The USMNT kicked off the knockout rounds of the CONCACAF Nations League with a 1-0 win over Honduras in Denver. Was it pretty? No. Was it an inspiring performance? Nope. Did the team look good, and was it a win in a competitive match over an opponent we will face in World Cup qualifying? Yes. Was there stuff to talk about in this one? Also yes. Let’s get started.
If you take away nothing else, take away those two words. It was GOOD ENOUGH.
The team went into a single elimination, knockout round match, and they won. Strictly speaking, that’s good enough. It’s good enough to get them to the final. And that’s all that ultimately matters.
I don’t think anyone actually liked this performance. I’m not going to stop and tell you that the stats show that the U.S. was overwhelmingly the better side, or that Honduras merely had a 0.2 expected goals. We watched the game; we all know the USMNT played poorly and that Honduras had some really threatening chances. But you know what? This is CONCACAF.
This match looked exactly like a slew of matches we’ve seen before when playing the likes of Honduras. A Central American team perfectly happy to kick and foul and grind their way to penalties, turning the match into an absolute slog? Check. One major janky play? Check. One threatening moment that requires the goalkeeper to make a big play? Check.
It’s all the important beats to any real CONCACAF match. They are all there. And the really important thing is that the team went in and still won, even through the adversity and absurdity. Winning games like this is how you qualify for the World Cup. We all know that the legacy of failing to qualify for the last World Cup hangs over not just us, the fans, but also the players. The team failed to qualify because they couldn’t win ugly games. Well, now we have a victory in a competitive match against an opponent we are going to see in World Cup qualifying, an opponent who insists on turning the match ugly. This is CONCACAF. If you want to win and be the best in this region, you need to figure out how to deal with ugly matches.
I mean, just look at these stats. Even with 60% possession, there’s barely any shots on target. And the fouls! Those foul numbers are just ridiculous!
Hold on a sec, those are the numbers for Mexico vs. Costa Rica, which went to penalties after going 90 minutes scoreless. Here are the numbers for the USMNT vs. Honduras. Clearly, this is a CONCACAF thing. This isn’t just something that happens to the United States; it happens to Mexico, too.
Not According to Plan
For all the people out there complaining about head coach Gregg Berhalter and his plan during this match, do you really think that this was the plan for the game? Really? Come on. We’ve never seen the team look like this before. The game plan clearly got thrown out very, very quickly. Nothing that happened in this match was to plan. The team made some slapdash adjustments and just tried to make them work. (Hey, that’s CONCACAF for you).
Ok, but what did the USMNT do? What we’ve seen the team do for the last 18 months or so is field an aggressive midfield that presses really high up the field. The idea is that if you can win the ball back immediately after losing it, you can exploit the spaces that open up. That didn’t work here because Honduras didn’t have the ball, or even want the ball. To simplify, their plan was to win the ball back and then kick it up the field and hope that Alberth Ellis could run onto it and make a play. The USMNT midfield, clearly aware of the threat of Ellis and cognizant that they were torn apart in a very similar way against Switzerland, chose to hang back while in possession a bit in order to mitigate that risk. On top of that, Honduras decided to selectively press the midfield, particularly Jackson Yueill, disrupting the ability of the American midfield to advance the ball. CONCACAF teams have been doing this dating back to at least 2016, targeting Michael Bradley.
the structure of this game is so weird where the US has no midfield transition defense but controls everything else because Honduras are too scared of everything else to actually try to exploit the gaping holes in midfield— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) June 4, 2021
The result was a midfield that was so tentative, they couldn’t get the ball up to the forward line. I mean, just look at this clip. The ball isn’t going anywhere!
In that clip, you’ve got pressure from Honduras on Antonee Robinson and Jackson Yueill. Robinson gets the ball to Yueill, who ignores the wide open Reyna (and the less-open but also available McKennie) and instead pings the ball to Pulisic. Pulisic ignores the pass to Lletegt (who is kind of just standing there) before laying it back off to Yueill, who again ignores Gio Reyna. The clip ends with Antonee Robinson back on the ball in basically the exact same spot as at the start!
So the clip shows that the midfield isn’t advancing the ball at all. But it also shows just how deep Pulisic is receiving he ball. He’s ostensibly the team’s biggest offensive threat, and yet, here he is, receiving the ball in the middle of his own half. Do you expect him to make chances that way? I don‘t. The same is true for Reyna, with the additional note that he’s WAY inside instead of anywhere near the right wing. Demanding your best attacking players play deep and narrow to receive the ball is a recipe for failure. You need to figure out how to get the ball to your attacking players higher up the field.
A Man Amongst Boys
The good news is that the USMNT actually did figure out a way to get the ball to the attackers higher up the field. It just so happened to come from the backline instead of midfield. It’s time to show some appreciation for John Brooks.
The pass to make play and break the Honduran line was something you expect from the great Registas of the game, midfield orchestrators who could hit a ball on a dime like Andra Pirlo, David Beckham, or Juan Román Riquelme. Yet, here you have, not a midfield legend, but a center back making that pristine pass to the head of Weston McKennie. Simply Sublime.
But it wasn’t merely the one pass. Brooks was doing things like this from the opening minutes. His passing wasn’t always so pinpoint, but he was consistently looking to break the Honduran defensive lines and put the likes of Reyna, Pulisic, and Sargent into the attack.
But Brooks was no mere pass master. Against Honduras, he was true Machiavellian force, mixing both the sublime and the dark arts. He game a true masterclass in CONCACAFING (against Honduras, no less!), repeatedly using his physicality to throw Ellis out of his rhythm. Out of the entire team, the player who most went toe-to-toe with Honduras, who most clearly had that fire about him, was Brooks.
In terms of actually defending, when forced to snuff out danger, Brooks’ record wasn’t quite spotless, but it was close. Against Switzerland, we saw the danger of when Brooks overextends trying to clear the ball or win a duel, leaving space behind him for the opposition to exploit. But Brooks still took up proactive defensive positions, stepping up to win headers in midfield in place of Yueill. Yet, for the most part, he kept that balance where Honduras didn’t get enough space to take advantage. He couldn’t quite squelch every single attack when he was isolated against the Honduran attackers (no center back is going to keep a perfect record there), but he did enough to limit them most of the time. In between, he won important tackles, broke up plays, and cleaned up loose balls. Brooks kept the team together, kept the USMNT in the match, and, at the end, while his name won’t go on the scoresheet, he won us the game.
I am willing to bet that playing two consecutive games at altitude within 5 days while traveling ~ 8 timezones in the middle probably contributed to the team’s sluggishness. This was the game to rotate some of those players, with just 3 days between the match against Honduras and the final versus Mexico. And actually using some of those subs before the 70th minute probably would have been a good thing.
Christian Pulisic looked like a guy who has played with this team in just one window in nearly two years. Which, you know, is the case.
I am willing to declare that Lletget had his first bad USMNT game. That probably doesn’t mean a lot going forward because he’s just otherwise been so consistent. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that Yunus Musah didn’t start this game instead and I will be disappointed if he doesn’t start against Mexico as well.
If Adams isn’t healthy enough to start, I would rather see Kellyn Acosta tried out at defensive midfield rather than Yueill. Against Switzerland, we saw that Yueill does pretty well so long as the opposition tries to hold possession of the ball and attack through build-up play. But as soon as the ball starts going over his head, he has problems. He wants to cut out passes, not win headers. And that was a problem in this game. It’s clear that Adams remains the most irreplaceable player on the team, but if he can’t play, I’d rather see the more athletic Acosta given a chance.
Gio Reyna reminds me so much of Clint Dempsey. He plays aggressively, with absolutely no fear of just trying things. He was the one attacking player who looked like he could force something to happen in that first half. I look forward to the 22-year old version of this player who hopefully either scores that goal after breaking through the entire defensive line, or notices that Josh Sargent is completely open and hands him a tap-in. Oh, speaking of Dempsey...
I am so happy that DEUCE is back.
The USMNT will be back for the Nations League Final against Mexico on Sunday, June 6th.
In the meantime, we encourage you to talk about the game in the comments section. Do you agree with my thoughts? Got criticisms? We want to hear it! Discuss down below.