The USMNT took on Jamaica in Austin Texas and walked away with a 2-0 win. It was, frankly, a rather comfortable display, with more adversity arguably coming from the ref than from Jamaica. The game saw a bit of forced rotation, with the US missing Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna from the last window and Yunus Musah joining after himself missing the previous window through injury. In addition, Weston McKennie returned from his disciplinary break. The result was that that, while we didn’t get some of our first choice attackers, we did get a return of our first-choice midfield.
Normally, for my columns, I focus on a few big ideas. This time around, I more so have a number of small things I want to talk about, so the piece is structured to reflect that. Wit that said, let’s get started.
The current USMNT is astonishingly young and inexperienced. Among the starters for the match, the only player who was involved with the national team in any capacity during qualifying for the previous World Cup was Paul Arriola. The only starters with at least 20 caps were the aforementioned Arriola and Weston McKennie. And then you look at just how young this team is. I pointed out my sister that the players involved in the first goal, Yunus Musah — Sergiño Dest — Ricardo Pepi, were 18 — 20 — 18. Brendan Aaronson (20) got the assist for the second goal. I know that I’ve said this a lot, but this is a shockingly young team. And Berhalter deserves credit for putting together such a young team that still plays cohesively.
Last thought. Berhalter handled Musah's transition and integration into the US Team perfectly. I won't go into all the background, but Musah wasn't gifted a spot. He wasn't promised anything. He wasn't pressured.— Markel Santi (@_Susaeta) October 8, 2021
He committed only once everyone felt he was ready.
The referee had a horrible night, particularly in the first half. Perhaps the ref looked at the first foul 20 seconds in and thought “Eh, it’s Paul Arriola, he’s never an Obvious Goal threat” and reduced it to a yellow, even though Arriola was about to be clear through 1v1 on goal. But I’ve seen red cards given in that situation before (I think most of us have.) To see it happen again in the same half, is pretty unforgivable. CONCACAF refereeing has a (deserved) reputation for being pretty bad, with the US getting it particularly bad (American refs are among the best in the region... and they can’t ref the US). But bad mistakes like that deserve scrutiny.
I talked bad about Paul Arriola right there, but the truth is that he had a pretty good game. He was clear on goal just 20 seconds in the match and should have gotten Kemar Lawrence sent off. And he played Aaronson in for that second break away, that time with Damion Lowe. Arriola gets a lot of flack for not being a particularly threatening attacking player. But he’s not there to bang in goals. He’s there because he works incredibly hard while off the ball, both in defense and on offense. And that gives room for other players to shine. Dest has been a bit of a defensive liability at times this year, but he really wasn’t in this game. And a lot of that is because Arriola was doing his part to press and cover. That gave room for Dest to play his game, and eventually put in the cross for the winning goal. At best, Arriola sits fifth on the winger depth chart (beneath Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Jordan Morris (those three are all injured), and Brendan Aaronson), so he’s not going to play a big part in the team when everyone is healthy. But he’s not bad for being the 5th string player.
This match saw the (welcome) return of the McKennie — Musah — Adams midfield. This was the first time we’ve seen the MMA since fall of last year, when Berhalter put the trio out for the first time against Wales and Panama. How did the trio do in the qualifier? Well, take a look at Jamaica’s pass network.
As you can see, Jamaica basically didn’t have a midfield. Jamaica could get the ball to Je-Vaughn Watson and Devon Williams, and that was about it. The more advanced midfielders and attackers were totally disconnected, disproportionately receiving the ball from the center backs (i.e. clearances). And that’s because the American midfield trio squelched any chance for Jamaica to play through the middle. That MMA trio has some real fight in it, and I look forward to seeing them together for a while to come.
Jamaica’s defensive performance is a blueprint for what most of the home matches will look like. I’ve not really talked much about how Jamaica set themselves up this game. Coming into the Ocho, the expectation was that Jamaica would be one of the contenders for a World Cup berth. Instead, they’ve been pretty weak, sitting at the bottom of the table with just one point. That continued with this match, with a dull performance from the Reggae Boyz. You can point at new faces and missing names (like Michail Antonio and Leon Bailey). But the other part is that this was their game plan. We got a first look at what team’s will do when playing in the US during the game v. Canada. Canada mostly sat deep and conceded possession. Jamaica did the same, but without nearly the same amount of effectiveness or talent. And that gave a good data point for the US. Where Canada’s block represented the best version of that game plan that we are going to see in qualifying, Jamaica represented a weak version. The US carved it up with 2 goals, along with what should have been 2 red cards. But I think it’s fair to expect that Jamaica’s version will be more representative of what the likes of Panama and El Salvador will look like when they come Stateside.
The goals showed some offensive variability. The first goal came from a counter attack (albeit, one where Jamaica’s defense was already all back). And the second came from building up through possession. If teams are going to sit back and defend deep, then the USMNT needs to be able either take advantage of what few moments of transition they can get, or find a way to score through patient build up play. And this game demonstrated both. That’s a nice difference from the Gold Cup knockout rounds, where every goal came from a set piece.
The USMNT is undefeated through 4 games and sitting at the top of the qualifying table, ahead of Mexico on goal difference. There’s still 10 games to go, but the MNT is suddenly looking like they are in a good spot.
It bears mentioning that the US and Mexico have had pretty similar schedules so far. Both teams have won a match both at home and away, and both teams have drawn Canada at home. That’s probably a good indication that all the ... concern ... following the two draws in the last window was probably a bit overblown. It’s also a good opportunity to make a comparison between the US and Mexico.
Three years ago, both Mexico and the United States went and hired an MLS coach to take over the national team. At the time, Mexico was set for consistency. They went to the World Cup and finished where they always finish (round of 16), they had a good mix of veterans and in-prime players to insure continuity and future success. In contrast, the USMNT was coming off of a total failure in World Cup qualifying, with a roster desperately in need of overhaul, with almost all the top talent in the pool well in their 30’s. Jump to the present, and the US sits atop the qualifying table, with their extensively deep roster, among the youngest in international football, holding the two trophies they won after meeting Mexico in both finals. The US started way, way behind Mexico, and, for now, is sitting just a bit ahead. It’s a bit early to call it (we really need to get farther into Qualifying) but, up to this point, Berhalter’s outperforming Tata Martino.
That’s it from me. The USMNT will be back on Sunday for a qualifier in Panama, before heading to Columbus Ohio to face Costa Rica on the 13th. I will actually be in Columbus to cover the game, so if you are there before the match, send me a message on Twitter and we’ll see if we can meet up and talk soccer. With that said, we always want to see people talk soccer in the comments! Let us know what you think, who stood out to you, and what do you expect for the Panama game.