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Lack of striker proves to be USMNT's undoing at 2022 World Cup - can they fix it before 2026?

17:00 SAST 2022/12/04
Wright USMNT 2022 World Cup
A lack of goals was always the team's biggest problem, and their inability to score was a key factor in their last-16 elimination in Qatar

The entire world knows the story of Achilles. It's a tale that has been told for thousands and thousands of years for good reason. Achilles was big and strong and talented and special. He was a warrior, a legendary hero but, ultimately, what he's known for is his heel.

That damn heel, the one thing that held him back. It's a tragic tale that ends in sadness, a lesson that even the strongest among us can't always overcome that one great flaw.

It's a lesson that the USMNT learned on Saturday night at Khalifa International Stadium, the site of their 3-1 loss to the Netherlands that sent them crashing out of the World Cup. Despite all of their mistakes - and there were many in this one game - there's still one thing holding the USMNT back, one thing that's truly preventing them from reaching the level of the Netherlands, the level they want to be at.

And that flaw is goalscoring, particularly from the striker position. Over their four-game run in Qatar, it couldn't have been more apparent. For all the U.S. do right - and there was plenty - it was painfully obvious that their inability to put the ball in the back of the net would be their undoing at one point or another.

Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent and Haji Wright, none were reliable. For all of the haggling and hollering over roster decisions, neither were Ricard Pepi or Jordan Pefok.

That's the painful part, the inevitability of it all. No matter which striker was on the field, this was always going to be the end result simply because it is a problem too big to overcome once you reach the latter stages of tournament play.

For all of the USMNT's talent, this group does not yet have an elite scorer of goals. The best teams all have one. France has Kylian Mbappe, Argentina has Lionel Messi, Portugal has Cristiano Ronaldo. Even a team like South Korea can reach the knockout rounds simply because they have a guy, in their case Son Heung-min, who can single-handedly turn a game on its head.

It doesn't always have to be one player, as past teams have shown you can score goals by committee, but there needs to be someone, anyone, that you can rely on to get goals.

Right now, the U.S. simply doesn't have it. The strikers are too young, as are most of the wingers. Tim Weah is best as a line-stretcher, Christian Pulisic is best as a provider, Gio Reyna is best as a creator.

Where do the goals come from? Gregg Berhalter had tried to answer it several times in the run-up to the World Cup. He had seen and acknowledged the weakness in the striker group. But he repeatedly fell back on one idea: If the USMNT could create clear-cut chances, eventually a few would go in.

Berhalter thought that the U.S. could survive the team's own Achilles' heel. He thought that it could be covered up, hidden, protected. "France won the World Cup without a striker scoring a goal. It could be done, right? It's not that dire,” he said back in May. “Would I want our striker to be scoring more goals? Of course, but it's also up to the team to provide them opportunities to score.”

It did turn out to be that dire. It's easy to rely on a player like Olivier Giroud when you have an Mbappe on his shoulder, and the U.S., for all of their talent, doesn't have Mbappe.

Four games, three goals, the last of which was a miracle from the Soccer Gods themselves that saw Wright's errant touch flick into the back of the net. It simply wasn't enough for the USMNT to justify their place among the best eight teams in the world.

The Netherlands, meanwhile, did justify their place with three goals that, in the USMNT's eye, will feel totally preventable. The Netherlands will say the same about the USMNT's chances. The difference is that only one team made them count.

Only one was from a typical goalscorer, the first, which came off the foot of Memphis Depay. The other two, from wingbacks Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind, certainly weren't predictable. But this sport is all about maximizing legitimate chances and, if possible, repeating the sequence to create them again and again.

The Netherlands did that, and in the end, they had the pure talent to make it count. From Depay to World Cup superhero Cody Gakpo, the Netherlands have two forwards that can play at an elite level.

"Today it was small moments. We're a very difficult team to play, a team other countries don't want to play against because of our intensity and movement," Berhalter said. "What I would say is, when you look at the difference, to me there was offensive quality that the Netherlands had that we're lacking a little bit. 

"It's normal. We have a young group, players beginning their careers and we'll catch up to that, but we don't have a Memphis Depay right now, who plays at Barcelona and has played in the Champions League for years."

On one hand, it isn't much, just one position. But on the other hand, that position creates a giant canyon of a gap between teams at this level. A goalscorer is what makes the good great and the great elite. It's what makes a team a legitimate World Cup contender, separating them from the pack.

It's the final frontier, the one thing the U.S. is still lacking on this big stage. They have legitimate stars all over the field, real winners that play at the top level, but that striker is the missing puzzle piece.

Some of it is luck, of course. Look at Erling Haaland in Norway, or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in Gabon. Most countries can't just snap a finger and find a top striker. Look at this year's Germany team, for example. The ones that can are often the ones bowing out of World Cups far later than the last 16, which the U.S. has done in each of the last three tournaments they've been in.

Whether lucky or not, it's something the U.S. will have to find over the next three-and-a-half years. It could be one of the guys in this squad, just with a bit more seasoning. It could be one of the guys who were left out, or some 17-year-old we've never even heard of yet. But they'll need to find him somewhere, anywhere.

If the U.S. wants to be elite, if they want to be a quarterfinal-worthy team, that player will have to be out there. If the USMNT are to achieve its aim of taking this all to another level, they'll need to find someone with a right or left foot strong enough to get rid of the 2022 World Cup's Achilles heel.