USMNT fine-tuning en route to World Cup

Soccer Football - World Cup - CONCACAF Qualifiers - Jamaica v United States -  Independence Park, Kingston, Jamaica - November 16, 2021 Timothy Weah of the U.S. in action with Jamaica's Devon Williams REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy
Timothy Weah scored the USMNT’s only goal in a 1-1 draw with Jamaica on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Gilbert Bellamy)

The U.S. men’s national team is going to qualify for the World Cup. That was true before this past weekend. It was especially true after a rousing Dos a Cero defeat of Mexico on Friday. It’s still true after a 1-1 draw in Jamaica that some will brand as disappointing. The U.S. entered Tuesday night with a 98.3% chance to qualify, per one model. Its odds remain well above 95%. It will need roughly nine points from its last six games, and unless something goes horribly wrong, it will surely get them.

The real question now, after a successful November window, is not whether the USMNT will reach Qatar. It’s how much damage the U.S. can do while there.

The answer based exclusively on a viewing of Tuesday’s game in Kingston would be a timid “not much.” The U.S. started strong, and took a lead via the ascendent Tim Weah. But it faded after a Michail Antonio rocket leveled the score, and held on for one point. Control of the game eluded the U.S. midfield. Second-half chances for the Americans were scarce. A guilt-edged Jamaican miss and a questionable call helped them escape with a point.

But all of that that would ignore the bigger picture. This team, which regularly sets “youngest to” and “youngest since” records, is growing on the fly. It’s been good enough, despite inexperience and injuries and suspensions and grueling travel, to rise to the top of CONCACAF’s “Octagonal,” North and Central America’s qualifying grind. More importantly, there’s no telling how much better it can get.

This young USMNT will continue to grow

The only certainty is that the USMNT has time. Twelve months, to be exact, until it will gather in Europe or Qatar. Twelve months for teenagers to mature, for early-20s stars to learn, for a young core that still has never played 90 minutes together to absorb one another’s tendencies. 

The team’s youth has been discussed plenty in recent months. U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter has said plenty that it still isn’t discussed enough. Tuesday’s starting lineup, with an average age under 23, was the second-youngest in USMNT World Cup qualifying history. The front six, with 23-year-old Christian Pulisic recovering from injury and 23-year-old Weston McKennie suspended, were aged 22, 21, 21,19, 18 and 18. They play in Spain’s La Liga, Germany’s Bundesliga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1. They play in the Champions League, and have been linked with some of the world’s biggest clubs. In Qatar, they’ll presumably be joined by Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna (19) and Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest (21).

Some will question why they couldn’t beat Jamaica, or Panama last month, or El Salvador the month prior. But “going through [qualifying] for the first time is challenging,” Berhalter pointed out in October. “CONCACAF is hard,” Tim Weah said last week. Several teammates have echoed the sentiment.

They are the youngest senior national team in the world, bar none. And while their current collective strength is debatable, their future is clearly brighter than their present. Twelve months ago, a few of Tuesday’s starters weren’t even in the USMNT picture. Their development over the past year has been remarkable. Their development over the next year is the type of prospect that should have U.S. fans salivating.

That is not to say that the Yanks will enter November 2022 as group favorites or World Cup contenders. It’s to say that — well, they could, couldn’t they?

They won’t be Brazil or France, or Argentina or England. But why can’t they grow into the Netherlands or Colombia or Switzerland? And something even greater when the World Cup arrives on U.S. soil in 2026, when much of the current core will be in their primes?

The USMNT’s route to qualification

First things first, of course. They won’t take qualifying for granted. Berhalter will make that clear as he sends his players back off to their clubs on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. He won’t like reading this. Mathematically, a place in Qatar is far from secure.

But with home games remaining against El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, it’s overwhelmingly likely. The worst-case scenario, at this point, is a fourth-place finish and an intercontinental playoff, in which the U.S. would very likely be favored.

So a ticket will surely be punched in March. Attention will then turn to what the USMNT can do with it, and how far it can go. A year of vital growth — from 18 years old to 19 in some cases, from 21 to 22 in others — will hold the answers.