COLUMBUS, Ohio – Midfielders and defenders are providing the goals the United States needs to reach the World Cup — by a wide margin.
Strikers haven’t found the net for five straight qualifiers, three started by Ricardo Pepi and one each by Jesús Ferreira and Gyasi Zardes.
Three of the Americans’ 13 goals in the first nine qualifiers have come from outside defenders, with left back Antonee Robinson scoring his second in Thursday night’s arduous 1-0 win over El Salvador. Right back Sergiño Dest had the tying goal in the 2-1 victory over Costa Rica last week on the same Lower.com field.
“We call our fullbacks our superpower of our team,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We do that because they produce. They give assists and goals. If you look at World Cup qualifying so far, our fullbacks have contributed heavily. ... They are a big part of how we play, especially when we’re dropping our midfielders lower.”
With qualifying at nearly the two-thirds point going into Sunday’s match at Canada, seven goals have been produced by midfielders. Weston McKennie from the center and six from wingers: Brenden Aaronson had two, and Christian Pulisic, Sebastian Lletget and Tim Weah one each, with Weah behind another that was credited as an own goal off Costa Rica’s goalkeeper.
Pepi burst onto the team with a goal at Honduras in his debut last September, then scored twice against Jamaica in his second match on Oct. 7. He hasn’t scored in 13 games for club and country since, making a major move from Dallas to Augsburg this month and admitting the Bundesliga has a higher intensity than Major League Soccer.
Ferreira, Pepi’s former Dallas teammate, got his first qualifying start on Thursday. He was high with an angled 10-yard shot with his left foot in the 16th, then three minutes later was open in front of goalkeeper Mario González only to misfire over the crossbar with his right foot off Weah’s cross.
“He had enough chances to score a couple goals, so that’s the most important thing,” Berhalter said. “If he didn’t have any chances in the game, I would have been concerned, but he did have chances, and I think it’s just a matter of him being able to finish those off. Regarding his linkup play, I thought it was excellent. A number of times he was setting players up, as we expected him to do. So overall, although we might try to judge No. 9s by their goal production, I still think he had a solid performance.”
Berhalter pointed to an expected goals of 2.98 to El Salvador’s 0.20 as a sign of sufficient creation. More than predecessors Bruce Arena, Bob Bradley, Jurgen Klinsmann and Dave Sarachan, Berhalter has emphasized wide play from his outside backs, a group that has included DeAndre Yedlin, George Bello and Shaq Moore.
“He’s always said the fullbacks are really important and we see ourselves as key parts of the team, that we want to get involved with the goals and assists,” Robinson said.
He scored after Weah’s shot was blocked by González, and Ferreira headed the ball across the goal to Robinson, who kicked it in with his left foot from 8 yards.
“It’s not been picked up well by the defenders,” Robinson said. “They’ve sort of not read the deflections and headers.”
Ability for outside backs to attack is tied to the defensive play of Tyler Adams and McKennie.
“We put an emphasis on our fullbacks arriving in the penalty box because we know we have that midfield line that’s supporting them and can clean up anything that comes out in the top of the box,” Berhalter said.
Canada leads North and Central America and the Caribbean with 19 points, followed by the U.S. (18), Mexico (17), Panama (14) and Costa Rica (12), with Jamaica (seven), El Salvador (six) and Honduras (three) lagging. The top three qualify for this year’s tournament in Qatar, and the fourth-place team advances to a playoff against the Oceania champion, likely New Zealand.
The U.S. would clinch the next week if it beats Canada and Honduras, provided Panama loses to Jamaica and Mexico, along with Costa Rica failing to get at least one win against Mexico or Jamaica.
Complicating preparations is Canada's decision to schedule this weekend's match on artificial turf.
“In CONCACAF," Weah said, "you have to adapt to any situation.”
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