Grading the USMNT World Cup Qualifying Run, and Previewing What’s to Come in Qatar

After a mostly successful qualifying campaign, the United States men’s national team knows its fate at the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Opening against either Scotland, Wales, or Ukraine, followed by ties against England and Iran. For Gregg Berhalter and his team, it’s a chance to make a big splash at the biggest stage, but let’s look back at how we got here.

When the final whistle sounded in Costa Rica, USMNT players and staff lifted a huge burden off their shoulders — they were finally back at the FIFA World Cup. For head coach Gregg Berhalter, it was the ultimate vindication of his efforts to transform a young USMNT into a team that could win in big games and do what is expected of them.

It was not always easy, however. The young Americans stumbled at times during qualification, but not without dusting themselves off and getting back on track. For all the hoopla on social media, the USMNT finished third, only three points behind Canada and Mexico, and with the second-most goals scored in the octagonal.

Still, the young American squad struggled to win on the road, only picking up one victory. The team’s style of play came under question from pundits and fans especially on social media, where it seemed that Berhalter could do no right. Let’s take a look at the USMNT World Cup qualifying run, examining what the team got both right and wrong.

Where Does Gregg Berhalter Stand?

gregg berhalter

The reality is that despite some flaws, Gregg Berhalter has gotten a lot of things right during his nearly four-year tenure at the helm of the national team. First and foremost, Berhalter has established an identity in which he wants his team to play. It does not always come off that way, and often the coach has shot himself in the foot in trying to play a possession-based game, but in the end the team has found a sort of style in which it has attacked with purpose and defended well.

Against Mexico (away) and Panama (home), the USMNT played its best soccer going back to basics, which was giving up possession and countering with purpose. The difference this time compared to generations past is the quality the USMNT has in attack. On the break with players like Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie, and Brenden Aaronson, the USMNT has upgraded tremendously in the attack. Against Mexico with less of the ball, the Americans looked dangerous at every turn.

Berhalter’s position as coach should no longer be challenged. The team has owned Mexico when it matters, defeating them in two continental finals, and then taking four out of six points from them in World Cup qualification.

Berhalter has a 68% winning percentage, and his USMNT has scored over 100 goals, giving up only 33. An impressive stat, with the only catch being the USMNT has mostly played CONCACAF opponents during Berhalter’s time as coach. That is more due to CONCACAF scheduling than U.S. Soccer’s desire to play in the region.

What the USMNT Got Right in Qualification

In the long road that has been CONCACAF Nations League, Gold Cup, and World Cup qualification, Berhalter has been able to build a squad basically from scratch. In response to the veteran-heavy group that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Berhalter based his whole philosophy and system on young and inexperienced players, despite whatever powerhouse European team they played for. Most of the team’s important players are 23 years old or younger.

For a team that has not been through qualification, the USMNT showed a lot of character to bounce back from tough defeats or poor performances, which is to be expected from such a young and inexperienced side. What the team did do right was build a lot of chemistry and understanding, and it should be noted that as qualification progressed the performances improved.

Finding a defensive leader in Walker Zimmerman could be huge for the team in the World Cup. The USMNT has a lot of potential going forward on the field, but at the back there was a real worry about who leads in defense. After disastrous performances, John Brooks was banished from the team and in stepped Zimmerman, who has led by example and has been solid in every game he has played. The big question now is how will the Nashville SC defender fare against far superior opponents at the World Cup?

What the USMNT Got Wrong in Qualification

The inability to win on the road put the team’s lack of experience on full display. While the core of the team is used to playing in pristine conditions in Europe, the often poorly-kept pitches in CONCACAF proved to be a new challenge.

The lack of finding a pure striker is a huge problem for the USMNT going into the World Cup. The striker position is currently a game of musical chairs between Ricardo Pepi, Jesús Ferreira, Jordan Pefok, and Josh Sargent. How Daryl Dike returns from injury will be key in deciding the final 3-4 strikers that make the final roster. Everyone on the list provides a lot of hold up and linking play, but few have a striker’s knack for goal.

Goalkeeper is also a big issue as Zack Steffen is starting to look like a talented goalkeeper that rides the bench at Manchester City. Matt Turner seems to be more grounded and in form when he plays for the national team, but his dream move to Arsenal will put him in Steffen’s exact predicament. At this point based on what we have seen from both, the starting job should belong to Turner, who has been solid when called upon.

Another thing Berhalter got wrong during the road to qualification is offering explanations for everything he did. About whom he did not call in, and what such player not on the team needs to do to get back into the fold. An almost comical rookie mistake by the USMNT coach. Oftentimes during press conferences, Berhalter was too busy talking about players who weren’t on the team rather than those who were. At this point Berhalter does not need to explain everything and needs to keep more things closer to the chest.

Looking Ahead

usmnt world cup qualification

In the build up to the World Cup, the USMNT will need to make good use of the FIFA windows. The federation must find opponents that are World Cup caliber, as aside from Mexico, the only top-15 nations the team has faced since 2019 are Uruguay and Switzerland.

The players will need to see what more established and better prepared national teams feel like ahead of Qatar. The USMNT has never had an issue booking big time opponents and that should be the case again in the lead up to the winter.

Another issue the players will have to address is staying healthy. The USMNT is injury prone, and had to deal with injury issues in every window to its most important players — Reyna, Pulisic, Weah, McKennie, and Adams all missed time due to injuries, with Reyna missing 80% of the campaign. Give credit to Berhalter, who dealt with these absences admirably.

The Draw

world cup draw

The USMNT must like their chances in Group B of the Qatar World Cup. A match with Scotland or Wales is very winnable, while a match with Ukraine could be difficult as they would be darlings of the tournament for obvious reasons.

England is a perfect opponent to face if the team has three points in the bag. While talented, England has some of the same issues as the USMNT — lots of good youth, but with the plus of having experienced players beside them. Qatar will present difficult conditions for everyone, but for the Europeans especially given the heat.

Iran is a tossup, but for the Americans it will be an opponent that Berhalter, Brian McBride, and Earnie Stewart will be sure to convey what defeating them will mean to the old school fanbase. Iran gave the United States one of its most heartbreaking and bitter defeats in the France ’98 World Cup. This match is a sort of redemption opportunity for the U.S.

The USMNT and Berhalter have felt the wrath of a fanbase that has too many new fans to properly assess where the team is at in the view of the public. A lot of new fans see the team sheet and believe the USMNT is bound for glory, without realizing the difficulties a World Cup and qualification presents. For many of them, it will be the first time they see the USMNT play at a World Cup, as soccer gains new fans with every passing year.

USMNT Twitter aside, the only real take that matters is Berhalter’s, and at the moment he has two continental titles, has Mexico eating his dust, and is getting ready to coach at the World Cup. He job got done, now it’s time to do that other job, uniting the country behind a team that is full of the American spirit and for the first time ever has the soccer to back it up.

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