The US started off hot, with an early goal from Tim Weah. The team looked like they were going to comfortably win the match, only for Michail Antonio to score with an absolutely thundering strike from way out. After that, the US seemed to lose their edge and game descended into a plodding mess. Looking at how few quality chances both teams managed to produce, a draw was probably fair.
Strictly speaking, a draw is a good result for the US on the road. However, it’s very disappointing and dispiriting after seeing the US put on such a strong performance against Mexico just a few days earlier. It’s frustrating to see the USMNT be so inconsistent. Let’s get into what happened in the game.
I’ve Got to Go Back Home
Let’s be clear for a second. This was not the same Jamaica side that the US beat so easily in Austin, TX. Jamaica made 5 changes from that match last month. Most prominently, they got in West Ham star Michail Antonio and Aston Villa’s Leon Bailey. Antonio, of course, scored that ridiculous goal from nothing to bring Jamaica level. From back to front (especially the front) this Jamaica side was much improved from the team that went through the first half of qualifying so limply. Combined with the home field advantage and the return of fans (at least some of them), this game had all the makings of a trap game. That was made only more so true with all the omissions: Gio Reyna (injury), Sergiño Dest (injury), Miles Robinson (red card suspension), and Weston McKennie (yellow card accumulation). Add onto that the fact that Christian Pulisic started on the bench due to an injury, and you get a really tough situation.
It took a little while, but after Jamaica drew level, they were able to get into the game. For the most part, they had no interest in proactively controlling the game with possession. Jamaica looked to use their athleticism and the field conditions to break up and thwart the United States, and then attack into space. On defense, they defended with a low block and were happy to foul the American players around the box. After relying almost exclusively on set-piece goals through the Nations League finals and Gold Cup, the US has struggled to turn fouls and corners into threatening chances through World Cup qualifying. Against Jamaica, that continued to be the case and that limpness empowered the Jamaican defense to just cynically break up plays. The US had a slew of fouls and five corners, and generated just about nothing out of them. Going forward, that needs to be something that is addressed. If the US returns to being dangerous off of dead balls, that will go a long way towards making the team more offensively well rounded. Not only would it give the USMNT (a team that sometimes struggles to make chances) another way to create chances, but it would also force defenders to think twice before hacking down, say, Christian Pulisic.
Better Must Come
The big standout for this game was, of course, Tim Weah. That’s not really much of a surprise considering how Weah had been playing over the course of the previous few games. Weah turned a poor performance away to Panama into a great one against Costa Rica. He followed that up with a man-of-the-match display against Mexico. And here, against Jamaica, he seized the game in the 11th minute and created a sublime goal for himself. Over the course of these three games, Weah scored two goals (one attributed as an own-goal) and registered one assist.
I previously called Weah a wide forward and you can see what I mean on the opening goal. Weah is fielded on the right. And, indeed, he plays down the right side a lot. We saw that at times in this Jamaica game as well as on the assist for the opening goal v. Mexico. But he also likes to come inside and form as an outlet. Take a look here, Weah’s on the left.
Now, how did Weah get on the left in the first place? You would be forgiven for thinking that Weah and Aaronson swapped places. After all, it appears that Aaronson is nominally on the right. But to see what really happened, you need to rewind a moment to the attacking movement before this clip. Earlier in the game, while Aaronson attacked into the box down the left, Weah moved from the right, to the middle, underneath Ricardo Pepi. That play broke down, but, importantly, Weah stayed out of position, drifting nominally to the right. When the US was able to recover possession and recycle the ball back into attack, Weah was there to combine with Pepi and burst into the box for his goal.
The way Weah tucks in and drifts around the field helps create overloads in and around Pepi. The Dallas striker is still working on his hold-up game, but when he’s got a little bit of space and a teammate to work with, he can combine quite well. Weah provides exactly that kind of space, sometimes playing as a winger, and sometimes as a sort of second, withdrawn striker.
The single biggest takeaway from this window is just the big picture regarding qualifying. After Canada beat Mexico in Edmonton in a veritable Iceteca, the Canadians took the top of the stands, a point clear of the US.
Through 8 games, the standings have very clearly separated into two groups: the top teams, comprising Canada, USA, Mexico, and Panama; and the rest. And the stats back this up.
Expected goals through 8 of 14 games in the CONCACAF final round. The separation is real, and Panama isn't going away... pic.twitter.com/M77OlQsQRu— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) November 17, 2021
Now remember, World Cup qualification goes to the top 3 teams, with fourth place going to a play-off match against a team from either Asia, Oceania (probably New Zealand), or South America (the one to avoid). As it currently holds, with just over half of qualifying played, those 4 spots look like they belong to the US, Mexico, Canada, and Panama.
Obviously, there are still games left to play and the US has not yet actually qualified. But it looks increasingly likely that it will come sooner rather than later. There’s 18 points left (6 games) left available for teams to get. Alas, the mathematics here are a little bit beyond me (you have to factor in the possible results of all the matches) but it seems to me that, if the US can just get another 7 points, they’ll have locked up at least a play off spot. Beat Panama (at home) and I think that just about secures a top 3 place and automatic qualification.
I don’t really want to get ahead of myself, but I think we could realistically do 7 points in the next window. At the end of January/start of February, we host the bottom two teams in El Salvador and Honduras, with a trip to Canada in the middle. I think it’s reasonable to expect that we beat those two Central American teams at home. Even the Canada game is in reach, especially since Canada’s got two flights to Central America (to those same two teams) on either side of the US game.
Once again, this depends on results, both for the US and for the other teams. But right now, the US is set up nicely to advance, and if they handle the next window, they’ll be in a secure place when they finally have two of their hardest fixtures ( away v. Mexico and away v. Costa Rica).
Sebastian Lletget has now been left on the bench (or left out entirely) from three straight matches. Long a source of relative consistency, Lletget has suffered a significant downturn in form. And it appears that his playing minutes have now followed. We’ll probably see Lletget during the friendly against Bosnia next month since that camp is expected to be limited to MLS-based players. But as far as the full senior side goes, Berhalter’s clearly favoring Musah, Busio, and Kellyn Acosta over him. I mean, if there ever was a time to get minutes, surely it would be when one of those players were sick, right?
Berhalter says Yunus Musah came down with strep throat: "We could tell that was taking a toll on him. We weren't sure exactly when to take him out of the game"— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) November 17, 2021
Gianluca Busio is not a like-replacement for McKennie. Busio has his strengths, but he doesn’t bring that mix of defensive physicality and forward drive that makes Weston McKennie so special. Busio very clearly is better suited for controlled games played on pristine fields rather than the rough and tumble cow fields that the US finds themselves playing on so often out on the road. Neither Lletget nor Acosta match what McKennie brings, either. This makes the upcoming Bosnia game an opportunity to get a look at some young players to see if someone else can take that role. With Eryk Williamson out with an ACL tear, that spot is an open field.
Antonee Robinson and Tyler Adams did not have great games and were significantly culpable on Jamaica’s most threatening chance and goal, respectively. Robinson is much improved from 3 years ago, but the young Jedi still has much to learn. He needs to get his concentration up and he still needs to diversify his game. Adams remains an excellent player, but in this game, he lost Jamaica’s premier league talisman and, while it seemed like it was not a particularly threatening spot, that proved to be a massive mistake. These mistakes in attention to detail suggest that maybe the attention and energy for this window really went into the Mexico game on Friday. It’s possible (probable even?) that, after such an animated display in Cincinnati, the team allowed their intensity to drop. And, as a result, mistakes were made.
To close out, I will say, the goals in this game were quite special. So was this, uh, reaction, after the Jamaica goal.
That’s it from me. The USMNT will return for a friendly v. Bosnia Herzegovina on Dec. 18th. That’s a non-FIFA date, so expect the squad to feature heavily with MLS players. In the meantime, the USWNT is set to play two friendlies away to Australia, the hosts for the next Women’s World Cup, on Nov. 26th and 30th. The domestic leagues are themselves winding down. The NWSL will have their championship final on Nov. 20th, while MLS kicks off play offs on the same date. MLS Cup is December 11th (which is a nice birthday surprise for me). As always, we want to know what you thought about the game. Was there something I missed? Something that stood out to you? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.