USMNT, liberated at last

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."

11 comments about "USMNT, liberated at last".
  1. Wallace Wade, October 8, 2021 at 7:50 a.m.

    It's always a Texan. Maybe USMNT and the Federation will one day realize how much talent there is in the State? There's many more down there that are completely off the radar. 

  2. Walter Bithell replied, October 8, 2021 at 2:07 p.m.

    Yes Wallace, I'm sure they are purposefully ignoring them because they are from Texas.

  3. R2 Dad, October 8, 2021 at 9:57 a.m.

    I'm more interested in players intelligent runs in the buildup, as I assume there is always intensity. What's been missing has been confidence when CP is not on the pitch. Very happy for another 18 YO to make his mark with the Nats.Perhaps CP won't feel the need to single-handedly save the day. Pepi is off to a great start, can't wait to see where he goes next. If not Spain, Salzburg or Dortmund for their player development track record.

  4. Matt Cardillo replied, October 8, 2021 at 12:30 p.m.

    Agreed. Yanus, dest, aaronson, weah take the pressure off of CP10 and young Reyna to be "the guys."

  5. Grant Goodwin, October 8, 2021 at 12:12 p.m.

    I am amazed at how much talent comes out of that state.  It would seem to me that the US would especially have extra eyes down there.  I think that we should definitely stress the Latino player by having some former US Latino players scouting for the national pool...there and in California.

  6. Ben Myers replied, October 8, 2021 at 12:43 p.m.

    My son moved back to Massachusetts from Texas, where he officiated approx 200 matches a year among club, school and adult. (He's on track for the same numbers in Massachusetts.) He still talks about the superioiity of soccer in Texas compared to what we have here in New England.  Not only does the climate allow more play during the year, but it really is the Latino influence on the game in Texas.  

  7. Kent James, October 8, 2021 at 3:06 p.m.

    Although the US often has intensity, I think the difference against Jamaica was the willingness to take risks.  Instead of knocking the ball around, they were trying to hit penetrating passes (to Aaronson and Ariola on the ground), or switching the play to Dest.  We also now have a lot of players who are willing to take people one (Weah in the 2nd half was particlarly impressive).  While Jamaica has not played well in these qualifiers (though they did come close to tying Mexico in Mexico if I'm not mistaken), the US was missing some of our best players and still came out going for it.  A deserved win.  Let's hope there's not let down (and I think GB's use of a lot of different players will minimize the complacency).  

  8. John DiFiore, October 9, 2021 at 6:19 p.m.

    I'm not overly excited that we beat the worst team by only 2 goals.  Took us 45min to find our groove.  MEX,CAN,CRC and maybe a couple others won't be so forgiving.

  9. Kevin Leahy, October 9, 2021 at 9:40 p.m.

    Was glad to see the coneection between Musah & Dest. Aaronson isn't a great addition. Looking for Weah to take it to Panama. Glad to see the midfield was rested as much as possible.

  10. Kevin Leahy, October 9, 2021 at 9:41 p.m.

    Aaronson isn't a great addition!

  11. Kevin Leahy, October 10, 2021 at 1:13 p.m.

    Aaronson is a great addition! Spell correct sucks

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