Soccer

USMNT qualifying takeaways: Why the midfield needs change and Sergino Dest should play his natural position

The United States men’s national team opened their Concacaf World Cup qualifying campaign with a less-than-ideal result, given those ever-lasting memories of losing to Trinidad and Tobago in 2017 coupled with such a successful summer winning the Concacaf Nations League and Concacaf Gold Cup titles.

In Thursday’s 0-0 draw away at El Salvador, the U.S. were the better team on the night but were far from good, taking home a point that adds a bit of pressure to Sunday’s big clash against a talented Canada side. 

“A great learning experience for our group,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match. “From my vantage point, there are a lot of things to improve on. I thought the fight was good, the intention to win the game was good, but we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be more connected as a team and finish our chances in a better way.”

With not much time left ahead of the showdown against their North American neighbors, let’s break down three things that need to change moving forward.

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1. The lack of experience was evident

Can you believe a team so young looked that inexperienced? Come on. The U.S. won two small tournaments over the summer, including a Gold Cup featuring B and C teams and all of a sudden this is a top team expected to run through qualifying? Who couldn’t see this coming? It’s as if there is the notion that small countries in Concacaf are easy to beat on the road. Tell that to Tim Howard, Omar Gonzalez and Christian Pulisic, and they’ll tell you, there isn’t anything easy about this. 

This is a squad featuring 14 players who are under the age of 24, and nearly half of the team Thursday night that started were still on single-digit caps. 

Without Pulisic and John Brooks, arguably the team’s two most important piece, this team is completely average. With them, it might not have made a difference. In these hostile environments with fields that are worse than your local middle school’s, you can’t expect much in terms of being able to play the style you want without that experience. I’m not saying to be happy with a draw, but it could have been worse.

Berhalter tried to get some experience with Tim Ream and DeAndre Yedlin in the starting XI, but both are far from the experienced players fans would want leading this team at the back. Expect Brooks to play against Canada, and don’t be surprised if you see more changes in terms of bringing in experienced players in an effort to secure those next three points.

2. Changes are needed in the middle

Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie are starters, and you can’t take them out. But where Berhalter got it wrong was putting Brenden Aaronson at midfield and sacrificing the middle for another player whose nature is to go forward. I suspect we will see a significant change in the middle of the pitch for the Canada clash. If Pulisic is back, then you will likely see a more natural midfield. If he isn’t, I still think we see a player like Sebastian Lletget, Cristian Roldan or Kellyn Acosta slide into the XI to try and get a bit more possession and composure in the most important area of the field. Both the U.S. and El Salvador are teams that like to have the ball at their feet, and nobody really won that battle Thursday night. Had the U.S. played a more traditional midfield focused on playing with a bit more patience, they would have won the battle and perhaps created a bit more. Still, it wasn’t all that bad, and it’s chalked up as a learning experience. What Berhalter will learn from it is that his midfield needs to change immediately. 

3. Dest needs to stay back, and Robinson needs to start

It’s those expectations that are just taken too far. Just because the U.S. swept this summer’s tournaments doesn’t mean a win over El Salvador was a guarantee. Just because Sergino Dest plays for Barcelona doesn’t mean he’s the next Dani Alves. Time and time again in this one, Dest got caught out by trying to do too much as a left back, which is not his natural position. Sure, he had a lot of touches, but he held on to the ball too much. This isn’t a situation where they need him to pull off flashy take-ons in order to boost his goal-scoring ability. Let’s remember, he’s a really nice prospect who is only 20 years of age, playing in his first World Cup qualifier. Don’t expect him to light the pitch on fire. The U.S. were lucky that his lack of experience and sometimes selfish intentions didn’t come back to bite. The expectation would be for him to move to right back, his natural position, for the Canada game, and Antonee Robinson should slide in at left back. There, it will be critical for Berhalter to make sure they stay back more often than not, because Canada has more speed and quality in the attacking third to cause problems. You don’t want Alphonso Davies to catch you off guard. I think you’ll see Dest play a step quicker, be more of a one-touch or two-touch guy and have a more positive impact after his underwhelming performance.


USMNT: Concacaf qualifiers schedule

(All times U.S./Eastern)

Sunday, Sept. 5 (Matchday 2)
United States vs. Canada, 8 p.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 8 (Matchday 3)
Honduras vs. United States, 10:30 p.m. (Paramount+)  

Thursday, Oct. 7 (Matchday 4)
United States vs. Jamaica, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, Oct. 10 (Matchday 5)
Panama vs. United States, 9 p.m. (Paramount+)  

Wednesday, Oct. 13 (Matchday 6)
United States vs. Costa Rica, 7 p.m.

Nov. 11-13 (Matchday 7)
United States vs. Mexico

Nov. 14-16 (Matchday 8)
Jamaica vs. United States (Paramount+)  

Thursday, Jan. 27 (Matchday 9)
United States vs. El Salvador

Sunday, Jan. 30 (Matchday 10)
Canada vs. United States (Paramount+)  

Wednesday, Feb. 2 (Matchday 11)
United States vs. Honduras

Thursday, March 24 (Matchday 12)
Mexico vs. United States 

Sunday, March 27 (Matchday 13)
United States vs. Panama

Wednesday, March 30 (Matchday 14)
Costa Rica vs. United States (Paramount+)  



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