The US men’s national team beat Honduras 1-0 on Thursday night. You might’ve heard that they left it very late. You might’ve been one of the untold thousands (or at least hundreds) tweeting angrily about that at me, at the official USMNT handle, maybe at some of the players themselves — who can say, really.
If you were part of that group, then I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. The US weren’t great and, I think, not even particularly good. But they weren’t bad, either, and they were able to put out the fires that they themselves started.
And that'll be my first big takeaway:
Honduras created nothing. They went out there with energy and intent, but every single good moment they had came from the US turning it over in a bad spot, or Sergino Dest failing to hold an offside line or Zack Steffen going on walkabout.
We have seen this game play out in Concacaf a million times. What we have not always seen — and in fact, what we have never seen with this very, very young group — is them survive those moments, gut out the 90 and get a win in a game with stakes.
This might not matter to you, but it does to me and I’m pretty sure it does to Gregg Berhalter and the players because this is the exact type of game they’re going to have to get used to winning if they’re going to qualify for the World Cup out of this region. These are the exact types of mistakes they’re going to have to be aware of not committing in the first place, or cleaning up on the occasions that they do commit them.
A lot of Berhalter’s tenure has served as a referendum on the notion of positional play and “having a system.” I feed into that in large part because I’m a pretty big believer in positional play and because I still have some level of PTSD from the days when the US system was “we want the players to express themselves.”
Berhalter’s system is a work in progress and it broke down at times throughout this match because the US were simply too timid to make the types of passes that can actually compromise an opponent’s defensive shape and put them into positions where they have to make difficult, do-or-die spots. And when the US were actually brave enough to hit those passes, they were often overcooked — a sign of nerves, I’d say. “I’d rather boot this over the endline rather than risk leaving it short and springing a counter in the other direction.”
Jackson Yueill, who’s been on a somewhat disappointing 140-minute audition to be the back-up No. 6, was particularly guilty of this. Yueill has had a number of good moments for the USMNT, including in the last game that mattered, which was the win over Canada in the previous round of the Nations League.
But the fundamental fact about Yueill is he’s out there to juice the attack with his ability to set tempo and distribute, and that is supposed to make up for his defensive shortcomings. If he’s not distributing at a high level, then it’s hard to make the argument he’s adding value. On this night he certainly wasn’t.
Mark McKenzie, Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget were all guilty of playing it too slow and safe as well, while Antonee Robinson just couldn’t pick a pass save for one delicious cross to Josh Sargent. And so US wide play was almost non-existent which goes directly to the timidity with which they progressed upfield, and then the timidity with which they chose their passing options. They looked scared to take the types of chances that can lead to turnovers.
Those are also the types of chances that can lead to goals.
When that many guys are struggling, the whole machine bogs down and the system is not going to look great against any decent side, which is what Honduras are.
Against Mexico, who the US will presumably meet in the final? Against Mexico playing with that level of timidity is suicide. Maybe using the ball like that against a team as good as El Tri is suicide anyway, but it’s a guaranteed loss if if the US are afraid to take advantage of the gaps they actually do create and fail to drive the game forward.
Let me show you two Sargent tap-ins:
I can’t blame Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic too much for failing to play the extra pass in these spots. They’re $50 million attackers for giant teams and you don’t get to that level if you’re not self-confident almost to a fault. Reyna even went on the postgame and said “I should’ve scored.” He didn’t say “I should’ve given Josh a tap-in.”
But these are the exact types of chances “the system” is designed to create. I think a fair evaluation of whether or not it’s working focuses on whether or not moments like these exist in the film.
They clearly do, just as they did in friendlies over the past year against weaker competition.
Now, it didn’t happen enough, and barely at all in the second half. Much of that can be traced to the timidity of the passing (I’m gonna keep banging this drum), the slow problem solving from the entire team when Honduras had two forwards sit on Yueill (who’s supposed to be the primary ball-mover), an inability to progress the ball off the dribble and eventually a certain amount of impatience.
But again: That’s what these games are for! There is valuable film in here for a young team both on what happened, and what didn’t. And I’ve yet to see a credible reason to assume this group is incapable of getting it.
A few bullet-points:
- Sargent’s yet again taking a beating for not scoring, but he once again found chances and was in good spots. Still, I think it’s very likely the actual goalscorer, Jordan Siebatcheu, will be in the lineup on Sunday.
- Siebatcheu didn’t just impress with the goal — he did a really nice job of checking back hard and being a sturdier focal point with his hold-up play than Sargent managed. Siebatcheu created some daylight, and with that daylight came a little bit more time and space to link play.
- John Brooks played probably his best game ever for the US, or at least his best game since the 2016 Copa America Centenario. He still got done once by Alberth Elis in transition, though, and that is just something the US are going to have to be better about. No team in the world survives long by exposing their center backs against opposing wingers.
- I don't know why Yunus Musah didn't play — his ability to win physical battles and progress the ball off the dribble would've been a welcome addition to the midfield. I'll just point out that the same is true of Eryk Williamson and Paxton Pomykal, who I really hope we see in the Gold Cup.
- Mark McKenzie was ok in his competitive USMNT debut, but the team missed Aaron Long's active, front-foot defense. Long is masterful at reading outlet patterns and keeping the opponents pinned, and that's not something either Brooks or McKenzie excel at. There were moments where a bit more aggression from the center backs could've created defense-to-offense transitions, which were few and far between for the US.