The USMNT won 1-0 and were never truly threatened, but still, something was missing from the Thursday night's World Cup qualifying victory against El Salvador.
As it should be when a side ranked 11th in the world meets 70th, the USMNT out-shot El Salvador 17-6 and had all five of the game's 'big chances'. An Alex Roldan effort aside - which came about after Sergiño Dest was caught in possession and fellow full-back Antonee Robinson was far too high up the pitch - the visitors never really ventured into Matt Turner's box.
But as has been the case throughout this World Cup qualifying campaign, the United States lacked a certain spark, the energy and ambition to break El Salvador open and plunder the goals. The first half was especially lackluster, which is no surprise given 11 of the US' 13 qualifying goals have come in the second half of matches.
If not for Weston McKennie dragging his teammates forward, the entire opening 45 minutes would have been played at a pedestrian pace. It was almost as if some players didn't trust enough in their own talent and others tried to compensate by doubling their responsibilities. It was obvious that the tactical plan had fallen by the wayside.
“I think we lacked connection in our pressing. There was too often too much space between our lines; we weren’t able to make that next play on the pass and the pressure was broken,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said after the match.
“The ambition to play forward and get behind them, what was missing from the 90 minutes – we had it in spurts but overall I think we could have done that much better. The big picture of this game is we're still in a very good position in World Cup qualifying. The three points were vital at home and we achieved that.”
This was an observation Berhalter made at half-time, calling on his players to be 'more aggressive' and move the ball forward quicker in a short interview on his way to the locker room.
And in fairness, he got a reaction. Robinson's winning goal came just seven minutes into the second half at the end of a sustained period of US pressure. There was more intensity and more risk-taking, and Timothy Weah's driving run into the box that totally unsettled the El Salvador defense was a huge factor in the goal, even if the Lille man's own effort was saved.
For a short time, the USMNT continued to pin El Salvador, pushing their full-backs high and playing forward so quickly that if felt like their opponents were swimming against a tide. You have to give Berhalter credit for consistently getting a reaction from his players right after half-time.
Then, all of a sudden, it just stopped. To say the rest of the game was played out like a Sunday afternoon stroll would be overstating it, but the flame went out again.
“It wasn't the prettiest game. And there was times when we played good football, times when we just had to kind of dig out chances that we didn't put away. But we got the win and we’re one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup,” said match-winner Robinson.
Indeed, another step was taken toward that all-important goal of World Cup qualification. The USMNT remain second in the group, four points clear of Panama in the playoff spot, and six ahead of Costa Rica in the dead zone.
But up next are Canada, the only remaining unbeaten team in Concacaf and one of the most exciting rising powers in international soccer. Although they're missing Alphonso Davies and Stephen Eustaquio, John Herdman's side will offer a far more rigorous test of the Stars and Stripes. And they'll face even bigger tests than that should they seal qualification to Qatar 2022.
That the United States' best generation of players for decades has come through at a time of global disruption is unfortunate. So many of their biggest stars like Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic, and Tyler Adams have been unable to play together as much as they'd like due to various reasons.
But there can be no excuses. This was supposed to be a team bred to win and to put the USMNT back on the international map. As Qatar (and their home World Cup in 2026) draws ever closer, the pressure is on for Berhalter to find the flame and ignite it into an inferno.