Tuesday’s 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw with Jamaica in Kingston is the final competitive match of the US men’s national team’s hectic 2021. And despite dropping more points away from home in what they conceded was a suboptimal performance, Gregg Berhalter and his squad sound content with what’s been accomplished overall.
“In the locker room after the game, you can see it on the guys’ faces; they weren't happy with the point,” Berhalter said postgame, before quickly tacitly acknowledging that things could’ve gone much worse on a night when the Reggae Boyz looked the more dangerous side.
“We're not looking at it as a disappointing result, we're looking at it as a good result. Anytime you get a point away from home is a good thing in Concacaf qualifying, and I want to be very clear by saying that,” declared the coach. “For the guys to have their heads down because we wanted more is completely natural, but this is a point that we’ll absolutely take on the road … We wanted to end in first or second position [in the Concacaf Octagonal standings] in this window and we're in position to do that, we're going to do that.”
The USMNT have one test remaining on their ‘21 calendar, a friendly vs. Bosnia & Herzegovina (Dec. 18) at the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California that will feature a mostly domestic-based roster intended to keep players sharp during the MLS offseason.
But Tuesday offered a chance for Berhalter to take stock of a year in which the Yanks claimed the Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup titles and notched 16 victories across all competitions, matching the program record set in 2013, statistically their most successful year ever.
“I think we’re on the right track,” said the former Columbus Crew boss. “We’re basically having to get the guys experience on the fly. We're playing an Olympic-age team. The average age, again, was Olympic-eligible, 22.3 [years], maybe. And it's really learning as you go, and the guys have done a great job adapting to that.
“We've had very strong home performances, we've gotten five points on the road already in four games,” he continued. “We'll use the winter and spring of ‘22 to hopefully get qualification, but the guys have been great. When I look at the year, ‘21 in general, '20-'21, we lifted two trophies, we're in position where we want to be in World Cup qualifying. We've won 16 games already. The guys have done a great job. It's all down to them and their commitment to the program.”
His team has done so with linchpins like Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams missing multiple games to injuries and suspensions. Giovanni Reyna and Sergino Dest – two other standouts competing in Europe’s top-five leagues – have been noticeably absent at times, too.
As it so often is with young players, consistency has been an issue, however, not only from game to game but often within a single outing.
Two points were dropped on home soil in September’s 1-1 draw with Canada in Nashville. And the wobbly outing in Jamaica marked a step down from Friday’s confident 2-0 dispatching of Mexico at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, much like the ugly October loss at Panama – the USMNT’s only Ocho defeat thus far – was a shadow of the stylish 2-0 overpowering of the Reggae Boyz in Austin a few days before.
“Conditions were rough, but that's no excuse. We wanted to execute, but it wasn't that today,” said winger Tim Weah, who scored against Jamaica and was instrumental in the creation of both goals against Mexico. “We took a positive out of it that we didn't lose, we got a point out of it. So we just need to bounce back next game.”
After a whirlwind fall slate in which every team played eight qualifiers across three international windows in under three months, the Octagonal will now take a slightly longer pause before resuming in late January. Unbeaten Canada will enjoy the top spot in the standings until then, with the United States a point back in second and Mexico one point back of them in third, tied on points with Panama but ahead on the goal-differential tiebreaker.
Daunting visits to Canada (Jan. 30), Mexico (March 24) and Costa Rica (March 30) remain, sandwiched around home dates with El Salvador (Jan. 27), Honduras (Feb. 2) and Panama (March 27). Berhalter seems to be targeting an average haul of two points per game from here on out, which is exactly the pace his squad set in this month’s two matches while nearing a Qatar 2022 berth.
“The first window [in September] was a major learning experience for us, in terms of how to mentally prepare for these three games and get through the travel and the whole – everything,” said Berhalter. “We needed that window and we got five points, went undefeated, but we dipped below two points per game, and then the next two windows, we maintained the two-points-per-game ratio, and that's pretty good. That's pretty good, man.
“Our road record is pretty much like expected. We would have loved to have that one point in Panama. But we've been resilient, and this group has character. It's a really fun group to work with.”
Expectations spike among the USMNT’s most demanding supporters with every strong display like Friday’s, which can lead to recriminations when the standard slips as it did in Jamaica. Weah urged the fans to invest both faith and patience in this talented collective.
“Obviously the fans want us to win; we want to win as well, but the ball’s round, you know? Things happen. We just have to continue doing what we're doing,” said the Lille standout and former New York Red Bulls academy prospect.
“Honestly, I think we're growing. Each camp that we come in, each game that we play, we grow. … Consistency will come. We're all super young, so it's all a learning experience. And I'm happy with where we're at right now.”