United States gets first look at tricky World Cup qualifying campaign

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When it comes to World Cup qualifying draws, opinions vary as to whether it’s better to have your toughest games first, or start out with the less formidable opponents.

Four years ago, the U.S. began its ill-fated Hex with a home match against Mexico and an away tilt against Costa Rica. Both games resulted in defeats and cost then-manager Jurgen Klinsmann his job. The Americans were left playing catch-up thereafter, and a final day defeat to Trinidad & Tobago resulted in them failing to qualify for the first time in 32 years.

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This time around, the U.S. is facing the opposite scenario. In its third to last match the U.S. will face Mexico away, while the final day of qualifying is an away date against the Ticos. The U.S. has managed just three draws against Mexico in away qualifying fixtures. The away record against Costa Rica is even grimmer, with just a single draw and nine defeats. The hope of course is that the U.S. will have sewn up an automatic qualifying spot by then, but if it doesn’t a nerve-wracking run-in could be in store.

Looked at another way, the schedule of games could be an advantage for the U.S. given that Gregg Berhalter’s side will likely be comprised of younger players. That will allow those experiencing CONCACAF World Cup qualifying for the first time to get their feet underneath them.

That said, the first match might be away to T and T if the Soca Warriors can progress to the Octagonal, making for an emotional opener. For that reason, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said he’s not concerned about the order in which the games come. He realizes that if the 2018 cycle — or even the CONCACAF Nations League — proved anything it’s that the U.S. can’t take anything for granted.

“if you’re going away to El Salvador or Trinidad, which you know is our first game and then home against Canada or Haiti, it’s going to be challenging. They’re not going to be easy games. What we’re looking for is our guys to continue to develop at their clubs from now until June and then when we into the camp, selecting the players that can deal with these conditions. It’s a mindset thing. I think it’s a focus thing, and it’s just understanding that there’s only a certain amount we can control, and focusing on those items that we can control ,to be successful.”

Berhalter has every reason to be optimistic about the progression of his players. The likes of Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams are all part of a group testing themselves in top leagues. That contingent could grow if Antonee Robinson’s move to Fulham goes through, as well as McKennie’s potential move to the Premier League with Southampton.

“When you think about that left back spot being open and being contested, it’s a good opportunity for Antonee playing at a high level to prove that he wants to be and is capable of being the left back for the national team,” Berhalter said. “Regarding Weston, he’s very focused. He’s very focused on challenging himself and raising his level and playing at the highest level possible…and the opportunity to see Weston in the Premier League for the National team is exciting.”

Granted, Pulisic remains central to the U.S. team’s prospects given how unique his attacking skill is within the squad. His recovery from a hamstring injury is something that Berhalter is monitoring.

“We’re comfortable,” said Berhalter. “I spoke with Christian today. He’s doing well. The leg is doing really well. It’s recovering, it’s healing and he’s in good spirits and the club is focused on getting him back as soon as possible. So we have a lot of confidence in Chelsea, we have a lot of confidence in their medical staff and a lot of confidence in Christian.”

Yet Pulisic has been somewhat injury prone, both during his last year with Borussia Dortmund and in his first year with Chelsea, including a groin injury right before the New Year.

“I think this is something that we have to look at, but it’s certainly not uncommon,” said Berhalter about Pulisic’s injury history. “You know, there’s a lot of players go through this, particularly early on in their careers, and as his body strengthens, and as he’s used to that congested fixtures, I think he’s going to be fine. The important thing for us and for him and for Chelsea is just continue to recognize the opportunities to continue to strengthen, and he’ll be okay.”

Berhalter, like most international managers around the world, has been hindered by the lack of opportunities to get his team together. To that end he said he expects to have a mostly domestic squad for a pair of U.S.-based friendlies in October, while the November window will be comprised of European-based players, with matches to take place overseas. The situation, however, remains fluid given the travel restrictions that might be in place.

“We’ll take that as we come, and as we know more information with travel we’ll certainly adapt,” said Berhalter.