Time-wasting. Jersey-tugging. Rugged challenges and ill-tempered exchanges. Lax refereeing. Deep-lying, organized ranks of defense. Soft-pedaling the tempo. Strategic usage of fouling, injury treatment and even the deployment of the medical stretcher crew.
The US men’s national team might be in the midst of a golden generation of elite talent thriving in Europe’s top leagues. But as Honduras reminded them on Thursday in Denver, they’re going to have to navigate the same Concacaf odyssey as their predecessors if they are to fulfill their enormous potential.
“We're happy, and this game is exactly what we needed when you think about the level of competition, the competitiveness of the game. Some of these guys have never seen that before,” said USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter after his team, the second-youngest every put out by the USMNT in a competitive international, advanced to the Concacaf Nations League final with a 1-0 slog of a win over Los Catrachos.
“So, really happy with how they dealt with it. I think the mental side of it to just keep grinding and wearing them down was really important. It wasn't an easy game at all. We had chances in the first half that we didn't finish. I think we got too open in the second half at times, not enough balance. But again, for the guys to have to compete and dig like that at altitude, in heat, they did a fantastic job.”
No one in the winning team’s camp was particularly effusive about their overall performance. Despite marked possession dominance, their buildup was plodding and labored for long stretches, the midfield falling short of the fluidity their tactical outlook requires and the attack consistently wasteful in the final third until substitute Jordan Siebatcheu's 89th-minute headed winner.
“Yeah, we’ve got to find our rhythm,” said goalkeeper Zack Steffen, whose misjudgment of an early free kick was bailed out by a goal-line clearance from Josh Sargent. “It's all about finding the pockets, finding the space on the field. And then we have to be smarter, we have to be more clever, we have to draw teams out and move the ball quicker. And we’ve got to play together and play as a team and communicate and help each other out. And I think that was lacking in this last game.”
Nor did any of the Yanks need to be told that improvement will be necessary to win Sunday’s final. But the gauntlet of World Cup qualifying that awaits in the months ahead – an experience almost no one on the current roster has lived firsthand – will probably feature plenty more of trials like this, half of them under even more arduous conditions much further from home.
“For many of the guys, and then myself as well, for being our first experience, a real taste of what Concacaf is going to be like, I think we we handled it pretty well,” said midfielder Weston McKennie. “We could have easily lost our head. And the boys kept reiterating, and then I also kept reiterating to the guys, we have to stay focused, we have to do our job. We have to complete the tasks we set out to do, which was to score, to win the game. And as you saw the guys did it.
“So I think it was very, very good for us to have a game like this, to test our mentality as well. But technically, tactically and just how we played, we know that it has to be better, and we know that we have to put these games away as soon as possible.”
Siebatcheu is one of those with a scant track record of North American competition. His physicality and aerial ability made the vital difference, though, as the final minutes ticked away and the crapshoot of a penalty shootout – no extra time in the CNL rulebook in this situation – loomed large.
“That's why we put Jordan on, because we know he's a force on crosses. We know he battles in the penalty box, good physicality. And he gave us the edge that we needed,” said Berhalter, who laughed when asked about the gamesmanship that had Honduras giving the stretcher crew a workout.
“I think it was great,” said the former USMNT center back, himself a veteran of several qualifying campaigns. “It's what this group needed, to see the urgency, the desperation, the importance of a team getting a result. They were doing everything they could to hang on and get a result. And that's what this is about. When you get into World Cup qualifying it's that times two.
“It wasn't going to be a pretty football match. Honduras is a strong team, a compact team and a transition team. And that never makes for a pretty football match.”