ideal situation, because he’s such an important player, important character to this team,” Adams said of McKennie. “He brings, obviously, what he does on the field, but even off the field how close he brings the team together. So, yeah, it’s a little disappointing.”

Add it all up, and this counts as a massive test of Berhalter’s leadership. There was a tendency to think that the stellar resumes and club experience of some U.S. players would translate into a toughness that would make World Cup qualifying, while not necessarily easy, at least a less stressful — and more successful — journey than the humiliating failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. There was also a hope that the summer’s success in both the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup would give players a taste of what could be expected in qualifying. But World Cup qualifying demands its own special type of grit and resolve, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that this group hasn’t been tested to the degree necessary to get wins. More will be known on Wednesday about the extent to which that lesson is sinking in, but Adams seemed to already be taking it to heart.

“It’s a team sport,” he said. “It doesn’t matter where we come from. If we don’t go out there and do the things that we’re good at, then we’re just a group of names on a piece of paper. Other teams, maybe they don’t have the players that play for these big clubs, but it doesn’t matter… No individual is going to win World Cup qualifying for us.”

Prior to this international window, the thought was that by winning its first two games, a result on Wednesday in San Pedro Sula would be a bonus. With two ties instead, that match takes on immense importance, lest the distance from the top four places increases.

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