National Writer: Charles Boehm

What to make of USMNT's struggles vs. Trinidad and Tobago


For 81 minutes, the US men’s national team’s performance against Trinidad and Tobago in their Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal first leg at Q2 Stadium in Austin on Thursday night was unsightly and frustrating, and that’s putting it politely.

The heavily-favored home side dominated possession, rarely allowed the Soca Warriors into their defensive half of the pitch and enjoyed a man advantage for most of the night thanks to Noah Powder’s 37th-minute ejection after his second yellow card. Yet despite 17 shots up to that point, all their huffing and puffing reaped not a single goal.

If that situation had extended all the way to full-time, the nerves everyone was feeling in central Texas figured to get that much rawer in Monday’s second leg in Port of Spain, where T&T would presumably feel more optimistic about springing a massive upset on home soil with the aggregate score still tied.

“I was on the sideline today thinking this may end 0-0 because of all the chances we're missing, particularly the second half,” admitted head coach Gregg Berhalter to reporters postgame.

“It was a really difficult game.”

That eventuality didn’t come to pass, though, because Ricardo Pepi reprised the super-sub role he’s become masterful at this year, coming off the bench to score the opener, which triggered a late dip in Trini resistance that allowed Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and Gio Reyna to stylishly pad the series advantage in a 3-0 win.

As a FOX Sports headline blared, it was a “’disappointing’ win,” and afterwards the Yanks said all the right things.

"Overall, it was kind of disappointing that we didn't do more,” noted Robinson, calling his own team’s display “slow” and “naive” even after hitting an impressive double backflip celebration following his well-taken goal. “We weren't really threatening as much as we could've been.”

Veteran center back Tim Ream pointed out that “at some point we have to take some shots even if they're from outside the box,” an acknowledgment that for all the structure and thought and complexity that goes into Berhalter’s preferred possession approach, it can fall flat in the final third, as the USMNT’s inability to score more than one goal in any of their four 2022 World Cup games revealed.

“We were just trying to walk the ball across the line, really,” said Ream.

The good news is those three goals in seven minutes offered evidence that this gradually maturing Yanks side is learning one key trait of highly successful teams: The ability to ride out subpar stretches of play without being punished for it, and inflict damage with precision and efficiency when an opponent is vulnerable, regardless of how fleeting that phase may be. Or in other words, to smell blood in the water, and strike.

At this phase of the group’s development, that may be a more useful takeaway than a clinical disassembling of a bunker job from an overmatched opponent. An outing like Thursday night’s would be a lot more concerning if another arduous Concacaf World Cup qualifying cycle was getting underway, a road that inevitably features lots of game states like those first 81 minutes.

But the USMNT don’t have to qualify for the 2026 edition on North American soil. Their main focus over the next three years is advancing to a level where they can more evenly and intelligently match up against elite adversaries. Like the ones they’ll need to beat in order to improve upon last year’s Round-of-16 exit at the hands of the Netherlands, and to thrive at next summer’s Copa América here in the States.

Rivals of that caliber will indeed ruthlessly exploit their “lack of precision,” to use a term of Berhalter’s on Thursday night, as the Dutch did on that cool night in Qatar almost a year ago. And they’ll sometimes present tactical puzzles not entirely different from the one posed by T&T’s Angus Eve. But the circumstances of those affairs are likely to be different in important ways, not least of which is that the Yanks will be punching up rather than down.

That offers a useful framework for evaluating Monday’s second leg in Trinidad, the program’s first return to that island since the disastrous Waterloo of October 2017, where the USMNT’s 2018 World Cup campaign crashed in spectacular fashion with a stunning upset loss to T&T in nearby Couva.

The Soca Warriors have a steep uphill climb even just to trouble the US over these upcoming 90 minutes, and a professional management of that situation should restore some confidence among the fanbase. Sleepwalk or stumble enough to give T&T any measure of hope, however, and the questions facing Berhalter will get a lot tougher.