National Writer: Charles Boehm

Autopilot? USMNT jet past Canada to win Nations League on cruise control

Nations League USMNT 6.19.23

Usually, it’s not a compliment when a player or team is described as being ‘on autopilot.’ The term connotes coasting, complacency, lack of awareness or hunger.

So perhaps we need a new word for what the US men’s national team are doing right now. Because the nation that just won a second straight Concacaf Nations League did so under the leadership of their second interim head coach of the year, with two influential starters sidelined by suspensions. And they did it by soundly defeating a Canada side that more or less ate their lunch during 2022 World Cup qualifying.

“I would say the last two games embody what we're trying to challenge our players with as we continue to evolve this team,” interim boss B.J. Callaghan told reporters after the Yanks’ assured 2-0 win over Les Rouges at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. “And we're looking even bigger. We're looking beyond, to the 2026 World Cup.”

Canada, too, are hosting that tournament in three years’ time, and are dreaming big about the possibilities it offers. John Herdman’s squad entered Sunday’s match with experience, motivation, a clear identity and principles, and real hopes of finally underlining their arrival in the Concacaf elite with a first trophy in more than two decades.

Checking all the boxes

And yet, at times, this win felt less like a cup final than a programmatic checklist for the USMNT.

Get a first goal and a complete striker’s performance from new recruit Folarin Balogun? Check. The Arsenal man’s movement and finishing were sublime on the US' second strike of the night.

Keep Gio Reyna in the fold and coax out his best levels of form and fitness in the wake of the scandal that erupted at the World Cup? Check, albeit with a first-half calf injury. Liberated by the No. 10 role at the epicenter of a 4-2-3-1 formation, the New York City FC academy product’s vision and technique were the difference in this one, as he logged assists on both goals.

“It shows his quality that's on the field, his ball security, his ability to take on two, three players and connect passes,” said Callaghan of Reyna. “Also what I'm really proud of him is, we've challenged Gio to do more work off the ball on the defensive side, and he's absolutely risen to the occasion. When we speak about going forward, he's a committed player to this team, just like all of the other guys on this team, as you can see their commitment to each other and to the identity of the team and the way that we play.”

Reassert the consistent menace the USMNT once posed on free kicks and restarts but let slip of late? Check. Chris Richards opened the scoring on the night with a thumping header, and even Herdman praised the variety and danger of the Yanks’ set pieces.

“They had a lot of variation, that’s what I noticed tonight,” said Herdman. “The height differential is really evolving now for the US. I mean, that was – every player was outmatched, actually. And that was one of the challenges going into this match. And you see they’ve just got better variety now and there's high quality, so someone's put attention into that. That was tough tonight.”

Noted Callaghan: “Obviously, there's the preparation and trying to find areas of weakness maybe in the opponent that you can exploit. There's a lot of time spent with the players on the field, doing deliveries and creating the timing, and all of that. And so I think, for us tonight, it sort of all came together. And it is an area that we are focused; like you mentioned, we don't believe that we performed in that phase.

Mitigate the danger posed by CanMNT superstars Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David? Check, via committed defending and a cat-and-mouse tactical game with Herdman & Co. that marked a pragmatic evolution from once and future coach Gregg Berhalter’s proactive dogma.

“They're really well coached. They're really well organized,” said Callaghan of Canada. “They're another team that's adaptable, moving in and out of multiple shapes and positions, and switching guys all over the field. So I would say it was quite a chess match tonight.

“We thought if we were able to reduce enough space behind the back line and try to keep them all in front of us, we'd have a chance. If they were able to get behind us, we knew that it could be problems, and I thought our guys executed the game plan as well as they could. And I understand that we suffered for long stretches of the time, but that's how finals work.”

Big game experience

Berhalter, restored to his previous position by the head-turning decision made and announced by U.S. Soccer in real time as this CNL finals weekend was unfolding, won’t take up his daily duties around the national team until after the Gold Cup. That aspect of his rehiring was a bit puzzling.

But if this young, supremely talented and increasingly confident squad can sweep aside their closest regional competitors this comfortably under temporary leadership, perhaps Berhalter can afford to ease his way back in after all. With Concacaf trophy hauls becoming a regular habit again, the USMNT may well be able to raise their eyes to the horizon a bit and dream bigger.

“We need to perform in high-intensity, knockout games, and that's something that we learned from a World Cup in Qatar last fall\],” said Callaghan, whose side [dispatched Mexico 3-0 in Thursday’s semifinal. “Maybe we left there a little bit unsatisfied, from the World Cup, because of the knockout game a [3-1 Round-of-16 loss to the Netherlands] and the performance.

“But we don't look at it as a setback, we look at it as an opportunity to grow. And now for us, we came in here motivated as an entire group that we want to get better. We want to get more battle-tested, we want to be more experienced in knockout, high-intensity games. And this just gives us, again, the confidence, two good moments to do it, and we can look forward to the Gold Cup.”