WASHINGTON -- On the surface, the challenge facing the US national team in Friday night’s Concacaf Nations League opener against Cuba differed starkly from what lies ahead four days later against Canada in Toronto.
Friday, the US dominated early against a dramatically overmatched opponent, saw Weston McKennie score a hat trick by the 13th minute and eventually coasted to a 7-0 win.
In the latter, they’ll be asked to meet the intensity of a partisan Canadian crowd and an intriguingly talented opponent fighting potentially for their World Cup lives.
Yet there’s a symmetry in the two fixtures in asking the Americans to rise to occasions when a heightened response might not come naturally. On Friday, they succeeded as well as coach Gregg Berhalter could ask.
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“From the start of the game, you see the focus of the players and the intensity of the players, and it’s good to see,” Berhalter said after Friday's rout. “And I think we maintained that focus and intensity for the entire first half. So overall I think it was a worthwhile game for us to continue to grow.”
Josh Sargent, Jordan Morris and Christian Pulisic also scored on a night that set US modern-era records for the highest scoring first half (6-0) and the quickest hat trick from kickoff. McKennie and Pulisic also combined on a sequence that resulted in a 37th minute own goal. And Morris became the third American to record three assists in a game for his country, joining Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan.
None of that really mattered to the US camp, who probably recognized that despite qualifying for League A of this competition, Cuba isn't at the same level as their Group A opponents.
It wasn’t the scoreline or the history that rescued this from being a wasted night. It was the attitude they brought to Audi field.
“A lot of players in this situation, it’s easy to kind of bring your foot off that gas pedal,” said FC Dallas defender Reggie Cannon, who assisted McKennie’s third goal. “The killer instinct of this team, maybe for lack of a better term, has been missing for the last few years. I think that killer instinct is something the US national team needs. And you could really see it tonight.”
Said goalkeeper Brad Guzan: “We can’t control the opponent, we go out and play whoever we’re meant to play against. In that sense, it was a professional performance.”
Sure, rising the occasion Tuesday will be a bigger challenge. Berhalter freely admitted Canada will be clearly of a “higher quality” than Cuba. But as for the suggestion that the ease of Friday’s victory is somehow harmful to that aim? Berhalter insisted the opposite.
“We wanted the game to go like this to be honest, because it’s cost us less energy,” Berhalter said. “If I could’ve written the game up, it would’ve been exactly like this. Score early. Score many goals early. And then cruise. And that was important. I think we saved ourselves. I think we’ll be fit and ready to go in this game."