AUSTIN, Texas — Eighty-one minutes into Thursday’s Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal first leg against Trinidad and Tobago, the misery index for the United States men’s national team was redlining.
The U.S. had been playing with a man advantage for more than 43 minutes, had dominated possession to the tune of 75% and had nothing to show for their efforts on the scoreboard. The attack was basically unwatchable for much of that time. Even VAR seemed to working against the USMNT, denying it what was initially given as a 60th-minute penalty when Weston McKennie was felled in the box by T&T’s Daniel Phillips. The U.S.’s night seemed to be summed up in the 75th minute, when two T&T defenders went down with injuries — essentially giving the home side an 11-on-8 advantage — and they still didn’t come close to creating a chance on goal.
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So, with nine minutes to play, the U.S. was staring at the real possibility of heading into Monday’s second leg in Port of Spain with the aggregate score 0-0. Given that the Soca Warriors dumped the U.S. out of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup the last time the two teams met up in Trinidad, it was enough to rattle U.S. fans.
Fortunately for the U.S., a combination of T&T fatigue and some more brute-force attacking methods allowed the home side to kick into gear. Ricardo Pepi, Antonee Robinson and Giovanni Reyna each scored in a seven-minute span to clinch a 3-0 victory, giving the U.S. some breathing room heading into the second leg. “I felt like we didn’t panic at any point,” Robinson said postmatch. “We just knew that we had to keep going, and I feel like this team’s really good at that.”
There’s cause for optimism and concern in that. This match was yet another instance of the U.S. struggling to get past an overmatched opponent that was employing a low defensive block. The USMNT followed a similar script in a September match against Uzbekistan, when a pair of late goals (while a man up) clinched a 3-0 victory. While a penchant for late goals is admirable, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the success against the Soca Warriors was down more to the visitors’ resilience than U.S. brilliance.
The home side certainly made life difficult for itself, especially in the first half. Manager Gregg Berhalter chalked it up to a “lack of precision” in the final third. But the U.S. seemed almost too comfortable in possession and was intent on trying to score the perfect goal. “We were just trying to walk the ball across the line, really,” defender Tim Ream said.
Reyna seemed determined to take as many touches as possible rather than playing quickly. Malik Tillman was just lackadaisical at times, lulled into a false sense of security by the easy possession the U.S. was maintaining. The PSV Eindhoven man didn’t seem to recognize that this was a match that was going to be more akin to a street fight, and he needed to adapt. He never did.
What the U.S. really needed was to mix up the attack more with some muscular methods like additional shots from outside the box. More direct play, in the right moments, could have allowed striker Folarin Balogun to get behind the T&T defense more easily. In the second half, the former approach worked, increasing the pressure on the visitors, and even resulting in a goal courtesy of Robinson’s long-range strike.
It’s an approach that creates some inner conflict for Berhalter. He’s a man who has long preferred a possession game, sometimes to the detriment of the team he was coaching. When the topic of hitting more long-range shots came up, he said: “It’s not something that we love, but I think the opportunity was there and we didn’t often take advantage of that.”
It’s certainly not the highest-percentage play that a team can trot out. But the reality is that the U.S. needs both approaches, the leather and the lace. Hitting some longer shots can have the effect of drawing a bunkering team like T&T a little further out of their shell, which has the knock-on effect of creating a bit more space for the intricate patterns that Berhalter loves. Afterward, there was general recognition that the home side was too slow to recognize that this is what the game was demanding.
“We have the players to be intricate. We know that. It’s doing the other side,” Ream said. “Can we cause problems by taking shots from outside the box? Surprise; we scored one with ‘Jedi’ [Robinson.] So yeah, it’s something that we need to do more often, not rely on one way or the other.”
Of course, it helps that Pepi keeps coming off the bench with his hair on fire. His goal was the seventh he’s scored for the U.S. this calendar year, with five of those as a substitute. No forward worth his salt wants to begin the game on the bench. But right now, Pepi as super-sub isn’t a bad card to play, and the player seems willing to accept that this may be his role going forward, at least for the time being.
“I’ve worked really hard for this opportunity and for these moments,” Pepi said. “My mentality is what’s fueled me so far, and I just got to assume my role. If off the bench is my role, then I’m going to assume it.”
The U.S. realizes that it is halfway toward its goal of reaching the CNL semifinals. Taking care of business Monday will have the added benefit of clinching qualification for next summer’s Copa America, which remains the best competition the U.S. will take part in ahead of the 2026 World Cup, which it is co-hosting with Canada and Mexico. Still, the experience in 2018 World Cup qualifying leaves an undercurrent of disquiet, even with a three-goal lead.
“I wouldn’t say it’s relaxing and cigars are out and we’re through,” Ream said. “We still have to go down there and do a job, and we want to win. I think that’s the ultimate goal is that you win as many games as possible, and so that’s our mindset.”