New York: The United States will look to silence the critics after a rocky run-up to Qatar when they return to the World Cup stage for the first time in eight years.
Their failure to qualify for the finals four years ago prompted much soul-searching within the sport’s national governing body, even as the women’s side thrived.
But they appeared to exorcise the demons of that failed attempt in March by securing one of CONCACAF’s three guaranteed World Cup spots despite a tepid start to their campaign with draws against El Salvador and Canada.
The achievement was met with relief in the U.S., which is set to host the 2026 finals along with Canada and Mexico.
No shots at goal
But if the old saying “You’re only as good as your last performance” is true, the Americans have plenty to worry about.
They failed to record a shot on goal in their penultimate warm-up match, a grim 2-0 defeat by Japan in September.
Days later Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world, held the U.S. to a 0-0 draw as the Americans failed to find their rhythm.
Overall this year against World Cup contenders, the U.S. record is worrying with one win, three draws and three losses.
Coach Gregg Berhalter said his side were moving in the right direction after the Saudi friendly, telling reporters they could be “very dangerous” when they get their confidence up.
“It comes down to a little bit of tightness, a little bit of a lack of confidence and anxiety,” he said.
“Everyone’s fighting for roster spots. And, you know, instead of coming out and really performing like the team we know we are, we lacked a little confidence.” The U.S. World Cup squad will be announced on Nov. 9.
The heart of the team will be Christian Pulisic, the charismatic forward the U.S. hope will drum up the sport’s popularity among fans usually more concerned with the NFL.
Berhalter, the youngest coach to manage the U.S. since 1995 when he was appointed four years ago aged 45, knows all about the pressure of playing for the national team having been in the squad the last time the U.S. reached the quarter-finals in 2002.
“Confidence is a tricky thing,” he said. “We want them to just play and play with, you know, that aggression and that intensity and the speed that we know they can.” The 16th-ranked Americans will need every bit of talent available to them when they take on fifth-ranked England in Group B alongside Iran and Wales.