Road to Qatar: Pepi’s emergence brightens up less than convincing start from USA

Planet Sport takes a look at the USMNT’s qualification campaign for the 2022 World Cup ahead of a crucial clash with Jamaica.

USA have made a stuttering start to their World Cup qualifying campaign and find themselves third in the CONCACAF group three matches in.

With the top three qualifying, it is no time for the young side to be panicking.

But having been expected to qualify with ease - and having been tipped up as potential dark horses to win in Qatar - should fans of the USMNT be concerned?

Planet Sport looks at their performances so far, their key players and their upcoming fixtures, as Gregg Berhalter's team look to qualify for their 11th World Cup tournament.

How qualifying works

In the CONCACAF region, there are three automatic qualification spots with one play-off place also available. Following two rounds of qualification, the region is now in its final stage of matches with Canada, El Salvador and Panama joining the five ranked teams (USA, Costa Rica, Honduras, Mexico and Jamaica).

The eight teams compete in a group format, playing each other home and away. The top three qualify for the 2022 World Cup with fourth place going into an intercontinental play-off in June.

How have USA fared so far?

Brenden Aaronson celebrations USA vs Canada Sep21

We are three games into the qualification group, with games coming thick and fast. The matches are being played in a condensed time period, due to the global pandemic, meaning strength in depth will prove vital.

In September, USA faced three matches in seven days. Their starting XI against El Salvador comprised nine players making their World Cup qualifying debuts and was the second youngest American line-up in a World Cup qualifier in 32 years, averaging 23 years, 282 days.

However, Gregg Berhalter's team could not break the deadlock in front of 29,000 fans despite creating a host of chances.

The point was not a bad one when you take into account the hostile atmosphere in San Salvador and the fact it was the first time many of the players had played a competitive game together.

Christian Pulisic USA vs Canada World Cup Qualifier Sep21

Next up was a battle against neighbours Canada who, with the emergence of Alphonso Davies, have become more of a threat to regular table-toppers USA and Mexico.

The home game against the Canadians offered a chance for the Americans to get their first win of the campaign, but once again they were frustrated, with the game ending in a 1-1 draw.

Brenden Aaronson netted his fourth international goal, finishing from Antonee Robinson's low cross to open the scoring. However, Davies went on a signature foray on the counter attack and provided the assist for Besiktas striker Cyle Larin to equalise.

The US dominated the stats, with 72% possession but they failed to deliver a victory, making their clash with Honduras a must-win.

Berhalter chose to pick the youngest team in USA World Cup qualification history, with 18-year-old striker Ricardo Pepi becoming the second youngest player to feature for the US team in a qualifier.

It threatened to be another disappointing result with USA 1-0 down at the break.

However, the introduction of Antonee Robinson, Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget at half-time helped inspire USA to a 4-1 win.

Pepi provided the assist for Robinson's equaliser and then got himself on the scoresheet in the 75th minute.

The Pepi show continued as he linked with Aaronson to make it 3-1 before his saved shot fell to Lletget to add the gloss.

It meant USA have now lost just one of their last 22 matches and lifted them to third in the group, level on points with Canada and two points behind pace-setters Mexico.

Who are their key players?

The 27-man squad named by Berhalter for October's three qualifiers has a youthful look to it, with an average age of only 24 years, but it is also boosted by the return of some more experienced faces. Influential creative players Christian Pulisic and Giovanni Reyna miss out through injury, however.

Weston McKennie

Weston McKennie USA Jun21

Juventus midfielder McKennie is back in the international fold having been suspended for two matches for violating COVID-19 protocols.

The player most recently linked the Premier League club West Ham, has earned 25 caps and scored seven goals for the USA national team. He will be looking to make amends for his off-the-field behaviour in the three upcoming matches, starting with Jamaica on October 7.

Still only 23, McKennie has Champions League experience with both Juve and Schalke and racked up 46 appearances in all competitions for Juventus in 2020/21.

Ricardo Pepi

The FC Dallas forward and youngest member of the squad made a huge impact in his first international for his country, grabbing a goal and two assists.

Pepi has 12 goals in 25 MLS appearances and will clearly get further chances under a coach who is not afraid to throw young players in at the deep end.

Under contract at his club until 2026, he is already drawing admiring glances from Europe.

Tyler Adams

Tyler Adams USA vs Costa Rica Jun21

A hard-working utility player, Tyler Adams has established himself as one of the USA's key players, playing every minute of the last international break.

He captained his nation in the 0-0 draw with El Salvador and showed his flexibility when deployed as a right-back in the final match against Honduras.

Adams, like McKennie, plies his trade in Europe making 27 appearances in the Bundesliga for Red Bull Leipzig in 2020/21.

What's next?

USA resume their qualifying campaign with a match against Jamaica in Austin on October 7.

Three days later, they travel to Panama and they will be expected to pick up maximum points from the two clashes.

On October 13, the USA entertain Costa Rica, paying a visit to the Lower.com Field in Columbus for the first time.

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