By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Oct 1, 2021) US Soccer Players – The Octagonal resumes with another batch of hugely important Concacaf World Cup qualifiers in the October international window, the next step on the USMNT’s road to Qatar 2022. This final round of qualifying will be nearly half-over when this window is complete, which further underlines the high stakes and shrinking margins for error. That’s particularly applicable to two of the United States’s opponents this month who find themselves at the bottom of the standings after winless starts.
This weekend USMNT players will begin reporting to Austin, Texas, the team’s main home base for this window, after the conclusion of their respective club matches. Then it’s off to Panama City at the weekend before a homecoming to their old stomping grounds in Columbus, Ohio.
Here’s a rundown of who they’re playing, and a bit about the general context of each match-up.
8th place: 1 point, 0W-2L-1D
October WCQ schedule: at USMNT – Thursday, Oct 7, Austin; vs Canada – Sunday, Oct 10, Kingston; at Honduras – Wednesday, Oct 13, San Pedro Sula
Three games in, and the mood has already grown grim among swathes of the Reggae Boyz fan base. That’s because the islanders find themselves alone in last place in the Ocho with just one point out of the first nine on offer. After visits to Mexico and Costa Rica in the opening window, this window presents another daunting pair of away dates in the form of the United States and Honduras.
Few if any teams in this region have been more affected by COVID-19 repercussions than the Reggae Boyz. The smallest nation in the Octagonal, Jamaica have long sought to bolster their player pool with some of the talent found in their large diaspora. They got a big boost in that area for this cycle with a group of new recruits headlined by West Ham striker Michail Antonio.
Yet the promising prospect of a Premier League and English Championship-heavy lineup has quickly turned into something much more complicated. The UK government’s “red list” of nations considered high risk for coronavirus exposure prevented Antonio and other England-based players from traveling to Mexico and Costa Rica last month, just as it has ruled out three USMNTers from this window’s visit to Panama.
So it was counter-intuitive when Jamaica’s seemingly top-strength XI turned in their worst result, a painful 3-0 home loss to Panama. Meanwhile Mexico needed an 89th-minute winner to vanquish them 2-0 at Estadio Azteca and they held Costa Rica to a 1-1 draw in San Jose. While they appear to face no quarantine-based restrictions this month, the pandemic is also draining their home-field advantage. Fans still cannot attend matches at “The Office,” their atmospheric National Stadium, due to local restrictions pending the implementation of a vaccination verification process.
It’s all placed head coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore under scrutiny. A hero of the country’s sole World Cup adventure in 1998, he’s spent more than a decade on the coaching staff. He may need to rack up a solid points haul this window to keep his job. Whitmore’s team is currently stuck on a five-game winless skid. They’ve already lost twice to the USMNT in 2021, first a 4-1 friendly result in Austria in March and then a 1-0 quarterfinal defeat at the Gold Cup.
Whitmore’s side have rarely looked organized or fluid, often depending on the individual brilliance of goalkeeper Andre Blake to stay in games. Jamaica has struggled to add to their traditional strengths of speed, physicality, and resourcefulness. Climbing the Ocho table will require them to get everyone on the same page more effectively than last month.
tied for 2nd place: 5 points, 1W-0L-2D
October WCQ schedule: at El Salvador – Thursday, Oct 7, San Salvador; vs USMNT – Sunday, Oct 10, Panama City; at Canada – Wednesday, Oct 10, Toronto
You might see similarities between the USMNT’s and Panama’s September windows. Los Canaleros dropped points at home against Costa Rica and Mexico, then dug themselves out of that hole a bit by knocking off Jamaica in Kingston to rise into mid-table. Now they must visit El Salvador, where they’ve never won a qualifier, and distant Canada on either side of a weekend home date with the Yanks.
Panama is coached by Thomas Christiansen, a Danish-Spanish dual national who has globe-trotted during both his playing and coaching careers. His chief task has been to refresh a player pool whose core reached their first-ever World Cup three years ago at the back end of their collective prime. Results thus far have been mixed. The Marea Roja failed to advance out of the group stage at the Gold Cup, for example, leaking goals heavily.
He did, however, steer his group through the long, tricky opening rounds of qualifying to book one of the Octagonal’s final three slots. Holdovers like Anibal Godoy, Rolando Blackburn, and Alberto Quintero provide experience and grit for a team whose identity still revolves around being cagey and tough to beat.
Their Estadio Rommel Fernandez home is also a difficult venue for visitors, with sweltering tropical conditions and a playing surface that Christiansen himself has noted is scruffy. It’s one of several Central American locales in which the USMNT have yet to win a World Cup qualifier.
Gregg Berhalter suggested this week that opening this window in sun-drenched Austin, where the heat index can approach triple digits even deep into fall, will help his team adapt ahead of their trip to the Canal Zone.
“It’ll be a good environment to train in and prepare us for the heat in Panama as well, which will be important,” he said.
As with all of this cycle’s three-match windows, Berhalter is expected to have to rotate his lineups significantly from game to game given the short turnarounds. Christiansen hasn’t looked as confident in doing so. He made limited changes in the last window, reflective of the depth issues that the region’s smaller nations are grappling with.
tied 5th place: 2 points, 0W-1L-2D
October WCQ schedule: at Honduras – Thursday, Oct 7, San Pedro Sula; vs El Salvador – Sunday, Oct 10, San Jose; at USMNT – Wednesday, Oct 13, Columbus
This month’s host cities are a case of “something old, something new,” with the USMNT making their first WCQ visit to the Texas capital before returning to their longtime spiritual home of Columbus. This time it’s Costa Rica, not Mexico, who will visit central Ohio, where a dazzling new stadium, Lower.com Field, opened its doors earlier this year.
After the 2-1 loss to El Tri at Historic Crew Stadium in November 2016, the US Soccer Federation decided to play the Mexico qualifier somewhere else for the first time this century. That clash takes place in Cincinnati next month.
Disappointed got a quick reminder that their hospitality still matters a great deal with the awarding of the Costa Rica game. This fixture turned out to be quite costly in the 2018 cycle, as Los Ticos put the USMNT behind the 8-ball with their 2-0 upset win at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
The Costa Ricans aren’t feeling quite as great as they enter October. They dropped five points on home soil last month, losing to Mexico before being stymied by Jamaica at their usually imposing Estadio Nacional. That has cranked up the urgency for this perennial Concacaf overachiever. Many supporters and pundits are not completely impressed with the first few months of manager Luis Fernando Suarez’s tenure.
Still, there’s plenty of talent for him to call on. Liga MX-based striker Joel Campbell remains a Ticos mainstay. Nashville SC’s Randall Leal is one of MLS’s most dangerous wingers. And as deep into their 30s as they may be, veterans Bryan Ruiz, Celso Borges, and Giancarlo Gonzalez know quite well what is required in these situations, just as Suarez carries ample knowledge of the USMNT and the rest of the region via his past stint in charge of Honduras.
Given their characteristics and the expected wear and tear of the window’s first two matches, Costa Rica is likely to sit in and make themselves tough for the US to break down. They can be menacing on the counterattack and will have no doubt studied Canada’s effective defensive tactics in the 1-1 draw in Nashville.
Berhalter identified “verticality” and directness as key priorities in his squad choices for these games, emphasizing the importance of attackers who can turn defenders and run in behind. Unlocking Los Ticos in Columbus could prove a decisive test of those characteristics.
More from Charles Boehm:
- 5 questions about the USMNT’s September window
- FIFA’s biennial pitch
- CBS reworks the Concacaf qualifying experience
- MLSPA enters “a new phase” as players’ commercial opportunities blossom
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