No red cards, it’s true. But two goals, three points, one clean sheet and 20,500 or so loud and mostly happy souls at Q2 Stadium did the US men’s national team just fine on a warm Thursday night in Austin.
A brace from the coolly incandescent Ricardo Pepi, a dominant performance from the Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah midfield triumvirate and the USMNT find themselves topping the Concacaf Octagonal standings with eight points from four matches.
And they get about 12 hours to enjoy it before the focus returns for Sunday’s dip into the Panama pressure cooker (6 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo). That’s a three-game international window for you!
Yeah, yeah, coach. We heard you the first 10 times: One game at a time.
Here’s three big talking points from USA 2, JAM 0.
This is Pepi’s world now, and we’re just living in it.
For both club and country, the El Paso Kid can’t stop scoring. He’s now bagged three goals and an assist in his first two USMNT appearances, finding his feet at international level with stunning speed and effectiveness as his clinical finishing pumps life into the United States’ 2022 World Cup dreams.
It’s striking how pivotal the FC Dallas product has become, considering that several facets of his overall game can still use some polishing. He’s got the most elusive, valuable quantity in world soccer, though – what his father called el olfato del gol (“the nose for goal”) in the moving profile by Roberto José Andrade Franco that ESPN published this week.
Those instincts are a product of both nature and nurture, and they’re the reason the European suitors are flocking and the price tag keeps climbing. At 18, Thursday’s man of the match is the youngest player in program history to score in consecutive World Cup qualifiers, the first of what might be quite a few career milestones for a talent whose ceiling just keeps rising with every big game.
Even the USMNT’s cerebral dictator [™Ray Hudson] himself, Gregg Berhalter, had to admit that he and his staff are just passengers on the Pepi Hype Train like everyone else.
“We're just sitting there, and we're on the train, you know?” said Berhalter postgame. “We're just observing everything that's happening. It's amazing, an 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it. What you see, and what I really like, is that he has this instinct, and it's really hard to teach that to players. He has an instinct to score.
“We put up the minutes of the past week, and he's a guy that was dragging. He played 90, 90, 90 [-minute matches for FC Dallas], now he comes in here and plays whatever he played. But we knew it was going to take a lot of mental courage for him to step up and really play with that relentlessness that we needed, and he did it.”
It’s now safe to say this is a second-half team. Decidedly so. These are striking numbers, and the trend can be traced back even further, considering how things went for them in the Concacaf Nations League knockout rounds back in late spring:
There are two fundamental ways to approach this. Either something’s wrong with the way the USMNT fly out of the traps at the start of their matches, or their methodical, relentless graft grinds down their opponents until the levee breaks in the latter stages.
At this point, considering what’s been both said and done around the US camp, we have to give them some credit toward the latter.
“It all clicked,” said Philadelphia Union product Brenden Aaronson after the game. “I even think in the first half – they were dead in the second half, I think, and we tired them out because of the first half, the runs in behind, the interchange. I think everything just clicked and I think it was a great all-around team performance.”
Consider the impact of well-rounded terrier types like Musah and Adams patrolling the engine room, imposing themselves to the tune of 61.5% possession and 63 duels won compared to Jamaica’s 29. Then factor in the hard running on both sides of the ball by relentless wingers Aaronson and Paul Arriola, and the constant physicality of Adams and center backs Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman.
Eventually, if the other team doesn’t find a substitution or tactical change to change the momentum, the pitch starts to tilt in favor of the Yanks. And then it becomes easier for a predator like Pepi to hunt among tired legs and wavering minds.
“That was the message at halftime: It's ‘guys, stick to your positions, keep the ball moving, trust each other and keep going,’” said Berhalter. “’Because we're going to score goals if you keep up with this, the way we're playing.’”
If you’ve been following the rise of the MLS NEXT youth league, or read about the demise of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy that preceded it, or the Bradenton Residency Program or Project-40 further back in history, at some point you might ponder why the U.S. federation and its member leagues and clubs in MLS and USL and many others have shoveled so much money, time and energy toward upgrading the ways in which the United States identifies and grooms promising young soccer players in this country.
Thursday encapsulates why.
We’re still finding out whether this is indeed the USMNT’s “golden generation,” its most talented crop ever. But we already know it’s one of the youngest groups in the program’s existence, and in real-time they’re coming to grips with the challenges placed in front of them.
The first goal was created by an 18-year-old’s incisive distribution to a 20-year-old, who then delivered a pinpoint cross to the head of another 18-year-old for a clinically-headed finish (that’s Yunus-Dest-Pepi for those keeping score at home).
The second goal was created by a 24-year-old fullback’s progressive pass to a 20-year-old, who then curled a low daisy-cutting service to the foot of an 18-year-old (Antonee Robinson-Aaronson-Pepi). Enough about the kids being “alright” or “ready to play.” These guys are more than just kids now, and they’re doing more than just playing – they’re blazing a trail toward the World Cup as an expectant nation watches.
“Yeah, I mean, I don't even think we think of ourselves as young guys anymore,” said Aaronson. “We're put in a situation where the whole country is looking at us and we need to perform. And everybody takes on this challenge.
“I mean, if you look at Pepi, he goes out there and does his thing tonight. Yeah, me, Sergino and Yunus – Yunus isn’t even nervous before the game, we’re all smiling, we’re just having a good time and then we just go out to the field and just have a great time and just show our country what we can do. And yeah, I'm really proud of everybody that was a part of it.”
He’s not alone in that.