Good Reads: Landon Donovan Joins Us to Talk Honduras-USMNT, Berhalter, McKennie, Pepi and a Lot More

Donovan and Chris Wittyngham Will Join Me After Every USMNT World Cup Qualifier In Partnership with Meadowlark and Le Batard & Friends

USMNT legend Landon Donovan will join me and Chris Wittyngham for podcast episodes after every USMNT World Cup qualifier to break down the game and share insights from his vast experience. Those podcasts, in partnership with Meadowlark and Dan Le Batard and Friends, will post on the night of or the day after every qualifier. Every audio episode of Fútbol with Grant Wahl is available for free in the archives on my Substack siteApple PodcastsSpotify and elsewhere.

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Grant Wahl:

Hey there. Welcome to Fútbol with Grant Wahl. Thanks so much for joining me. We've got a special episode today, in partnership with Meadowlark and Le Batard and Friends, with reaction from Landon Donovan, Chris Wittyngham and me to the U.S. men's national teams 4-1 win at Honduras in World Cup qualifying game three. Landon's in San Diego where he coaches San Diego Loyal. Chris is in South Florida. I'm in San Pedro Sula where I'm writing for my Substack newsletter, which you should subscribe to, free or paid, at grantwahl.substack.com.

Guys, it's great to see you. How are you?

Landon Donovan:

Like you, tired, emotionally exhausted, but also relieved.

Chris Wittyngham:

Yeah. The turnaround from the first half to the second half was, I mean, I'm preparing to do a really almost like a post-mortem on the Berhalter era. I'm ready to do the, 'What the hell is wrong? We're not going to qualify for the World Cup again.' And now, I guess things are, I don't want to say fine, because I think fine is a stretch. Things are okay. That was an okay window in the end when you look back at the three games.

‘What it looked like to me in the second half was that we just wore them out with pressing higher up the field, putting them under more pressure in that way. And then eventually, they cracked, and they just looked exhausted at the end of the game. Honduras looked absolutely exhausted, and that's a credit to the U.S., but also to the scheduling.” — Landon Donovan

Grant Wahl:

It's five points, right? If you had said at the beginning of this window, the U.S. is going to get five points, which we would've presumed to be three points at home against Canada, ties on the road against El Salvador and Honduras. Not how it came about. It looked like it was going to be two points at halftime. Landon, what went through your head watching this game and the highs and the lows?

Landon Donovan:

Yeah, I think the same thing. At halftime, I was thinking, "Wow, this is two points from the first three games." And we haven't played Mexico yet, and we haven't played Costa Rica yet. We haven't played Canada away. We haven't played Panama away. Haven't gone to Jamaica yet. This was getting close to being very serious.

And then, talking to a lot of people yesterday after the match, there was this sense that, well, the substitutions made all the difference. And what I saw watching was yes, that was the case. And obviously, [Ricardo] Pepi was great, Sebastian [Lletget] was great, Cristián Roldán was great when he came in, but what I saw more than that was a U.S. team that changed not so much tactically, but they just almost like their back was against the wall, and they started pressing higher up the field. They won individual duels all over the field.

And then, what we talked about last time was they just put Honduras under a lot of pressure. And that's hard to do in Honduras, but it showed that this group is capable of that. They don't have to play this chess match all the time. They can go with intensity and press teams, even away from home.

And the other takeaway from this, Grant, and we can get into this more, is that at the beginning of the cycle when the first, well, actually, when the first when the schedule came out, I remember thinking to myself, "Thank God that Honduras away is at the end of a three-game week, because they are going to be exhausted." And I don't know this for sure, you might know, but I don't think Honduras charters when they go to Canada, then El Salvador, then Honduras. Our team does, I'm guessing they don't have all the resources with staff, et cetera, to prepare for three games in six days, and we do. And we also have the depth to do that.

What it looked like to me in the second half was that we just wore them out with pressing higher up the field, putting them under more pressure in that way. And then eventually, they cracked, and they just looked exhausted at the end of the game. Honduras looked absolutely exhausted, and that's a credit to the U.S., but also to the scheduling. And if this game had been in the first game of this window, it might've been a different story.

Grant Wahl:

I think that's a really good point. And the word energy comes to mind when you talk about that, not just substitutes. And Gregg Berhalter did talk about that with us after the game, when we interviewed him, "What did you change at half?" Obviously, well, they did go to a 4-3-3. They're much more accustomed to that. But he also talked about pressing, which they started doing in the second half. Didn't do in the first half. Got some benefits out of that. And so, I think you're spot on in terms of how this U.S. team did approach the second half. It wasn't just about the subs.

Chris, from your perspective, what stood out to you?

Chris Wittyngham:

Well actually, something from the first game is what's in my head, and something that Landon said that I just didn't really piece together until he said it, which was you have to attack teams. You have to put them under pressure. Have your waves of attacks, and not worry about how you're playing, and the prettiness of the soccer, it has to be putting the opposition under pressure. And it took the United States 225 minutes before they realized that they had to do that.

And look, I think Gregg Berhalter would get a lot of deserved criticism for how we handled this window, but I think the one testament to I guess his managerial style, to his tactics, to his, whatever is that they came out of the half after a dire 45 minutes, when it really looked like it was slipping away from him and from them, and they found the response. Whether it is because of the energy, or the tactics, or whatever, they found the response.

I would love to know what was said at halftime, either by him or really by Christian Pulisic, who, despite the fact that he comes off with an injury, I think was the leader of the initiative when it came to being more energetic, trying to create something, trying to find the response as the U.S. captain. And whatever was said in that locker room at halftime has completely changed the trajectory of this team, because hopefully they now play more like that. They're given more simple instructions. They are pressing. They are trying to exert their dominance. Not in a "We're going to play through you, and impress you with our ideas, but attack you with intensity, and with pressing, and with our sheer talent," which is what the U.S. should do in every game. And for whatever reason, it took them 225 minutes to find that solution.

Grant Wahl:

One thing I would also add is in the stadium, I don't know if this came through on the television, I wrote about this in my article. Honduras fans, they turned on their own team, and they started throwing stuff at their players. It was actually kind of scary just to watch it happening because they had police with shields up to try and protect their own players from their fans who were also yelling FUERA, “out” on the coach. This was an embarrassment to them when they gave up three goals in the last 15 minutes of this game, their team did get gassed. They totally died.

And Landon's totally right about the U.S. having charter flights much more in terms of resources behind stuff. And so, the three games are really hard for the U.S. players, but they're even harder for the Honduras players. And you could certainly see that in the second half when they had nothing left.

Landon, I want to get your sense, too, of just the original lineup from Gregg Berhalter. And I have a big issue with using Tyler Adams as a right back. When I first saw the lineup, I assumed that Kellyn Acosta, who's played some right back for Berhalter, was going to be at right back. Adams has been the best central midfielder, in my opinion, this past week, would be in the central midfield, but he wasn't, and he wasn't a major part of things. And it made a difference to me when Tyler Adams moved centrally, at around the 73rd minute, and then suddenly goals start happening. What was your sense of that, and other decisions in the lineup?

“It’s not that Tyler [Adams] can't be very effective as a right back, it's just he gives you so much in the middle of the field … But it certainly changed the game having him central. He just covers so much ground.” — Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan:

Well, I'll start with a story. I don't remember what year. It was when Tyler was I believe 16, I coached in the homegrown game, the Chipotle homegrown game, before an MLS All Star Game. And Tyler played the last 20 minutes or so, and he played it right back. And I remember Jesse Marsch had been using him a little bit at that point. He had been playing, and he was playing him in the midfield. And I remember texting Jesse after the game and saying, "Hey, have you ever considered him at right back?" And Jesse responded with something like, "Yeah. I coach him every day. Shut up," basically. (laughs)

And sure enough, Tyler's become one of our best central midfielders, so I learned really quickly that I didn't know what I was talking about. But when I saw that as well, it's not that Tyler can't be very effective as a right back, it's just he gives you so much in the middle of the field. So much. And so, I'm not there. Again, I don't have the context of why that decision was made. Maybe it was for a match-up reason against Honduras. But it certainly changed the game having him central. He just covers so much ground. And then, when you just look at his face, he's starting to look more like a man, for lack of a better word, and he's starting to look like a leader at times. And he looks more dominant when he's playing centrally.

Chris Wittyngham:

Well, the thing about the right back position, I almost wonder if it was a way to get him a rest in a weird way. You still want to have him out on the pitch because he's so important, but I imagine that position is a little bit less physically taxing than playing in central midfield, but it's such an obvious difference.

And by the way, even in the changes at halftime, Gregg Berhalter still had him out there at right back. He moved James Sands into the middle with [Kellyn] Acosta, put Lletget in there to get a third number in there, but it was still not Tyler Adams in the middle. He has to start every game in the middle, especially when you don't have Weston McKennie. And we can get to him later on, but you don't have Weston in the game, and so you're starting with a midfield, too, of Sands and Acosta.

Acosta has looked good as a dee- lying number six, but Sands has never played that position for the U.S. national team. He's only played either as a middle of a back three, or as the right of a back two. He's never played in this position before, and you're going to put him in that position in Honduras, in his first ever World Cup qualifying game? That was an audacious decision from Gregg Berhalter, and it didn't come off until they made the change at halftime. I think Sands looked slightly more comfortable, but even still, it was ropey from him because it's his first qualifying start away from home, and he really struggled.

Landon Donovan:

But Witty, then you would've played DeAndre [Yedlin] again then at right back? Because they didn't have a lot of depth, right? And DeAndre had just played.

Chris Wittyngham:

I was thinking about the call-ins. They called in Jackson Yueill with injury replacements. I was just thinking through the MLS right back pool. I would've called in Keegan Rosenberry just to have a healthy body at right back. Because if the answer is DeAndre Yedlin can't play 90 minutes, which the suggestion seemed to be, then I think you start him, you have him run his race, and have someone else who's natural at that position come in as an injury replacement.

I understand the thinking, right? Which is that in theory, you bring in a bunch of players that are positionally versatile. I remember in Tyler Adams' first appearance under Berhalter, he played him as a right back. Julian Nagelsmann has used him at right back. You mentioned it yourself, Landon, you can see the appeal of playing him at right back. I just think you can't move him from that middle. He's so valuable to the team. He is so far above the level of every other central midfield player that the U.S. has, I just don't think you can move him. Whatever solution you have to find in order to not play him there is I think what you have to find.

“In a second, [Pepi] can change the game. And he's competitive. Forget about the goal scoring. He's competitive. He works hard. He really grinds when he plays. And then, when he gets a chance in the box, he's absolutely lethal.” — Landon Donovan

Grant Wahl:

I would also say let no one say that Gregg Berhalter ever is conservative based on what he did last night in terms of, you've talked about it, putting young players with next to no experience out there from the start in a huge qualifier away from home. And it didn't work too well in some cases. I didn't think Sands was up to it overall last night. George Bello came off at halftime, making you wonder why Antonee Robinson maybe didn't start this game.

But then, Ricardo Pepi, who starts, ends up having this amazing debut. Scores the game winning goal. Was involved in the first goal. He's 18 years old, second youngest U.S. player on the men's side in World Cup qualifying history. What did you think of Pepi in particular, Landon?

Landon Donovan:

Well, I've watched him a lot this year. My associate head coach here at San Diego Loyal coached against him in USL League One two years ago. And so, they are very high on him, and they've been high on him for a long time, before he started playing games for FC Dallas.

What I thought was interesting was that as the game wore on, he was somewhat effective early on, but I was anticipating him coming off the field at some point. I was just waiting for the sub numbers to come up, and see his number. And it's a credit to his fitness that he was able to, in his first qualifier, stay on the field and keep going.

And then, a credit to Gregg just keeping him on, because he sees what everyone at FC Dallas sees, which is in a second, that guy can change the game. And he's competitive. Forget about the goal scoring. He's competitive. He works hard. He really grinds when he plays. And then, when he gets a chance in the box, he's absolutely lethal.

The goal was fantastic. When I saw the view from behind, it is not an easy finish at all. And I don't want to be hyperbolic here or too dramatic, but that's as big a goal for that team as they've scored in a long time.

Chris Wittyngham:

And also, involved in all four goals. All four goals. He plays a pivotal role. I actually think the first goal was a sign for me, his hold-up play to allow Christian to run it behind, was a sign for me that there's more to his game than just being a natural goal scorer, which is the scouting report you always hear on Ricardo Pepi is that he is a natural-born finisher. No matter, he can find his move within the box. He's got that part of his game down.

But I was actually, when the team sheet came out and he was on it, I was obviously very excited. A lot of U.S. fans have been clamoring for Ricardo Pepi to play. But I think the fact that it was away in Honduras, you knew the game was going to be a struggle. I was fearing for him, that it wasn't going to be this great debut for a player who's going to take over this position going forward, but it's going to be another No. 9 that's going to struggle in the U.S. setup as the previous two have, right? Pefok was not great, and Sargent has not been great throughout the window.

I thought it was going to be a struggle for him, and it was in the first half. But as Landon said, to have the resilience to come out in the second half, and still demonstrate, and the fitness, and getting after creating chances, fighting for headers. On the header that he scores a goal in, he falls over in the box, then comes back up and rises to win that header. Everything you want to see out of a center forward, you see from him.

And now, really the question is one, why didn't he play sooner in this window? Particularly coming off the bench against Canada, when you need a goal. And number two, is this his position starting the next window, or how serious of contention is he to become a regular starter at the U.S. No. 9 position?

Grant Wahl:

My point would be why would you necessarily go with Sargent or Pefok? Obviously, you have a month before your next games. Some players are going to get hurt in that month. Some players are going to get healthy. Some might not be in as good of form. But at this point, why would you not give Ricardo Pepi even more chances?

Chris Wittyngham:

You have to. You have to give him chances, because he's been sensational, or he was sensational last night. Again, you're involved away from home. Landon, you know how difficult it is to score away in CONCACAF, never mind be at the center of four goals in that turnaround. He is along with Christian who gets that first goal going, Lletget puts the cross in. And Antonee Robinson, by the way, we have not yet discussed, who I thought was brilliant coming off the bench for the U.S. men's national team.

But to be involved in all four goals, how many U.S. center forwards have we hyped since Landon has been at the national team, right? The number of guys that have come through, "All right, this is it. This is the guy that's going to take over this position." I mentioned it after the first match, after Sargent I think struggled, the U.S. No. 9 position actually gets a fair amount of scrutiny. Because the NFL fan, as it were, the sports fan that arrives from other sports, they expect that guy up top to be the goal scorer. And if he's not scoring goals, if he's not getting the chances, well, what's the matter with this guy?

And so, despite the fact that I think Jozy Altidore is a really good player, he still gets bagged on by some of the U.S. national team fans because he doesn't create enough. He doesn't do enough. And so, I think that there's always a great hope at that position. And the fact that that guy lived up to the hype in that moment is so remarkable. At 18 years of age, after we're so close to that, remember during the All-Star Game, how close it was that he nearly chose Mexico. There was a report that went out that he was going to choose Mexico, and the fact that he didn't, and came through in this way was just so massive.

Landon Donovan:

Well, it makes you appreciate a guy like Jozy, too. I know he gets a lot of criticism, but Jozy, you could go to an away qualifier, and you could count on Jozy to create chances. And there are two types of international strikers in this way, a guy you play at home, because you know when you play Jamaica at home, next window first, then you go away. But then, you have Costa Rica at home in the third game, a guy who you know you're going to have a lot of the ball, a lot of service, a lot of chances. You play that guy because that guy can score goals.

But then, there's a whole different type that you can play on the road, and can also score, and Ricardo showed us that he's that type of guy. There's not been many of those. [Brian] McBride could go away and score. Jozy could go away, and create a play on his own, and score, and that is a totally different element.

And when we talked about I thought Josh Sargent might struggle a little bit in El Salvador, Josh Sargent at home is probably the right call with lots of chances in front of goal. And maybe playing with Ricardo. My opinion is Ricardo has to start now. But playing Josh Sargent at home in one of those games, or Pefok in one of those games is great. But when you go on the road, you have now a guy who has proven he can impact the game in a real way, and that is so valuable.

Grant Wahl:

One thing I thought when Christian Pulisic comes out of the game, my first reaction was it's going to be really hard for the U.S. to win this game. The game was still tied, and your star player goes out, and you're missing a lot of other big-name players, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, Pulisic's out. And I'm wondering, do you guys think that this U.S. team takes something out of this game that, you know what? We don't need all of our big-name guys to perform, to score goals, to win on the road. And I'm wondering how big of a takeaway that is for them from this game?

Landon Donovan:

Yeah. I want to be careful here because we don't want to get carried away also with the U.S. were amazing in this stretch. Particularly that 30 minutes at the end was fantastic, but everything's connected. Honduras were very poor, and they were exhausted. You probably saw it more in person, Grant, but on TV, I was watching, and I was like, "It's just a matter of time until Antonee Robinson flies down the left, and Ricardo gets chances, and Sebastian's joining." It just felt like it was inevitable.

“If you don't get the compete part right in a qualifier, you've got no chance. None whatsoever. And the U.S. didn't seem at it in that way against El Salvador and Canada. Not 100%. I'm not saying they didn't try or they didn't care, but it was not the same level. And second half in Honduras, they were at it.” — Landon Donovan

And that's what I was talking to you guys about last week with the pressure is you just got this sense that it was inevitable with the U.S. pressing them high up the field, winning every first duel, picking up second balls in the midfield, attacking again, and Honduras just eventually they lost all their shape, their concentration, their legs were heavy.

I don't want to get too carried away in that it was this amazing 30 minutes, which it was, but the opponent played into that, right? And again, if this had been the first game of this three-game set, it probably would've looked different.

However, there is a lot those guys can take away. There's enough talent there to score goals, without Wes, without Christian on the field, without Sergiño Dest. There is enough talent, and it's more in the way they played than who was on the field at that time. It was just you used the word energy. That's what it looked like. The U.S. had all the energy in the second half. They brought all the energy, and Honduras didn't.

And Honduras were intimidated, and I've rarely seen that at home from Honduras, especially against the U.S. team. I give Gregg so much credit for whatever happened at halftime. Maybe they all just said, "Eff it. We're just going for it." And I give them a lot of credit, because that's hard to do in that moment.

Chris Wittyngham:

And I would appreciate if maybe they said eff it more often, because it just felt so different. It felt so different from the U.S. men's national team coming out of the break. It felt like their instructions were simpler. They were just trying to play, and express themselves, and attack, and press their opposition.

I just wonder if Gregg Berhalter, because he can find the right answers as he did in this game, but that main style of play, the cerebral, the tactics, the picking out details, and moving players positionally, I'm pretty sure that Gregg Berhalter's an incredibly tactically astute man, but I almost wonder if it's too much. For the international level in particular, and just with this team going through a growth stage, you need to grow them in the basics of winning away in CONCACAF. Winning in CONCACAF period first, and then you can add wrinkles.

I always thought he starts from the top, and then builds his way down, but I think you have to build your base first. And that base is what Landon mentioned, which is that energy. And hopefully, those young players can feel like that energy is now something that they can play with going forward, and that attacking the opponent is something they can play with going forward. But I think those are the very basic concepts that they came out with as a team.

And you hope that when the superstar players do come back, Reyna, and Dest, and Pulisic, and McKennie, they come back, they can express themselves in that way, and they're given similar kind of instructions. Because maybe it can work even better than it did in Honduras.

Although, I will say, Landon, you were saying that Honduras looked afraid. Maybe 10 of the 11 players did. Andy Najar, I felt I was threatened by him even at 4-1. I thought he was going to lead a three goal comeback in second half stoppage time. He was incredible for Honduras.

“It's time to move on and forgive [McKennie], but he needs to repair that with his teammates. Not just in his words, but in his actions. And now, he steps on the field, and does things the right way, and helps them win a game or two along the way, that will repair this relationship. And I think he will.” — Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan:

Yeah, he was good. And Witty, that's a really good point. If you don't get the compete part right in a qualifier, you've got no chance. None whatsoever. And the U.S. didn't seem at it in that way against El Salvador and Canada. Not 100%. I'm not saying they didn't try or they didn't care, but it was not the same level.

And second half in Honduras, they were at it. And when you get that part right, then all the other stuff can come into play. And the last 10 minutes of that match was a microcosm of what that means. They just beat down Honduras over the course of 30 minutes, and then the last 10 minutes, they stepped on the ball. They were rolling it around, passing it, playing. But you have to earn that right, and if you don't earn that right, you get what you got in El Salvador and against Canada.

And they earned it against Honduras in that second half, and then they scared them. And then, they could step on the ball, and then their talent showed through. And they could just pass, and move the ball, and kill the game off that way. In that way, it was a very professional performance.

Grant Wahl:

I do want to bring up Weston McKennie. Because in our last podcast, Landon was pretty pointed in some of the things he said, which drew a lot of attention. And we've gotten more reporting since then from different outlets, including ESPN, and Jeff Carlisle reporting more about what Weston McKennie did.

The one common thread in all the reports I've seen, and in my reporting, is that McKennie had an unauthorized person in his hotel room. And the day before the game, the press conference with Gregg Berhalter, the questions were almost entirely about the situation with McKennie. Takeaway one of them being that Berhalter said, "Weston McKennie will be welcomed back to the team at some point. He's not banished, or anything like that."

Landon, in the last couple of days, have you added any thoughts about McKennie?

Landon Donovan:

I think giving some context as to why I feel like it was so disappointing, I think people have to remember what's at stake here. And you saw it last night at halftime where all of us had that sinking feeling in our stomach like, "Oh my God, we might not be going to the World Cup."

Fortunately, it worked out last night. But had it not, the level of people impacted goes really deep. Weston himself maybe not making a World Cup. I'm saying in the grave scenario that they missed out by one or two points, and Weston might've contributed when he wasn't here these two games. Himself not going to the World Cup. What that means for him and his family. Other players. I saw Christian laying on the floor in Trinidad four years ago, crying, because he wasn't going to a World Cup. What does that mean for your teammates who might never get another chance to go to a World Cup? What does it mean for agents, sponsors, U.S. Soccer as a whole? As you know, Grant, it's hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

Now, forget about that. That's just the business side. But for all of us who care deeply about the sport, it's another big tournament lost and four years lost of people not talking about soccer. And so, is Weston Lionel Messi who just takes over a game by himself? No, but he's a really influential player in this team.

And so, my level of disappointment is tied to that. There's so many people invested in this. It's all I'm going to talk about today. I'm going to talk to my team about it. I'm going to talk to people all day about the result last night. We all care so much.

And I hope that he learns from the past mistake at Juventus, and learns from this mistake, because people count on him. They depend on him to be a leader in that way. And this team needs him. We need him to qualify for the World Cup, and be successful.

It doesn't mean he's a horrible person. He made a mistake, right? He made a mistake, and he's owned up to it, to his credit. And now, it's time to move on and forgive, but he needs to repair that with his teammates. Not just in his words, but in his actions. And now, he steps on the field, and does things the right way, and helps them win a game or two along the way, that will repair this relationship. And I think he will, I do believe he will, but he put his team in a really tough spot. And fortunately, they got out of it.

Chris Wittyngham:

A lot of relieved people following the win last night, but Weston McKennie had to be top of the list.

Landon Donovan:

Yeah. That's right.

Chris Wittyngham:

Because if you get a draw against Canada at home, and then you lose away in Honduras, and you are not a part of the team, and you are the biggest talking point before and after, he would've continued to have been hammered. Now, we're talking about it fairly late in the podcast, whereas we probably would've talked about it earlier, how much could they have used Weston McKennie in this game. And he has to be incredibly relieved that the U.S. won. He can come back into the October camp, and be reasonably okay.

But I think Landon is correct to point out the stakes of everything that's involved. And unfortunately, that's just the case when the U.S. takes the field in soccer, regardless of gender. The women's national team feel an enormous amount of pressure to win every tournament that they're in, almost to justify their existence in this sport, right? The sport needs further justification, needs further growth. And so, if they win Olympic gold, that's another bump for the NWSL, for the women's game.

Landon Donovan:

That's right.

Chris Wittyngham:

The same for every World Cup that they appear in. For the U.S. men, you have to qualify for World Cups. You have to advance. Because if you succeed at a very high level, it's putting your sport forward. And think about how far that reaches for us as journalists even, right? We want to have more relevance in this sport, and we want this sport to grow in this country. Everyone is invested in the growth of this sport in this country. And ultimately, U.S. teams succeeding is the No. 1 thing that can send that forward, and do it exponentially.

Everyone's I think doing their part to grow things incrementally. Yourself, Landon, in San Diego, in USL, in the way that MLS has grown, in the way that all these things have grown. The U.S. can move things forward exponentially in a way that no other entity can, and that's why there's so much stakes to all of Gregg Berhalter's decisions, all of Weston McKennie's actions, all of every of the 11 players that are on the fields movements and actions in playing in a game, is because there's just so much on the line here.

Landon Donovan:

Well said.

Grant Wahl:

We're still growing the sport here in the United States to the point where every World Cup, you have millions of new soccer fans created, but you need to have the U.S. at the World Cup to have those fans be for the United States. Obviously, it's just tremendously important.

For me, Weston McKennie right now needs to focus on getting playing time at Juventus. Because he got yanked at half last time they played. He's gotten bad publicity for this situation over in Italy. Max Allegri not as big a fan maybe of McKennie, and we'll see how much time McKennie gets on the field. But I think for him to get called in in October, he needs to be playing. Just like any player does. No matter where you're playing. But that's going to be a challenge at Juventus. I hope he gets on the field.

I also want to ask, do we have a John Brooks problem here with the U.S. men's national team? This is a guy who conventional wisdom says is the best U.S. defender. He starts in the central defense for Wolfsburg playing in Champions League. He doesn't seem as good in CONCACAF as he does in Germany. And he had two pretty significant errors in the last two games, the only two games he played, that led to goals. He comes off at halftime last night. And suddenly, Miles Robinson is the guy who seems like the automatic starter in central defense, not John Brooks. How big of an issue do you think John Brooks is?

“My overwhelming thought is what a change this three-game week has made to qualifying. And the teams that have the depth are going to benefit greatly. Have more depth. The teams that have better resources to recover from game to game are going to fare better.” — Landon Donovan

Landon Donovan:

He has been really good for the U.S. for a long time. The reality at this level is what have you done for me lately? And you see it all the time, all over the world. If you're not performing, you're not going to play. And unfortunately, this was a bad week for him. It was. It was not good. And he's been very good. It's hard to say that, but he's just not been good.

At the end of the day, Gregg is going to put the players on the field that he trusts. He's clearly shown that he trusts Sands and [Miles] Robinson. He did and does I think trust John Anthony Brooks, but John Anthony Brooks now needs to show up to the next camp, and really fight for and earn his spot, and show that he's going to keep it.

And it's human nature when you think the spot is yours, you go into a little bit of a I guess comfort zone. But now we're going to see. Is he ready to come in and compete for it? Because I would think if you started a game tomorrow, of if you played a game tomorrow, he wouldn't be starting. And so, we'll see how he responds. It'll be interesting to watch.

Chris Wittyngham:

And probably the only center back right now that you don't trust, right? I thought everyone else had a good window at that position. [Tim] Ream was good in the first game. Miles Robinson was superb throughout. I thought Mark McKenzie had an anonymous performance, which is a good thing for a center back. And I thought everyone performed well around John Brooks, but for me, this goes back five years. This goes back to the performance away in Costa Rica, where the U.S. lost 4-0, and John Brooks was abysmal on that day.

Grant Wahl:

He quit.

Chris Wittyngham:

And I just wonder if being up for the fight in CONCACAF is something that he's got to grow into. Because he's played in European setups his whole life, and he knows how to play in those setups, but he's liable for one big mistake in every major CONCACAF game that he's played for the U.S.. He looks good in friendlies, he looks good when they play in Europe, he looks good in comfortable surrounds, but for whatever reason, away in CONCACAF, even against Canada at home where he makes the big mistake that leads to the lone Canada goal for Cyle Larin, it just hasn't been good enough from him in a U.S. shirt.

And for me, one of the interesting things, and you mentioned, Landon, the what have you done for me lately aspect, is a number of things where you go into this window, into this qualifying cycle thinking certain things, and how quickly they detonate. How quickly your impressions of Sergiño Dest locked down as a fullback. John Brooks locked down as your left center back. The players that you think are going to feature, and all of a sudden it completely changes, because you have to adjust because you don't have that much time. You can't have philosophical approaches, "Well, this is what we do. This is what ..." No. When you're 1-0 down away in Honduras, it's chuck that out the window. John Brooks, get out of here. We're moving to a back four. And I thought Gregg Berhalter did well to ditch that, because it wasn't working.

Grant Wahl:

Yeah. I'm looking at the table right now. We've got three games played of 14. Take that for what you will. Mexico on top, seven points. You've got three teams on five points, USA, Canada and Panama. And then, already a gap. Down to two points with Costa Rica, Honduras, El Salvador. Jamaica on one point. And it's early, obviously. And some teams played two games at home, some teams played two games on the road. But you do see Mexico and USA near the top.

After all of that, and what seems to have been a lot of ties in CONCACAF in this week's worth of games, it's not that surprising to see who's at the top. Maybe Canada, but we expected that, right?

Chris Wittyngham:

Well, certainly given the fixtures, right? Because they were home to Honduras, and home to El Salvador, they actually might be pretty disappointed, given that they probably should win those two home games. You want to have seven points from nine probably. That's their ideal window. Five is okay.

But Canada being up there, it's not surprising. I thought they were excellent against El Salvador last night. But I think the fact that Panama is up there, and nearly took seven points from the window until Mexico got a late goal, I actually thought that really helped the U.S. Costa Rica at some point has to figure it out. They had a bad Gold Cup, and a bad start to this qualifying cycle.

But really, I think, I believe in the next window the U.S. is home with Panama, that actually might end up being the most important game of that window. Yeah. They're home. I'm sorry, they're away in Panama.

Landon Donovan:

No, they're at Panama.

Chris Wittyngham:

Yeah, yeah. You don't want to lose that game. Just given where the table sits right now, that looks like a really important one.

Grant Wahl:

Any final thoughts, guys?

Landon Donovan:

I think my overwhelming thought is what a change this three-game week has made to qualifying. And the teams that have the depth are going to benefit greatly. Have more depth. The teams that have better resources to recover from game to game are going to fare better. And it's going to be really interesting now to see next time. The U.S. plays Costa Rica at home in the third game, and what is that Costa Rica team going to look like? What will the results have been? It's going to be really interesting to see, because it's a whole new dynamic that we've never seen in qualifying. As this wears on, I think that's going to have a big part to play.

Chris Wittyngham:

Not to be overly negative, but I do think we should live in the world of where we were at halftime for just a bit. Just to make sure that come the next window, we're not thinking, "Oh, everything's great now." No. You have to live in the fact that the manager made a terrible decision with how he fielded the team in the first 45 minutes. There were several players that were completely off it that you were expecting things from.

A player like Josh Sargent, who we've not really talked about, to be fair to him, he was slightly out of position. The system didn't appear to work for anybody, but Josh Sargent, down window in terms of the way that his arrow was pointing. It was a situation where I think a lot of fans were going to call for the manager to be fired if the result stayed as it was, 1-0 at halftime, the performance stayed as it was in that first half. The U.S. did very little for the first 225 minutes of this window. And you need to remember, you put in 45 good minutes, and you leave with an okay window, but that's not good enough.

And there still, I think, needs to be pressure heading into this next window. You've got a couple of home games. You have to win those. I think the U.S. didn't really solve a lot of questions that you had about them coming in. As a matter of fact, more of them emerged as a result. You feel okay because you had a good second half. You got a win, and you're on stable footing now in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, but that does not mean this was a good window. This does not mean that the manager shouldn't have pressure, and these players shouldn't have pressure.

Grant Wahl:

At halftime, Twitter decided who the next coach should be. We went through that whole cycle. That's how Twitter works I guess. 

Chris Wittyngham:

But I didn't think it was entirely unfair. It was that bad. It was that bad. And you have that pit in your stomach that this is going to happen again?

Grant Wahl:

It was pretty interesting, like Bruce Arena's name came up, and I guarantee you, the fans would not do that. They would burn stuff.

Landon Donovan:

No. We tried it already.

Grant Wahl:

Bruce is doing great in MLS right now, but that's not happening. Jesse Marsch, by the way, folks, he's not going to choose to leave Leipzig right now, and come coach to the United States. And Bob Bradley's name came up, and actually of all three candidates, that to me is the most likely if there was a situation where you were needing to make a switch. Bob Bradley's contract is up at LAFC. They're not as good as they have been, and maybe that's a situation where you have a guy in Bob who has been through this before, as Landon knows. He's been through it with him.

But that conversation may pop up again next month or the month after, but it certainly did at halftime last night. I think if the U.S. had lost this game, I don't think U.S. Soccer would've made a change. The fans might've wanted that, but I don't think Earnie Stewart, who in the end is the main guy along with Brian McBride making that call, I don't think you would've seen him pull the plug.

Landon Donovan:

Yeah. Let's hope we don't have to have this conversation for a number of reasons. Let's hope it starts well with Jamaica, maybe go to Panama, and get a point or steal three, and then beat Costa Rica, and things'll be a lot different.

Grant Wahl:

Now that you're a coach, Landon, you're much more part of the coaches fraternity. I can tell this.

Landon Donovan:

(Laughs) Well, I just have context that I never had. And I know how difficult ... Even with the lineup last night to start the match, we don't have all the info, right? I don't know how guys were feeling physically. Maybe that was the 11 players who felt physically right to start the game. You just don't know. I'm less quick to judge. It doesn't mean I don't have my opinions in watching. We all do. That's what we do as human beings. But I just have more context into knowing that it's not always as black and white as people see it.

Grant Wahl:

All right, guys. Well, for listeners, we will be doing this after every single U.S. men's national team World Cup qualifier. All 14 of them, including all three next month. Guys, really enjoyed doing this. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Chris Wittyngham:

Thanks Grant.

Landon Donovan:

Appreciate you guys. Thank you. That was fun.


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