Ok folks it is here. The US Men must win this week to qualify for the World Cup this Winter (Nov 21-Dec 18). What we have to do? (Promo)
We must beat Panama on Sunday in Orlando at 7 pm on FS1. And we must either beat or tie Mexico at Azteca on Thursday night 10 pm on CBS Sports Network (& paramount plus) or if we lose to Mexico (where we have never won a Qualifier)
We must BEAT or TIE Costa Rica at their capital (full stadium 80k) where we have NEVER/EVER won and have never won or tied in a qualifier.
The huge question all week in the US soccer circles is what does US manager Gregg Berhalter do and how does he line up vs Mexico? Do you put out your BEST team and go for the win in the altitude in a 50% full Azteca (including YOURS TRULY) or do you go conservative and hold your best team for the home game vs Panama and road game at Costa Rica. (see Video about this)
Let’s start here – I do not understand the crazy’s who are calling for us to rest our players on a yellow (Adams, Yedlin, Steffan) or our better players at say left or center back and midfield. The US has never won in Costa Rica! Costa Rica’s starting goalkeeper Keylor Navas (PSG, Real Madrid) is back and healthy – he will not let us beat them in front of 100K drunk Costa Rican’s on the final day of qualifying if Costa Rica can knock us out and advance THEY WILL. We couldn’t win on a tough pitch in Trinadad and Tobago 4 years ago against a high school quality team who was eliminated already – NO WAY we beat even an aging Costa Rica at their place on the final night. NO WAY. So we have to take a point at Mexico – we just have to PERIOD!! Gregg starts his backups and what does that tell the team? We can’t beat a team in Mexico who we have dominated the last 3 games – just because its on their turf? They already lost to Canada and tied Costa Rica at Azteca just a few months ago. Mexico is vulnerable and NOW is the time to BEAT THEM for a 4TH CONSECUTIVE TIME and draw a line in the sand – that WE ARE THE KINGS of CONCACAF – not Mexico !! We are top 10 in the WORLD – not Mexico. Of course this has nothing to do with me realizing a dream/bucket list – going to the legendary Azteca Stadium for this LAST EVER – meaningful Qualifying Round in Mexico. This is simply what we are going to have to do to advance to the World Cup (unless we get help and Canada beats or ties Costa Rica in Costa Rica Thurs 10 pm Paramount+ or Panama 4 nights later.)
Shane’s Starting Roster for Mexico (McKennie, Aaronson, Dest out hurt)
Ferreira or Pefok
Pulilsic //Acosta//Musah//Weah (I am ok with de la Torre – in for Musah)
Jedi Robinson//M Robinson or Long//Zimmerman//Yedlin
If we are in the game after half – say behind 1 or tied – 55 to 60 min I add Gio Reyna for Musah or Torre and I put Pefok up top for Ferreria.
If we get behind by more than 2 – I pull Adams//Pulisic/Weah/Musah/Jedi save them for next 2 games.
Fortunately for the US our talisman Christian Pulisic is fresh of another Goal in the Champions League Sweet 16, was named man of the Match and is playing some of his best ball of the year. Returning to the line-up should be winger/mid Gio Reyna who is back and starting for Dortmund. Also back to health should be Man City GK Zack Steffen (though Ethan Horvan is on fire for Notingham Forest in the Championship) so we should be covered in goal without the injured Matt Turner. Along the back line while Barcelona man Serginio Dest was injured this week – centerback Aaron Long has returned to the fold after being injured last year. Joining the team late was left back George Bello – we could see him vs Panama.
I like our chances – Mexico is not in form right now – I honestly think the US is going to go in and take a point at least. If GB starts our stars – I truly think we have a chance to get out with a 2-1 win – if not I still think its 1-1 and we get out with a tie and a HUGE point! The US needs to win this one with ME IN THE STANDS — I think we get it!!
US Roster for Mexico/Panama/Costa Rica
GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest), Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
DEFENDERS (9): Reggie Cannon (Boavista),
Sergiño Dest (FC Barcelona), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes), Antonee Robinson (Fulham FC), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United), James Sands (Rangers FC), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (LAFC), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Gianluca Busio (Venezia), Luca de la Torre (Heracles), Yunus Musah (Valencia), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders)
Brenden Aaronson (Red Bull Salzburg), Paul Arriola (FC Dallas), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea FC), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund), Tim Weah (Lille)
Thursday 10 pm CBS Sports Net Mexico vs USA
Sunday 7 pm Fox Sport 1 USA vs Panama
Wed 9 pm Paramount+ USA @ Costa Rica
|1 – Canada||11||25||+14|
|2 – USA||11||21||+9|
|3 – Mexico||11||21||+6|
|4 – Panama||11||17||+1|
|5 – Costa Rica||11||16||1|
|6 – El Salvador||11||9||-7|
|7 – Jamaica||11||7||-7|
|8 – Honduras||11||3||-17|
|1-3 qualify; 4 into playoff|
Other Games to Keep and Eye on
Canada can all but wrap up 1st place in Qualifying if they can beat Costa Rica at the same time the US plays Mexico Thursday night on Paramount plus. It really helps our chances to settle into at least 4th place if Canada can knock off Costa Rica and then Panama on Wed at 5 pm on Para +. In other huge World Cup Qualifying action – Portugal, Italy, & Turkey are all playing off to see who will advance to the World Cup from Europe A – Portugal hosts Turkey at 3:45 pm Thurs on ESPN2, while Wales faces Austria and Sweden hosts Czech Republic same time on ESPN+. Friday we get African WCQ action with Egypt vs Senegal Friday at 3:30 pm on ESPN+ and again Tuesday at 1 pm. NWSL week 2 Challenge Cup action resumes Friday/Sat nights on Paramount plus with Racing Louisville hosting Defending Cup Champs Houston Dash at 7:30 pm, while Washington hosts Gotham FC. Sat its new team Angel City fresh off a 1-1 tie with San Diego hosting OL Reign, and the San Diego Wave and Alex Morgan hosting the Portland Thorns and Rapino all at 7 pm on Para +. Of course our our Indy 11 will travel to Louisville at 7:30 pm on ESPN+ Saturday evening right after Charlotte looks for their 2nd home win vs Cincy at 5 pm on ESPN+.
In other news I love me some Referee Mike Dean in the EPL – here’s a nice little tribute to his retiring – his 100th Red Card.
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BIG GAMES ON TV
Thur, Mar 24
3:45 pm ESPN2 Portugal vs Turkey
3:45 pm ESPN+ Italy vs North Macedonia
3:45 pm ESPN+ Sweden vs Czech Republic
3”45 pm ESPN+ Wales vs Austria
7:30 pm FuboTV Brazil vs Chile
9 pm Para+ Panama vs Honduras
10 pm CBSSN Mexico vs USA WCQ
10:05 pm Para+ Costa Rica vs Canada
Fri, Mar 25
1 pm ESPN+ Cameroon vs Algeria
3:30 pm ESPN+ Egypt vs Senegal
7:#0 pm Para+ Racing Louisville vs Hooston Dash NWSL
7:30 pm Para+ Washington Spirit vs NY/NJ Gotham FC
8:30 pm Para+ Chicago Red Stars vs KC
Sat, Mar 26
5 pm ESPN+ Charlotte vs Cincy
7:30 pm ESPN+ Indy 11 @ Louisville City
7 pm Para + Anglel City vs OL Reign NWSL
7 pm Para + NC Courage vs Orlando Pride NWSL
11 pm Para + San Diego Wave (Morgan) vs Portland Thorns (Rapino)
Sun, Mar 27
5 pm ESPN Portland Timbers vs Orlando City
5 pm Para+ Canada vs Jamaica
6 pm Para+ El Salvador vs Costa Rica
7 pm Fox Sport 1 USA vs Panama WCQ
Tues, Mar 29
1 pm ESPN+ Senegal vs Egypt
1 pm ESPN+ Nigeria vs Ghana
3:30 pm ESPN+ Algeria vs Cameroon
7:30 pm Fubo TV Bolivia vs Brazil
7:30 pm Fubo TV Ecucador vs Argentina
7:30 pm fubotTV Chile vs Uraguay
Wed, Mar 30
9 pm Para+ USA @ Costa Rica
9 pm Para+ Panama vs Canada
9 pm Para+ Mexico vs El Salvador
USA WCQ Thur @ Mexico 10 pm CBSSN
2022 World Cup: How United States, Mexico and Canada can qualify Dale Johnson
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World Cup playoffs: No Ronaldo, Salah or Italy? What’s at stake? Mark Ogden
Who Can Qualify Next in Soutb American? The18.com
‘Nothing to lose’: North Macedonia eye playoff shock against Italy
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World Cup draw seedings skewed by war, pandemic
Chicago Cubs owners fly to UK as shortlist for Chelsea bidders expected
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Dybala to leave Juve in summer after contract not renewed
Clasico demolition vindicates Barcelona, shifts doubts to Real Madrid
Clasico thrashing could change everything for Barca, says Xavi
Juve keep pressure on top three, Roma thump Lazio
Indy 11 lose at Tampa Bay Rowdies 2-0
Indy 11 Preview – Indy Star – Kevin Johnson
Full Ticket Offerings for 2022 Indy Eleven Games Now on Sale
2022 World Cup: How United States, Mexico and Canada can qualify
3:56 PM ETDale JohnsonGeneral Editor, ESPN FC
The race to the 2022 World Cup finals is drawing to a close, with three rounds of games to be played in March to decide which nations from the CONCACAF region will head to Qatar in November.
How many CONCACAF nations qualify for the World Cup?
|1 – Canada||11||25||+14|
|2 – USA||11||21||+9|
|3 – Mexico||11||21||+6|
|4 – Panama||11||17||+1|
|5 – Costa Rica||11||16||1|
|6 – El Salvador||11||9||-7|
|7 – Jamaica||11||7||-7|
|8 – Honduras||11||3||-17|
|1-3 qualify; 4 into playoff|
The top three nations in CONCACAF qualify directly to the World Cup, which begins on Nov. 21 and runs through to the final on Dec. 18.The fourth-place nation in the region will face a playoff against the winner of the Oceania region, most likely New Zealand. The playoff will be one match only, and will be hosted by Qatar. The fixture is scheduled to be played on June 13 or 14.
Which nations are still in contention?
Of the eight teams in the final stage of qualifying, El Salvador, Honduras and Jamaica have been eliminated.That leaves Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and United States still with hopes of making the finals.
How each nation can qualify
1. Canada (25 points)
Coach John Herdman is all but certain to lead Canada to only its second men’s World Cup finals. The previous appearance came in 1986, when it lost all three matches to France, Hungary and Soviet Union without scoring a goal.Unbeaten throughout all 11 matches so far in this phase, Canada is guaranteed at least fourth and the place in the intercontinental playoff.Canada needs a maximum of two points to qualify automatically for the World Cup, but other results are likely to see it over the line even if it doesn’t achieve this.Additionally, if Panama fails to win at home to Honduras on March 24, Canada needs only a point at Costa Rica that day to qualify.
2. United States (21)
The 3-0 win over Honduras on Feb. 2 put the United States firmly in control of its own destiny, but with all three remaining matches against qualification rivals — including away fixtures to two of the strongest CONCACAF nations, Mexico and Costa Rica — it cannot start planning for Qatar yet.If USMNT fails to win in Mexico, it will really open up the group. Panama plays a Honduras team that hasn’t won any of its 11 matches, so victory for Panama would place it only one or two points behind the U.S. (Costa Rica would move close, too, if it beats Canada.) United States and Panama then would meet at the Exploria Stadium in Orlando on March 27; defeat for USMNT could leave it facing, at best, the intercontinental playoff.However, the United States can allay most fears with victory at Mexico — that would leave coach Gregg Berhalter needing at most two points from the remaining two matches.
3. Mexico (21)
While it may seem as though Mexico’s task is the same as the United States’, with both on 21 points, El Tri coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino has the benefit of, on paper, at least, a more favorable fixture list. After hosting the United States, Mexico then plays at bottom-of-the-table Honduras before completing its campaign at home to another already-eliminated team, El Salvador.It means that failing to win on March 24 may not be so damaging to Mexico as it could be to USMNT.If Mexico beats United States, it would need a maximum of two points to qualify for the finals. If Mexico draws against the U.S., it would need four points from the remaining fixtures. After a defeat, it would need to win both games to be certain, though again, other results may mean fewer would send it to the finals.
4. Panama (17)
Panama’s hopes of a second successive World Cup appear slim, and it has to win at home to Honduras on March 24 to retain any realistic chance of being, automatically, at least, at its second successive World Cup.With a win at home to Honduras, Panama will be within touching distance of one, or both, of Mexico and the United States, depending on the result of that tie.Its final two qualifiers are then against the top two nations in the group, and it would need at least a point at the U.S. before hosting Canada on March 30.Its best hope would appear to be a USMNT defeat in Mexico, and then to avoid defeat in Orlando to take it to the final day. Victory at home to Canada could then send Panama to the World Cup if USMNT fails at Costa Rica.
5. Costa Rica (16)
Costa Rica, which has been at four of the past five World Cup finals, is up against it and must win all three games to have a realistic chance of qualifying automatically.Three victories and a tally of 25 points gives it a shot, but it will also need one of Mexico or the United States to have poor results in the three matches. The fixture list suggests that is more likely to be the United States, so Costa Rica can only win its matches against Canada and El Salvador and hope it is within striking distance of USMNT when the two nations meet in the final qualifier on March 30.Panama, of course, would also have a say in what Costa Rica may require should it go down to the final round of qualifiers.
USA vs. Mexico, 2022 World Cup qualifying: What to watch for
A big showdown at the Azteca. By Donald Wine II@blazindw Mar 23, 2022, 8:42am PDT Stars and Stripes.
The United States Men’s National Team head to Estadio Azteca tomorrow night to take on Mexico in a pivotal World Cup qualifying match. Entering the final window of World Cup qualifying, both teams still have some ground to cover in order to secure one of the 3 spots from Concacaf in the 2022 World Cup. The USMNT enter with several key players out due to injury, and will seek to win a World Cup qualifier at the Azteca for the first time ever. Mexico, currently level with the USMNT on points in the Octagonal, wants to show that they are still the dominant team in this rivalry, and there’s more pressure for them to prove it after a 2021 that saw the USMNT defeat El Tri 3 times.The USMNT need a combination of 6 points won or lost by Panama and Costa Rica to secure a World Cup spot. That will mean that a result in Mexico will be super important for the U.S. in order to close in on qualification.
W (3-0) – Honduras – World Cup Qualifying
L (0-2) – Canada – World Cup Qualifying
W (1-0) – El Salvador – World Cup Qualifying
W (1-0) – Bosnia & Herzegovina – Friendly
D (1-1) – Jamaica – World Cup Qualifying
W (1-0) – Panama – World Cup Qualifying
D (0-0) – Costa Rica – World Cup Qualifying
W (2-1) – Jamaica – World Cup Qualifying
D (2-2) – Chile – Friendly
L (1-2) – Canada – World Cup Qualifying
What To Watch For
Overcome the injuries. The USMNT have a ton of key injuries to players, including Sergiño Dest, Matt Turner, Weston McKennie, and Brenden Aaronson. For the rest of the guys on the roster, they’re going to have to step up to overcome those missing players. They’re capable of doing it, but they need to recognize the importance of the match and come out firing.
Keep guys fresh. Estadio Azteca sits at about 7800 feet above sea level, which will cause guys to get gassed early. Gregg Berhalter needs to make sure subs are ready to go so that the energy level on the field stays high.
Take shots and put pressure on the defense. The more the ball is down on the attacking end for the United States, the higher the pressure is for Mexico. In front of their fans who are unforgiving when El Tri doesn’t play well, the momentum can shift by keep Mexico on their heels.
With so many injuries, there’s a big question on who will step in to fill the role of guys that have been dependable throughout qualifying. With the opportunity to steal points and bring the USMNT that much closer to qualification, here’s what Gregg Berhalter will likely present as his starting XI:Predicted Lineup vs. Mexico
Zack Steffen will get the start at goal, while the back line has Antonee Robinson, Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, and DeAndre Yedlin in place of Dest. The midfield will have a new look to it, as Tyler Adams occupies his defensive midfield position and is joined by Kellyn Acosta and Gio Reyna. Luca de la Torre or Yunus Musah could also be in this midfield if Berhalter wants to go about it differently, but in the end, he starts by putting Reyna on the field.Up front, Christian Pulisic will be on the left wing, with Tim Weah on the right wing to give some added creativity and next level attacking. In the middle, Ricardo Pepi gets the start in the hopes he can find the magic he had last fall in matches against Honduras and Jamaica.It’s hard to predict this match, because the USMNT has played so well lately against Mexico. However, they’ve never won a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, despite taking points in the last 2 cycles. It’s an even game, with the final score being 1-1. The USMNT ends what could be its final World Cup qualifying trip to the Azteca by bringing a point home to Orlando.
THIS IS IT – THE FINAL EXAM IS SET – CAN THE US QUALIFY –
SI – Brian Straus
The opportunity to play at one of sports’ most iconic and hallowed grounds—the place where Pelé and Brazil’s “jogo bonito” dazzled the world in novel living color and where Diego Maradona famously channeled both God and the devil—comes at a cost.News is always free on SI. Register to have it delivered to your inbox daily. The Estadio Azteca, Mexico City’s enormous and intimidating 87,500-seat stadium (it once held up to 107,000), sits about 10 miles south of the capital’s historic center and an exhausting 7,200 feet above sea level. When it’s full, and when the air is thin, hot and hazy, the Azteca inevitably extracts a heavy price.“It’s hard to play here. It wears you out. It’s just exhausting,” U.S. legend Landon Donovan said moments after a 2009 World Cup qualifying defeat.The Azteca tests and often saps your energy, will and resolve. Composure and focus are stretched to the limit. Players suffer, and even spectators unfamiliar with the environment can struggle climbing the concourse’s interminable ramps. Opponents will leave points behind. Earnie Stewart remembers leaving his voice there as well.“Once you leave the field, you can’t speak to each other anymore,” says U.S. Soccer’s sporting director, who played there twice during his 13 years as a men’s national team midfielder. “Coaching [teammates] at Azteca with a stadium full, with the vuvuzelas going and people shouting and chanting, to coach from one person to another over 10 feet, you have to shout the whole game,” he recalls. “And I just remember after games—one, because of the air but also two, just because of the amount of coaching that you try to do—it was really difficult to speak after the game. So you would actually lose your voice. It’s shot.”The Azteca is the towering, concrete embodiment of home field advantage. It’s soccer’s Death Star. Although the U.S. won a friendly there in 2012, in official competition the Americans are winless in 10 Azteca appearances (0-7-3) and just 1-23-3 all-time as a guest of El Tri. The draws—the narrow escapes—are the stuff of national team legend. And most visitors would be happy with that. Across 50 years, Mexico has lost only two World Cup qualifiers at Azteca. But for a young U.S. team that’s now on the precipice of dreamland or disaster, this week’s return to the Azteca is just the nail-biting beginning. An unprecedented challenge awaits. Pick your starting point and consider it the first day of school: the trauma of qualifying failure in 2017, the hiring of coach Gregg Berhalter 14 months later, the transition and commitment to youth following the onset of the pandemic or the humbling 0-0-2 start to World Cup qualifying last September. It’s all been building to this.Over the course of the next eight days, Berhalter and his historically young and promising squad will take their final exam. Everything they’ve developed and learned, every bit of experience, confidence and chemistry they’ve established, will be put to the test in the most meaningful games and in the most demanding environments. A ticket to the November-December World Cup in Qatar is the short-term prize. Longer term, the next eight days could serve as a referendum on Berhalter, Stewart and the trajectory of the most hyped and scrutinized generation of men in American soccer annals.The U.S. doesn’t necessarily need to take anything away from Azteca on Thursday evening. But if it leaves too much behind—if it loses its momentum, its energy or its focus—then it’ll risk missing another World Cup, compounding the persistent agony of that infamous 2017 defeat in Couva and forfeiting a priceless chance to build the sport ahead of the ’26 tournament co-hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada.“This is make-it-or-break-it time, you know what I mean? That’s really what it is,” says 2014 World Cup veteran DeAndre Yedlin, the most experienced player on the current roster. “You fail or you don’t. So yeah, we’re going to have basically three final tests that we have to be well prepared for, and I’m confident that everybody will be prepared for it.”Yedlin is the exception, and at 28, the new Inter Miami defender is about five years older than Berhalter’s average Octagonal starting lineup. So considering that lack of World Cup seasoning, second isn’t a terrible place to be in Concacaf’s eight-team final qualifying round. But it’s precarious. At 6-2-3, the U.S. has a tenuous hold on one of the region’s three automatic World Cup spots. The fourth-place finisher will be sent to a one-game playoff in June against a country from Oceania (likely New Zealand). The undefeated Canadians, who probably are the most surprising soccer story on the planet, have one ticket all but locked up. The remaining two are being contested by the U.S., Mexico (6-2-3), Panama (5-4-2) and Costa Rica (4-3-4).But what the standings don’t show is that the Americans have the toughest March of those five contenders: at El Tri, followed by Sunday’s home finale against fourth-place Panama in Orlando, and then a March 30 visit to Costa Rica, where the Americans’ all-time record is even worse than it is in Mexico. There are no bottom-feeders on the U.S. schedule. While three points in central Florida would be enough unless Costa Rica runs the table, a point taken in either Mexico City or San José would ease the nerves. And that’s far easier written than done.
Stage Is Set for Pulisic in USMNT’s Final World Cup Push
“Whatever we’re predicting is going to happen in this window, throw it out. Because something else will happen, trust me,” Berhalter said last week. “That’s how this whole thing’s been going. It’s exciting and for us it’s only about staying in the moment, not getting ahead of ourselves and focusing on each training session and each game as they come.”Qualification typically is decided late. Through the six cycles of Concacaf’s six-team Hexagonal, which required 10 games, the U.S.’s fate was determined on matchday eight or later on five occasions. Stewart says they expected that sort of conclusion this time as well. What feels different now is the narrative and the nerves, at least outside the locker room. Failure is now a comprehensible outcome, and there are eerie parallels between this run and the 2017 disaster. They start with tight standings, an Orlando meeting with Los Canaleros and then a potentially decisive road finale.Complicating matters further are several noteworthy U.S. injuries and the compressed timeframe, starting with Thursday’s test in the altitude at Azteca. For comparison’s sake, a three-game World Cup group stage traditionally is scheduled over 11 days. These Octagonal windows last only seven, forcing Berhalter to consider significant squad rotation and delighting those who enjoy a little game theory. Fielding your strongest lineup in Mexico City and trying to secure that additional point may leave vital players with tired legs ahead of the must-win showdown against Panama. But save your best XI for game No. 2 and you might still wind up needing a good result in Costa Rica, where Los Ticos probably will be playing for their World Cup lives.Berhalter insisted that he has men with the fitness and mindset to run that gauntlet. Five U.S. players have started three times in one of the previous four three-game windows. But none of those windows kicked off at 7,200 feet. Such are the demands at Azteca that in the past, the U.S. spent several days training at altitude and even scheduled preceding qualifiers in Denver in order to ease the transition. The calendar doesn’t afford that opportunity this month, however. The U.S. practiced in Houston for a couple days before flying to Mexico on Wednesday, thereby limiting the amount of players’ exposure to the environment.“I wouldn’t rule out a player being able to play 90 minutes at Azteca and 90 minutes in Orlando and 90 minutes again in San José. When you look at some of our players, the rhythm that they’re playing is basically Saturday, Wednesday, Saturday, Wednesday through most of the year,” Berhalter said last week, adding that he plans to use all five available substitutes in Mexico. “So some of our players—not all of them—but some of them are prepared, and some of them will be able to play three 90-minute games. It’s just identifying who and then rotating other ones out.”Berhalter has tested varying levels of squad rotation during the Octagonal but has yet to solve the vexing second-game problem that’s caused so much of his squad’s distress. The U.S. is 0-2-2 in match No. 2 of a qualifying window and has scored just twice. One of those two defeats came in Panama, in what was the Americans’ worst performance of the competition.Then comes the visit to Costa Rica, where the U.S. is 0-9-2 all-time. For years, it was the cauldron of the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, with its steep seating and rock-hard artificial turf field, that was ground zero for so much defeat. But Los Ticos’ transition to their new Estadio Nacional just west of downtown hasn’t made that trip easier, as evidenced by the 4–0 shellacking imposed on coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. five years ago.Negotiating Concacaf can mean death by a thousand distractions. It’s about the little bits of gamesmanship and confrontation that, either individually or in sum, take your mind off the game or your eyes off the ball just enough to make a potential difference. The U.S. began the Octagonal with a baptism by firework—a display of pyrotechnics along the east side of the packed and rocking Estadio Cuscatlán in San Salvador that continued well past kickoff and almost certainly isn’t part of FIFA’s standard match protocol. This was far from the controlled, mostly sanitized environment that men from MLS or European clubs are used to, and it has a knack for leveling the playing field.“The one atmosphere that outperformed anything I’ve ever seen before from them was El Salvador. I’ve never seen that from them as a country in all my years playing down there,” Berhalter says.
“It’s different. I can’t completely get the grip on it, but there’s a reason why going away in Concacaf is so difficult,” says Yedlin, who’s played in MLS, England and Turkey. “Teams there, they get this extra sort of confidence. That makes it really difficult to play against them.“It’s written through history.”The Costa Ricans are masters of Concacaf’s dark arts. They don’t need Saprissa. In 2013 it began at the airport, where authorities forced the U.S. to exit through the public terminal and board a bus whose route and destination were shared with fans. Local clubs apparently were told not to make their facilities available for U.S. training, so Klinsmann’s team wound up practicing at a Dos Pinos dairy plant. The company’s mascot—a cow, naturally—interrupted media interviews with an airhorn. Game balls weren’t provided for training. The lights were turned out during the Americans’ prematch stadium session and walk-through. And then the U.S. was hammered.This national team isn’t that national team. But the U.S. still won’t want to leave qualification hinging on a successful trip to Costa Rica. Berhalter says he’s hoping that Concacaf’s evolution—games are now played at night, the Azteca has been refurbished, there’s a track around the pitch in San José, fields have improved, etc.—will help reduce the impact of those distractions. In addition, the Azteca likely won’t be full as the Mexican federation reportedly intends to prioritize security following FIFA sanctions for homophobic chanting and this month’s shocking riot during a Liga MX match in Querétaro.“This isn’t to minimize any of our opponents, but what I would say is everything in Concacaf has been turned on its head,” Berhalter says. “And I think that rings true to these opponents. I think Mexico at Azteca hasn’t been as dominant as they have in the past [3-0-2 in the Octagonal]. I wouldn’t look at it with the same sense and say, ‘Oh, this team has never won in Azteca. It’s an impossible task,’ or ‘This team has never won in Costa Rica. It’s a impossible task.’ Everything’s different.“It’s not that it’s easier. It’s just a little different.”The U.S. team that will sit for this final exam is a little different as well. The work Berhalter and his staff have been doing to develop depth within the context of his complex playing style—notably by contesting last year’s Concacaf Gold Cup and Nations League with almost entirely different rosters—will have to pay dividends this week. There are three major absences.Midfielder Weston McKennie is probably the most complete player in the pool and was massively influential after returning from his September suspension. The 23-year-old has become the face of this national team’s Concacaf learning curve, not to mention a box-to-box force on the field and a dynamic leader and personality off it. He’s out until the summer with a broken foot suffered while on Champions League duty with Juventus.“You don’t replace him,” Berhalter said of McKennie last week. “He’s been so important to this group that we’re not going to plug a guy in and get a like-for-like. But that’s O.K. We’ve won games before without him and we’ll do it again.”Workhorse winger Brenden Aaronson, the only U.S. player to appear in all 11 Octagonal matches, was ruled out Monday with a knee injury suffered over the weekend. And Barcelona defender Sergiño Dest, who adds a unique attacking dimension from out wide, is absent with a hurt hamstring.There is some good news, however. Christian Pulisic is in outstanding form at Chelsea and has a knack for showing up in big games. Borussia Dortmund tracker Gio Reyna is healthy and finally in the U.S. fold after months on the international sideline, and goalkeeper Zack Steffen has overcome back problems and started for Manchester City this past weekend. Other issues, like solving the lingering puzzle at striker, are more routine national team concerns.What’s not routine are the pressure and stakes permeating this week. Few U.S. players besides Yedlin remain from 2017. That history isn’t theirs. But Couva does inform the narrative, conversation and coverage around the current team, and it’s something that, collectively, they still somehow have to answer for. This squad has little choice but to lean on whatever differentiation it can find.“I think because we had a very good team [in 2017], we were a little bit too complacent,” Yedlin says. “We already felt like we had qualified. ‘We’re just playing Trinidad, dah dah dah. This should be an easy win or even a draw—whatever we needed. It should be easy.’ And we were just way too complacent with it.”The pain remains, and Yedlin said he’d be sure to pass that message on to teammates this week. But both he and Stewart said they’re not too worried about a repeat of that stunning implosion in Trinidad, or of the possibility that the stakes might be too much to bear. This particular pressure is new, but pressure itself isn’t. This generation of American players has changed the calculus, going to Europe at increasingly younger ages, making their way at some of soccer’s biggest clubs and competing under the brightest spotlights. Combine the experience accumulated in both the Champions League and Concacaf crucibles, and that should be enough to maintain focus.
“That’s a great thing about this team. You have young players but you also have players that are playing in extremely high-pressure situations all over the world, that are playing in great leagues with great teams. So they have that experience. They know what that’s like,” Yedlin says.“I know the players on this team do well at motivating themselves in whatever ways they need to,” he continues. “That’s another strength of this squad. These players have been in tough situations so young, they’ve really learned about themselves and they’ve really figured out themselves.”Stewart says this team has already proven it can respond to setbacks and adversity. It was composed and resilient in the tightly contested Gold Cup and Nations League wins over Mexico last summer. Berhalter and the players altered their messaging and tone following that September qualifying window, when talk of nine points was drowned out emphatically by the din at the Cuscatlán. It’s been an enthusiastically humble “one game at a time” approach since. And remember those second-match doldrums? The U.S. has bounced back each time, going 3-0-0 in the three Game No. 3s and outscoring opponents by a combined 9–2.“It’s always about the next play and that has been, from day one, a mentality of this team which becomes a mindset,” says Stewart, a veteran of three World Cups. “What I’ve seen is that this group has grown, that they accept challenges and also accept that sometimes things don’t go the way that you want. But you focus on your job and you continue with it. So their learning curve has been really good for a young group.”Stewart, an experienced technical director in the Netherlands and MLS who came aboard in 2018, hired Berhalter. He’s in charge of charting the big-picture path for both the men’s and women’s programs and insists that no single result will derail the sport’s American trajectory. The work he’s doing on player and coach development, competitive structure and playing style will continue regardless of what happens this week, and while he’s contemplating potential responses to any and all outcomes, he refused to address those this month. Right now, the focus is on Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica.“This is a pinnacle moment for soccer in the United States. We need to qualify. There’s no other way to say it,” Stewart says.Berhalter has said since taking over that his mission is to “change the way the world views American soccer.” Unless the June playoff is required, he’ll succeed by the end of the month. Either the world will take note of a redemption story authored by America’s first golden generation, or it will wonder whether the wealthy but wayward U.S. will ever really become a soccer nation. The stakes aren’t existential, but they’re close.“It’s all coming down to this window. That’s clear,” the manager says. “So when we come into camp and we kick off our first game against Mexico, a week later we’re going to know if we’re in the World Cup or not. Every other window you’re pushing it down to the next window and you just want to hang in there, you want to put yourself into position, and we’ve done that. And now it’s about finishing the job.”
Breaking down the USMNT roster for the final Octagonal window
ASN’s Brian Sciaretta breaks down the roster for the final USMNT Octagonal window by giving his thoughts on the big issue regarding the form of key players, replacing McKennie, the players who forced their way onto the team, the big absences, and how the team lines up. BY BRIAN SCIARETTA POSTED MARCH 17, 2022
UNITED STATES NATIONAL team manager Gregg Berhalter today announced his 27-player roster for the final three games of the Octagonal World Cup qualifying tournament. These will be the most challenging window for the U.S. team as it will face Mexico in Mexico City on March 24 (10 p.m. ET), Panama in Orlando, Fla. on March 27 (7 p.m. ET) and Costa Rica in San Jose on March 30.The roster is straight forward and contains only a few surprises. The most notable absences have been known for weeks – Matt Turner, Chris Richards, and Weston McKennie who are all injured. In one note, Berhalter denied that Turner’s injury was frostbite.The biggest cause for concern, however, came earlier in the day when Sergino Dest left Barcelona’s 2-1 Europa League win over Galatasaray in the 56th minute with an injury. Dest is on this roster but Berhalter noted that if Dest can’t go for the upcoming qualifiers, he will be looking to add a left back into the team in the coming days.On top of that, here is the roster and here are some thoughts.
INDIVIDUAL FORM QUESTIONS
The form of several top players is certainly a big question mark heading into this camp. Not only does it raise questions in terms of how rusty they are but it also raises questions whether or not these players will be able to start all three games.
Tim Weah hasn’t started a game since February 2. He has played 1004 Ligue 1 minutes this season and 1355 minutes total this season for Lille. He’s played just 134 minutes since that February 2 start in a 5-1 loss to PSG and his minutes have generally been declining at Lille the past two months.
Gio Reyna has only recently returned from his injury. He’s made just three appearances since his September injury (with just one start).
Tyler Adams is another key player to the U.S. team. He has made just one start for Leipzig in the Bundesliga (and one in the Europa) since the last international window.Ricardo Pepi hasn’t been part of the team as long as the other three players, but he was considered the top No. 9 for the team at key points during this tournament and his move to Augsburg has been tough and he is still yet to score. Those players have long been thought of being key to Berhalter’s plans for the team. All three are not coming into the window in a great place in terms of momentum and Berhalter touched upon all four.With Reyna, Berhalter said he would not rule out playing Reyna in the middle and added that “the issue is just his rhythm, his fitness, and his gametime the past five months.”The particular grind of playing in Mexico City makes it hard to see Reyna being considered as a starter for that game and how much of his role will likely come down to how he shows in training at the start of next week. Berhalter added that he is “mindful of his workload” the past few weeks.
With Pepi, he has made the team despite not scoring. Berhalter said he wants all his strikers scoring and said Pepi’s lack of goals “is a concern of mine but I’ve spoken to him at length and he’s ready to go this window.” He added that “it’s about getting back to the basics with him.”
Regarding Weah, Berhalter noted that Weah “has been getting a little bit more game time lately but certainly not the 90 minutes that we expect out of him. That is a little bit of a concern.” He added that he is probably going to have to use Weah in spots and that it’s not realistic to expect he can play three 90 minute games.With Adams, Berhalter was blunt in that it comes down to “mind over matter” with Adams and that “he’s an important part of the team who has to be on the field.”It was different answers to all three players. What’s to make of it? It seems that Tyler Adams will start unless he is suspended (he is carrying a yellow card). Weah will probably start one or two games in the upcoming window, but his minutes have been a concern. Pepi might be in a tough spot in this window to start and it seems like Berhalter has him involved to work with him. Reyna appears to be on a wait and see basis.
McKennie has become such an important part of the team and he is so unique that he can’t really be replaced directly. It’s going to take a different approach.yler Adams will surely start at the No. 6 unless he gets suspended, then it will be Kellyn Acosta. But even with Adams on the field, playing Acosta with him would provide for some of the defensive bite Mckennie brings – but it would lack the offense. Berhalter also added that Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio, and Brenden Aaronson were players he see helping to fill the void left by McKennie.Meanwhile, Musah seems as if he will be more of the advanced/attacking midfield role in that formation (while he could be backed up by Reyna or Cristian Roldan).
EPB, PEFOK PLAYED ONTO THE TEAM
Two players who played themselves onto the team were Jordan Pefok and Erik Palmer-Brown.
Jordan Pefok is a player who has just been scoring at an amazing clip in the Swiss Super League and is the leading scorer in the league. With 10 goals in his last nine games, he is the leading scorer in the league with 17 goals. He also has five goals in the Champions League (and qualifiers) for 22 in all competitions. His form has been lights out.He might not have a complete skillset with his hold-up play and his passing, but he is scoring goals and he is very tough to defend close to goal. He’s scoring at rate where you simply can’t leave him off. Not only would it not be fair to him, it would send a bad message to others in the pool that form doesn’t matter. If other American strikers were scoring as well, that would be one thing. But they’re not – domestically or abroad. So, this was a no brainer and Pefok also has a great chance of playing a lot of minutes this window.
Erik Palmer-Brown wasn’t necessarily a no brainer. Aside for a few moments, central defense has been a source of strength for the U.S. team. But McKenzie has faded, Richards is injured, and there continues to be a saga with Brooks. Palmer-Brown has only been capped by the U.S. team in Dave Sarachan’s brief tenure. He’s been a journeyman with his loans from Manchester City but his current stint at Troyes in Ligue 1 has allowed him to play in a “Big Five” league. The past three months he has really seized the opportunity.He also looks like a central defender who could give Berhalter what he wants. Compared with other players, such as Celtic’s Cameron Carter-Vickers, who are looking to get into the mix, Palmer-Brown offers solid passing, good footspeed, and a high-level soccer IQ. Palmer-Brown might not play much this window as Zimmerman and Robinson should be the most reliable starters. But this is a good opportunity for him to start building his case for the future and perhaps making a late push to make the World Cup team, should it qualify.
THE NOTABLE ABSENCE
As with every roster, there are notable absence. Here is a look at the most notable absences.
John Brooks is by far the most notable absence on this roster but given that he has not been with the team since September, it was hardly surprising. Last year he was dealing with an injury and then there were concerns over his form. Today, Berhalter said he spoke with Brooks at length but added that he didn’t fit how the team wanted to play this window.Without knowing the nature of the discussions between Brooks and Berhalter, there are a few things in Brooks’ history that are important to note. He has historically had a tough time getting along with managers in his past. His relationship with Jurgan Klinsmann wasn’t smooth. He’s been called out a few times publicly in Germany by various managers and this past season, he’s been at the receiving end of very harsh stories in BILD (some speculating the source for the articles was Wolfsburg). Last month, the club announced Brooks was not going to return next season after his contract is up this summer.ithout even mentioning Berhalter, Brooks has had a tough time with managers in his career. He does generally work his way through things, but it is a process. Berhalter today said the door for Brooks’ return is open and I believe that. Brooks’ absences have been among the more talked about stories in the last several USMNT roster releases. Perhaps his return is best left to a time when there is far less pressure on the team than there is in the coming two weeks. Berhalter also noted that he has spoken in detail with Brooks recently.Gyasi Zardes wasn’t called up and the answer for which is that he simply was outplayed as a No. 9 by Jordan Pefok. Jesus Ferreira is also on the roster, but he is a different skillset who offers a little Berhalter a little variety in how he can attack.
Josh Sargent was the same as Zardes in that he was outplayed by Pefok. Berhalter continued to note on Thursday that he believes Sargent will become a top-quality No. 9 in the future but lately he’s been playing on the wing at Norwich and just hasn’t been getting the opportunities to score.
Sebastian Lletget was not a surprise to being left off the roster. While Lletget has been playing well to start the season for New England, his role on the U.S. team has been diminishing and he hasn’t played for the team in seven games. It seems like time that as de la Torre continues to impress, Reyna is returning, and even Roldan is playing really strong soccer for Seattle (while also embracing his role on the U.S. team as a high-energy, late sub) that there isn’t room this time for Lletget. He could get a look this summer, but he really needs to surge for New England in the months ahead.
HOW THE U.S. COULD LINE UP
There are a lot of questions for how the U.S. could lineup in these windows.In goal, my guess is that it will be Zack Steffen or Ethan Horvath. I think Sean Johnson is number three at this camp. The fact that Steffen has returned gives him the edge, but it will probably be a decision. If Steffen passes the physical tests given to him, I think he starts at Azteca and in the other games.Central defense is likely going to be Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson. Robinson hasn’t been great in the early season with Atlanta, but Zimmerman continues to be excellent for Nashville. Long is still only in his first few games back from injury and Palmer-Brown hasn’t played yet under Berhalter. James Sands looks like he’s on the team to cover in both defense and in the midfield.Fullbacks right now are up in the air. Antonee Robinson is the starting left back and if Dest is out (which seems like a real possibility) another left back will need to be called in. That would also probably put Reggie Cannon into the starting right back role. Cannon is fine defensively, but he does not have the explosiveness in getting forward.In the midfield, Adams is a lock to start (unless he picks up a yellow and is suspended). Acosta might seem like the logical replacement for McKennie in Azteca given his success against El Tri and the need for a more defensive approach. Against Panama and Costa Rica, it might be a situation that more favors Luca de la Torre. In the most advanced position, Musah looks like the top choice now and it seems unlikely that Reyna should be favored to start. If Musah can’t go, Brenden Aaronson might slide into that role.Pulisic is a lock starter on the left wing. Weah is a bit of a wild card right now. He’s played well for the U.S. team but he is not playing a lot for his club. Meanwhile, Brenden Aaronson has been strong for Salzburg but he plays as a No. 10 there. Weah and Aaronson should split time on the right wing with Aaronson also likely playing in the midfield. If that happens, Morris could see time – and his form is picking up nicely for Seattle.Finally, up top I think Berhalter will want to ride the hot hand with Pefok and I think Jesus Ferreira has a good chance to play some minutes off the bench. Pepi is a tough player to put on the field right now with his form and confidence. How many minutes he plays could come down to how he shows in training when camp opens next week.
World Cup playoffs: No Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah or Italy? What’s at stake?
7:00 AM ET Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
Can you imagine a FIFA World Cup in Qatar without Portugal‘s Cristiano Ronaldo or Egypt‘s Mohamed Salah? Or a tournament in which European champions Italy or African champions Senegal fail to qualify? Well the bad news for those mentioned, and fans across the globe, is that some of the game’s headline acts will see their Qatar 2022 dreams extinguished in the coming days during the World Cup playoffs.By the end of this international break, seven nations will have booked their place in this year’s World Cup through the playoffs. Three more will be confirmed when the Intercontinental playoffs and the culmination of the European path involving Ukraine take place in June.
In Europe, some of the major nations, including Portugal and Italy, are walking a tightrope after failing to top their qualification groups. And in Africa, five head-to-head ties over two legs will see some of the continent’s traditional powerhouse countries miss out.It promises to be a tense and dramatic round of playoffs in Europe and Africa, so here’s your guide as to how it will all play out.
How it works
In Europe, the 10 runners-up from the group stage, plus the two highest-placed teams in the 2021 Nations League who failed to achieve a top-two group finish (Austria and Czech Republic), have been drawn into three separate playoff paths.Each path has four teams, with two one-legged semifinals feeding into a one-off final. The seeded team is at home in the semifinal and a draw has already taken place to decide who has home advantage in the final.So there is no margin for error. It’s one game, in both the semis and the final, to decide who qualifies.Path A involves Wales vs. Austria in Cardiff (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+) and Scotland vs. Ukraine in Glasgow, meeting to set up a final in Cardiff or Vienna. However, the conflict in Ukraine means this path will not be concluded during this international break.Path B was due to be Russia vs. Poland in Moscow and Sweden vs. Czech Republic in Stockholm (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+), feeding into a final held in either Moscow or Chorzow, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to FIFA kicking the 2018 World Cup hosts out of the competition. Poland get a bye.Path C is the real show-stopper, with Portugal vs. Turkey in Porto (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN2) and Italy vs. North Macedonia in Palermo (Thursday, 2.45 p.m ET., stream live on ESPN+) potentially setting up a clash between Portugal and Italy in Porto for a place at the World Cup. Turkey will play Italy or North Macedonia in Konya if they beat Portugal on Thursday.In Africa, there is slightly more breathing room for the teams involved, with five separate ties being played over two legs. But some of Africa’s biggest teams and stars will miss out, with the winners of each tie qualifying for Qatar.
How has the war in Ukraine impacted the World Cup playoffs?
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, FIFA suspended Russia from all competitive football. The Russian Football Union (RFU) appealed against the decision at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), but that was rejected on March 15.Prior to Russia being kicked out of the playoffs, the national associations of Poland, Sweden and the Czech Republic — Russia’s Path B rivals — all issued statements insisting they would not play any game against the Russians.Poland have now been given a bye to the Path B final and will face either Sweden or the Czechs at Slaski Stadium in Chorzow on March 29.In Path A, the Ukrainian Association of Football (UAF) requested a postponement of their playoff against Scotland. More than half of the Ukraine squad play their football in the country, so the majority of their players are unable to leave or prepare for a World Cup playoff.FIFA has sanctioned the postponement, and although no date has been confirmed for the Scotland-Ukraine game to be rescheduled, sources have told ESPN that it is hoped the fixture may be played in June. However, if the conflict continues, FIFA faces a tough decision in terms of a cut-off point for Path A to be concluded.The other semifinal between Wales and Austria will take place in Cardiff on Thursday, with the winners then playing a home tie against Scotland or Ukraine in the final at a time and date to be decided.
Who are the big names who could miss out in Europe?
One of the last two European champions won’t make it. Thanks to Portugal and Italy being drawn in the same path, one of the biggest nations in world football won’t qualify for Qatar.Failure to qualify would be disastrous for Italy. The four-time World Cup winners missed out in 2018 after losing a two-legged playoff against Sweden, but they now risk the same fate less than 12 months after beating England in the Euro 2020 final. A 90th-minute penalty miss by Jorginho against Switzerland in Rome last November ost the Italians top spot in Group C and has now left the Azzurri needing to beat North Macedonia before a one-off final against Portugal or Turkey for a place in Qatar.It’s also possible there will be no World Cup swan song for Cristiano Ronaldo in Qatar. The 37-year-old, the all-time leading goal scorer in men’s international football, has said he will retire from international duty after the World Cup, but he may not get that far. But for a 90th-minute goal for Serbia scored by Aleksandar Mitrovic in a 2-1 win in Lisbon last November, Portugal would have avoided the playoffs and qualified as group winners. Now the Euro 2016 winners face two tough games to qualify.In Path B, 40-year-old Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in the Sweden squad and aiming to make it to Qatar after missing the 2018 competition. But if the AC Milan forward gets there, it will mean no World Cup for Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski, whose Poland team await the winners of Sweden vs. the Czech Republic in the final after their bye against Russia. So we could be set for a Lewandowski vs. Ibrahimovic showdown in Chorzow on March 29.
Who are the big names who could miss out in Africa?
The Confederation of African Football (CAF) performed the draw for the African playoff route on Jan. 22, which was the midway point of the 2022 Africa Cup of Nations in Cameroon. As a result, the seeded draw was based on the FIFA World Ranking prior to the tournament, with the five highest-ranked teams in one pot and the remaining teams in the other.The downside to that decision has been borne out in the playoff draw, which will see the two AFCON finalists — Senegal and Egypt — meeting for a place at the 2022 World Cup. If CAF had done the draw after the tournament, Egypt would have been among the top seeds and Africa would not have been faced with two of its best teams battling it out for one place in Qatar.But aside from one of Africa’s best two teams missing out, we also face either Sadio Mane or Mohamed Salah failing to qualify for the World Cup. Mane and Salah are two of the biggest, if not THE biggest, stars in African football. They are also stellar names in the Premier League and Champions Leagues following their goal-scoring feats with Liverpool. But one of them will be spending November and December at home while the World Cup plays out.Cameroon vs. Algeria will see one World Cup regular qualify at the expense of another, while two of the traditional giants of African football, Ghana and Nigeria, will also play for one spot.
Are there any other playoffs?
However, an outbreak of COVID-19 infections forced Vanuatu to withdraw from the qualifiers over the weekend and the Cook Islands have also revealed a number of positive results, so the Solomon Islands and Tahiti are expected to progress by default and face New Zealand and Fiji in Qatar this week. The winner of the Oceania playoffs will then face the fourth-placed team in North America (CONCACAF) in Qatar on June 13-14 for a place at the World Cup.The fourth-placed team in Asia (AFC) will face the fifth-placed team in South America (CONMEBOL) for one qualification spot in Doha on June 13-14. Ahead of the final round of qualifiers, the AFC team will be either Australia or the United Arab Emirates, to play against Peru from CONMEBOL.
When is the World Cup draw?
It’s closer than you think. The draw for the group stage of Qatar 2022 will be on April 1 at the Doha Exhibition and Convention Center at 7 p.m. local time (4 p.m. GMT / 11 a.m. ET) .Thirty-two nations will be drawn into eight groups of four and the draw will be seeded based on the FIFA World Ranking. Those teams involved in playoffs in June will be assigned groups on a qualifier TBC basis.Teams from the same continental confederation, other than UEFA, cannot be paired together in the same group. A maximum of two UEFA nations can be placed in the same group.The 2022 World Cup starts on Nov. 21, with hosts Qatar playing the opening game at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor. The final will be staged at the Lusail Stadium, Doha, on Dec. 18.
Christian the Closer: Stage Is Set for Pulisic in USMNT’s Final World Cup Push
With a berth in Qatar on the line and key players out injured or otherwise limited, the spotlight is on an in-form Pulisic to deliver for the U.S.
- AVI CREDITORMAR 22, 2022 SI
No U.S. men’s national team fan needs the reminder—especially not this week—but sometimes to get to where you want to go, you need to look back at where you’ve come from.For Christian Pulisic, the images of his face buried in his shirt upon the devastation of the U.S.’s failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup were brutal then and remain so now. Here was a 19-year-old playing a bigger role than should have been necessary coming to grips with utter humiliation—at no fault of his own—following the infamous defeat in Trinidad & Tobago that sealed the U.S.’s fate.Pulisic was the lone U.S. player to score in Couva in October 2017, and he’s one of the few remaining holdovers linking back to that group. He has gone on to win U.S. Soccer’s Male Player of the Year award three times since. For all of the U.S. talent sprouting up at top clubs in Europe, he remains the standard bearer for his rising generation. He’s a Champions League winner who has excelled in spurts at two of the biggest clubs and in two of the biggest leagues on the planet, and he’s still just 23. He’s more than held his own in the face of extreme hype. But while there have been times for others to step up throughout ’22 World Cup qualifying, the U.S. truly needs Pulisic to be its closer over the final three matches.The U.S. player pool is seemingly never at full strength, and, once again, a depleted top of the depth chart leaves the Americans thinned out. Brenden Aaronson has been ruled out with a knee injury. Gio Reyna and Tim Weah are players whom Gregg Berhalter has deemed unlikely to be 90-minute guys on multiple occasions during this window, if even once. Just three of the U.S.’s goals throughout qualifying have come from the center forward position (all through Ricardo Pepi, across two games, though he hasn’t scored a goal for club or country since that last October strike vs. Jamaica). Looking around the room, there aren’t many other places for the U.S. to turn for impact moments, starting at Estadio Azteca in Mexico on Thursday night and continuing in Orlando vs. Panama on Sunday before qualifying concludes in San José, Costa Rica, on March 30.But that’s where the “LeBron James of soccer” is supposed to rise to the occasion, and in big games, Pulisic has developed a knack for coming through with key moments. He has two goals in qualifying, both interestingly off the bench. His first was a match winner just minutes into his performance vs. Mexico in Cincinnati in November, while the second was a match icer in the early-February win over Honduras. Both came in big spots, with the U.S.-Mexico stage needing no introduction, while the win vs. Honduras allowed the Americans to remain on a more streamlined path to the World Cup entering the final window. In June, it was his cold-blooded penalty kick that wound up clinching the Nations League title.There are also times when it looks as if Pulisic feels the need to shoulder the load a bit too much, and it’s something he has recognized himself. It’s not hard to spot. His ability and willingness to take on defenders are two of his hallmarks, but when he forces the issue, the frustration of turning the ball over or failing to produce meaningful chances tends to snowball. It doesn’t help that he’s also often the focus of opponents’ physicality, absorbing fouls that can take a cumulative effect on a player.“Sometimes it is tough,” Pulisic told ESPN while at the FIFA Club World Cup with Chelsea in February. “I still haven’t completely learned. Especially going back to the U.S., sometimes I put too much pressure on myself that I need to do something special where I just need to play the best I can, do what I can do and hopefully people recognize that.“It is just about playing my game, doing it to the best of my ability and not worrying about what any outside sources say because that’s not what really matters.”Unlike in past camps, Pulisic isn’t coming in under a cloud of poor form or inactivity at Chelsea. He’s rolling in on the heels of a pair of goals in the Champions League round of 16, and he appears as engaged and as big of a part of Chelsea’s attack as he has been all season. He has big-game credentials for his club, too. In addition to the two recent goals vs. Lille, he scored in last season’s semifinal vs. Real Madrid to help send Chelsea to the final. He scored in an FA Cup final. He’s also been inches from scoring in Champions League, Club World Cup and Carabao Cup finals. And his current run of form couldn’t be better timed. The potential distraction of everything swirling at the club considering the sanctions on Roman Abramovich and forthcoming sale do not appear to have had a negative impact on his—or the club’s—play, and the U.S. should be better off for it.It’s been a pleasure to watch,” Berhalter said before Pulisic’s arrival in camp. “I say this all the time. … It’s a rollercoaster, especially when you’re at a club like Chelsea. When you’re at these massive clubs, it’s very, very difficult.”All they ask him to do is just to keep fighting, keep working and wait for his opportunity and he’s done that and he’s taken advantage of it. He’s become again an important part of their team. He’s shown that he can step up and score goals and make assists.“He’s got a great knack for arriving in the penalty box and he’s got a finishing touch to him. He’s very good when he’s in front of goal.“So for us, we expect very similar things. He needs to keep arriving in the box because we know, when he gets in good positions, he scores, and just continue to focus on the basics and he’ll be the leader that we expect him to be.”If he can accomplish that over the next week-plus, then there won’t be a question as to what the lasting images of this qualifying cycle will be, and they’ll be ones that U.S. fans and Pulisic himself will happily look back on down the road.
The USMNT’s Form, Fitness and Injuries That’ll Define the End of World Cup Qualifying
The last window is nearly here, but the U.S., again, won’t be at full strength. How the squad is utilized—and individuals’ form—will make all the difference.
- AVI CREDITOR MAR 21, 2022 SI
You are reading 1 of 4 free premium articles. Subscribe for unlimited access for just $1. Members log in.It was just a week ago that it seemed as if things on the injury front were clearing for the U.S. men’s national team. Well, a lot can change in a week, especially in the bubble-wrap-or-bust world of the USMNT.Sergiño Dest’s hamstring injury and Brenden Aaronson’s knee injury are two late problems the U.S. has been forced to confront in the days leading up to the last batch of Concacaf World Cup qualifiers. Both were originally included on Gregg Berhalter’s 27-man squad for games against Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica, although Dest’s initial inclusion was a case of wishful thinking. The injury he suffered just hours before the roster reveal was confirmed a day later, as was George Bello’s call-up to replace him.But Aaronson’s curveball on Sunday changes the calculus even more. He suffered “knee problems” in the warmup to his scheduled Austrian Bundesliga match and was forced out as a result. The only U.S. player to appear in all 11 World Cup qualifiers to date, Aaronson has taken on a significant role for the U.S. Salzburg included him Monday on its list of players departing for international duty, but then ESPN’s Taylor Twellman reported that Aaronson will miss 2-4 weeks with an MCL injury. Earlier Monday, U.S. Soccer maintained that Aaronson was “day-to-day” and would still report to camp, but that took a turn for the worse later in the day, with the federation ruling him out of camp entirely. “After reviewing the updated medical information and in consultation with Red Bull Salzburg, we have determined that Brenden Aaronson would not be available to play in the upcoming World Cup qualifying matches,” U.S. Soccer wrote in a statement. “We were hopeful he would be able to recover in time; unfortunately, that will not be the case. We hope he makes a speedy recovery.”There is no replacement as of now for Aaronson, leaving the U.S. with 26 players for the trio of upcoming games.The U.S. is on the cusp of qualification, but it hasn’t done enough to eliminate its margin for error. A defeat in Mexico on Thursday and the heat gets ramped up considerably ahead of Sunday’s home match vs. Panama (which, all emotion and rivalry aside, is the one the U.S. truly must-win). This entire process has been about relying on depth and overcoming injury and adversity, and so it’s only appropriate that the coda is about more of the same. The next three days will be defined by a discussion about squad rotation and the approach vs. Mexico. Go for the jugular in the altitude at the Azteca—where the U.S. has never won a qualifier—and risk being a bit more depleted vs. Panama? Or take a more conservative approach south of the border and put more emphasis on ensuring that the three home points on offer are secured?“I think the important thing first is to look at the starting point of where these guys are coming from,” Berhalter said. “If a guy is fully fit, and playing every week, and has 90 minutes under his belt for a considerable amount of weeks, he’ll be fine. They’ll be fatigued a little bit at altitude, but they’ll be able to get through it.”Fresh injuries and game-approach permutations aside, the weekend did provide a number of other key moments for U.S. players who have been called into camp. Here are the highlights and lowlights from those last appearances among those who will look to secure a World Cup berth in the next 10 days:
Reyna goes the full 90
If there were an antidote to the new injury problems, it was Gio Reyna’s 90-minute performance for Dortmund on Sunday. He may not have scored or assisted on a goal, and Dortmund may have dropped points in the chase to dethrone Bayern Munich, but from a personal standpoint, it was Reyna’s first 90-minute showing since the Sept. 2 World Cup qualifier in which he was injured. From then, it was five months out, followed by a brief return, another injury scare, a shorter layoff and then a return. In comments last week, Berhalter indicated that Reyna would not be entirely unleashed this window, given how recent his injury problems have been, but might Aaronson’s availability alter the calculus? If not, then MLS-based Paul Arriola and Jordan Morris are the next men up on the wing.“The important thing is us qualifying for the World Cup, first of all, but secondly is Gio returning healthy to his club, and we’re mindful of his load. We’re mindful of the work that he’s done the last couple weeks, and we’re going to adjust accordingly,” Berhalter said last week.
Steffen, Horvath both start in FA Cup
Another sight for sore U.S. eyes was a pair of FA Cup quarterfinals, with Zack Steffen backstopping Man City into the semis, while Ethan Horvath continued his run of starts at Nottingham Forest in a narrow defeat to Liverpool. His 1-v-1 save on Roberto Firmino was among his highlights in defeat.
USMNT World Cup qualifying roundtable: Can injury-hit squad do what is needed to reach Qatar?
10:51 AM ETESPN
The U.S. men’s national team has had a interesting relationship with the World Cup. After appearing in three of the first four competitions (1930, 1950, 1954), the Yanks missed the next nine before returning, in 1990, thanks to a pivotal qualifying goal by Paul Caligiuri in Trinidad & Tobago. (You can see where this is going, right?)From there, the USMNT represented at every World Cup from 1994 to 2014, going as far as the quarterfinals in 2002 … only to infamously miss the 2018 edition after failing to win in — you knew it was coming — Trinidad & Tobago. (They only needed a draw that night!) That pivotal defeat in Couva reverberated around the hearts and minds of U.S. fans until qualification for Qatar 2022 began, and with it a brilliant new generation of American talent. Despite the emergence of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest and many more, their ticket to the World Cup this winter comes down to the final three games, including a game against Mexico in the fabled Azteca, and a potential winner-take-all clash in Costa Rica.ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, Kyle Bonagura, Ryan O’Hanlon, Dan Hajducky and Bill Connelly offer their answers to the critical questions we’re all asking ourselves this week.
Is this shaping up to be another Couva situation?
Carlisle: I think the possibility of overconfidence, which was the real culprit four years ago, is reduced this time around. The U.S. knows how difficult these three opponents — Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica — are, so the requisite focus and intensity should be there.
Now, could the U.S. mess this up? Absolutely. But I think this will be down more to the pressure of the moment and the quality of the opposition than the U.S. thinking it has qualification in the bag.
Bonagura: It shouldn’t get that dicey, Jeff, but it’s certainly on the table and it would be foolish to write off a repeat with the lesson from 2017 still fresh. The game to simultaneously watch is Costa Rica at Canada. If Costa Rica wins (unlikely) that one, things will get even more interesting.
O’Hanlon: In the most general sense, yes. Barring a win against Mexico at the Azteca, the USMNT is going to need a result, on the road, in their last match of qualifying. The big difference: This team, even with the injuries, is way better than the 2017 team that failed to get a result on the road in their last match of qualifying.Hajducky: Whoa, whoa, guys: I thought we weren’t going to invoke that name! Couva. Sneaky.
The Americans’ track record in Mexico — 0-12-3 at Estadio Azteca in qualifying since 1949 — is stark. One point would be historic, three would initiate delirium. Canada, sans Alphonso Davies, will clinch automatic qualification with one more win; if they do so against Costa Rica on March 24, it could render USMNT’s tango with Los Ticos on March 30 a … sigh … Couva situation. But that’s assuming the U.S. don’t take points from Panama, currently in the playoff slot and squaring off against already-eliminated Honduras and nearly qualified Canada in this final round. The Stars & Stripes get Panama on home soil in Orlando, Florida, in an absolute must-win.
Going back to 2002 CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers, 1.3 points per game is the fewest an automatic qualifier has managed. Even with the new format (eight teams instead of six, 14 games each now), unless something goes wildly amiss, the U.S. men (1.91 PPG) are above that threshold. Even if they lose all three matches, they’d have managed 1.5 points per game — good enough for automatic (or intercontinental) qualification in each of the past two cycles.
For now, let’s breathe. Panic is reserved for March 30. (Have Taylor Twellman on standby just in case.)
Connelly: Look, the nightmare certainly isn’t off the table! While the odds are certainly in the United States‘ favor heading into the final three matches, the number of injuries for this group heading into the final matches is incredible. We will go the whole qualification period without ever seeing Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Sergino Dest on the pitch at the same time, and that’s absolutely incredible. size=1 width=”100%” noshade style=’color:#A5A6A7′ align=center>
Bigger loss: Dest or McKennie?
Carlisle: OK, it’s McKennie (no disrespect to Dest). Not only will McKennie’s talent be missed, but he’s been the heart and soul of this team since returning from his suspension last September. He has scored big goals and provided an emotional boost to his teammates on the field. He’s irreplaceable really. Hopefully his teammates can combine to make up for his absence.
Bonagura: I hate to say it, but Jeff’s right about McKennie! It’s not close — no one else on the roster has had more influence while they’ve been on the field than the Juventus midfielder during qualifying, and the drop-off from him to whoever slots in is more significant than when the U.S. plays Deandre Yedlin or Reggie Cannon in place of Dest.
O’Hanlon: Joining the chorus! McKennie all the way. During qualifying, he’s second on the team in shots, expected goals, chances created, touches in the penalty area and passes into the penalty area. Oh yeah, and he’s done all of that from midfield. There’s no one else in the player pool even remotely like him.
Who will score the goals?
Carlisle: This question should strike terror, but honestly, the U.S. has been pretty balanced in terms of where goals have come from in qualifying: Six from wingers, three from center-forwards, four from defenders and two out of central midfield (plus one own goal). Given the struggles of the No.9s in the talent pool and the loss of Brenden Aaronson to a knee injury, that means more onus on Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah. Perhaps Reyna will chip in, too, given his return to health.
Another thing to consider is how the U.S. team’s prowess on set pieces perked up against Honduras. Getting more production from there could be huge.
Bonagura: With Pulisic in form headed into this window, the expectation has to be that he will carry the offense. With that established, it will probably be someone like Walker Zimmerman or Cannon who comes up with an important goal.
Pick your XI for the Azteca and explain
Carlisle: Horvath; Yedlin, Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, Antonee Robinson; Musah, Adams, Kellyn Acosta; Pulisic, Pefok, Weah
To rest or not to rest? That is the question. The selection of Horvath is down to the fact that he’s been playing more than any other U.S. keeper, and also has good history against Mexico. Yedlin’s experience gets him the nod at right-back, and the same is true for Acosta, who took part in the 1-1 draw at the Azteca during the last cycle, in midfield. This is going to be a grind-it-out affair, and Acosta is best suited for that.
It’s been suggested that Adams be saved for Panama given that he’s on a yellow card (and would face a one-game suspension if he picks up another), but then you run the risk of him playing in only one match in this window if he’s saved and then booked against Panama. Aaronson’s absence means Weah gets the nod at one of the wing positions. No central striker has really jumped out, but Pefok is in the best form of any of them, so he gets the nod up top.Bonagura: Steffen; Yedlin, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams; Musah, Luca De la Torre; Morris, Pefok, Pulisic
The idea that the United States should rotate at the Azteca to give the team a better shot at three points in a more pivotal — for qualification purposes — game against Panama is completely logical. But with five subs available, this also doesn’t mean it should be a full second-choice XI. I would plan to sub in Reyna (in central midfield), Weah, Pepi/Ferreira with the idea they will start in Orlando and earmark Acosta (for Adams) and another player (depending on the state of the game) for playing time.
Also, let Yedlin empty the tank and use Cannon against Panama.
O’Hanlon: Horvath; Yedlin, Zimmerman, M. Robinson, A. Robinson; Adams, Musah, Acosta; Pulisic, Ferreira, Weah
Jeff and I picked ours two weeks ago, but injuries to Dest and Aaronson necessitate a couple of tweaks. I’d swap Yedlin in for Dest, and I’d go with Jesus Ferreira as the third attacker. He has been lighting it up in MLS, and he was — controversial opinion alert — great in his start against El Salvador. His on-ball skills dovetail really nicely with Pulisic’s world-class off-ball movement.
Hajducky: Steffen; Cannon, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams, Musah, Acosta; Pulisic, Pepi, Weah
Some combination of Pulisic, Weah and Pepi up top with Reyna coming on as a sub; in midfield, Adams and Yunus Musah most likely stabilized by Acosta, the second-most-capped player on this roster; in the back, Antonee and Miles Robinson, Zimmerman and Cannon, who has played the full 90 in each of Boavista‘s past six league matches. My gut’s on Steffen in net, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Horvath’s form against Liverpool tilts the scales — especially the gutty breakaway save to deny Roberto Firmino.
Connelly: Steffen; Yedlin, M. Robinson, Zimmerman, A. Robinson; Adams, Acosta, Cristian Roldan; Pulisic, Pepi, Morris Berhalter tends to make pretty si
Which player will Berhalter regret not calling in?
Carlisle: For all the talk about John Brooks, if Berhalter wasn’t going to go in that direction, I’m a bit surprised that Tim Ream didn’t get another look given how well he played in El Salvador as well as for Fulham. Out of the three center-backs backing up Zimmerman and Miles Robinson — Aaron Long, Erik Palmer-Brown and James Sands — none of them have played in a World Cup qualifier, and the stakes now couldn’t be higher. Ream has the requisite experience and leadership that could help this team navigate its way through these three games.
Bonagura: It’s beginning to look like I’m on an island with this, but Matthew Hoppe was the only attacking player to make any sort of positive impression in the Gold Cup and would be a valuable asset in this window, especially now that Aaronson is out.
O’Hanlon: While the talent pool is deeper than ever, the USMNT still isn’t close to being flush enough to ignore a center back who was starting for a Champions League team this season. Plus, none of the other center backs in the pool can pass like Brooks. Without McKennie, Aaronson and Dest, Berhalter is going to have to pull a couple new attacking levers, but he left this one in Wolfsburg.
Hajducky: Given the ballyhoo, it’s easy to say Brooks, isn’t it? If Thursday in Mexico City turns sour, dissent might reach a fever pitch. The U.S. are short on attacking options, and Josh Sargent has been influential for a woeful Norwich City. I’d rather have Sargent on the bench than at home.
Connelly: I realize Brooks’ form isn’t spectacular, but bringing in Long and Palmer-Brown instead of him seems weird, especially with the trip to Azteca. Having that security blanket would have been nice. size=1 width=”100%” noshade style=’color:#A5A6A7′ align=center>
Three games for the USMNT. How many points do they get?
Carlisle: They’ll get four with a tie in Mexico and a win over Panama. That still might not be enough to guarantee one of the three automatic spots, so they’ll need some help from Canada to take points off of Costa Rica. Otherwise they’ll be headed to Qatar for a playoff.
Bonagura: Based strictly on gut feeling: lose at Mexico, win against Panama, draw at Costa Rica, for four points. This is a team that has the capability to get results in both road games, but the historical track record is tough to ignore.
O’Hanlon: Betting markets give Mexico about a 45% chance of winning, with 28% on a draw and 27% on a USMNT win. Expected points from that, then, is a little over one. Let’s say 2.5 for Panama — it’s home, and Panama will be pushing for a win, which theoretically helps the U.S. — and 1.5 for Costa Rica. Add it all up, and we’ve got five expected points — and a spot in Qatar.
Hajducky: Maybe I’m being overly optimistic, but I’m hoping for four points. Hell, I’m resorting to prayer for anything non-zero. Mexico is shaping up to be a heartbreaker, sure, but Panama on home soil (in a stadium they’ve never lost in) is an imperative three points. Still, Costa Rica might still be the most intriguing. The U.S. have only dropped one of the past six against Los Ticos back to mid-2017. They are, however, abysmal (and winless) in Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying. They need to take maximum points against Panama in Orlando or March 30 is all-out mayhem, absent stars and nursing wounds.
Connelly: It feels like anything between one and nine is on the table, yeah? Mexico isn’t exactly in great form, and the U.S. will be favored against Panama, but you’d love to have something a lot closer to your full-strength lineup available. Alas, injuries stink, and it feels like four points is somewhere between realistic and semi-optimistic. So four.
USMNT’s Tyler Adams on World Cup qualification: ‘No other option’
United States men’s national team midfielder Tyler Adams said there is “no other option” but for the USMNT to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.The USMNT seek to return to the World Cup after missing the 2018 tournament, with three crucial qualifying matches left — at Mexico on Thursday, hosting Panama three days later at Orlando, Florida, and at Costa Rica on March 30. “We have to qualify, there’s no other option. I think that when you’re in big games and important games you always have to remember what motivates you and what you’re doing it for,” Adams said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We’re doing it for all the U.S. fans and we don’t want to let down our nation.”
Adams, who plays for Bundesliga side RB Leipzig, said he remembered watching the USMNT fail to qualify for 2018 World Cup. He pondered what could have been had that side reached Russia.
“I made my debut after that elimination, who knows if had we qualified if I would have been there,” Adams said. “The group has a great responsibility — qualifying for the World Cup, it’s the absolute minimum, we have to do that to continue to move the program forward.”The top three sides in the eight-team CONCACAF standings will automatically qualify for Qatar 2022, and the fourth place side will play an intercontinental playoff. Canada lead with 25 points, with the U.S. and Mexico each on 21 points but the U.S. ahead on goal difference. Panama is fourth with 17 points, followed by Costa Rica with 16. El Salvador (nine), Jamaica (seven) and Honduras (three) have been eliminated.Adams said the side welcomes the challenge of Thursday’s match at Estadio Azteca, where Mexico holds a 6-0-3 record in qualifying against the USMNT and have a 9-1-2 home record overall against the Americans. However, the U.S. have defeated Mexico the last three times they met, including wins in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup finals, and a 2-0 win in a November qualifying match in Cincinnati.Playing this match on Thursday 7,200 feet above sea level, Adams said both sides will feel the elevation.”You don’t have to the opportunity to play in that kind of altitude everday, you have to get through the first 10-15 minutes to grind it out. I’ve played there with the youth side, but not with a lot of fans, so I’m excited,” Adams said.Borussia Dortmund star Giovanni Reyna said he understands the challenge of playing at the iconic venue, having heard about it from his father Claudio, a former USMNT captain.”I’ve heard about stories from my dad. I knew it was gonna be a tough game back in Denver [in the 2020 CONCACAF Nations League final] and every time we play them. They have a great crowd, great team so it’s gonna be tough to play there. We’re ready and excited,” Reyna said of Azteca.Reyna is returning to national team duty after battling a hamstring injury that kept him out action for over five months and only recently played a match for Dortmund. Nonetheless, the return of Reyna is a relief for Gregg Berhalter’s side that will miss key players such as midfielder Weston McKennie (two broken bones in left foot), defender Sergino Dest (strained left thigh), goalkeeper Matt Turner (foot/ankle), and Brenden Aaronson (knee).”I know I can help the group just with my playing and being here. We got really important games and our main goal is to go to the World Cup,” Reyna said. “I’m definitely going to be managing my fitness, we’re gonna be smart with it.”
Hurting US men’s soccer team seeks boost in crucial World Cup push from Gio Reyna
Nancy Armour, USA TODAY Tue, March 22, 2022, 5:21 PM
Gio Reyna’s goals for the next week are simple: Qualify for the World Cup, and stay healthy.The forward, one of the brightest young stars for the U.S. men’s team, is back with the Americans for the first time since September, when he injured his right hamstring during the first World Cup qualifier. Though his absence lasted longer than Reyna had hoped, his return comes at an ideal time for the Americans, who need to win at least one of their final three qualifiers to clinch a spot at the World Cup in Qatar.“I just want to help the group,” Reyna said Tuesday. “Our main goal is to go to the World Cup, and that’s what I’m here to help us do.”Concacaf’s top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup later this year, and the fourth-place finisher goes to a playoff this summer against a team from Oceania. The Americans begin the final qualifying window in second place, but just four points separate them from fourth-place Panama. Costa Rica, which is currently fifth, is another point back.Of the four teams fighting for the last two automatic spots, the USMNT has the most difficult schedule. The Americans are on the road for two of their three games, beginning Thursday at Mexico’s Azteca Stadium.
They play Panama on Sunday in Orlando, then travel to Costa Rica for a game March 30.The USMNT has never won a World Cup qualifier at Azteca – heck, it’s only won one game there, period, a 2012 friendly – with the raucous crowd and the altitude, to say nothing of El Tri itself, traditionally presenting an insurmountable challenge. But Mexico has been decidedly vulnerable at home recently.Decidedly vulnerable against the Americans recently, too.The USMNT won all three matches against El Tri last year, a first. The Americans beat Mexico for the title in two tournaments, despite using two different squads. Reyna was part of the team that won the Nations League title, scoring the USMNT’s first goal in the 3-2 win.“Going against them is special,” Reyna said. “I’m not really thinking this time, ‘I need to score because we’re playing against Mexico.’ … If I score, it’ll be great. If I get an assist, it’ll be great. If I don’t (get) either and if we win, it’ll be just as great.“I’m not really focused on that too much,” Reyna added. “I’m more focused on getting three points.”Still, having Reyna back is a boost. Especially given Monday’s announcement that forward Brenden Aaronson, who has two goals and is the only American to play in all 11 World Cup qualifiers, is out with a knee injury.The U.S. men will also be without midfielder Weston McKennie, their best player in recent months. McKennie had one of the goals in the USMNT’s 2-0 victory over Mexico –in November.Reyna’s minutes are likely to be limited, given his long layoff. He injured the hamstring Sept. 2 in El Salvador, and didn’t play again for Dortmund, his club in Germany, until Feb. 6. A setback two weeks later, during his first start, sidelined him for another three weeks.But after coming on as a substitute in two games, Reyna started and played all 90 minutes Sunday.“I’ve built up a lot of strength over the last two months, three months. I’m pretty confident in my body at the moment,” Reyna said. “But it was great to get 90 minutes before coming into camp. It gave me a huge boost in confidence, knowing that I can do it now.”U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter has already said he’ll be careful with Reyna’s minutes. Though Berhalter has dismissed the idea of “saving” his best lineup for Panama, a game that is effectively a must-win for the Americans, it would seem to make more sense to sit Reyna, or bring him on as a substitute, against Mexico and then give him more minutes against Panama.“I probably need a few more weeks before I’m 100 percent fit in terms of running and playing 90 minutes consistently,” said Reyna, who said he had no issues after Sunday’s game.Though this will be Reyna’s first World Cup qualifier in Mexico – his first game at Azteca, period – he got a taste of the fierceness of the rivalry last summer. He’s also heard the stories from his teammates and, of course, his own father.Claudio Reyna was the U.S. captain for eight years, and played in the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Cups. The elder Reyna had a hand in both goals in the USMNT’s historic win over El Tri in the round of 16 at the 2002 World Cup.“He’s told me about it,” the younger Reyna said. “It’s always a really, really good test for us. It’s always a really, really entertaining game for the fans. It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be exciting and there’s a lot to play for. So it’ll be great.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: World Cup qualifying bid at crucial point for USMNT and Gio Reyna
In the thin air of Estadio Azteca, USMNT faces a heavy task against Mexico
By Steven Goff Today at 11:52 a.m. EDT|Updated today at 7:13 p.m. EDT
It’s hard enough playing a World Cup qualifier at Estadio Azteca, the mammoth den of Mexican soccer for more than a half-century. History, sound and fervor conspire against visitors, compounding the challenge of beating a world-class national team.Then there’s the matter of breathing. Depending on where you’re standing in the vast metropolis, Mexico City’s elevation is at least 7,200 feet, some 2,000 higher than Denver.On Thursday, the U.S. men’s squad will visit Azteca for its 12th of 14 qualifiers in a regional competition that will reward three automatic berths in Qatar in November. To enhance their chances, the second-place Americans are seeking at least a point.First, though, they’ll seek oxygen.“I remember thinking in warmups it wasn’t so bad,” former U.S. midfielder Stu Holden said, reflecting on a 2009 visit. “But when I came on the field and sprinted for five minutes, it was like someone had sucked all of the air out of the stadium. I felt my lungs burning.”
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Venue settings are part of the gamesmanship in Concacaf, which encompasses North and Central America and the Caribbean. This cycle, the United States and Canada chose the deep cold of St. Paul, Minn., and Edmonton, respectively. Honduras and Panama embraced the heat.Mexico’s added advantage is altitude.
“You make those runs forward, and then the recovery run coming back was like, ‘Wow,’ ” former U.S. captain John Harkes said. “You can’t get to the top of your breath. You felt it.”The United States has never won a qualifier in Mexico, dating from 1949, and has won once in 27 meetings in all competitions there (a 2012 friendly at Azteca). In the past six qualifying cycles, though, there have been three draws and three one-goal decisions.Altitude is not the primary reason for U.S. futility, but it does contribute. Coach Gregg Berhalter said his players “will be fatigued a little bit, but they’ll be able to get through it.”There are two approaches to preparing to play at great heights: arrive a week or two early or not until the day before the match.With players unavailable until a few days before most qualifiers because of club obligations, there is only one option. So the U.S. delegation is training in Houston before flying to Mexico City on Wednesday.“The strategy you can apply is to monitor the iron level in the blood and make sure these guys are not deficient before they report to camp,” said Pierre Barrieu, a former U.S. team fitness coach who oversaw preparation before qualifiers in Mexico City and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, where the Americans played at altitudes between 3,800 and 5,800 feet.Barrieu recommended getting hard work out of the way before arriving at altitude and conducting a walk-through rather than a regular practice the day before the game because, he said, “you would do more damage than good.”
Brenden Aaronson is ruled out of World Cup qualifiers
U.S. officials did not want to discuss their planning for this game, but Berhalter said: “The important thing is to look at the starting point of where these guys are coming from. If a guy is fully fit and playing every week and has 90 minutes under his belt for considerable weeks, he’ll be fine.”Berhalter said he also has relied on experience playing at Azteca in 2005 and receiving feedback from other national teams and MLS teams (in the Concacaf Champions League) that have competed there. His medical and training staff has done the rest.Air quality in the Valley of Mexico is also a consideration, though it has improved over the years.“There are little things you can do, but unless you are there at altitude, it’s hard to make a huge dent in it,” Berhalter said. “We’ve been checking the players’ blood and making sure they have the necessary things to compete at that altitude.”The U.S. team has tried other ways to acclimate. In 2017, with a longer buildup to the Mexico visit, the Americans trained and played a qualifier in suburban Denver and held a friendly in Sandy, Utah (4,450 feet). Twelve years earlier, they trained in Colorado Springs (6,035) and played a friendly in Albuquerque (5,312).Mexican players must adjust to altitude, too, but of the 29 players on the current roster, nine are with Liga MX clubs from high-altitude cities. Nine visit Mexico City regularly with their respective lowland clubs, and others have experience playing at altitude.
Mexico’s dominance at Azteca has waned, though. In this qualifying cycle, the team known as “El Tri” needed late goals to defeat Jamaica and Panama, settled for draws with Canada and Costa Rica, and routed last-place Honduras, 3-0.
Until 2001, when Costa Rica beat them, the Mexicans had never lost a qualifier at Azteca.This cycle, the team has played in an empty or near-empty stadium, the result of penalties for fans using homophobic language. About 40,000 are expected Thursday in a venue that once held more than 110,000 and now accommodates 87,000.
Only four players on this U.S. squad played in the previous qualifier at Azteca, in 2017: Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola, Kellyn Acosta and DeAndre Yedlin.“Just in the same way we prepared for that [Feb. 2] game in Minnesota, from a mental standpoint, this is no different,” defender Walker Zimmerman said. “Yes, this will be challenging. Yes, we are up for that challenge. There’s no doubt in my mind we will go out there with the right mind-set and push through the elements.”Medical studies and better preparation have helped neutralize the altitude advantage as well. Barrieu also pointed to the mental aspect.“The science is proven, but considering you can only control so much, how big of a deal do you want to make it?” he said. “One cycle, we really prepared for it, and it was not about altitude. If you can get the players in that state of mind, it’s mission accomplished.”Elevation is a bigger deal in La Paz, Bolivia, which, at 12,000 feet, is the highest capital city in the world. Studies show aerobic power at that altitude falls by 25 percent.Altitude only helps the home team so much. Since sweeping four home qualifiers in group play to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, Bolivia has floundered. This cycle, it’s 4-3-1 at home and 0-6-2 away.“When we qualified for the World Cup, that wasn’t just because of the altitude,” said retired D.C. United star Jaime Moreno, a former Bolivian national team forward. “That was because we had a really good team. We had good players. It was a combination.”In 2007, citing player safety and unfair advantages, FIFA banned international matches above 8,200 feet, which also affected Ecuador and Colombia. A year later, amid protests from those countries and their governments, the rule was rescinded.
“It definitely affects you,” Moreno said. “But if you have good players and you prepare the way you are supposed to, no matter how high you go, it will be okay.”
When the USMNT scored vs. Mexico at Azteca: ‘I felt like I teleported out of my body’
3:29 PM ETKyle Bonagura and Cesar Hernandez
It exists on what can seem like a mythical plane, with an aberrational combination of history, decibels and lack of oxygen leaving the Estadio Azteca peerless in North America. As just one of two stadiums to host the World Cup final twice, along with Rio’s fabled Maracana, few soccer venues can even remotely compare to Mexico‘s home ground.Stories passed down through generations of the United States men’s national team only enhance that perception, and their performances at the Azteca certainly don’t dispel it. In eight World Cup qualifying matches spanning five decades, the U.S. has never left the Azteca, nestled in the southern stretches of Mexico City, with a win.
“I think we built it up to be this almost impossible place to get a result,” said former USMNT striker Charlie Davies. “If you got a draw, it was huge. It was almost like a victory and for me, it was the game I literally dreamed of playing in since I was a little kid.”
|1 – Canada||11||25||+14|
|2 – USA||11||21||+9|
|3 – Mexico||11||21||+6|
|4 – Panama||11||17||+1|
|5 – Costa Rica||11||16||1|
|6 – El Salvador||11||9||-7|
|7 – Jamaica||11||7||-7|
|8 – Honduras||11||3||-17|
|1-3 qualify; 4 into playoff|
Heading into Thursday’s renewed (10 p.m. ET, follow LIVE with ESPN) fixture at the iconic setting, the stakes for both teams couldn’t be much higher. The United States and Mexico enter the final three-game window of World Cup qualifying tied for second in the CONCACAF standings, both with work to do to ensure safe passage to Qatar 2022.For the U.S., a loss could leave the team with a razor-thin margin for error with games against fourth-place Panama and fifth-place Costa Rica remaining. Mexico’s remaining schedule (at Honduras; vs. El Salvador) is more forgiving, but a loss would be historic on two fronts: It would be El Tri‘s first-ever loss to the U.S. in a competitive match at the Azteca and mark the first four-match losing streak in a rivalry played since 1934.
Before heading to Azteca for a qualifier in 2009, multiple U.S. players pulled Davies, then 23, aside. “They told me, ‘This is the big one. You’ll never play in another atmosphere quite like this,'” Davies said. “You might play in a stadium as big. You might play in front of this many people, but the hostility is second to none.”It’s the only place I ever played in where you could scream at the top of your lungs to someone who is five yards away and they can’t hear you.”Davies got the “full Azteca” experience. The team, managed by Bob Bradley at the time, flew in the night before the game and the players were instructed to use fake names when checking into the hotel. The idea was to mitigate unwelcome wake-up calls from Mexican fans, a tactic they’d been employed in the past to disrupt their rivals’ preparation. Still, an unofficial welcoming committee found their way in the lobby that night with airhorns and a symphony of car horns played outside circled the hotel all night.
“It was just to get your focus off the game and to all these other things,” Davies said.
‘Obligation for perfection’
Starting with the result in 1997, the United States-Mexico games at the Azteca in World Cup qualifying have all been competitive. The U.S. still hasn’t won there, but it has three draws in their last six trips while the other three losses have all been by one goal — and in two games, the U.S. scored first.”There was a lot of pressure,” said former Mexican striker Jared Borgetti about playing against the United States. “I didn’t have very many national team games. I didn’t have that much experience in those kinds of [World Cup] qualifiers.”Borgetti, who had yet to face the United States in an official competition before the 2001 qualifier, said there was “obligation to do things, very nearly, to perfection.” A crowd of 110,000 roared when 16 minutes into that match, Borgetti latched onto Alberto Garcia Aspe’s cross off a free-kick and knocked it in — a goal Borgetti recalled was “very tough” to score.”The games that always have something particular about them, something challenging,” Borgetti added. “Obviously, they leave you with a nice feeling, outside of whether you win or lose.”Efrain Juarez, who played in several key matches against the U.S. over the years, recalls that the 2009 edition was “not a normal game.” Why? Because he and his teammates watched themselves eating breakfast on national TV as helicopter cameras zoomed in on the team hotel.”When we woke up that day, it was crazy because three or four helicopters were around us,” said Juarez, now an assistant coach at New York City FC. “It was so funny.”
‘Too tired to celebrate’
Much is made about the altitude in Mexico City. At roughly 7,200 feet above sea level, there isn’t a perfect solution to adequately prepare for the toll the relative lack of oxygen takes on unaccustomed lungs.Prior to the trip to the Azteca in 1997, United States coach Steve Sampson got creative. The team spent two weeks near Big Bear Lake in the San Bernardino Mountains outside of Los Angeles, which sits at a similar altitude as Mexico City. At night and in the morning, the players’ bodies would naturally acclimate, but they would also bus two hours away to the city of San Bernardino each day to train in a hot, smoggy environment — another exercise conducted to mimic the conditions they’d experience at the Coloso de Santa Ursula.“It’s impossible to say it didn’t help, we must have gotten something out of that,” said former USMNT forward Eric Wynalda. “That was the only explanation for how we were able to run as hard and long as we did because we had just spent two weeks in hell.”At that point, the United States had played away against Mexico 19 times, including competitive games and friendlies. They were 0-19-0.Wynalda started the 1997 game playing on the left side in midfield, but had to drop to left back when Jeff Agoos was sent off with a first-half red card. After a run of play that required Wynalda to sprint up the field in attack, then track all the way back, he was completely spent.”I run back and I tackle the ball out of bounds. I came over to the post looked right at [goalkeeper Brad] Friedel and threw up on his feet,” Wynalda said. “His response was, ‘Well, now you’re playing Waldo.’ And I was like, ‘I hate this.’ That place will make you spin anyway because you can’t breathe.”Wynalda was subbed off in the 71st minute — the game locked at 0-0 — and as he started to jog to the sideline, his teammates encouraged him to slow to a walk. They needed every chance they could to catch their breath, and the U.S. saw out the 0-0 draw to pick up their first-ever qualifying point in Mexico.”When we got in the locker room — what an amazing result — we were too frickin’ tired to celebrate,” Wynalda said. “We knew we had done something that never been done before but it was also just like, ‘I’m so glad that’s over with.'”
‘I’m not wasting oxygen on you’
Davies is only one of five American players — Willy Roy (1972), Rick Davis (1980), Eddie Lewis (2005), Michael Bradley (2017) — to score a World Cup-qualifying goal at the Azteca and for him, that 2009 goal stands as the pinnacle moment of his career.Tim Howard played a long ball into midfield. The ball popped to Landon Donovan in the center circle and after taking a touch around an El Tri player, he slotted a perfectly weighted diagonal ball into space for Davies. Following two clean touches, he beat Guillermo Ochoa to the far post.Juarez was that Mexican defender tasked with marking Davies.”He gets in the space and we couldn’t stop him because he was so quick,” said Juarez, who would later in the match get the assist on the game-winning goal.”I felt like I teleported out of my body. It was really an out of body experience,” Davies said. “I had always worked with a goal in mind that one day I could play in this match and here I am playing in it, in Azteca, with all the history with all the players that have played on that same pitch, I scored for my country.”The deafening crowd was left silent. Davies went to the corner flag to celebrate, but only Bradley joined him before it started raining bottles, coins and batteries. “At halftime, I remember going over to [Oguchi Onyewu] and was like, ‘Hey, man, how come you didn’t come celebrate?'” Davies said.
“He goes, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m not wasting oxygen on you.'”But the U.S. squad soon wilted under the afternoon heat, with Israel Castro equalizing by halftime. Then, in the 82nd minute, Juarez’s moment of redemption when he got a deflected pass off to Miguel Sabah for the game-winner. The roar of the 105,000 fans in attendance was something, Juarez says, remains unforgettable.”I’ve played many, many years. Many big games with massive crowds, but that goal was special because the sound [from the crowd] is crazy.”Juarez recalls walking past an exhausted Donovan, who had attempted to close him down in the run-up of the goal.”I know how you feel when you’re not used to that situation [in the high elevation]. I saw his face, like two to three minutes before, I saw that he was struggling,” said Juarez, mimicking the way Donovan was catching his breath.As often is the case for a big win against the USMNT, Mexico fans party into the night and gather at the famed Angel de la Independencia monument. And despite helping Mexico stay on course to qualifying for the 2010 World Cup, Juarez made for an early evening.”My parents picked me up at the Azteca,” said Juarez, laughing. “I was in bed at 9:30, watching TV.”
A Look Into The CONMEBOL Qualifiers: What Does Each Country Need To Make The Next World Cup?
LUIS VIDALMARCH 23, 2022THE NEXT SIX DAYS ARE GOING TO BE RIVETING AND CRUEL.Last stop in the CONMEBOL qualifiers, and there are still a few spots for the 2022 World Cup up for grabs. Brazil and Argentina are already on the plane, while Ecuador, Uruguay, Perú, Chile and Colombia are still fighting for two direct tickets and one inter-confederation playoff slot. What do they need to fulfill their dreams? Here we have a guide with the results that could send them to Qatar.
CONMEBOL Standings — What Every Country Needs To Qualify
1) Brazil, 39 points (Goal difference: +27)
At this stage, Tite is trying to decide who is going to Qatar with him and Neymar. Competition is tough in the Scratch, so it will be very entertaining to see how the players will try to convince them.
- Chile (Home), Thursday, March 24, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Bolivia (Away), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
2) Argentina, 35 points (Goal difference: +16)
After missing the last round of games per an agreement with PSG, Lionel Messi is back in the only place where he feels loved. And that’s the goal for these games: Snuggling him, nuzzling him, hugging him and making him feel important.
- Venezuela (Home), Friday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Ecuador (Away), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
3) Ecuador, 25 points (Goal difference: +10)
Status: In contention
It is hard to imagine a world where Ecuador is not making the cut. La Tri could go to Qatar even losing both games because the three teams behind them (Uruguay, Perú and Chile) are basically killing each other. In any case, one mere point would be sufficient to avoid unnecessary suffering.
- Paraguay (Away), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Argentina (Home), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
4) Uruguay, 22 points (Goal difference: -3)
https://631f2996044aa414780951b8ba3f119a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html Status: In contention
Los Charrúas will have a direct ticket to Qatar if they defeat Perú and Chile fails to get three points from Brazil. In the case of a draw, they will secure the inter-confederation playoff only if Chile loses. What if Perú beats them? Everything will be decided in the last qualifying game against Chile in Santiago.
- Perú (Home), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Chile (Away), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
5) Perú, 21 points (Goal difference: -4)
Status: In contention
If they win both games, Qatar is in the bag. In that scenario, they will surpass Uruguay, and there will not be a need for suffering. On the other hand, getting three or four points leaves everything to math and odds. A draw against Uruguay and a victory over Paraguay could mean a direct qualification to Qatar (if Chile defeats Uruguay) or at least a spot in the inter-confederation playoff (if Uruguay wins against Chile). If Perú only beats Paraguay, it will secure the playoff spot only if Chile doesn’t get six points.
The worst-case scenario? Getting fewer than three points. Here, the team will be in desperation mode, praying for really painful deaths for Chile and Colombia.
- Uruguay (Away), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Paraguay (Home), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
6) Chile, 19 points (Goal difference: -1)
Status: In contention
La Roja is not dead, but it needs an epic performance in the last two games. One to be sung about for ages, passing from generation to generation. Chile needs to defeat unbeaten Brazil in Brazil, then Uruguay at home, and hope Perú misses a couple of points to grab those tickets to Qatar. If Perú gets six points, the two victories will only earn Chile the playoff berth.
In the case of getting three or four points total, Chile still can dream of the playoff spot, but only if Perú or Uruguay collapse in their last two games.
- Brazil (Away), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Uruguay (Home), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
7) Colombia, 17 points (Goal difference: -3)
Status: In contention
From the epic narrative, we now go to the land of miracles. If Colombia wants a chance for the playoff berth — the only option on the table for them — they need to collect the whole six points in the last two games and then cross their fingers. Perú failing catastrophically would be welcomed, but there are a few other factors involved — Chile, goal difference, etc. — in this kind of Colombian Ave María. They will also need to score a goal, something they haven’t done in the last six qualifier games.
- Bolivia (Home), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Venezuela (Away), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
8) Bolivia, 15 points (Goal difference: -12)
Status: Not qualified
Look, numerically speaking, Bolivia can still reach the playoff ticket to Qatar. But realistically, those chances are not even in the hands of God (if you believe in one). Can you imagine a world where Bolivia gets the six points, beating their rivals by more than seven goals, and where Perú, Chile and Colombia vanish from the Earth?
- Colombia (Away), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Brazil (Home), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
9) Paraguay, 13 points (Goal difference: -14)
After seven games failing to score, la Albirroja sank to the bottom of the table and has no chance at all of going to Qatar. The complete cycle was a disaster. See you in the next qualifier.
- Ecuador (Home), Thursday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Perú (Away), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
10) Venezuela, 10 points (Goal difference: -16)
La Vinotinto at this point is rebuilding for the next cycle with José Luis Pekerman as head coach.
- Argentina (Away), Friday, March 25, 7:30 p.m. ET
- Colombia (Home), Tuesday, March 29, 7:30 p.m. ET
* All games are broadcasted through FuboTV
Zimmerman Sees Pressure on Mexico in Azteca Cauldron
With barely two days before kickoff in Mexico’s Azteca to begin their final three World Cup qualifiers, USMNT starting defender Walker Zimmerman sees more pressure on their hosts to atone for their trio of losses in 2021.
Zimmerman and his American teammates completed the hat-trick over their southern rivals last year, beating them three times in official competitions. Zimmerman only played in the last of those three, the dos-a-cero result in Cincinnati in November, however sees all three wins as sources of confidence for the team heading into Thursday’s night game.“We can take some confidence from those games, just knowing that we’ve done it before, [and] we can do it again,” Zimmerman said to the press after arriving in the current USMNT camp in Houston, while still cautioning, “at the same time it’s qualification, [so] those games don’t matter anymore.”“It’s about qualifying for the World Cup,” he continued, adding “it’s a very important game for both teams.”With the always-grueling visit to Azteca being the most anticipated game of the qualifying cycle, and one of the most important when looking at the two teams’ current positions in the standings, he nevertheless doesn’t sense an air of nervousness amongst team and staff.“I don’t think it’s nervousness, I think it’s excitement,” he judged of their mindset. “At this level, you want to play in big games, you want to have that responsibility, recognize the importance of it and embrace it. I think we have that kind of DNA amongst a lot of our players.”The official home of the El Tri offers a myriad of challenges for visitors, ranging from the altitude, to air quality, and a notoriously hostile home crowd. The Nashville SC star is unfazed, and draws upon their recent arctic-blast win against Honduras in early-February as a model example of how to not only face the elements, but win under any condition.“It’ll be a great challenge for us,” he conceded. “There’s not too much experience of playing in Azteca for a lot of the guys. Certainly we have a few who were there and involved last cycle, and we know it’s going to be a challenge.”“Just in the same way that we prepared for that game [against Honduras] in Minnesota from a mental standpoint; I thought we approached that the right way and this is no different.”
Confidently emphasizing his point, he re-iterated, “It’ll be challenging, yes, [but] we’re up for that challenge.”“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll go out there with a good mindset and push through the elements, continue to encourage one another as we make our way through the game, and and come away with the result.”Of course the 11 players wearing the Stars and Stripes are only half of the equation, as they will face a Mexican motivated to atone for their multiple humiliations at the hands of the Americans in 2021.Zimmerman does hold Thursday’s opponents in high regard, but feels as though the onus will be squarely on them to prove themselves in front of their home crowd.
“Certainly they have a lot of talent,” he diplomatically assessed. “You definitely have to respect their strengths, know what their strengths are, and and try to eliminate them as best as you can.”“Based on that first performance [in Cincinnati], they probably walked away unsatisfied with their attack. We can expect them to be definitely up for this game, trying to prove something against us, and we’ve got to be ready to match that.”Reflecting on the recent 2-0 victory, where he played the full game in the defense, the 25-times capped international recognized that the team’s dominance was a result of them pulling all of the right strings.“I thought we did a very good job that first game,” he mused. “They broke through one or two times and created big chances, but Zack [Steffen] stood up big.”“I thought we did a lot of really good things with our ability to step up, not give them time, good 1v1 defending and [being] strong in duels. It’s going to take all those things again, and more, to make sure we can shut them down.”An additional weapon that was not available to Zimmerman and his teammates in November is 19 year-old Borussia Dortmund attacker Gio Reyna, who was still in the midst of recovering from a muscle injury at the time. Reyna’s return for this window excites the Georgia-born defender, and is a factor he thinks could be critical throughout all three upcoming games. “We’re thrilled to have Gio back back and involved in qualifiers,” he grinned. “Obviously he’s been out for a little while, but I know just from speaking with him, and even from his game on the weekend, [that] he is he’s super excited to be back, [and] to be involved on this team.”“It’s all of our goal to qualify for the World Cup, so I think knowing him [and] knowing the kind of guy that he is, he’s chomping at the bit to make a big impact in these three games.”“We’re going to need it. He’s the kind of guy who can change a game, and so having him available in any capacity is a boost for our team.”The USMNT will kick off against El Tri in Azteca on Thursday night, 9pm local time.
On the Ground in Mexico City
|Grant Wahl #1 SOCCER WRITER Mar 23, 202|
MEXICO CITY — God, I love coming to this place.
On Tuesday night, I arrived in the Mexican capital for the seventh time I will have seen a game here. This one, as usual, is big: A World Cup qualifier between the USMNT and Mexico—a true Bucket List game to attend—with just three matchdays left and neither rival having clinched a berth yet in Qatar 2022.
Literally the first thing I did after arriving was to join my friends Juan, Christian, Alexis and Charlie for tacos at Los Cocuyos in the Centro Histórico. It was a phenomenal welcome back to one of my favorite cities anywhere. CDMX is the kind of place everyone should go to on vacation at some point. There are amazing restaurants, must-visit museums and a creative buzz to the city that give it constant energy. Plus all the Mexicans I’ve met here (at least the ones not in the stadium) have been extremely welcoming and friendly over the years.
And, of course, the soccer culture is as vibrant as it is in any city, anywhere. Genuine A-List global fútbol history happened here, none more so than Brazil’s 1970 World Cup final triumph (Pelé’s team may have been the best of all time) and Diego Maradona’s best-individual-World-Cup-performance-ever heroics for Argentina in the 1986 World Cup.
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Mexico’s domestic soccer culture has a rich history as well. In 2007, I rented a car and went with my buddies on a Mexican soccer road trip from Monterrey to Puerto Vallarta to Guadalajara to Toluca to Mexico City for an SI Latino story that you unfortunately can’t find anywhere online anymore.
The truth is there haven’t been that many games between Mexico and the USMNT in the country of Mexico over the years. Due to well-known immigration patterns and demographics, Mexico (the most popular soccer team in the United States) plays more games north of the border than south of it. That has left Mexico-USMNT games in Mexico to be the domain of quadrennial World Cup qualifiers and a famous friendly from 2012.
I’ve had some great memories of covering Mexico-USMNT games in Estadio Azteca over the years. Let’s break it down:
August 1, 1999: Mexico 1, USMNT 0 ET (Confederations Cup semifinal)
At age 25, I was visiting Mexico for the first time ever, and Bruce Arena’s team showed the USMNT was rebounding nicely from the fiasco of World Cup 1998. The first three games were in Guadalajara, where I made sure to visit the José Cuervo tequila distillery and saw the U.S. beat New Zealand and Germany (Ben Olsen and Joe-Max Moore with the goals!) in Estadio Jalisco along with a hard-fought 1-0 loss to Brazil to knock out the Lothar Matthäus-led Germans and advance to the semifinals.
That trip was the first time I’d ever seen Ronaldinho, who was 19 and scored the game-winner against the USMNT. And it was the first time I visited the Azteca, one of the all-time intimidating atmospheres in sports. It’s wild how vertical the stadium is, a true ThunderDome of sport. And it was all the more impressive when the U.S. went toe-to-toe with Mexico into extra-time in front of a packed house. Jeff Agoos was the U.S.’s best player, a rock in the defense, but the U.S. couldn’t break through with a goal, and Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc Blanco finally broke through in extra-time for the win. The U.S. went on to finish third in the tournament, beating Saudi Arabia, and Mexico would beat Brazil in the final to raise the trophy.
Unfortunately, I missed out on the Mexico-USMNT World Cup qualifiers at the Azteca in 2001 (Sports Illustrated cheaped out and didn’t send anyone to cover Mexico’s 1-0 win) and 2005 (during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, which I was covering). But I did write a magazine feature story in 2005 leading up to that qualifier (won 2-1 by Mexico) that went in-depth on the rivalry.
August 12, 2009: Mexico 2, USMNT 1 (World Cup qualifier)
The context for this showdown was fascinating. Bob Bradley’s USMNT was coming off a historic summer that included beating Spain and advancing to the Confederations Cup final in South Africa, where the U.S. had gone up 2-0 on Brazil before losing 3-2. Mexico staged the game at noontime on a weekday to ratchet up the heat, but Charlie Davies put the visitors ahead on an early goal and did the stanky leg to celebrate.
Mexico came back, though, and got a late winner. What do I remember from that visit? 1) Then-ESPN president John Skipper (now my boss at Meadowlark) went to the game with Bill Simmons and got hit with a flying burrito, which only increased his interest in the rivalry, 2) I had a dish of crickets at a Mexico City restaurant (crunchy!), and 3) Landon Donovan revealed to me on a post-game phone call that he had contracted the swine flu. That information went on to cause the Bundesliga to sideline USMNT teammates Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley and others the following weekend.
August 15, 2012: Mexico 0, USMNT 1 (Friendly)
Jurgen Klinsmann certainly had his issues as a coach, but I always liked his willingness to play friendlies in hostile environments, even in CONCACAF. That paid off when Michael Orozco’s late goal gave the USMNT its first victory ever at the Azteca. Yes, it was a friendly, but it was still a big moment. I’ll always remember walking out of the stadium when somehow goalkeeper Tim Howard materialized next to me and pointed to a sign on the wall commemorating all of Mexico’s successes against the U.S. in the Azteca over the years.
“Time to change the sign,” Howard said, and he was right.
March 26, 2013: Mexico 0, USMNT 0 (World Cup qualifier)
The context heading into this game was memorable, too. Klinsmann was under fire after Brian Straus’s bombshell Sporting News story (no link available, unfortunately) revealed turmoil inside the USMNT. But Klinsmann’s Yanks had just gotten a big three points against Costa Rica four days earlier in the memorable SnowClásico, and they picked up a precious point with a 0-0 in the Azteca to put the U.S. in a much better situation in World Cup qualifying.
June 11, 2017: Mexico 1, USMNT 1 (World Cup qualifier)
I honestly can’t believe it has been almost five years since the last Mexico-USMNT game in the Azteca, but life comes at you fast. This one saw Michael Bradley’s remarkable 40-yard blast into the goal that silenced the Azteca crowd, only for Carlos Vela to get an equalizer. Still, it was a sign that Bruce Arena had stabilized the U.S. qualifying campaign, only for things to fall apart with a subsequent home defeat to Costa Rica and the infamous final-game loss at Trinidad and Tobago to leave the U.S. out of the World Cup.
We go again here on Thursday, in what may be the last high-stakes World Cup qualifier ever between the two archrivals, and I can’t wait.
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