Editor's note: This article was written before the USMNT announcement that Weston McKennie would not be on the gameday roster against Panama
The US men’s national team got it done again Thursday night, putting together a never-actually-in-doubt-if-occasionally-a-bit-frustrating 2-0 win over Jamaica in Austin during both teams’ fourth game of this final round of World Cup qualifying.
Thanks to the win -- their second straight, and second straight by multiple goals -- and some help elsewhere, the US now top the Octagonal standings on goal differential. A tepid and nervous and at times borderline calamitous start to World Cup qualifying has smoothed out into something closer to what we all hoped to see from this very talented, but still impossibly young bunch.
So, things are good right now. When I wrote this column a month ago it was hard to start with the positive takeaways and the list was short. Now, as I’m writing this, I feel like I’m about to go on for a bit.
The biggest, most important thing from this game was not the play of any one particular player or the execution of any one particular attacking sequence. The biggest, most important thing is that the US played a straightforward 4-3-3 with few bells and whistles, and every player was in their best, most comfortable position.
So a lot of the good things that happened out there -- and there were a ton of good things, even if the scoreline didn’t indicate a blowout -- just sort of flowed naturally from how the US were arranged by head coach Gregg Berhalter. Ditto for who was out there in key spots.
Let me phrase it this way: When I saw the USMNT's starting XI come out and visualized what this team would look like on the field, what I saw in my mind looked very much like what I eventually saw on the pitch.
That kind of predictability is good. When you have superior talent (and in my opinion the US will have superior talent in literally every game they play in the Ocho, barring a cascade of injuries), that isn’t just good: It’s match-winning.
And it will get this program back to the World Cup.
• The entire second half was an expression of how comfortable the players were in this scheme, and it highlighted some of the outstanding skills of a few of them. Berhalter talked, on ESPN’s halftime interview, about the need to move the ball forward with a bit more speed and bravery, and then three minutes into the second half this happened:
The reason Jamaica never get set is because Matt Turner takes zero time with his distribution, collecting from one side and immediately rolling out to Sergino Dest for a transition opportunity. Dest then makes a simple play, sliding it inside to Yunus Musah, who drives forward at the Jamaica backline and forces them to make a play or just keep retreating forever.
When they decide to keep retreating forever, Musah himself makes the simple play, sliding back to Dest on the overlap. Dest has the whole wing to himself because of the hard, unselfish, dangerous run Paul Arriola made.
That goal ended up being an 18-year-old to a 20-year-old to an 18-year-old.
• When Berhalter talks about verticality (and he’s talked about verticality A LOT), he doesn’t just mean the likes of Arriola or Brenden Aaronson running in behind. He also means sequences like this, where the US push the ball forward against a scrambling defense, and where one of the central midfielders takes the responsibility to be brave on the ball and punish them.
Musah’s game is tailor-made for that. His first 45 minutes were kind of invisible, which is to be expected from an 18-year-old making his World Cup qualifying debut. But in the second half I thought he was the best US player, the one who most often turned those scrambled Jamaican moments into true danger for the US.
He finished the night 18-for-19 passing into the final third, just a godsend of a “pass before the pass” guy. Getting this kid was a recruiting coup by Berhalter. He is my favorite player in the pool.
• Back to the other type of verticality: Arriola set the tone within 25 seconds, getting behind the Jamaican backline and earning what should have been a red card on Kemar Lawrence. The D.C. United attacker was clean through. Lawrence was spared the sending-off by a timid ref, but by the end of the night he might’ve wished he saw red because Arriola ran him into the ground:
Lawrence is Jamaica’s safety valve, and easily their best at progressing the ball from back to front. When they run out of ideas they funnel play to him. But because of the energy Arriola expended, that Reggae Boyz strategy was useless. Lawrence was a non-factor and so they generated nothing up their left side all night, instead having to rely upon Alvas Powell and the aged (or should I call him “Timeless?”) Je-Vaughn Watson.
It didn’t work out well for them.
• As the tweet says, Arriola’s end product was lacking. But he earned what should’ve been a red card there, and hit the defense-splitting through-ball that put Aaronson through later in the half (and was again not given as a red card). He also made side-clearing runs like on the goal, which opened space for Dest to get forward.
The defense, though. Man. One of the scariest things about Jamaica is that any semi-accurate clearance can turn into a breakaway, so it’s incumbent upon the whole front line to close down hard and make those clearances rushed, hopeful and un-targeted.
Arriola, Aaronson and Ricardo Pepi took that to heart. No Jamaica defender ever had a chance to pick up his head and dime it into space for Shamar Nicholson (who I love, and who some MLS team should sign as a DP) or any of the wingers.
Defense starts at the front, and the entire frontline was excellent defensively.
• That excellent defensive performance from the wingers meant that both fullbacks could and did get forward often, and at pace. That’s exactly how you want a 4-3-3 to function against a low block.
• This was Musah’s World Cup qualifying debut, as well as Walker Zimmerman's in central defense. They were two of the three best US players (Zimmerman, who started over young Chris Richards and Mark McKenzie, was absolutely the correct call in order to battle Nicholson. Hat tip to Berhalter on that one).
Luca de la Torre and Tim Weah came off the bench to make their World Cup qualifying debuts in the second half and they looked very, very good -- Weah was a constant menace, and de la Torre really loves to drive the game forward with the ball, a la Musah. Never forget that this man posted his way into a World Cup qualifier.
Shaq Moore also made his WCQ debut, coming in for Dest over the final 15 minutes and putting in an unremarkable (I mean that in a good way) shift.
• Weston McKennie was back and put in what Berhalter deemed a “professional” performance. I think that was an apt description.
• I can think of no greater compliment to Aaronson, Tyler Adams, Miles Robinson and Matt Turner than “I was supremely confident each would put forth the exact type of performance we ended up seeing.” Those four guys have all managed a high level of quality and consistency to the point where it's kinda boring to talk about them, isn't it?
Though I will note it was fun to see Adams dropping deep to split the center backs occasionally in build-up play. He seems to relish those moments.
• The subs were sensible and point toward a smarter approach to squad rotation this window, I thought. Berhalter did a poor job of keeping the roster balanced and his players fresh last window, but he looks to have learned his lesson and took the chance to get rest for crucial players. Everything seems positioned to lean on a mix of veteran starters and backups -- guys like Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget and George Bello are likely to see big minutes down in Panama, and guys like Aaronson and Pepi were spared playing the full 90 so should have something left in the tank -- over the next two games, which means that the US should stay fresh throughout the full 270 minutes.
• One more Berhalter-related positive: When he was coaching the Columbus Crew, his teams were best known for attacking patterns of play that ended up with whoever happened to be his center forward getting a one-touch finish in the box. Gyasi Zardes, Ola Kamara and Kei Kamara all had their very best years playing in Berhalter’s system.
When he was named national team head coach, I assumed that’s what we were going to get. Maybe the US would be a little too naive defensively at times or too rigid about playing out of the back, but dammit, they’d create chances!
It’s been the opposite of that. The US, under Berhalter, have strangled the hell out of almost everyone defensively, and haven’t really been punished for playing out of the back since 2019.
At the same time, they have done a poor job of creating repeatable, high-level chances.
Until last night. Last night, in the second half, the US suddenly looked like the 2018 Crew:
Those are goals and chances off of repeatable sequences of play.
That second half was dominant. It was a version of the US I’d been hoping to see for a long, long time.
• Nobody could cross the ball for the first 45 minutes. In part that’s because Dest and Robinson struggled, often taking too many touches and allowing the defense to get compact, but in part it was because Arriola, Pepi, Aaronson and McKennie weren’t on the same page with regard to their runs.
• The US have now failed to score in seven straight first halves, which is not great for my blood pressure. You could see the ideas were there in this one, at least, and it was just a matter of execution.
Hopefully on Sunday in Panama (6 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo) they’re able to execute from the jump.
• The end product from Arriola and Gyasi needs to be better. I am a big “process” guy and the process was really, really good for the US. But these two guys are fighting for minutes and while I sang Arriola’s praises (you should, too) and Gyasi constantly put pressure on Jamaica’s backline, eventually those roles require more than great defense and precise runs. The ball has to hit the back of the net.
• The lack of 1-v-1 ability from the wingers was telling at times, at least until Weah came in. Aaronson and Arriola are both much more about stretching the field off the ball and quick combination play, and aren’t great off the dribble even when they’ve got a defender backpedaling.
• US set-piece delivery was generally really, really really poor. Really poor. Bad, even.
• Dest, who had his best game for the US (only one true defensive lapse that I noted), limped off injured. It didn’t look bad but that’s now two games in a row he’s had to come off with a knock.
I didn’t expect Dest to play against Panama anyway -- he’s really not made for road qualifiers -- but it’s a mild concern going forward.
Win at home, draw on the road is the path to Qatar. A point in Panama City would be fine.
That said, even if Berhalter opts for heavy squad rotation (which I suspect will be the case), the US will have a pronounced talent advantage in this game. Thomas Christiansen’s men played well in the September window, including a 3-0 evisceration of Jamaica in Jamaica, but they started October with a listless 1-0 loss at El Salvador on Thursday night.
Panama, like so many of the other tough Central American teams of the past decade, are in a bit of generational flux right now and haven't been able to backfill as the golden generation of guys like Blas Perez, Jaime Penedo and Roman Torres have aged out.
So expect to see a lot of familiar 30-somethings -- Nashville's Anibal Godoy, former TFC man Armando Cooper, former Rapid Gabriel Torres and former ‘Quake Harold Cummings (he's 29, but still) -- throughout Christiansen’s 4-4-2 formation.
I don’t think they’ll sit back; home teams rarely do. El Salvador didn’t, and Honduras didn’t. But thus far they haven’t really shown the ability to create danger via possession, and any midfield turnover should present an opportunity for the US to go at pace directly at the Panamanian goal.
• Taking Aaronson and Pepi off in the 67th minute felt kind of like a giveaway that Berhalter plans to start them again in this game. I am absolutely fine with that.
• Cristian Roldan is in to reprise the Arriola role (I assume Arriola’s tank is empty after the work he put in on Thursday).
There is strong Twitter sentiment against that, but 1) I want Weah as a game-changer off the bench, and 2) nobody’s had more muscle injuries over the past few years than Weah, so I think it’s smart to just ask him for 30 good minutes in this one, then get him the start next week at home against Costa Rica.
Back to point No. 1 there for a sec. Here's what Berhalter had to say about Weah after the game:
“Then Timmy, when he came in, the advice to Timmy was to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Stretch them, use your legs. And he did that. I mean, to think about a guy like that coming off the bench when the opponent’s tired, is a frightening, frightening sight.”
Anyway, I completely trust Roldan to put in the exact same type of shift that Arriola put in on Thursday, and just wear the Panamanian backline out. Plus his end product has been a little bit better lately, so…
• Very obvious midfield rotation here, leaning on a pair of veterans in Lletget and Acosta to get Adams and Musah some rest. I originally kept McKennie in for some continuity from Game 1 to Game 2, but his quad injury opens the door for de la Torre to get his first start.
I wouldn't be surprised if it was Gianluca Busio instead, though.
• Again I’m going to opt for experience (of a sort) at fullbacks. DeAndre Yedlin’s the most veteran player on this roster, while Bello isn’t, but consider the fact that he’s now started a Gold Cup final, the US’s previous road qualifier, and multiple road matches in the CCL. He actually has more experience in these types of games than Antonee Robinson does.
So the Atlanta United homegrown should be ready for this. And considering that Antonee came into camp carrying a knock, went 90 on Thursday and probably shouldn’t be asked to go from the start three days later, he better be.
• Miles Robinson and McKenzie locked it down in the second half at Honduras last month, and I originally had them back at it here, but opted for Zimmerman in this game in order to give Miles a rest ahead of the home game -- which, remember, is always more important.
Richards will have to wait until the Costa Rica game to make his US debut.
• There is just zero question that Turner is the No. 1 ‘keeper. (I told you so)
• And finally, here is the single most important thing that the team needs to internalize over the next 48 hours: "Everything was pretty good about this game,” Berhalter said after the Jamaica win. “The trap is going to be us thinking we're great, and thinking we've qualified for the World Cup. And if we do that, we'll get our ass kicked in Panama on Sunday."
It felt really good to see the US play the way they did in that second half. But that good feeling will disappear in a hurry if they don't bring the same level of intensity two days from now.