The US men’s national team went down to Jamaica on Tuesday evening and, for 20 minutes, they looked a whole hell of a lot like the side that beat Mexico Dos a Cero last week. Sure, they were missing Weston McKennie’s energy and attacking presence in central midfield, and yes, they were struggling some with the spongy turf of Independence Park.
But Tim Weah scored himself a golazo in the 11th minute and damn near set up another in the 15th. The US were all over the ball, all over the hosts and all about creating distance atop the Octagonal standings for the first time in World Cup qualifying.
Then, in the 22nd minute, Michail Antonio got loose in midfield, strode into the final third and unleashed a thunderbastard from 35 yards that Zack Steffen only managed to wave at as it went top bins. Out of nothing it was 1-1, and after that goal a giddy and gorgeous US outing turned into more of a grim, resolute and ultimately fairly lucky road point.
It was, in one game, an example of how the US want to play – front foot, high energy, connecting passes, multiple runs and runners in the box – and how they absolutely, positively must not. Because the Antonio golazo immediately took the wind out of the US sails, and they never quite got it back.
That’s the big-picture story of the game. Let’s dive into some of the minutiae:
• Each window thus far has had at least one player step forward and make a case for themselves. This window will be remembered as the Tim Weah & Walker Zimmerman window.
Weah, through 20 minutes, was in the same type of form that got him the Man of the Match nod vs. El Tri, and scored as pretty a goal as you could ever hope for. This is gorgeous:
Zimmerman, meanwhile, won everything in the air* all night, and his distribution continues to be an asset rather than a negative. I suspect both these guys made strong cases to be starters once the next window comes around.
(*) Go rewatch how dominant Zimmerman was in the air, consistently outjumping everyone on the field. And then minutes from full time, he suddenly can’t jump higher than 12 inches off the ground?
That doesn’t track. What does track is that he was pretty obviously held down – a classic, clever striker’s foul – and the angle that shows it just wasn’t available on the broadcast. A guy who’s won everything in the air for the past two games doesn’t suddenly forget how to jump.
• Ricardo Pepi’s link play continues to evolve, though his hold-up play is coming along more slowly.
Often those two things are conflated. For clarity, here’s what I mean: On sequences like the one that led to Weah’s goal, in which Pepi gains a yard of separation from his defender, he’s become much more dangerous at connecting meaningful passes. And because his soccer brain and game sense are growing damn near exponentially, he’s become smarter and better at timing his movements and finding those pockets where he can create a yard of space and start linking play.
Where he still struggles is with the physical demands of rugged hold-up play. By this I mean he still can not put his back into a defender, hold them off, shield the ball and allow his teammates to advance upfield. He still lacks that physicality and feel.
When the US are flowing, as they were in the first 20 minutes, Pepi’s improved link play is a game-changer. When the US are bogged down, as they were for most of the final 70, his lack of rugged hold-up play is noticeable and can make it tough for the midfield to find a release valve.
• Ok, about that midfield: Gianluca Busio, McKennie’s replacement, had a chance to make a statement. The one he ultimately made was “I’m no replacement for Weston McKennie.”
Busio’s young and has been very good with Venezia, and I think it’s fair right now to say that he’s much better suited to tactical games on pristine Serie A turf than he is for physical battles in the chop and slop of Concacaf. It’s not just that he doesn’t win those physical battles, it’s that he’s rarely in position to fight them in the first place.
As of the 60th minute he hadn’t registered a tackle, interception or a foul. Worse yet is that he hadn’t registered a single duel as per Opta, which is almost impossible for a central midfielder. That lack of midfield confrontation speaks to how uninvolved he was – how the Reggae Boyz didn’t even feel his presence – and explains, to a pretty good degree, why the US midfield struggled to dominate the game the way they’d managed against El Tri.
He did play better over the final 20ish minutes, but by that point the game was gone and the US were just holding on.
• Compounding this was Tyler Adams having, by his standards, a poor outing. The most glaring moment came on Antonio’s goal. Watch, at the very start of this clip, how Adams jumps a potential passing lane rather than immediately getting touch tight on Antonio:
This is a mistake. The reason Antonio strode into the attacking third in rhythm is because Adams made the wrong choice there, and then was never able to scramble back and get touch tight. If he had been, he'd have blocked that shot, or even forced Antonio into a pass.
It’s still a golazo, obviously. But these seemingly tiny margins matter a great deal when facing a striker as dangerous as Antonio.
• I agreed with Briana Scurry’s halftime analysis on Paramount+ that Steffen should’ve done better with his footwork, reading of the play and technique to at least give himself a chance at getting a hand to Antonio’s shot.
That is not the same thing as saying that I think he should’ve saved it, or that Matt Turner would’ve saved it. But Steffen’s sloppy footwork is a recurring theme and explains why he often gets a weak push when attempting to save shots that are going high. Think Daniel Royer’s goal in the 2018 playoffs, or Niall McGinn’s goal from earlier this year.
From a goalkeeper friend of mine:
He just gets going sooo late.
When there is an above-shoulder save across your body, you want to use your top hand (which would be his right in this situation). He just doesn't have time to get a deep enough plant on his left so he can rotate his torso.
So when you see a keeper use their left in a situation like that, it's a tell-tale sign that they're reacting late for some reason.
• Chris Richards was pretty good, though I think he was lucky to get away without being called for a handball in the first half. Still, games like this are very good growing experiences for a young center back who has a good chance of starting in Qatar a year from now, should the US qualify.
• Both fullbacks had weird games – good at the start, but DeAndre Yedlin became bizarrely disengaged, while Antonee Robinson’s sloppiness seemed to increase exponentially with each passing minute.
I don’t know why, and each of them had a hand in one of the game’s pivotal moments: Bobby Reid’s spectacular miss midway through the second half. Easily the biggest let-off of the game for the US.
• Brenden Aaronson constantly got into good spots and just lacked the burst and/or 1-v-1 ability to leverage them into high-quality chances. Then Christian Pulisic came on and… stood at the touchline, waiting to get on the ball then dribble, inverted, into midfield.
It’s not a useless thing by any stretch, as Pulisic drew multiple fouls in dangerous spots, and with better service that actually could’ve been a difference-maker.
But it’s hard to watch the US and not imagine what it would be like if Pulisic was as willing to do the early, hard running as Aaronson is. Watching him repeatedly go 1-v-3 into the hurt locker has become dispiriting.
A four-point window is good. Not great, obviously – six would’ve been great. If it’d been six, I’d have fired off a “congrats to the USMNT for qualifying for the World Cup tweet” and risked the wrath of the soccer gods.
But they’re not there yet. This is a young team and Berhalter is still sifting his way through important parts of the roster, and right now it’s clear that the drop from McKennie & Musah to the back-up No. 8s is something of a glaring issue. But even as that's happened, the US have discovered more depth at center back than most thought was available ahead of qualifying.
So the process continues. Qualifying for the World Cup has never been easy, and that certainly hasn’t changed this time around.