The U.S. men’s national soccer team managed a disappointing 1–1 victory in its World Cup qualifier in Honduras on Tuesday night. It was disappointing because no one who watched the American men struggle to break down first Costa Rica in a 2–0 loss on Friday and then Honduras can be left feeling upbeat about the team’s immediate future. It was a victory because the national team earned a point by virtue of Tuesday’s draw, which could make all the difference for the team’s chances of making it to Russia next summer. The American World Cup alarm hasn’t been shut off entirely, but Bobby Wood’s 85th minute equalizer Tuesday at least hit the snooze button.
The U.S. now sits fourth in the final round of North American qualifying, tied with Honduras on points but well ahead on the goal differential tiebreaker thanks largely to the 6–0 drubbing the U.S. administered back in March in a match that left everyone breathless with excitement for the team’s new, post-Klinsmann era. If Bruce Arena’s national team finishes in fourth after its final two qualifiers next month, it will face a two-game playoff against the fifth-place team in the Asian confederation—either Syria or Australia—for a spot in the World Cup.
There are two pieces of good news here. The first is that in 2010 that playoff game would’ve been against the fifth-placed South American team, which this year is Argentina. That would not be fun. (In 2014, when Mexico finished fourth, they got to go up against New Zealand. Lucky.) The second is that the next qualifier, on Oct. 6, is at home against third-place Panama, and a win will flip the two teams in the standings and put the U.S. in a position from which qualification is almost guaranteed. (The last qualifier is on Oct. 10 on the road against Trinidad and Tobago, which is securely in last place in the six-team qualifying group.)
Take away that single point from Tuesday’s match, or, more importantly, give Honduras the two more they would have earned with a win, and next month’s game against Panama becomes a battle royale for the right to go home and away with either Syria or Australia. While the U.S. still has to win against Panama next month, a victory there will now essentially be the difference between third and fifth, advancing directly to the World Cup or staying home. (Should they draw, the U.S. will need a probably-already-qualified Costa Rica to get a win or draw in Panama in their last game to have a chance at third.)
That’s just about the end of the good news. In two straight matches, the U.S. looked toothless in attack and error-prone on defense. Arena got his starting lineup wrong twice. Age may have finally caught up to Tim Howard. And CONCACAF teams may have finally figured out the key to stopping Christian Pulisic: Keep sending more guys to kick him, because the referees aren’t going to stop all of them.
Worryingly, the U.S. defense faltered not at its weak points but at its strengths. Geoff Cameron’s big pluses are his organization of the back line and his distribution, and yet Friday he and his central defense partner Tim Ream left a gap roughly the width of Costa Rica for Marco Ureña to stroll through on the first goal, and Cameron’s bad giveaway led to the second. Similarly, Omar Gonzalez is lauded for his ability to put out fires on the back line, but his misjudged tackle after Romell Quioto beat an overmatched Graham Zusi left Brad Guzan all alone on the Honduras goal.
In both games the U.S. structure appeared too rigid, the roles within the team so well-defined that opponents know exactly how to game-plan for them. Darlington Nagbe had appeared to be the solution to years of struggles against opponents who realized that pressuring Michael Bradley was the key to severing the supply lines from defense to attack, but now Nagbe’s teammates seem completely unprepared for the fact that the other guys have a plan to stop him, too.
Something similar is happening with Pulisic. It feels as though the U.S. assumed that the rest of North America would continue to shrug and say, “He’s only 18. What can he do to us?” Arena and the team have failed to counter their opponent’s counters. These teams aren’t better than the U.S., but they are better at being reactive than the Americans are at being proactive.
What might a solution look like ahead of the maximum-marble match against Panama? More fluidity couldn’t hurt, with players other than Bradley being called on both to defend and to help in the build-up and players other than Pulisic being asked to combine creative and goal-scoring responsibilities. That’s probably easier to pull off in the lone forward setup the U.S. tried Tuesday, but historically the U.S. has treated any lineup that doesn’t include two forwards as a wackadoo experiment, as if the coach were trying to install the triple option midseason. That’s the case even though most of the players in the national team pool line up in versions of the 4-2-3-1—four defenders, two deep center midfielders, three attacking midfielders spread across the width of the field, and a lone striker—at their club teams.
More likely is a return to something like a 3-5-2, sacrificing width to pack the midfield and add the insurance of another central defender. That would likely bring Pulisic into the middle as the primary playmaker after two games in which he started on the right wing, where he looked dangerous but finished with little to show for it. That should help, but the team might be better off pushing Pulisic into the forward line and including another playmaker who can get him the ball in dangerous spots, asking him to beat the final man instead of the first, second, and third who are all going to shade toward him because they know he’s the one they have to stop.
If there is reason for optimism, it’s that Arena knows something is going to have to change before next month’s games, perhaps drastically. He’s got one chance to find the right combination to unlock this team’s potential, or else his successor will have a long time to plan for 2022.