NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It’s still early in the Concacaf Octagonal, but Sir Alex Ferguson might say that “squeaky bum time” has already arrived for the US men’s national team.
Sunday’s tepid 1-1 draw with Canada at Nissan Stadium means that the Yanks have taken just two points out of the six on offer so far, scoring just once across 180 minutes, and now must jet south to steamy San Pedro Sula to visit Honduras on Wednesday (10:30 pm ET | Universo, Paramount+), one of the most testing away trips in the region.
Here are three talking points from a badly missed opportunity on the banks of the Cumberland River.
The stakes are sky-high here and the margins are tight, which makes shooting yourself in the foot particularly galling. Though Thursday’s 0-0 draw in El Salvador wasn’t great, the mood around the USMNT seemed bright in the countdown to this match. Christian Pulisic looked likely to return, a big crowd was expected and Canada were smarting from their home draw with Honduras.
Then a sudden, stunning blow arrived just a few hours before the game. Weston McKennie, one of their most influential and well-liked personalities as well as a key central-midfield contributor, had violated a team policy – he later confessed on Instagram that he had broken COVID-19 protocols – and would not play against Canada. (And he might not be cleared for the Honduras match, either.)
Sebastian Lletget stepped into his slot in the starting XI and acquitted himself well, but there’s no escaping the destabilizing effect of such a late-breaking setback. His teammates admitted McKennie’s energy and leadership were missed.
“He's such an important player, important character to this team. He brings obviously what he does on the field, but even off the field, how close he brings the team together,” said Tyler Adams postgame. “Everyone needs to be ready, but it's obviously very disappointing … to be fair, it hurts us, him as a person, as a player.”
Even so, Brenden Aaronson’s well-crafted 55th-minute goal pushed the hosts into the ascendancy, a vital breakthrough that could and should have set the course for a hard-earned victory. Then coach Gregg Berhalter made another set of costly missteps…
Canada’s tactical plans were always clear to see here: Keep it tight at the back with a sturdy 5-4-1 shape and sniff out chances to break out in transition, paced by the ferocious speed and menace of Alphonso Davies.
“There was really very little space between the lines and we were trying to operate outside of the lines, and it just gave Canada the opportunity to just keep shifting, and [we were] never really penetrating,” said Berhalter.
The USMNT were strangely vulnerable to those counterattacking moments in the first half but rode their luck – and Adams extinguished more than a few fires – only to let another one slip just minutes after their goal.
With the US playing a high line, Sam Adekugbe’s simple (but smart) ball around the corner exposed DeAndre Yedlin as Davies fired up his afterburners down the left flank, and John Brooks lost track of Cyle Larin to allow the simplest of tap-ins. It was a fleeting moment of collective slackness that was viciously punished.
“After we scored our first goal, we need to be able to win a game like that 1-0 at times,” said a downcast Pulisic postgame, “I think whether that's making adjustments or sometimes even having to defend a bit more. … it's important in games like this, tough games, to just grind it out.”
The shift in momentum was drastic, and it called for quick action from Berhalter. Yet as his team grew more and more ponderous in possession, failing to up the tempo as Les Rouges bunkered in, he did too, waiting 21 long minutes after the equalizer to make a triple substitution, giving Konrad de la Fuente, Josh Sargent and Cristian Roldan just a fleeting window to chase the game and conjure something up.
“With substitutes, we're looking for who's not performing up to standard, who's off the game, and we felt in our attacking players, Jordan [Pefok] was still being somewhat effective with his physicality, he was giving them problems," Berhalter noted. "Brenden was, I thought, one of our better players today with his tenacity and his counter-pressing
“I can understand that it looks like we should have acted quicker, 100%. In this situation, we're looking at the performance of the guys and trying to figure out who we’re going to take off the field.”
It would’ve been understandable to leave Aaronson on, because he was one USMNTer who seemed to grasp the need for full-throttle intensity and commitment at all times. Since moving to RB Salzburg last winter the Philadelphia Union academy product looks to have continued to improve on his steep upward trajectory, based on the technique, work rate and directness he showcased here.
As his coach noted, Aaronson hunted the ball alertly when it turned over and looked clever and decisive when he entered the final third. His goal was the just reward for all that – and it wasn’t just his smart movement to the back post as a precise combination between Kellyn Acosta and Antonee Robinson unfolded down the left channel; he also pressed Alistair Johnston to create the turnover that started the whole sequence.
After the game Berhalter maintained that he was happy with his team’s overall effort, but clearly some level of urgency was missing from many of Aaronson’s teammates.
“We’ve got to have a long look in the mirror and really establish what our goals are here,” said Adams. “Three points in Honduras is what we're looking to do, but what do we need to do in the game to get the best out of the team and every single player? Because, again, it's not going to be just the starting 11 and 11 good performances; we need 16 good performances [with] the subs that are coming in. How can they change the game, how can we get the best out of every single player? So we need to challenge ourselves.”