The U.S. attack struggled against the Soca Warriors in Austin until sub Ricardo Pepi started the scoring in the 82nd minute. Photo: Robin Alam/ISI Photos
The USA's home leg against Trinidad & Tobago on Thursday in the Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal series was in some ways the most difficult kind of challenges — a game in which the home team is expected to rout and the visitors defend with all players.
The USA had outscored T&T, 19-0, in its three previous meetings. Coach Gregg Berhalter was even asked before the game how many goals he expected from his team for a comfortable lead heading into Monday's second leg in Port of Spain
"I don't think that type of mentality is taking opponents seriously enough," he said. But surely he and his felt the pressure of being expected to hit the net aplenty in the Austin, Texas, encounter.
For their part, the Soca Warriors played as defensively as possible, with all 10 players committed to keeping to a scoreline surmountable for the Soca Warriors at home.
For more than 80 minutes, the super defensive posture succeeded against the USA, even after the Soca Warriors were reduced to 10 men with a 37th-minute ejection. Sub Ricardo Pepi finally hit the net in the 83rd minute.
Pepi, the center forward No. 2 on Berhalter's depth chart, replaced Malik Tillman, who passed and shot woefully, while Folarin Balogun, whom Pepi usually replaces, stayed in the game, giving the USA two players in the middle of the attack.
Goals by Antonee Robinson and Gio Reyna made it a 3-0 win that, if not quite a rout, should suffice against an opponent that has never scored three goals against the USA — in 29 meetings since 1982.
"We want to win," T&T coach Angus Eve said. "We want to go out on a positive, if we have to. We want to give ourselves a fighting chance and go out there and play a little bit more expansive football because we will be home."
Eve told the Sunday Express that he was pleased with his team's performance, given that most of the U.S. players play in top-flight European leagues and "85 percent of his players are out of season and not actively playing club football."
With T&T needing to score, the space should open up for the USA that was short on the creativity needed to breakdown a crowded defense in first leg. The USA did manage 26 shots — but besides the three that went in only five required saves by Denzil Smith, and only one of those was a challenging stop.
Berhalter kept Alex Zendejas, who's in excellent form with Mexico's top team, Club America, on the bench while giving a start to Tillman, who passed and shot woefully, and Kevin Paredes up front with Balogun.
In midfield, besides Reyna, whose composed playmaking led the USA to an ultimately satisfactory victory, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie struggled to comprehend how to contribute when unsaddled with defensive work.
McKennie has left camp with a knee injury. (Berhalter said on Sunday the Juventus midfielder had been hobbling in practice ahead of the first leg.) Luca de la Torre, who's shown good club form with LaLiga's Celta de Vigo but stayed on the bench in Austin, would seem a likely man to bring more savvy to USA's offensive buildup.
“We are … in a good position, and it’s up to us to take advantage of that position,” Berhalter said. “But we know we’re nowhere near the end. A lot can happen in football.”
On Sunday, he said that he did not intend to experiment or rotate his lineup, given the three-goal advantage.
"Now we have another half of this 180-minute game," he said. "We want to see it out in the right way. It’s going to need intensity. It’s going to need determination and teamwork. We’ll be ready, though, because it’s an opportunity for us to go to semifinals of the Nations League and to go to Copa America, and a great overall great opportunity for this group.”
Monday's game will mark the USA's first on Trinidad soil since the Soca Warriors' 2-1 win that kept the USA out of the 2018 World Cup.
“Hopefully the crowd will come out," said Eve, aware that his team's fans comprehend the slim odds of Monday's match turning into a celebration in Port of Spain.
For the Americans, Monday's game is chance to alleviate the concerns about their tactical versatility and attacking acumen raised by their play last Thursday.• SA Reading: USA-Trinidad & Tobago Concacaf Nations League Player Ratings