The goal was a long time coming. The performance, both in this edition of the Concacaf World Cup qualifying Octagonal and in the Gregg Berhalter era, as well as in the aftermath of the disastrous loss in Couva four years ago, was longer.
But 74 minutes into Friday night’s 2-0 – yes, Dos a Cero is back – US men’s national team win over Mexico, Christian Pulisic read the play, got a step and rose up to meet Tim Weah’s cross. It was a goal the US had earned by executing on what was a clear blueprint for how they wanted to attack the visitors (more on that in a bit), and it was a goal they deserved for how they had bossed what most people still considered to be the region’s best team, no matter what happened in the Nations League or the Gold Cup this summer.
The US out-possessed Mexico up until the very end. They outshot them 18-to-8 and spent infinitely more time in the attacking half than did El Tri. They disorganized El Tri with the ball and disorganized them without the ball. It was what had long been promised and what had not really been delivered until, finally, in the region's biggest game and against the US's biggest rival, it was.
This was a sterling, A+ performance from the US. This was the version of BerhalterBall all of USMNT fandom had been hoping to see, and then waiting to see for damn near 36 months now. His vision, it turns out, really can work.
And with all of that, the most telling stat of the night (besides the scoreboard): The US won 67 duels, while Mexico won just 48.
Tyler Adams had talked in the days leading up to the game about how the midfield trio of himself, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah have “big engines,” and that they wanted the game to be fast and full of confrontations. That’s how it played out and that’s how the US won.
Where the game was won
I highlighted two things, in particular, in my preview column:
1) There is always space to win second balls to either side of Mexican d-mid Edson Alvarez because he plays as a single pivot in a 4-3-3, and neither of the No. 8s ahead of him have the type of speed and range necessary to compete with the US midfield trio. This lack, on Mexico’s part, was exacerbated by their central defensive issues – Cesar Montes, for example, would probably have been more comfortable stepping out of that backline to try to help Alvarez in the numbers game, and would’ve risked leaving US No. 9 Ricardo Pepi mano a mano with his center back partner.
But Montes wasn’t available for this game, and neither were Nestor Araujo nor Hector Moreno. Tata Martino had to rely upon old head Julio Dominguez and newcomer Johan Vazquez, and so Edson was a lonely man with a lot of work to do most of the night.
2) Mexico’s fullbacks reek.
Left back Jesus Gallardo, in particular, can not handle pacey attackers and rarely gets tight enough to shut down any crosses.
Armchair Analyst: Pulisic goal vs. Mexico
This is what I meant above when I said “executing on a clear blueprint.” Win the ball in Alvarez's shadow, then get it wide and go to work. Rinse, repeat.
There was none of the tentativeness that we’ve seen from the US on too many occasions during qualifying; everybody was clear on exactly what they wanted to do, and even if the first 45 minutes were sloppy you could see them getting to the right spots and working hard as hell to do it.
Berhalter understood that this was where the game could be won. He and his staff put the kids in a position to go out there and win it, and they did the damn thing.
Where the game wasn’t lost
Zack Steffen had his best game in a US shirt, and I’d say the same of both DeAndre Yedlin and Walker Zimmerman as well. This play, below, was just about Yedlin’s only mistake of the night (he’s keeping Chucky Lozano onside). Rather than compounding it by switching off, he plays the percentages to take away the far post while Steffen stays big and makes a very, very good near-post save:
Armchair Analyst: Mexico clinic breaking US press
Meanwhile, that play was about the only time all game Raul Jimenez had any sort of effect on the proceedings. Zimmerman pocketed him for the rest of the 90 and was especially dominant in the area.
He’s more than just a brute, though. Zimmerman’s reads were lightning-fast all night long, and his speed is better than people realize:
Armchair Analyst: Zimmerman great read and tackle
That is an elite play.
All this is obviously made easier when Adams is in front of the defense. He remains the most important player on the team, and even when he’s not playing particularly well – which was the case in the first half – he is a clear asset because his work rate and reading of the game put out so, so many fires before they ever start.
A few other notes:
• The underlying numbers agree with the boxscore numbers and the eye test: that was a paddlin’.
• A point I have made repeatedly about Pulisic is that he’s more consistent on the right than on the left because he does less when he’s on the right – he makes the game simpler and just attacks the back post.
So it’s kind of funny that “attack the back post” was his role as soon as he subbed on despite the fact that he was inverted on the left. Weah was just beating Gallardo up so badly that the US were setting up shop on that side and generating chance after chance after chance.
Anyway, “Pulisic the goalscorer” is much more fun to watch than “Pulisic the guy who’s trying to dribble four dudes by the midfield stripe.” More effective, too.
This was his first open play goal for the US since the 2019 Gold Cup.
• I thought Ricardo Pepi was good. His hold-up play is evolving rapidly and while he didn’t score, he did the types of things that forwards who consistently score do. End product will always have an outsized effect on how we talk about any attacker’s performance, and I certainly understand why that is.
But even without the goal, and with one truly disappointing miss, I thought this was a mature, encouraging performance from Pepi.
• All of the above applies to Brenden Aaronson as well.
• A very nice late cameo from Jesus Ferreira, who won’t get an assist but who was all over the ball in his 10 minutes of action.
Quick lookahead to Jamaica
Since this is only a two-game window, I don’t expect many changes other than the two forced ones (Robinson out via the red card, and McKennie out via yellow card accumulation) on Tuesday down in Jamaica against the Reggae Boyz (5 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo).
It wouldn't shock me if Joe Scally made his debut coming on for either Yedlin or Robinson, and I expect Pulisic to play closer to 30 minutes, or maybe even 35, while I'm assuming Weah's on a bit of a short leash.
There is obviously a bigger question as to who will fill McKennie's shoes than Robinson's (Chris Richards is a lock), but I don't think it's that complicated since Sebastian Lletget is the most goal-dangerous option Berhalter has at his disposal, and that is going to be the most crucial thing to try to replicate in McKennie's absence.
Here's how I think the USMNT XI will look: