Four years after the heartache of having to watch the 2018 World Cup from the sidelines, the United States are back on football’s greatest stage.
US coach Gregg Berhalter will take a youthful squad boasting a talented crop of Europe-based players to Qatar, with hopes of springing a surprise in Group B.
Yet, it remains to be seen if the US can emulate the 2010 and 2014 squads, who both reached the last 16, or whether 2022 turns out to be a staging post on the road to the 2026 World Cup, which will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Technical ability is spread throughout Berhalter’s squad, from English Premier League players like Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Leeds United’s Brenden Aaronson, to Spanish-based YunusMusah of Valencia and Weston McKennie, who plies his trade in Italy with Juventus.
But whether Berhalter’s men have the tactical savvy to navigate a group that includes England, Wales and a dangerous Iran team is an open question.
For all the elation that greeted the US’s successful qualification for Qatar, they played fitfully throughout a campaign that saw them finish third in the Concacaf standings behind Canada and Mexico.
Recent results have scarcely provided more grounds for optimism either.
In their final two international games before the World Cup in September, the US were picked apart clinically by Japan in a 2-0 defeat before grinding out a dour 0-0 draw with Saudi Arabia.
Those back-to-back disappointments underscored the doubts surrounding the US squad, which lacks a proven goalscorer and looks vulnerable defensively when pressured high up the field.
Berhalter has chopped and changed repeatedly at centre-forward, trying Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, Haji Wright and Josh Sargent as the focal point of the attack with varying degrees of success.
“The reality is any No 9 that’s going to line up in the World Cup (for the US) will not have been a proven No 9 in international soccer and that’s just how it’s going to go for us,” Berhalter said in a recent interview with Britain’s The Times newspaper.
In defence, meanwhile, Berhalter has yet to find a convincing centre-back partnership following the Achilles injury suffered by Miles Robinson in May which ruled the Atlanta United defender out of the tournament.
Berhalter has experimented with a variety of options to play alongside Walker Zimmerman, including Mark McKenzie, Erik Palmer-Brown, James Sands and Aaron Long.
New York Red Bulls veteran Long is seen as the likeliest option to start the World Cup even though the 30-year-old was given a torrid time in the friendly defeat to Japan before being replaced.
That game saw the US give the ball away 54 times in their own half in the opening 45 minutes.
Berhalter later acknowledged his defence had struggled to adapt to the Japanese movement, admitting: “We got our butts kicked.”
“It’s just decision-making – identifying who the free man is, identifying where the pressure is coming from, and then exploiting that. That’s something we didn’t do a great job of,” Berhalter said.
Berhalter also has a headache looming at goalkeeper.
Manchester City’s Zack Steffen, now on loan at Middlesbrough, has been a consistent first choice but has had his confidence shaken this year by a series of high-profile blunders.
Arsenal’s Matt Turner had looked best-positioned to replace Steffen, but has only limited minutes for the Premier League leaders this season, and has been sidelined in recent weeks by a groin strain. – AFP