Not good enough: Lack of identity has USMNT mired in CONCACAF mediocrity
It’s time for the U.S. men’s national team to take a long look in the mirror.
For nearly 85 minutes on Tuesday, the U.S. was facing an existential crisis. It was teetering on the brink of two must-win games in October just to reach a playoff to get to the World Cup. It was facing consecutive losses in World Cup qualifying for the second time in this hexagonal round, this time on the road against a not-great Honduras team.
A late Bobby Wood pulled the U.S. out of crisis mode. Or did it?
Wood’s goal provided some breathing room when it comes to the actual qualifying cycle. The 1-1 tie against Honduras means the U.S. still has a 74 percent chance of qualifying for the World Cup, per ESPN’s Soccer Power Index. That shouldn’t be too much of a comfort, though.
This team has some serious identity issues. When Bruce Arena took over the U.S. program, he inherited a team that lacked a true direction. Let’s not pretend Jurgen Klinsmann had nothing to do with where the U.S. currently stands. But while Arena rattled off 14 straight games unbeaten in his second tenure as U.S. coach, he never really honed in on what this team was going to be in the biggest match-ups.
Arena’s teams have changed formations. He’s been loose with the personnel, swapping numerous players in the lineup due to quick turnarounds, weather and form. It’s a novel idea, but one that ultimately has shown its biggest drawback in the last two games.
The U.S. has failed to settle on a consistent back line. It’s center back pairings have been rotated so much that the lack of communication and consistency in the middle of the defense has directly led to goals. It looks lost too often in games, including for a healthy chunk of Tuesday’s draw in Honduras. An attack that features plenty of talent – Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Darlington Nagbe – looks disconnected, out of sorts and rarely creates the types of chances you would expect against teams it should dominate. Even the goalkeeping position is up for grabs.
So where does that leave this program?
Going into two more must-win games in October – at home against Panama and on the road against Trinidad and Tobago – the U.S. has to sort out what it wants to be, how it wants to play and who should be on the field.
Arena has to settle on a system and a lineup that he trusts in every outing. Whether it’s a three-man back line, a single-forward system or the attack-minded 4-4-2 he fielded against the Ticos. He has to make some tough decisions, including the reality that while Altidore and Wood are probably the two best forwards on the team, they don’t operate well together. He has to commit to empowering a player like Pulisic and putting him in a position to lead this team forward; playing him on the wing has removed his influence too much. He might even have to introduce some new talent back into the pool, including players like Danny Williams, Justin Morrow and Timmy Chandler. Faith in the MLS players in the pool is fine, but this national team needs more competition in several key positions.
Most importantly, Arena has to confront an idea that this U.S. team isn’t good enough right now. If it can’t find a way to get a result at home against Costa Rica and has to gut out a 1-1 draw in Honduras, there is no guarantee it will find the three points it needs against Panama or T&T. There has to be some kind of mental makeover within this team, and there has to be a real identity established if the U.S. wants a chance to perform well in Russia – or to even get there.
Arena was brought in to right the ship and point the U.S. back in a positive direction. That job is not anywhere near done, and Arena is running out of time to do it.
The pressure is on.