By nature, soccer coaches are generally a glum lot.
At the international level, the pressure is too incessant for them to let their guard down often.
Before the start of Octagonal last month, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said he relished the prospect of attempting to qualify for the 2022 World Cup and sounded genuinely excited when he described the competition as fun, as if he was back in the backyard of his childhood home in Tenafly, New Jersey, making up games with his brother.
Problem was, the World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign looked anything like fun for the USA in its first three and a half games. It captured five points, tying El Salvador (0-0) and Canada (1-1) and escaping from Honduras with a shock win (4-1), but with the exception of parts of the second half after the Catrachos folded, it was a struggle for the first three games.
All that changed on Thursday night in Austin. After another tentative first half -- its seventh straight game in which it went scoreless in the first half -- the USA came alive. And when the evening was over, the Americans had a 2-0 win over Jamaica and found themselves in first place in the Octagonal after four games.
Everything changed with the first goal in the 48th minute
The buildup began innocently enough when goalkeeper Matt Turner went down to snare a through ball that came at him from the Jamaican right side. He rolled the ball to right back Sergino Dest, who laid it off to Yunus Musah near the midfield line. And the Valencia midfielder just kept going, making a driving run to the Jamaican penalty area before laying the ball off to Dest on the right side. With his first touch, the Barcelona defender chipped the ball into the middle, where Ricardo Pepi was standing to head the ball into the far corner of the goal.
Just so this is clear: That was an 18-year-old midfielder and a 20-year-old defender combining with an 18-year-old forward for the opening goal.
No Christian Pulisic? No Gio Reyna? No John Brooks? No problem.
Pepi's goal seemed to lift the burden that Berhalter's young team was carrying off its shoulders and unleashed a confidence in its game that had not been there.
Dest wears his heart on his sleeve, and the frown he has carried on his face for much of the year was replaced by a big smile. Along with his usual step-overs and feints, he ran from one side of the field to another to track down Jamaican attackers. Those he didn't tracked down he harassed.
Musah wasn't just making his World Cup qualifying debut, he was playing in a game he wasn't sure 24 hours earlier he'd be allowed to play in. Because of an inconclusive Covid-19 test result, he had to train on his own all week until a negative PCR test result came.
"I pulled him aside before dinner," Berhalter said, "and I said, 'You're going tomorrow, you're negative'. And it was great. You have to take the precautions and we were a little worried, but it was great that he got to play."
After the opening goal, Musah suddenly found the game and threatened with every run.
The first 17 minutes of the second half produced two Pepi goals -- the second after combination play near the area involving Brenden Aaronson and Antonee Robinson -- and the USA could have had more as it attacked in waves.
It was, in a word, liberated.
But despite his team's best half of the year, Berhalter tried not to get too carried away.
"To have those two plays in like 20 minutes shows that we're trying to execute what we're talking about," he said.
The difference in approach between the opening game of the first window -- the 0-0 tie at El Salvador -- and the opening of the October window was tangible. It was an inexperienced group that played at the Estadio Cuscatlan -- 12 players made their World Cup qualifying debut for the USA. Against Jamaica, another five players made their qualifying debuts, so there were again a lot of new faces in the field.
Berhalter said his players and staff were too slow to get down to work before the start of play in the last window. Instead of talking about a nine-point window, the focus was on one game, against Jamaica, which was coming into Austin in last place in the Octagonal and desperate for a win.
The two goals were nice but only part of the story.
"Aside from that," he said, "it's also about the intensity. It was really just nice to watch that type of output besides the soccer stuff."