For over two years now, questions have been asked about the identity of the U.S. men’s national team and, for over two years now, we haven’t really had an answer to those questions.
What happened to the team of absolute dogs that routinely took down bigger powerhouses with better players? Could that type of mentality be regained after it was deemed insufficient by those who wanted to bring technical, free-flowing soccer to the United States? And, if it couldn’t, what could become of a national team that is still clearly not at the level it expects to be?
Friday night’s match in the CONCACAF Nations League didn’t answer all of those questions. No single game will. Those debates will rage on and on for as long as this program exists. But it did show that there is just a little bit of fight left in this U.S. team and that, deep down, that identity may still be there.
The U.S. issued a perfect response to last month’s catastrophic loss to Canada, bludgeoning its northern rival 4-1 in a rematch at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Fla. It’s not a win that will erase all of the damage caused by that loss at BMO Field, but it’s a heck of a start and a sign that patience may just be rewarded.
“We wanted to play with a desire, a hunger, a passion,” defender Tim Ream told Goal. “We didn’t do that up in Toronto and we got embarrassed. There was no way around it. We were embarrassed after that game and we did not want that to happen again. There was a conscious effort to really bring it from the first whistle and hopefully, everyone saw that.”
“A lot of it was just communication between the coaching staff and Brad [Guzan] and myself and some of the more experienced guys on the team,” he added. “We knew we failed last month, miserably, up in Toronto and we had it on our minds from phone calls even before coming into camp that things had to be different. There were clear lines of communication that we need to put more effort, more work, more desire, more hunger, more physicality into everything we did. That was a big theme this week.”
Following a month of criticism and cynicism from many outside the program, USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter opened himself up to the critics once again before a ball was even kicked. After last month’s embarrassment, he opted for seven changes, but those changes, by and large, weren’t the ones that many wanted to see.
He went with a familiar favorite in Gyasi Zardes, who hadn’t played in weeks, instead of Josh Sargent, a forward playing in the Bundesliga. He left DeAndre Yedlin, the team’s lone Premier League player, on the bench. He did opt for Jackson Yueill as the No. 6, giving a start to a young player with potential, but it came at the expense of Alfredo Morales, who has returned to form in the Bundesliga with Fortuna Dusseldorf.
But those decisions were vindicated almost immediately, as the U.S. wasted no time in sending one very clear, very concise message: things were going to be different this time around. All week, the team talked about starting quickly and setting a tone, and scoring a goal less than three minutes in did exactly that. Jordan Morris’ opening goal eased any doubt still lingering from last month’s lethargic display while seemingly injecting a lot of life into the rest of the group. The fact that Sergino Dest, now officially cap-tied, set up the goal made it that much sweeter.
Morris, fresh off an MLS Cup win over the weekend, then turned provider for the USMNT’s second, feeding Zardes to double the Americans’ advantage. Oft-criticized for his less-than-stellar technical ability, Zardes does deserve credit for continuing on and, ultimately, scoring goals despite the negativity.
Any hope Canada had faded in the 34th minute as Ream’s free kick found the head of Aaron Long to make it 3-0. At that point, more than 10 minutes before the halftime whistle, the game was effectively over.
Even following a moment of weakness, a Steven Vitoria goal that ended the clean sheet and put a slight dampener on the night, the U.S. responded. Late on, at a time where the U.S. could have been in cruise control, Zardes thumped a shot past Milan Borjan to push the scoreline to 4-1. It was a night where the U.S. could not be stopped. The sky did not fall on the USMNT.
And there are a number of reasons for that. The first is that, man for man, the USMNT was flat out better than last month as it showed some of that swagger that had been missing for quite a while. Morris, Paul Arriola and Sebastian Lletget tried things, even if they didn’t come off every single time. Weston McKennie was a bully who didn’t back down, obviously angered by how often the USMNT’s midfield was exposed last time out. John Brooks, perhaps the USMNT’s most important player not named Christian Pulisic these days, was calm and confident while sending the message that absolutely nothing Canada tried was going to work.
On the other hand, Canada looked more like the team that existed over the past 34 years than the one that appeared to turn a corner last month. The back line was shambolic on virtually every goal. Alphonso Davies, deployed as a left back much like he is at Bayern Munich, struggled and even was called for a stunning indirect free kick after juggling the ball and heading back to his goalkeeper. Canada, overall, was naive. It looked like a team that may have bought into its own hype.
Now, that pendulum swings back toward the USMNT. A win in Cuba next week will send it through to the next round of this new tournament. No match is a foregone conclusion, but a Cuba win would be one of the biggest upsets this region has ever seen. The win over Canada was the climax of this story, while the next match should, in theory, serve as an epilogue.
Friday’s win made it evident that the loss in Toronto will go down as little more than a blip, not a full-blown crisis. There will be more blips along the way, more setbacks that open up new questions and new criticism. Even the most positive-minded viewer would admit that this U.S. team is still nowhere near Mexico and several steps behind the beloved USMNT teams of the past.
But, if Friday night taught us anything, it’s that this team may be on a path forward, not backward, and it may just have the right players and the right mentality to put up a little fight after all.