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USA v. Cuba CONCACAF Nations League: What we Learned

A lot of goals were scored.

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: The United States celebrates afte Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The United States Men’s National Team kicked off their CONCACAF Nations League slate by storming to a 7-0 win in Washington, DC against Cuba. The game was essentially over within 13 minutes, with Weston McKennie completing a hat trick (!) along with a Jordan Morris goal in the middle. The first half was capped with two more goals, one from an own goal forced by Morris and another where Morris assisted on a Josh Sargent goal. With the score already up at 6-0, any real heat the match may have had was gone by the time the second half began. After that explosive first half, the USMNT only added one more goal, a penalty scored by Christian Pulisic. With that said, here’s what we learned.

How Much Did This Game Matter?

Look, games against Cuba are never particularly competitive for the USMNT. Cuba has a historically underdeveloped soccer scene. The nation's professional league has strict rules that limit players and, until recently, blocked them from playing in foreign nations. As a result, droves of Cuban players have abandoned the nation during national team games over the years in search of professional contracts with professional teams (most notable of these is Osvaldo Alonso, who has been one of the best players in MLS for a decade). This has left Cuba a major underperformer in CONCACAF. And, as a result, it’s a fixture for the US that has almost always led to blowouts.

On top of that, there’s the nature of the competition. This is technically a competitive match. CONCACAF Nation’s League is used in Gold Cup qualification. And the overall rankings generated from these games are used to fill the 6 seeds for the hexagonal used in World Cup Qualifying. What does that mean for the US? Well, now that Canada has beaten Cuba (twice) and the US has won their first match in such overwhelming matter, it’s all but certain that they will finish in the top two in their group (not that that was much in doubt). At the same time, the US already has such a high relative FIFA ranking, it’s essentially guaranteed that the USMNT will be placed in the Hex. And that means that there are essentially no stakes for the USMNT. There are huge stakes for Canada in the upcoming games. They basically need to win against the US in order to move into the top 6 amongst CONCACAF in the FIFA rankings because of how CONCACAF set up their World Cup qualification. Otherwise, Canada will have to go through a grueling alternative knockout round just to get into a play-off against the fourth place team in the Hex.

So, for the US, this is a barely-competitive game against a hamstrung, clearly inferior opponent. So... what is there to get out of this?

It’s not a complete waste of time. This game represents one more chance for players to get comfortable with each other, to develop chemistry, and to figure out their runs and their positioning. If you can’t do the right things in the easy situation, you won't do them in the hard ones. And that means that this is an opportunity for players to get some practice in the stuff that carries over game-from-game.

Weston McKennie

I have been hard on Weston McKennie this year. I’ve criticized his lack of awareness, his positioning, and the way he seems to disengage from games. Did any of that get answered in this game? Well, no, not really. None of that was really tested. But McKennie still had an exceptional outing, netting a stunning 13 minute hat trick.

I have openly questioned what McKennie is supposed to do for the USMNT. And here is a clear answer. In the box, he makes fantastic runs that exploit space and lead to scoring opportunities. This whole year, Berhalter has been building the USMNT to be able to create opportunities by switching the ball over to the flank, playing quickly down the field, and putting in dangerous crosses into space in the box. Well, in this game, McKennie turned those incisive crosses into goals. And it’s not just been this game. McKennie bagged two good goals in the Gold Cup, too. It’s very clear from this game that McKennie makes solid runs in the final third. We’ll see against Canada next week how he does elsewhere in the field.

Jordan Morris

Weston McKennie was just one half of the offensive output against Cuba. His provider was Jordan Morris, with Morris putting in assists for two of McKennie’s goals as well as Sargent’s goal, along with the goal he scored himself and the own goal he forced.

Morris had a stellar connection with McKennie on the night. Makes sense given how they’ve been connecting off the field.

For the half he played in, Morris did excellently to play high and wide on the wing, combining frequently with Reggie Cannon before putting in an incisive cross. And those crosses tended to find their way to McKennie. And when he cut inside? Well, then the roles reversed. Morris became the finisher, McKennie the provider. I mean, this whole is just insanely filthy. It’s just a shame that it wound up recorded as an own-goal instead of as credited to Morris.

In general, Jordan Morris has been very good for both club and country this whole season, particularly after the Gold Cup. He’s bounced back from his nasty injury from last year and transitioned nicely from a striker to a winger. The USMNT is a bit thin on the wing, with Paul Arriola, Jordan Morris, Tyler Boyd, and Christian Pulisic (who can play as the CAM) left to split 2 positions. And with how strongly Morris has been playing, one of those spots is probably his to lose right now.

Is the USMNT in a Better Place Than Two Years Ago?

The two year anniversary of the 2-1 loss in World Cup qualifying against Trinidad and Tobago just passed. And the question stands, is the USMNT better off than it was two years. So, what’s the answer?

I think it’s clear that the USMNT is definitely better off than it was two years ago.

The team is more forward-facing by leaps and bounds. In that match two years ago, fourteen players on the roster were at least 30 years old. On the current roster? There’s three. And there’s an eye towards phasing those three out. Whether you like Berhalter or not, whether you think he’s a good fit or not, he’s most certainly at least trying to build the team towards something better. In contrast, the entire rationale for hiring Bruce Arena was backward-facing and reactionary. And the team now has a slew of players in their early 20s who are playing with first division clubs in Germany (and Pulisic on the bench in England with Chelsea.)

Look, I don’t know if the team is going to go through and qualify for the 2022 World Cup (though I think they will). I don’t know if the US will play exciting and good soccer. I don’t know if the results, which have mostly been good in competitive matches thus far, will hold. But I do know that this team now has the humility to realize that none of these things are a given. But the team is actually being set up for the future again. They have a future again. And that means that the USMNT is in a better place than they were two years ago.

Closing Thoughts

I know you guys love to hate on Wil Trapp, but he’s only played in a single competitive game for the USMNT this year. Against Cuba, he wasn’t even on the bench since the team called in more than 23 players. Jackson Yueill may very well have taken his spot.

Josh Sargent looks good. It’s hard to say a whole lot in this kind of game, but Sargent looked sharp and his hold up play looked quite good. Assuming he stays healthy, he’s set to have a run as the starting striker at Werder Bremen, so he’ll hopefully continue to grow. He’ll hopefully also get ever more minutes with the national team.

Thus far, the USMNT has been good in competitive play. I know that a lot of the friendlies have been very rough, but when the games actually count, the team has mostly been good about getting solid results. The US has only conceded two goals and has mostly thrashed the teams they were supposed to thrash.

That’s all from me. What did you guys take away from the game? Anything I miss? As always, let me know in the comments below.