CINCINNATI – Dos a cero.
It’s a U.S. Soccer mantra two decades old, though it had to sit on the shelf for the past five years or so as the US men’s national team program wandered its own version of the Sinai desert.
Some of the stars of the current squad were in diapers when the tradition began – Yunus Musah and Ricardo Pepi weren’t even born yet – but they dusted it off against Mexico on Friday night at TQL Stadium, albeit in a whole new way, “a new era,” in the confident words of Tim Weah.
This was a stylish, emphatic 2-0 victory, not just gutsy and hard-fought like the old days. Here are three observations.
Earlier in the week Gregg Berhalter and other members of the team had noted the psychological lift Christian Pulisic’s return brought to the USMNT after the Chelsea star missed the October qualifiers with an ankle injury; Brenden Aaronson said it was “awesome,” Antonee Robinson called it “massive.”
Pulisic was the vanguard of this new generation of US talent, the first teenage prodigy of the several to come, and that plus his obvious quality on the ball makes him the leader of this group. On Thursday Berhalter did not hide the fact that Pulisic wasn’t ready to start against El Tri. But the kid from Hershey reminded us that he doesn’t need 90 minutes to change games. In fact, he only needed one touch:
Postgame, Berhalter explained that the plan was for the relentless Aaronson to press and probe and wear down Mexico right back Chaka Rodriguez and his comrades, softening them up for Pulisic’s impact. And that, combined with the collective lift his mere entry gave both his teammates and the home crowd, set up Pulisic to play the hero.
“Definitely part of the plan was thinking about how much he can play at the high intensity we needed for this game. That’s what we were weighing all week,” said Berhalter. “Christian has done a great job. I spoke to him before the camp, his mindset was he wanted to just come in and help the team. He knew where he was physically, but his focus was on coming in and helping the team be successful this week. So part of his quality we know he has is arriving in the penalty box, and he does that really well. And it's just another example of that.”
Tim Weah, who served up the decisive cross, shed further light on Pulisic’s power and pull.
“He's our star player, he's always going to be in the right spots, and you just have to deliver the ball to him,” said the winger, who earned the coaches’ man of the match honor. “Christian’s super deadly with those runs in behind and I knew I just had to put the ball in the right spot and he was there to knock it in, so great connection.”
As you may have read here and elsewhere on the internet, all week the Yanks talked about being aggressive against Mexico, pressing them hard and goosing the tempo. And they followed through as promised, getting after it and pushing their lines high up the pitch even after waves of gentle but sustained rainfall greased up the TQL pitch, raising the risk that a single slip or lost duel or fluid El Tri transition could lead to a breakaway.
Yet that’s exactly what happened just 18 minutes in:
In that moment Mexico punished their hosts’ front-footedness, only for Zack Steffen to stone Chucky Lozano and keep his team out of an early hole, and a game state they most definitely did not want to fall into. (Read this if you’re not familiar with the “game states” concept.)
Afterward Berhalter maintained there was no thought of caution or relenting from the original plan.
“It's the mentality of the group to be very aggressive,” he said. “We knew we wanted to put Mexico on their heels. We know they're a good team, a well-coached team and for us, it was about how can we disrupt them? And I think we didn't want to show that sign of weakness by dropping off, we wanted to be aggressive and continue to press.”
Berhalter's decision to start Steffen over Matt Turner, who is widely rated as the superior shot-stopper of the two, was indeed vindicated.
“I thought Zack was excellent tonight. Again, it was a difficult decision to start him over Matt, because we think they're both great goalkeepers,” said the coach. “But I think he showed why we did start him. He was good with his feet, he made a big save in the beginning, was great on crosses today, really led the line from the back and had a good performance.”
First it was a factoid, then it was a trend. Now, it’s something closer to a core pillar of this US team’s identity: They grind you down, then exploit you.
Renowned stats guru Paul Carr first noted this after the 2-0 win over Jamaica last month, and the phenomenon continues. Over the USMNT’s last 10 games, they have been outscored 2-1 in first halves and outscored opponents 12-2 in second halves.
Against Mexico, this facet of their methodology was more difficult to impose, but it fell into place just the same as the young legs and “big engines,” to borrow Tyler Adams’ phrase, worked and worked and worked to stretch and stress El Tri on both sides of the ball.
“The starting point was intensity. We wanted to break their rhythm by pressing, and eventually wear them down,” said Berhalter. “The first half, in my opinion it was an entertaining half, I think it was a back-and-forth, both teams were taking shots at each other. But the second half is where we started to pull away, particularly the first 20 minutes of the second half is when we just go.
“And that's the effect that we have on opponents, when we can press them and we can be that aggressive around the ball and with the ball, turning them around, making them face their own goal, becomes really challenging.”
As mentioned above, all that graft made it much easier for Pulisic to sniff out the game-winning goal, and once their noses were in front, another injection of confidence surged through the Yanks’ veins and Weston McKennie’s late clincher felt more like an exclamation point than a relief.
“As far as against Mexico, you could argue it was one of our best games," said Pulisic. "I thought there were stretches in the game, like I said before, where it felt like we were really dominant. We had control of the game. Obviously they had their moments, they're a good team, we know that and yeah, I was really proud of that performance. So it's definitely up there.”