3 Goals for the USMNT to Achieve in 2021
by Bart Keeler
The calendar has turned from a destitute 2020 to an auspicious 2021 for the United States men’s national team. As head coach Gregg Berhalter looks at this new year, he likely has a list of resolutions and a master plan for his team. But big goals are best achieved by hitting small benchmarks along the way.
Here are three goals the USMNT should hit this year as they face a year of four major competitions and a plethora of matches.
1. Qualify for the Olympic Games in Tokyo
The USMNT U-23s failed to qualify for the tournament two cycles in a row and that absolutely must change in 2021. Though youth-tournament success doesn’t always yield the same success for senior national teams, the experience and development players receive at the Olympics are invaluable.
Berhalter and U-23 manager Jason Kreis have a deep talent pool from which to pick but clubs are reluctant to release key players for non-FIFA competitions. Luckily, there are plenty of players born in 1997 or later at MLS teams and with European clubs.
Whether U.S. Soccer needs to beg clubs to release our best players to play in the qualification tournament or lobby Concacaf to host the majority of the tournament within a FIFA window, the federation needs to do what it can to give itself the best chance to qualify. Althought, we still aren’t even sure when the qualification tournament will be played, if it will be at all.
Olympic qualification needs to be the first goal the USMNT program accomplishes in 2021.
2. Find a Striker… and Stick With It
Right now, if you took a poll of USMNT fans and pundits who the starting No. 9 for the team should be, Josh Sargent would probably win in a plurality. Gyasi Zardes, Jozy Altidore, Ayo Akinola, Daryl Dike, Sebastian Soto, and Niko Gioacchini would likely all receive a significant amount of votes.
Sargent is the favorite because he plays at the biggest club of the options, but has only one goal and three assists for Werder Bremen this season. However, Zardes scored 12 goals in the shortened MLS season, Akinola scored nine, and Dike netted eight. Those seem to be the domestic challengers.
Whoever Berhalter decides is the first-choice striker, that player needs to be played in March friendlies and the June Concacaf Nations League Finals. Ideally, this player is also starting the Gold Cup, too (especially because it’s unlikely Werder Bremen would release Sargent for the Olympics).
Give the first-choice striker matches in the system and with the different players they’ll have around them so the team can click better when World Cup Qualifiers start.
3. Win a Road Match in World Cup Qualifiers
Winning away in Concacaf is a recipe for qualification. In the 2018 cycle, the USMNT failed to win an away match in qualifiers. Yes, the Yanks picked up three points, but on three draws and two losses. Berhalter’s team needs to do better this time around.
The schedule offers a couple of opportunities to pick up away wins in September and October. The Yanks will face on the road two teams that qualified through the playoffs, which are teams ranked no higher than 70 in the world.
El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, Curacao and Panama are potential opponents but any team qualifying out of Groups A, C, D or F are beatable. In November, the USMNT will play at Jamaica, which may be more difficult.
The USMNT picked up two road wins in 2014 and 2010 and won the final round of qualifying. In 2018, it finished fifth with zero road wins. Winning away in Concacaf is not easy, but Berhalter will need to find one road win in 2021.
If Berhalter wants to lead his team to qualification for FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, he will need to hit small milestones along the way. The Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup, and even Olympics are merely warmups for the most important goal.
(Photo Credit: @USMNT)