There are plausible explanations and excuses for the US men’s national team’s failure to inspire – aside, perhaps, from the game’s first and last few minutes – in Saturday’s 3-0 friendly win over Uzbekistan at CITYPARK in St. Louis, the first match of head coach Gregg Berhalter’s second stint in charge of the program.
As expected, their Central Asian guests sat deep and conceded possession with ample numbers behind the ball.
“You know, Uzbekistan doesn't concede goals. I think they conceded maybe six all year last year [in fact they’ve only allowed five goals since the start of 2022],” said Berhalter postgame. “And with the back five, 5-4-1, they're very difficult to break down. So, happy with that part.”
Then there was the generally subpar standard of the USMNT’s set-piece deliveries, so often a key attacking weapon for them against packed defenses. And there were some heavy legs for an entirely Europe-based US lineup carrying plenty of long-haul flight mileage and early-season exertions at club level.
“Definitely a tough one, because I felt like there was a lot of fatigue today,” Tim Weah, scorer of the Yanks’ pretty opening goal just four minutes in, told TNT sideline reporter Melissa Ortiz. “It’s one of those games where you just have to knock it out, make sure we win, take the positives and the negatives, go back into training and do what we have to do.”
Even after digging up two injury-time goals that gave the scoreline a flattering gloss, there was no mistaking the unsightly nature of a match that remained stuck on 1-0 until the final minutes.
In fact, it hinged on a couple of huge saves from goalkeeper Matt Turner – who will now fly back to England to rejoin Nottingham Forest, signaling a start for either Ethan Horvath or Drake Callender vs. Oman on Tuesday – after schoolboy errors from his teammates gave up big chances.
This was not the performance of a team with ambitions of a semifinal run at a World Cup on home soil in three years’ time.
“You probably saw on camera a few times – I was pretty frustrated,” Turner told the TNT postgame panel. “We’re a good side, but we can’t just stroll up to games and expect to win. We are the US, after all. We're going to get everyone's best shot whenever they get the chance to play us. If we really want to get to where we want to go, we need to have better nights than we had tonight.”
Despite getting carved open by that early combination between Weah and Weston McKennie, whose gorgeous close control in the Uzbek penalty box was the key to the opener, the White Wolves largely controlled the game’s tenor and tempo, making light of the 63 places that separate these two sides in the latest FIFA World Rankings.
“We gave the ball away in some tough spots. That was the first thing,” noted Berhalter. “The second thing is when we were building, and we were methodical about our build, trying to attract the opponent, I thought then we lacked the speeding up the attack once we broke through that front five, and that could have been better. A back five is always difficult to break down and you saw that they just dropped, and we wanted to get behind, and we didn’t do that often enough.
“And then the other thing that I’d note is that, you know our press after loss defensive transition needs to get better. I think we gave them too many opportunities to get behind us when we could have been positioned better to win the ball immediately after we lost it.”
All told, the USMNT struggled to spark a crowd eager to shower their national team with the wall of noise they’ve provided for St. Louis CITY SC week in, week out in their impressive debut MLS campaign.
Aside from notching the expected W, it wasn’t exactly a thumping start to the second Berhalter tenure, especially considering the lofty ambitions he and his players have said they will hold themselves to as the North American World Cup approaches. The scene now shifts to the Twin Cities, where the Yanks will host Oman at Minnesota United FC’s Allianz Field on Tuesday night to close out the September window.
“It's just cleaning up simple errors, sticking to the process,” said Turner. “I think you saw, if the fans were here for the first minute and the last minute of the game, you saw the process when it works its best. We did score three goals at the end of it and keep a clean sheet. So it's definitely something to build off of.
“Because you have to be able to win when you don't have it, as well as win when you do have it.”