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USMNT's World Cup qualifying: What's working, what's broken and the problem with playing it safe

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Twellman impressed with young USMNT's response to adversity (0:55)

Taylor Twellman says the USMNT responded well to being "punched in the face" vs. Costa Rica. (0:55)

We're through two qualification windows for the U.S. men's national team, and they've had two must-win matches to end each one. The USMNT has scraped and stumbled and suffered from a number of self-inflicted wounds. Gregg Berhalter & Co. have wasted points with an overmatched and overthought lineup in Panama. They've suffered poor breaks in a draw in El Salvador. They've suffered the full weight of CONCACAF, its rough pitches and its occasional rough-and-tumble tactics.

And yet, after two windows that felt in danger of spiraling negatively, the U.S. has 11 points and on pace for 26 over the 14-match qualification, well more than the team will need to qualify. (Up next? A home date with Mexico on Nov. 12 in Cincinnati, live on ESPN2.)

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With things having swayed so dramatically back and forth between good and bad, let's take a big-picture look at what's going well, and what isn't, through six matches.

Jump to: What's working | What's not working | And finally...

What's going well

Well, the U.S. is on pace so far

We'll start with the most important part. The top three teams from the eight-team group qualify automatically for the 2022 World Cup, with the fourth entering the intercontinental playoff (from which two of four teams qualify). As up-and-down as these first two qualification windows have been, the U.S. sits second in the table, three points ahead of fourth-place Panama and five ahead of fifth-place Costa Rica.

Tim Weah's 66th-minute shot against Costa Rica on Thursday night in Columbus, which turned into an own goal by Leonel Moreira, gave the U.S. a 2-1 win and flipped what could have been a pretty jumbled table -- the U.S. would have been in third place, only two points out of fifth -- into one of relative comfort.

They are also clearing the bar, just slightly, from a points-per-game perspective. The goal for automatic qualification is somewhere around 24 total points, or about 1.7 per game. The USMNT is at 1.8 right now. (A loss to Mexico in their next match on Nov. 12 would drop them back to 1.6, for what it's worth.)

The big-picture stats look mostly fine (though not spectacular)

The U.S. has been almost unrecognizable from match to match, oscillating between possession principles -- lots of shorter passing, high pressing, etc. -- and the old-school, American "goalkeeping and counterattacks" approach. This isn't necessarily a good thing, as we'll get to in a bit, but it makes it worthwhile to step back and look at the stats as a whole through six matches.

They have possessed the ball 57.8% of the time, second in the group behind Mexico (59.7%). Their possession rate has been as high as 71% (vs. Canada) and as low as 47% (vs. Honduras) They have completed 82.2% of their passes, second behind Mexico (85.7%) again. Their completion rate in the attacking third is 80.1%, third behind Mexico and Canada Their 9.2 chances created per 90 minutes (assists and key passes that lead to shots) rank third as well, behind Mexico (12.3) and Honduras (11.0). Predictably, then, their 11.7 shots per match also rank third They average 0.13 xG per shot attempt, second behind Canada (0.15). They have put 34% of their shots on target, which ties for second with Mexico, again behind Canada (35%) They are allowing 8.0 shots per match, second behind Mexico (6.5), and opponents are averaging 0.10 xG per shot, again second behind Mexico (0.09). Opponents are completing 75.6% of their passes (second behind El Salvador's 74.8%) but are at 77.1% in the attacking third (fourth) They are making 53.8 ball recoveries per match, first in the group just ahead of Panama (53.0) and Canada (52.5)

This paints a pretty clear picture of a team that is ... the second-best team in the group, give or take. They haven't played Mexico yet, and a poor performance could end up with them having looked like the third- or fourth-best team. But despite a couple of particularly disappointing performances, they haven't been incredibly far off of the standard most set for them on average.

When the shots are on target, the U.S. wins

Because their style has shifted so dramatically from match to match, it's hard to draw many correlations between a specific stat (possession rate, completion rate, etc.) and success. But one obvious statistic has determined the USMNT's fate thus far: In three wins, they have put 20 of 41 shots on target (49%), and in losses and draws, they've managed only four of 29 (14%).

Really, both of those numbers are noteworthy: the volume and the accuracy. They've attempted 13.7 shots per match in wins and they've placed them well. Ricardo Pepi has played 245 of 270 minutes in the wins and has led the team in shots (nine), shots on target (six) and goals (three). Fellow forward Gyasi Zardes has put two of three on target in these matches, and a collection of wingers (Brenden Aaronson, Weah, Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola) has combined to put six of 13 on target.

In the losses and draws, the U.S. has averaged only 9.7 shots per match, bottoming out with an inexcusable five-shot, none-on-target performance against Panama. In these three matches, Josh Sargent and Jordan Pefok placed zero of seven shots on target, and the only goal came from Aaronson against Canada. Zardes played 67 minutes against Panama and attempted no shots.

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Berhalter explains decision to rotate players in USMNT's loss

Gregg Berhalter shares his thought process in starting a significantly rotated lineup against Panama.

In CONCACAF tournaments, you run into a number of teams that pack their defenses tight and force you to win with moments of individual brilliance. (Canada does this, but also explodes into counterattacks with players like Bayern Munich's Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David of Lille.) Against the three teams that have allowed the most shot attempts thus far and try to keep matches a bit more open -- Jamaica, Costa Rica and Honduras -- the U.S. has thrived. Against their more stingy opponents, the U.S. has created almost nothing.

The youngsters came to play

It was easy to be concerned about the inexperience levels for some of America's most talented players. Pepi, winger Giovanni Reyna and midfielder Yunus Musah are only 18 years old, midfielders George Bello and Gianluca Busio are 19, Aaronson and fullback Sergino Dest are 20. Even guys who feel like veterans at this point are still young -- Pulisic and midfielder Weston McKennie are 23, Tyler Adams is 22.

For this reason, it was fair to assume that manager Berhalter would attempt to assure that a certain level of "veteran-osity" remained on the pitch for the U.S. throughout. Midfielder Kellyn Acosta (26 years old) has played 302 minutes thus far, even if it has meant fielding him somewhat out of position and giving him more attacking responsibilities than suit his skill-set. Midfielder Sebastian Lletget (29) has recorded 229 minutes as well, and attacker Arriola (26) played 135 minutes in the second window of matches. Defender Tim Ream (34) played all 90 minutes against El Salvador, and midfielder Cristian Roldan (26) has made four substitute appearances.

It might behoove Berhalter to ease up on the caution moving forward, as the youth have come to play:

Pepi has scored three of the USMNT's eight goals and is creating 1.3 chances per 90 minutes Reyna created three chances in his only match before injury In 150 minutes against Jamaica and Costa Rica, Dest hypnotized down the right wing, constantly displaying the speed that led to Barcelona acquiring him. He assisted on Pepi's first goal against Jamaica and tied the Costa Rica match midway through the first half on an absolute screamer Musah might have been the team's best player in October's three-match window, completing 91% of his passes (95% in the attacking third) and progressing the ball as well as anyone over his 200 minutes. And when Busio was finally given a chance, subbing in for Musah late in the win over Costa Rica, he completed 18 of his 20 passes (six of six in the attacking third) and showed the prowess that has quickly made him a mainstay in Venezia's midfield in Serie A

In the second window of matches especially, youngsters carried the United States. McKennie and Adams played well, too.

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Should MLS matches be played during an international break?

The Futbol Americas team can't believe crunch MLS matches are taking place without star players.

What isn't going so well

Set pieces have delivered nothing

In the USMNT's brilliant summer run of eight wins and no defeats in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup, they scored 15 goals, five of which came from set pieces (two from Miles Robinson, one from McKennie). An average of 0.62 set-piece goals per match is unsustainable -- last season in Europe's Big Five leagues, only one team (Monaco) averaged more than 0.45 -- but regression to the mean has struck with a vengeance. The U.S. has zero set piece goals through six matches, and they allowed one off of a corner kick versus Panama.

There's almost certainly some randomness baked in here, but if this prowess would return somewhat, it would make life much easier.

The rotation desperately needs tightening

With 16 qualification matches tightly packed into international breaks -- three matches in seven days in September, three in seven in October, two in five in November, etc. -- it was a given that rotation would be a must for the U.S. and everyone else. And to date, every team in the group has given 70+ minutes to at least 17 players. Only Panama has given 500+ minutes to more than three players.

In theory, this favors the two teams, the U.S. and Mexico, with the deepest rosters. But while Mexico has given only one player more than 500 minutes (keeper Memo Ochoa) and played 22 guys at 70-plus minutes, no one has logged more than 488 minutes for the U.S., only two have played in all six matches (Adams and Aaronson), and 30 players have recorded at least 69 minutes.

Some of this massive rotation was forced on Berhalter. Reyna and Pulisic have combined for just 242 minutes because of injury and form issues, while McKennie missed two matches due to suspension and missed the Panama trip with a minor injury. Throw in some issues with travel limitations -- fullback Antonee Robinson (Fulham) and keeper Zach Steffen (Manchester City) didn't go to Panama, for instance, because of the UK's "red list" of COVID-19 countries -- and it was clear Berhalter would have to play a ton of players. Even accounting for that, Berhalter's massive rotations have seemed like more than what's required.

Of the eight players who were most excellent (to my eye) against Jamaica -- Aaronson, Adams, McKennie, Musah, Antonee Robinson, and center-backs Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman -- only two started in the next match against Panama. When McKennie was unavailable for that match, it seemed a no-brainer that Adams would have to start for stability reasons, even if it meant he was available for fewer minutes against Costa Rica. That didn't happen. Instead, Berhalter started a lineup with no more than two players from what you might call the first-choice XI at this point: Musah and keeper Matt Turner. They were playing for a draw from the start, and they didn't even manage that. Then there was another nine-starter whiplash change for the Costa Rica match.

They've gotten away with it -- again, they're on pace to qualify -- but Berhalter's purposes would be served greatly by tightening the rotation moving forward, and he probably will, considering there are only two matches in the November window and no more until late January.

So who should be in this tightened rotation?

Even though we're still dealing with small samples, it's pretty clear which players have stood out thus far. (Note: this isn't intended to be a comprehensive list of who should be on the next U.S. roster -- instead, it's more of a broad look at who should be the first priority.)

Forward: Pepi has been the most likely American attacker to both generate a shot and put it on target. He is generating 0.71 xG per 90, and while Zardes generated even more in a small sample and remains one of the best American attackers from a movement standpoint, Pepi's finishing stands out, both in his brief time in a U.S. shirt and during his 2021 MLS season with FC Dallas. (And while regression to the mean has come for Daryl Dike after a torrid run earlier in 2021, his current form with Orlando suggests it wouldn't hurt for him to get back in the rotation.)

Attacking midfielders/wingers: When available, Reyna and Pulisic remain obvious first-choice options, and Aaronson's steady play in qualification has earned him a permanent spot in the rotation. The U.S. has opened every match in a 4-3-3 formation with a pretty narrow midfield and two wingers. These three players could occupy a large majority of minutes, especially in a two-match window. While Weah struggled mightily against Panama, he was otherwise strong in this window and would provide a solid fourth option, especially considering how well he has performed as a substitute for Lille.

Midfielders: Adams, McKennie, Musah. The U.S. completely controlled the midfield against both Jamaica and Costa Rica, and it's not a coincidence that these three -- along with fullbacks Dest and Antonee Robinson, who provide excellent width -- were on the pitch when they did it. This should be the three-man U.S. midfield whenever possible.

Acosta should be a fill-in only for Adams in the defensive midfield role, and Busio proved his Musah-esque capabilities when he finally got a chance to against Costa Rica. You could fill most of a three-match window's minutes between these five.

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Sergino Dest breaks down his goal vs. Costa Rica

Sergino Dest reflects on the USMNT's comeback win over Costa Rica and the feeling of scoring the equalizing goal.

Berhalter has shown clear admiration for Lletget and will inevitably keep him in the rotation, but there's a case to be made for one more ball progressor instead. Luca de la Torre has seen just 13 minutes against Jamaica thus far, but has completed 90% of his passes in the attacking third and won 56% of his duels -- with high ball recovery rates -- for the Eredivisie's Heracles this season.

There's also always a case for the ever-overlooked Julian Green, whose progression abilities and set piece delivery (another necessity at the moment) helped Greuther Furth get promoted to the Bundesliga last season for only the second time in team history. (Green's form has dipped in recent weeks as Furth has struggled to get its footing, but his sureness on the ball remains.)

Regardless, the top three names are clear, and Busio has earned more minutes than he has received.

Fullbacks: On the right, it's all about Dest. He sprained his ankle against Canada and has played in only four of six matches, but even with the general defensive limitations you often see from attack-minded fullbacks, his speed is one of the team's best matchup advantages. He also came up huge for the team in this October window.

On the left, Antonee Robinson has recorded 341 minutes in qualification -- the fifth-most on the team. He's clearly Berhalter's first choice, and the fact that he leads the team in chances created (eight) shows why.

Center-backs: It's dealer's choice here. The U.S. has done a great job of preventing counterattacks for the most part, at times at the expense of offensive aggression, and Adams' presence in itself cuts off a lot of counters before they begin. With John Brooks suffering back issues, Berhalter showed a preference for Miles Robinson and Zimmerman in the October window, and both played well. Chris Richards struggled in his qualification debut against Costa Rica, but whether he, Mark McKenzie or Ream is the No. 4 choice, we know who the top three are, and they're solid.

Goalkeeper: Back spasms and a positive coronavirus test kept Zack Steffen out of the September window, and he finally made his debut against Costa Rica. In his absence, Matt Turner, the best raw shot-stopper in the player pool, filled in well. Turner's ballhandling abilities are just shaky enough to perhaps affect the team's ability to build from the back, but they did still dominate the ball against Jamaica and Canada with him between the posts.

Either way, goalkeeping has not been an issue in qualification, even if the goal Steffen allowed against Costa Rica was a bit on the scruffy side.

A personal plea: Stop showing CONCACAF so much damn respect

Over most of his time as USMNT manager, Berhalter has shown a clear preference for ball possession and steady buildup. In 35 matches -- friendlies, Gold Cup and CONCACAF Nations League -- the U.S. had a possession rate of 60% or higher 18 times, and fell under 50% primarily against teams against which they didn't have an obvious talent advantage: Mexico, Chile, Switzerland, etc. (They also had just 47% possession in an odd 1-0 win over Curacao in 2019.) They were over 60% against Panama and well over 50% against El Salvador.

Considering that the past three years have all been geared toward this specific tournament qualification cycle, it was fair to assume these tendencies would continue. But they managed just 51% possession against Panama, and 46% when the game was tied. They were at 47% against Honduras, 50% when tied. They were at 50% against El Salvador.

At times, the U.S. has been afraid to overextend itself and pressure high up the pitch, too. While they started 15% of their possessions against Jamaica in the attacking third, in three road matches they averaged only 5%. They have matched opponents' caution with their own.

On one hand, this makes sense. The U.S. has suffered plenty of frustrating, chastening defeats to smaller nations in qualification over the years, but the caution hasn't paid off. They generated just one combined point at El Salvador and Panama, and needed a late binge (three goals in 15 minutes) to avoid a draw at Honduras. They let inferior opponents control these matches in a way they didn't in previous pre-qualification matchups.

A plea: Stop it. You could have pressed as hard as possible and played an extremely high defensive line against El Salvador and Panama and still scrounged a point. Play your game. Berhalter spent three years establishing certain principles, but in the matches that matter the most, they have shifted their identity from match to match. Lineup changes, both intended and unexpected, have certainly played a role in that, but their abundance of caution on the road has not paid off.

No matter what happens in two matches against Mexico, the U.S. could all but lock up qualification with strong performances against the lower-rated teams on the coming schedule -- at Jamaica on Nov. 16, El Salvador on Jan. 27, Honduras on Feb. 2. The best odds of that come with playing with a tighter rotation and with the identity the team is most familiar playing.