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Mama said there’d be days like this

El Salvador’s Ronald Rodríguez (L) and USMNT’s Gio Reyna vie collide in their Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup CONCACAF qualifier.
Image: Getty Images

I kind of knew that being so jonesed about the U.S.’ first qualifier would lead to something of a dry-heave of a game last night. This is CONCACAF, after all. Winning on the road is incredibly hard. It’s even harder when you’re taking a squad full of players that haven’t been on the road in CONCACAF before. It takes more than a few minutes on the field to come to terms with it.

At the end, starting off with a draw away from home is hardly the worst launch point, as the
U.S. did with a 0-0 in El Salvador. The U.S. wasn’t ever really under threat from losing the point, as it held El Salvador to just one shot on target. Sadly, the U.S. wasn’t exactly any more threatening on the other end, managing just two shots on target themselves. As sure as they were on defense — a true upset considering Tim Ream was picked to start, which had my stomach doing triple axels from jump — they were choppy and disjointed in attack.

They clearly missed Christian Pulisic, sidelined after testing positive for COVID, the type of player who can create something from nowhere against any opposition. As promising as Konrad De La Fuente is, and as good of a start he’s gotten off to with Marseille this season, this was his second cap. And his second cap came in one of the more hostile and challenging atmospheres possible. It’s asking a lot for him to be a creative outlet on this stage, being so new to it.

Some other weaknesses we knew about were a little exposed as well. The U.S. has been crying out for a true striker since…well, eternity. Josh Sargent did the dirty work once again, the sort that makes all coaches throw out their Viagra bottles, but he doesn’t show up in the spots when chances come to be open. He’ll hold the ball up, he’ll press without the ball, he’ll link to the midfield, but when the final pass comes, he’s hanging around the penalty spot instead of steaming into the six-yard box. The U.S. had a couple looks in the first half, with players open at the side of the box that were screaming out for an aggressive, give-it-to-me run that never came.

Jordan Pefok came on for Sargent, and he didn’t really get much of a sniff. When he did, he showed off a monster truck like touch, without doing the other stuff that Sargent does. Ricardo Pepi should be loose come Sunday, when the U.S. takes on Canada, as he’s going to get a look.

The other problem was a wonky midfield, leaving the U.S. trying mostly to create from the wings with one of Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna or De La Fuente trying to dribble through two or three guys. When Weston McKennie runs around a lot — his main skill — when the U.S. doesn’t have the ball, he causes turnovers and chaos, which a lot of their best chances sprung from. They just didn’t have the nous to finish them off. But when the U.S. had the ball, McKennie’s urge to stay high up the pitch left Tyler Adams with no link to pass to through the middle. It’s why everything went wide. There needs to be more fluency in midfield, as this won’t be the last time the U.S. has to break down a team that’s looking to play on the counter for most of the match.

Oh, and as good as Dest is on the ball, every team on CONCACAF is going to point to his side of the field in every pregame tactical talk and say, “CHARGE!” That’s why coach Gregg Berhalter flipped Ream and Miles Robinson at the center of the defense, as Robinson was a little more apt to cover for Dest when he routinely got scorched up the field. It’s why the U.S. didn’t see much threat in the second half.

None of this is new or a discovery. It’s a point on the road. It’s a point on the road in CONCACAF. Seeing as how this was 13 of the 15 outfield players’ first qualifier ever, it’ll work.

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