Analysis: Pepi & Aaronson lead the U.S. past Jamaica 2-0 in Austin
October 08, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL TEAM put forth its most complete 90 minutes performances so far in World Cup qualifying following a 2-0 win over Jamaica, a scoreline that flattered the guests who were lucky to not receive two red cards. Ricardo Pepi was once again the top story and the FC Dallas teenager scored two goals in his home state to put the U.S. team in a solid position in the Octagonal.
Head coach Gregg Berhlater’s starting lineup had few surprises – although knowing that he has to prepare for squad rotation. The front line had Brenden Aaronson and Paul Arriola on the wings with Pepi in the middle. The midfield trio was Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Yunus Musah. The backline had Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson with Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman in the middle. Matt Turner got the nod in goal.
The U.S. team started off the game well. Arriola was particularly effective in bringing energy to the game in the first half. The DC United winger drew a foul 20 seconds in that could have been a red card. Later in the half he sent Brenden Aaronson in alone on goal – which drew another foul that was controversially only called a yellow.
Jamaica’s approach mirrored the way Canada played effectively last month in a 1-1 draw in September. Theodore Whitmore had his side try to sit back in an organized defense and then use their athleticism to hit the U.S. team on the counterattack
While the score was 0-0 at the half, the U.S. was playing pretty well but was only lacking a dangerous final ball or a solid delivery on a free kick. Matt Turner was forced into making one outstanding diving save – but otherwise was mostly just another U.S. player to distribute the ball forward.
In the second half, the U.S. team took its level to another gear and Jamaica broke down. In the 49th minute, the U.S. team finally pulled ahead when Yunus Musah carried the ball deep into the attacking half and played it wide to Dest. Dest was wide open and had a lot of time to pick out a perfect pass – which he did right onto the head of Pepi. The El Paso native headed it home with ease.
make him the permanent starter, gregg pic.twitter.com/0o1O3jDAhh— FC Dallas (PEPI SCORIN’) (@FCDallas) October 8, 2021
In the 62nd minute, the U.S. team scored its second to put the game out of reach. Antonee Robinson played Brenden Aaronson into a dangerous position up the left side. The Salzburg attacker sent a low cross which Pepi sent past a diving Andre Blake for a 2-0 lead.
Just a kid from El Paso.pic.twitter.com/HSxhvN1B6X— FC Dallas (PEPI SCORIN’) (@FCDallas) October 8, 2021
"The intention all game was to be vertical, to play behind them. You saw it from the opening whistle," Berhalter said. "To have two plays like that where they got yellows in the first 20 minutes shows we were trying to execute what we talked about. It's also about the intensity we played."
From there, the U.S. team was easily able to see out the win.
Here are some thoughts on the U.S. team’s win.
Pepi’s stock soars
Ricardo Pepi was the big story from this game with his two goals. The hype that he generated after his performance in the win over Honduras was at a very high level. This game just threw it over the top.
But it is deserved. The FC Dallas forward has had a great season with his club. He has 13 goals on a team that otherwise struggles offensively. He has shown a lot of strong instincts to be in the right place at the right time, to make the correct runs, and read the game well. His finishing has been very good – and with a variety of forms whether it be his head or feet.
"He has this instinct, and it’s really hard to teach that to players. He has an instinct to score." -Gregg Berhalter— Garrett Melcer (@GarrettMelcer) October 8, 2021
ICYMI: Ricardo Pepi stole the show by scoring both goals in the US's 2-0 win over Jamaica last night. #DTID https://t.co/x9m3kxGDcM
This comes at a great time for the U.S. team when questions surround the form of Josh Sargent as well as the fit Jordan Pefok and Daryl Dike are with the system.
Of course, there will be questions ahead. Pepi hasn’t fought through a tough spell with the U.S. team and poor form and slumps are things all strikers will have to fight through. Some are better at it than others. Those are questions for another day, however.
"We're all excited," Berhalter said of Pepi. "For us, we're just sitting there on the train. We're just observing everything that is happening. It's amazing. An 18-year-old gets an opportunity and takes advantage of it. What you see and what I really like is that he has instinct and you can't really teach that. He has an instinct for scoring."
Adams – Musah - McKennie trio
The midfield trio of Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah, and Weston McKennie was given a big opportunity. For the most part, it worked quite well. The trio didn’t dominate Jamaica out of the gate, but it was more of a slow and deliberate process.
Tyler Adams was very strong in his typically reliable defensive midfield position. He covered a lot of ground, broke up plays, and made things hard on Jamaica to move through the middle.
All eyes were on Weston McKennie in this game following the September window and one of the concerns was that he would try to do too much. All eyes were on him, he’s naturally looking to set a new narrative for his career, he’s playing in his home state, and this is a big game to do that. Mckennie didn’t have a tremendous impact in the game, but he was solid. He didn’t make any mistakes, was reliable, and he helped to set a tone. As Berhalter said – this was a “professional” performance.
"When I think about Weston's performance, it's not easy to come into these games, and he knew a lot of eyes were going to be on him," Berhalter said. "The way I would characterize his performance was 'professional.' I think he did a really professional job. It's not the top level he can produce, but it was up there. I think he had an excellent performance."
This brings us to Yunus Musah who played in his first competitive game for the U.S. national team. People will remember this as a very positive performance – which it was. But Musah didn’t have much of an impact in the first half. He helped circulate the ball and keep possession, but he did little to push the ball into the attack. In the second half, he was completely different. His direct play created the first goal and he helped push Jamaica’s defense even further back.
"I liked everything," Berhalter said of Musah. "I thought he had an excellent game. We talked about his quality of driving at the defense, unsettling the defense. He did that constantly."
It’s tough for Musah to come into the national team and assume this role because he doesn’t play it for his club. At Valencia he doesn’t have the trust yet to play his preferred central position, but at the U.S. team, he does. Still, there is an adjustment period and you could see him grow into the match with a much, much better second half.
Berhalter likes to make a big emphasis on winning duels and he is surely happy with what he saw from this game.
There were 92 duels in this game and the U.S. team won 63 and the Jamaica won just 29.
The three biggest standouts were Walker Zimmerman who won 12/13 duels, Tyler Adams who won 12/14 duels, and Sergino Dest who won 9/12 duels.
This is what Berhalter has stressed because it is about effort and it results in more possession, more opportunities, and more plays in transition. This played an important role for the U.S. team keeping Jamaica’s opportunities to a minimum.
Aaronson’s USMNT rise
Prior to camp, there were questions over who was going to be the dominant performer. Brenden Aaronson seemed like a logical pick has he has been playing so well for both club and country. In this game he answered that he could deliver.
Brenden Aaronson: 5 goals, 4 assists in 11 games for the #USMNT— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) October 8, 2021
In the first half he was the U.S. team’s best player. He probably wishes his final ball was a little better, but he was a handful for Jamaica to defend. Then in the second half, his play on the second goal was all class.
Aaronson is an instrumental player who can play the #10 or out on the wing. His wing play is actually very new for him but he has responded well.
It is easy to see that when everyone is healthy, Aaronson continue to start with Pulisic on one wing and Aaronson and Reyna interchangeable at the other wing or the #10. But Aaronson’s role is clearly growing within this team.
Backline pushed up
Even while the U.S. team failed to score in the first half, it was still a better half than the three scoreless first halves in September. It always felt like it was only a matter of time before Jamaica broke down. The big reason for this is that the fullbacks were far more effective getting forward. The wingers were therefore able to cut into the middle of the field more often, and there were more scoring outlets.
The back four really worked tonight. Miles Robinson was a little bit of a step down compared with where he was in September and over the summer but that was just one game. Walker Zimmerman, meanwhile, had a very important performance. He was steady defensively and his passing out of the back allowed the fullbacks and midfielders to move further up.
But the backline’s advanced positioning clearly had a big impact in breaking down Jamaica over 90 minutes.
Looking ahead to Panama
There are a lot of questions heading into the second game in Panama. It seems unlikely that Antonee Robinson will play in this game given that he is based in the U.K and Panama is a “red list” country that force a quarantine. Robinson played a full 90 against Jamaica probably won’t make the trip.
That will present fullback questions. DeAndre Yedlin seems certain to start this one at right back and that will mean either Dest or George Bello get the start on the left.
The midfield will also likely be changed up based on the Jamaica game. Tyler Adams is the one midfield player likely to be able to start all three of the games this window. Kellyn Acosta seems like a likely candidate to start in place of Weston Mckennie. Musah seems likely to also be rotated out. That could force Aaronson into the midfield or it could open the door for someone else – likely Sebastian Lletget. Another option, however, could be Gianluca Busio who Berhalter has singled out as having been impressive.
The front line is also ripe for changes. Paul Arriola expended a ton of energy against Jamaica and Tim Weah is an obvious candidate to fill that void after a very good performance off the bench.
Many of the questions will be answered in how the players feel on Friday, after the game. Pepi will probably start another game this window, but will it be in Panama (which allows Zardes to start in his home stadium in Columbus on Wednesday) or will Pepi get a rest? How will Aaronson respond after a busy game against Jamaica.
Berhalter after this game made a point that Pepi has logged a lot of minutes and this could lead to him being a sub option against Panama.
"He's a player when we put up the minutes of the past week, he's a guy that was dragging," Berhalter said of Pepi. "He played 90, 90, 90, and then he comes in here and plays . We knew it was going to take a lot of mental courage for him to step up and play with that relentlessness that we need - and he did it."
Central defense could be any of the four players. Berhalter will want to look at Chris Richards at some point but Zimmerman probably earned some trust against Jamaica while Robinson wasn’t great, but didn’t have a poor performance that would necessitate being benched.
The good news is that the U.S. team has impressive depth. One interesting fact is that arguably the four best players against Jamaica were Pepi, Aaronson, Musah, and Zimmerman. Neither of those players played in either of the two winning finals against Mexico over the summer.
The Starting Lineup
Matt Turner: The New Jersey native made one big save in the 41st minute against Jamal Lowe. His distribution was improved from previous outings: Rating: 6.5
Antonee Robinson: Struggled in the first half but came to light in the second half where his pace became a problem for Jamaica. His pass sprung Aaronson down the left side for the second goal: Rating: 7.0
Miles Robinson: After a stellar September window, this was a bit of a step down for Robinson as he made a few mistakes. Still, nothing that was too costly: Rating: 6.0
Walker Zimmerman: A very good outing from Zimmerman who defended and passed well. He gave his teammates confidence to play in very advanced position way up the field. Zimmerman won 12/13 duels, was 10/10 in aerials and 2/2 in tackles. He did a lot of work to completely neutralize Jamaica’s attack: Rating: 7.5
Sergino Dest: The Barcelona fullback did everything. His dribbling and movement became too much for Jamaica. The U.S. team wanted width and they got it with Dest leading the way. His numbers were outstanding: 5/6 dribbling, 39/42 passing, 3/3 long balls, 9/12 duels won, 2 key passes, 1 assist. That assist changed the game: Rating: 8.0
Tyler Adams: The Leipzig mainstay had an ideal game. He defended well, won 12/14 duels. He rarely made any mistakes with the ball and his passing was key to keeping possession. Jamaica offered nothing through the middle of the field: Rating: 7.5
Weston McKennie: The Juventus midfielder didn’t dominate but he did a lot of the dirty work to making this a comfortable night for the U.S. team. His passing range with 5/6 long balls was also very helpful. On this night, he was more than enough for what was needed: Rating: 6.5
Yunus Musah: The Valencia midfielder was quiet in the first half and didn’t push the ball into the attack effectively. In the second half, he completely raised his game in that department and helped to deliver the opening goal when he fed Dest who then assisted to Pepi: Rating: 7.0
Brenden Aaronson: A little bit wasteful in the first half but still was probably the team’s most dangerous player during his 77 minutes on the field. His assist to Pepi was all class and he should have drawn a red card in the first half when he got behind the defense on the edge of the box: Rating: 8.0
Paul Arriola: The DC United winger brought a ton of energy to the game and put the U.S. on the front foot early. He should have drawn a red card getting behind the defense 20 second in, then he played Aaronson behind the backline to set up another big chance that should have had drawn a Jamaican red. His final product wasn’t always there but he was pest for Jamaica to play against, he pressed well, and was overall a big net positive: Rating: 7.5
Ricardo Pepi: After a quiet first half (where he still had the pass to spring Arriola behind the Jamaican defense 20 second in), Pepi wasn’t flustered or frustrated. He remained patient and knew his opportunities to come – which they did. Pepi was clinical with his finishing on both chances and he doesn’t need many opportunities to make a big difference. He had just 20 touches and three shots – but was the difference maker for the decisive output: Rating: 8.5
Gyasi Zardes: The Crew forward missed a few chances, got into good positions, but the game had a different tone when he came on in the 68th minute: Rating: 5.0
Tim Weah: The Lille attacker looked really sharp after coming on and he was very effective with his dribble and passing: Rating: 7.0
Luca de la Torre: Was a nice 10/10 passing in his 13 minutes on the field against an opponent which was already demoralized: Rating: 6.0
Shaq Moore: Some nice touches after coming into the game for the final 13 minutes: Rating: 6.0
Kellyn Acosta: Helped see out the final seven minutes of a comfortable win: Rating: N/R