El Salvador made sure it was no Orlando vacation. But the US men’s national team’s Concacaf Nations League title defense grinds onward.
Monday’s 1-0 win over Los Cuscatlecos at Exploria Stadium booked the USMNT’s place in the tournament’s knockout stages, set for Las Vegas in mid-June. That’s job one accomplished – though a dreary first-half display amid ferocious resistance from the visitors forced interim coach Anthony Hudson and his squad to do some halftime soul-searching.
“All of us, coaching staff included, I don't think we probably set the team up in a way to really help them in the first half,” said Hudson in his postgame press conference. “They made it very difficult for us. The first half, defensively, we were far too stretched.”
Former New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner spoke on the TNT broadcast’s postgame show about the group’s self-criticism in the locker room at the break.
“The message amongst the players as well was that it just wasn't good enough in the first half – individual mistakes, individual errors, balls going under guys’ feet,” he said, holding his young son Easton in his arms, after he and his wife Ashley learned their impending new arrival will be a girl via a gender reveal ceremony on the pitch after the full-time whistle.
“We knew coming off of a resounding win [over Grenada on Friday], we needed to give our fans something to cheer for in the second half.”
Finishing tops in CNL Group D of League A was a pass-fail objective. That said, it was a valuable bonus for the program that several of the victory’s key architects were dictating the game on their long-awaited returns to this stage. The game-winning goal came from Ricardo Pepi, one of Gregg Berhalter’s last and most surprising cuts from the 2022 World Cup roster.
“I'm so happy for Rico, because he works so hard, and that's a guy with a lot of confidence to come in and finish like that, in a tight game, in a really challenging game,” said Turner.
“It makes me emotional, being a father, because I'm one of the older guys on this team. And to see somebody his age who’s taken a big step in his career, gone over to Europe and things, let's say haven't gone perfectly to plan for him. To turn around and take his opportunities here, it’s just really, really great for him and for this program.”
Pepi was the toast of the USMNT fanbase when he scored key goals in the opening months of the ‘22 qualifying gauntlet before making a record-breaking transfer from FC Dallas to FC Augsburg. A brutal start to life in the lower reaches of the German Bundesliga provided a cold slap, however, forcing a loan move to Dutch side FC Groningen, where he continues to be stalked by relegation, but has at least found a rich vein of scoring form.
“His club team, unfortunately they’re not in a great place in the table and it sometimes can be tough when you're down there at that end of the table,” said Hudson of Pepi, who also bagged a brace in the last match's rout of Grenada. “When you come out of that environment, you come back to your national team environment, it sort of gives you a little bit of a break, which I think that in itself helped him.
“As a staff, we really value him. We love him as a person, as a character. We believe in him. And he's had a good week. I'm just really pleased that he's come in and he's taken his chances.”
One of the night’s most dangerous attackers was Gio Reyna, the young phenom at the center of the soap-opera-esque scandal that erupted between his parents and Berhalter after Qatar in December. In this international window, he seems to have done everything in his power to enable his teammates and coaches to move on once and for all.
“Gio’s performance overall, I thought was really good,” said Hudson of the NYCFC youth product. “He showed flashes of being our biggest attacking threat. … we believe in him – clearly he has talent and you see tonight some of the things he does. He probably needs a few more games under his belt.
“We're very, very pleased with how he's been this week in training. And I think we're all just in a position where we just want to keep looking forward.”
And the Yanks’ rock at the back was Miles Robinson, the Atlanta United star who has barely missed a beat since returning from a severe Achilles injury he suffered in May 2022. This was his first USMNT appearance since that devastating blow, which ruled him out of the World Cup just when he seemed to be at the peak of his powers, and he was nearly flawless in a variety of situations.
“Miles, really, really pleased, just pleased he's back, pleased with his performance,” said Hudson. “You saw moments of the old Miles where he's just so dominant in 1-v-1 situations, and he reads plays well and he steps in at the right time. He just very, very quietly goes about being dominant in his role.”