The United States Men's National Team avoided disaster in the opening window of Concacaf World Cup qualifying and escaped with five points from three matches. After two poor performances on the road at El Salvador and at home to Canada that both resulted in draws, the team responded with a 4-1 thrashing of Honduras in San Pedro Sula. The results leaves the US tied for second with Canada and Panama.
While the Americans are hoping for a much better result in the October window, five points is considered a victory-even if it's just a moral one-after how poorly the team started off this cycle. Going forward, more players will need to step up and new faces will need to join the roster as immediate impact pieces.
With less than three weeks to go until the next set of matches, it's time to look at who cemented their spot going forward, and who might now be on the outside looking in on the roster. I'll also list some names who did not play in September that could make their appearances in October.
Winner: Ricardo Pepi
An 18-year-old dual-national commits to play for the US over Mexico mere weeks before World Cup Qualifying, doesn't make an appearance until the third game, and is called upon to start his international debut and jumpstart a languishing attack. A daunting task was made to look easy as Pepi scored and grabbed two assists as part of the second half American goal barrage in Honduras.
Not only was that performance impressive, but Pepi may have also earned himself the starting striker position going forward. It's an unexpected performance arc that is unprecedented even if we knew how good he was going to be. While it may seem daunting to start an 18-year-old up top in qualifiers going forward, this USMNT is built on youth. Additionally, the El Salvador and Canada games proved that the US had a major problem in the attack, so head coach Gregg Berhalter will let anyone play striker at this point as long as they score goals.
Winner: Tyler Adams
Adams was given the grueling assignment to play all 270 minutes in seven days, and he did so in a variety of positions on the pitch. Importantly for Adams, he escaped the window without, to our knowledge, any injuries. The primarily defensive midfielder has had his international-and to a certain extent domestic-careers diminished by injuries. He was unable to play a large role in Nations League back in June, and the American fans have had to rely on optimism instead of empirics to determine his international value as injuries have repeatedly kept him off the field. Adams' ability to stay healthy moving forward will play a large role in the USMNT's ability to qualify for Qatar, so it is encouraging to see his healthy performances thus far.
Loser: Sergino Dest
The fullback was embarrassed by Concacaf attackers repeatedly throughout the window, and he was clearly a defensive liability on many occasions. Dest is often considered to be on the field for his attacking skills despite his defensive weaknesses, but he was unable to contribute a spark to a lowly US attack. While it may be crazy to foresee a world where the Americans have to bench a Barcelona starter, that day could be coming sooner rather than later.
Winner: Antonee Robinson
Just as one fullback struggled in Dest, another stepped up in a huge way. Robinson was a defensive stalwart for the Americans and was a solid addition to the attack as well. The culmination of his willingness to be dangerous around the box came when he opened the scoring against Honduras shortly after halftime.
Throughout the past year, most USMNT fans and pundits have been asking who is going to step up and be the other starting fullback across from Dest. The depth chart is deep at that position, but no one had claimed the starting job until now. Robinson very likely did that during this window, and given Dest's struggles, may be the only fullback with his name in pen on the starting lineups heading into October. The cherry on top? Robinson is one of the few true leftbacks on the roster.
Loser: John Brooks
Brooks looked like a potted plant on Canada's equalizer, leaving Cyle Larin wide open at the top of six-yard box. Brooks has failed to look like the Champions League defender he is, and has not provided the veteran leadership and presence this young group needs. This is the third World Cup qualifying cycle Brooks has been a part of. His ability to step up going forward will go a long way towards providing consistency to this up-and-down American side.
Loser: Weston McKennie
McKennie violated COVID protocol not once but twice during this window, resulting in his dismal from the team. His suspension meant he was unavailable for the Canada and Honduras games. Such a selfish decision is a massive let down from a young star who is often counted on to provide the energy and x-factor moments the team needs to get over the top.
Winner: Brenden Aaronson
The winger position was decimated throughout this window due to injuries and other issues, but Aaronson stepped up to fill some big shoes. The RB Salzburg attacker scored against both Canada and Honduras, providing a much-needed offensive spark. His speed and effort also seemed to be infectious for the rest of the team. I expect him to play a big role in October.
Winner: Matt Turner
Turner entered camp in a battle with Ethan Horvath for the number two spot on the goalkeeper depth chart behind Zack Steffen. Turner earned that position due to his recent form with the New England Revolution and stellar Gold Cup performance, and he also added three World Cup qualifying starts to his resume. Steffen missed all three games due to back spasms and a positive COVID test. In his absence, Turner was solid in front of goal and proved he is capable of being a long-term international starter.
Winner: Gregg Berhalter
The pressure was on Berhalter after the first two games. The results themselves weren't terrible, but the downright awful performances had the alarm bells ringing. After another dismal first half against Honduras, Berhalter helped his team rally in a big way. Half-time substitutions and a tactics change unlocked the attacking floodgates and firmly cemented Berhalter's position as manager going forward.
He did not have a great window by any means, but Berhalter showed he is capable of keeping a locker room together and making the on-field adjustments necessary to achieve success. Most of the struggles across the three games for the Americans was a lack of effort and passion from the players. While I believe it's part of a manager's job to get his players up for a game, there is only so much he can do. The Weston McKennie drama tells us that some of the players were not 100% committed, which is no fault of Berhalter's.
Who to Expect in October
Both Gyasi Zardes and Tim Weah are expected to return from injury, which will provide welcome additions into the attack. Zardes is a proven goal scorer at this level, and Weah's abilities on the wings will hopefully help the USMNT generate more chances.
As for players who did not receive a call-up this time but could expect one in October, Matthew Hoppe and Shaq Moore could be at the top of the list. Hoppe certainly won't be the most talented player in the attack, but he plays with a level of passion that has been sorely lacking from his teammates. Dest's poor performances, and no one stepping up in his place, could leave room for Moore to get a shot at right back. He was one of the best players in the Gold Cup, so he should be able to help steady the often shaky American backline.
The USMNT starts at home against Jamaica on Thursday, October 7th. They hit the road for a game at Panama on Sunday, October 10th before returning to the States to host Costa Rica on Wednesday, October 13th.
The home game versus Jamaica will be played in Austin, Texas, while the Costa Rica game will be in Columbus, Ohio.