The U.S. men’s national soccer team just turned in two awful performances in a pair of the most important World Cup qualifying matches in the nation’s history. They were two contests that could have all but punched the Americans’ ticket to Russia in 2018, but instead left the Yanks looking for answers. Right now the U.S. national team is hopelessly lost and needs a dramatic turnaround to fix things.
A 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica and an incredibly lucky 1-1 draw at Honduras showed the many flaws in Bruce Arena’s squad and his managerial style. The U.S. looked terrible in both matches and was consistently outplayed.
Costa Rica is a good squad, but the Americans were a step slow and a moment too late all night in that contest. They were tentative, got frustrated early and eventually lost their collective cool as Los Ticos consistently beat them to the punch. It was an embarrassing showing on home soil. But it was nothing compared to what we saw in Honduras.
Tuesday against Los Catrachos in San Pedro Sula was one of the worst national team performances I’ve seen in years. Arena made seven changes to his starting lineup from the Costa Rica match, leaning heavily on MLS players. And it showed. The back line of Graham Zusi, Matt Besler, Omar Gonzalez and DaMarcus Beasley was chewed up consistently by Honduras. Meanwhile, the midfielders and forwards failed to connect all afternoon and by the 30th minute a frustrated U.S. side was resorting to long-ball after long-ball in an attempted to go over the top of the Honduran defense.
It wasn’t that the team’s strategy was bad, it’s that there was no strategy. After trailing 1-0 in the 27th minute, the U.S. should have relied on possession to build up an attack. Instead, they continually launched 50-50 balls into the teeth of the opposing defense. After the 35th failed attempt, wouldn’t a change in strategy be smart? During that period, Arena stood mostly silent on the sidelines with his arms crossed, not inspiring confidence that he knew how to change his team’s fortunes.
Honduras was more than willing to surrender possession and fall back to defend, but rather than collect the ball and build from the back, Gonzalez, goalie Brad Guzan and captain Michael Bradley repeatedly fired the ball deep into the opposing half, where it was usually cut out easily. In a match where the U.S. trailed for nearly an hour of game time and Honduras was content to defend, the home side somehow still had a possession advantage of 54 percent to 46 percent. That’s just unacceptable.
A long-ball, counter-attack strategy works when a team is outgunned talent-wise. But at this point, Mexico is the only team in CONCACAF with a clear talent advantage on the Americans. The U.S. player pool is deeper and better than it has ever been, but Arena and his squad appear to play like they still think they’re the plucky underdogs who are fortunate to even be in a close match.
Without Bobby Wood rescuing the team in the 85th minute with an incredibly lucky goal, we would be taking about a U.S. team that was about to miss its first World Cup since 1986.
For now the American sit tied for fourth in the CONCACAF hexagonal standings with two matches remaining. They will take on Panama on October 6 in Orlando, then will face Trinidad and Tobago on October 10. The U.S. must get two wins in those matches or there’s a chance it would miss the World Cup.
Panama currently sits in third place (the final automatic qualifying spot) with 10 points, while the U.S. and Honduras are tied in fourth with nine points. Luckily for the Americans, their goal differential of +1 gives them the edge over Honduras (-7). If qualifying ended today, the U.S. would have to face the fifth-place team from the Asian Football Confederation in a home-and-home playoff to earn a berth for the 2018 World Cup.
If the U.S. is going to book a trip to Russia, some massive changes need to be made. Yes, missing the injured DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks was awful for the team’s defense. Both should be automatic starters whenever Arena puts a lineup in. Hopefully they will be healthy when the next qualifiers roll around. But the Zusi experiment at right back should be over for good. I like Zusi, but he’s terrible there. He was beaten like a drum repeatedly in both matches and if Arena ever starts him again he should be fired on the spot.
Arena also has to decide what he wants to do with wunderkind Christian Pulisic. Is he a wide player or should he be the attacking midfielder in the middle alongside Bradley? Whatever happens, it’s long past time for Arena and the U.S. to pick a spot for the 18-year-old star and let him flourish.
Fabian Johnson is another guy who should never be out of the lineup. Start him at left back if that’s still a hole and let him play as a winger, attacking out of the back. It’s not an ideal scenario, but neither is playing Beasley, who I’m fairly certain got his first cap during the Hoover administration.
I know he loves the MLS, but Arena’s job is to find the best 11-man squad and stick with it. That means he has to lean heavily on his European-based players. Let those guys get comfortable together. Making seven lineup changes from one game to the next is simply unacceptable managing.
The United States can still right the ship and make the 2018 World Cup. But to do so, a lot of things need to change in the next month. When he was hired, Arena’s job was to steer the team towards Russia. Sadly, right now his squad looks like a ship without a rudder, compass or a map.