National Writer: Charles Boehm

Three Takeaways from the USMNT's World Cup Qualifying draw at Jamaica

The US men’s national team didn’t win, which means a large chunk of their fans will be irate for the foreseeable future. And yes, there were ample shortcomings and misunderstandings in Tuesday evening’s 1-1 draw with Jamaica at the National Stadium in Kingston.

But as one who witnessed a past edition of the USMNT contrive to lose in a similar scenario at that lovable, vuvuzela-haunted concrete bowl, I’m here to tell you: Gregg Berhalter, Tim Weah & Co. should snatch that point with both hands and escape Independence Park gratefully.

Here are three observations from the Yanks’ eighth game, and 15th point, of the Octagonal.

Clunky tempo in the land of rhythm

Jamaica have punched far beyond their weight on the global stage in cultural terms, due in large part to the incredibly vibrant musical landscape that's gifted the globe with reggae, dancehall, the building blocks of hip-hop and myriad other styles.

The USMNT couldn’t find their flow at all on the scruffy pitch at The Office, however.

Whether it was the surface, the sultry Caribbean air, the din of horn honks from the small (COVID-19-restricted) crowd, the hole of the suspended Weston McKennie – whose value was strikingly underlined by his absence – or a combination of everything, the relentless pace of play and fluid passing exchanges that lit up Friday’s thumping 2-0 win over Mexico were nowhere to be found.

“The conditions change – as you're playing on that field more, it turns, and it gets really choppy, and then you have to try to get the ball out of tight areas, it becomes challenging,” said Berhalter postgame, making sure to note that while his players were disappointed with the result, he felt just fine gutting out a road point.

“Our passing percentage was down a good bit; Jamaica's was extremely low in the game. So it's just the conditions, both teams had to deal with it, and we chose slightly different ways to go about it. We wanted to keep the ball on the ground, move the ball side to side and get behind them. And Jamaica chose to play very direct and relied on first balls and second balls … Overall, a very disruptive game because of the direct play of Jamaica.”

Big players make big plays

The general perception is that the USMNT boast superior talent to the Reggae Boyz, understandable given the two teams’ relative places in the Ocho table. Weah’s wonderfully-taken early solo strike seemed to vindicate that point of view, with the slick winger – whose mother is Jamaican – continuing his rich run of form for both club and country.

But that’s a generalization applied across an entire squad. And no one on the pitch possessed more strength, attacking menace and overall quality than the dangerous Michail Antonio, who flipped the game on his head with that astonishing piledriver that hurtled past Zack Steffen from long range to equalize the score.

That’s one of the elite strikers in the world’s most popular league, a talent who could well be starring for England right now if a few junctures in his career had unfolded a bit differently. He’s now scored in back-to-back games for Jamaica and no matter where the islanders are in the standings, his individual ability merits great caution and respect from any opponent.

Berhalter praised the USMNT’s Chris Richards-Walker Zimmerman center-back duo for how they coped with Antonio and the hosts’ overall bombardment of long balls and searching deliveries down the channels. Still, the US back five let their concentration slip in that fleeting phase of broken play, and the West Ham man made them pay.

“We know what his capabilities are,” said Reggae Boyz coach Theodore “Tappa” Whitmore of Antonio. “He was blessed with a wonderful strike; I think he had the Americans on their back foot for most of the game, and I think it’s a great performance for Michail tonight.”

Antonio’s strike destabilized the visitors and underscored their failure to build upon Weah’s solid start, which should have allowed them to better manage the terms of engagement. Letting a game like this spin out of their control and become a ragged, end-to-end affair invited Jamaica back into it when they should’ve been feeling demoralized at falling behind yet again.

“When you talk about the direct play, the physical duels in this game, it was challenging, and it was a lot of stretched field, open field,” said Berhalter. “And it made it hard to get around duels sometimes and very difficult. But overall, I think both teams competed well, and we'll move on.”

Yay, more goalkeeping discourse

Antonio’s howitzer blast was a gorgeous hit by any measure. What’s more subjective is whether Steffen could’ve done better on the play.

For some observers – this correspondent included – it’s uncharitable, even unrealistic to suggest that any other goalkeeper would have a ghost of a chance to parry it away from the top corner. Others, like US women’s national team goalkeeping legend Briana Scurry on the Paramount+ studio analysis team, saw red flags with the Manchester City man’s footwork as he reacted to the ball rocketing off Antonio’s boot, and there’s something to that.

It might not be fair to dock Steffen points for conceding a worldie like that. Yet he looked jittery for much of the rest of the match, punching instead of catching a couple of box deliveries and looking static on the late Damion Lowe headed corner-kick finish that was waved off by a soft-looking foul call. And it slots all too neatly into the ongoing debate about whether he’s a better option than Matt Turner in the USMNT nets.

Conventional wisdom says Turner is the superior shot-stopper and has the advantage of regular minutes with the New England Revolution, while Steffen’s distribution and all-around game gives him the edge but comes with the drawback of only spot match duty as the backup to Ederson at City. After the Mexico game, Berhalter revealed that the coaching staff had tracked the number of possessions gained by Steffen’s comfort with his feet compared to Turner’s more basic passing.

Yet he’s quite noticeably stopped short of declaring Steffen to be his No. 1, even though that was the de facto reality for much of Berhalter’s tenure before this year. On Friday he noted that Steffen would have to “keep his form” to stay ahead of Turner, adding “we're not hesitant to change goalkeepers.”

Some people consider a clear, undoubted No. 1 in goal to be a bedrock element of a successful team; Berhalter is apparently not one of them.