USMNT grabs late winner to advance to Nations League final vs. Mexico
June 03, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL TEAM needed a dramatic late winner in the 89th minute from Jordan Siebatcheu for a 1-0 victory in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals on Thursday night to book a spot in Sunday’s final against Mexico.
The game was far from pretty. For long stretches it was ugly, but very representative of CONCACAF type play. In the end, however, the U.S. team’s superior quality prevailed on a deserved late winner when Kellyn Acosta played the ball to John Brooks. Brooks then sent a looping ball into the box which found Weston McKennie. The Juventus midfielder then sent the ball across towards the middle of the goal where Jordan Siebatacheu headed it home from close range.
Prior to that, it was 89 minutes of missed opportunities, defensive mistakes, a struggle to breakdown a well-organized Honduran defensive shape, combined with long stretches of Honduran players rolling on the ground “injured” in need of magic spray.
This game was not one for the time capsule but for those who were expecting the U.S. team to dominate the region with this new crop of players, it was a serious disappointment. CONCACAF games are prone to being ugly. Even when the U.S. team won the Hexagonal in 2009 and 2013, it was still ugly – despite having very good players in their prime.
CONCACAF remains a different brand of soccer and it takes adjustment. That’s what manager Gregg Berhalter is hoping to achieve with these games. Berhalter is as familiar with this region as anyone, and he knows that qualifying will be a grind.
If you think the U.S. team’s struggles in CONCACAF are unique, you’d be wrong. In 2013, Mexico was no different from the failed U.S. qualifying team in 2017. The only difference between the Mexican team in 2013 and the U.S. team in 2017 is Mexico received a gift from the U.S. team in Graham Zusi. That goal in a meaningless game for the U.S. team masks that under most circumstances either the United States or Mexico would have failed to have qualified for the last two World Cups.
Then when you look at the World Cup itself, Mexico has qualified for the knockout rounds in the last eight World Cups it has participated (a run that began in 1986 and discounts 1990 when it was disqualified). The U.S. team has made it to the knockouts in three of the last four World Cups it has participated.
The style of soccer in CONCACAF can be a talent neutralizer. It’s rarely easy, even for the better teams. Shortly after the U.S. walked off the field after defeating Honduras, Mexico advanced to the final in a win over Costa Rica that required penalties after a 0-0 draw.
As it shapes up heading into World Cup qualifying, Mexico and the United states look to be heading into qualifying with talented teams but the challenges of CONCACAF remain the same.
That is the big picture take away from this game. Here are my thoughts on the U.S. team’s 1-0 victory
Pulisic solid, Reyna MOTM
Giovani Reyna and Christian Pulisic entered into this camp having played the best soccer of any American player. Given that, it was hardly surprising to see that both of these players brought very unique qualities that were a cut above on the day.
On multiple occasions Reyna put on a dribbling clinic. In the first half he sliced through all of the Honduran backline only to have a shot go wide – and perhaps his only real mistake of the game came on that play when he didn’t make a short pass to Josh Sargent for a tap-in.
Reyna was also sharp with his passing and he seemingly knew how to play his teammates into dangerous areas – whether it be when he was near the sideline or when he cut centrally into the field.
Pulisic, meanwhile, was understandably the focus of the Honduran defense. It’s still not quite normal to have a Champions League winner in CONCACAF games (sure you have Rafa Marquez, Alphonso Davies, and now Pulisic – but it’s rare). Honduras wanted to contain Pulisic and Berhalter moved Pulisic out wide and into a more central, free-ranging role – shifting with Lletget – early in the game.
While he didn’t score or assist, Pulisic’s quality was obvious and on display on many occasions. His quick first move drew fouls, his ability to get into the box exposed holes in the well-compact Honduran defense.
Those two players needed to bring quality, and did their job.
Lots of struggles
After Pulisic and Reyna, no one else from the starting lineup really stood out for the better. Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget weren’t great, but were okay. Lletget seemed to struggle a bit more to make an impact when he was forced out wide – but his set pieces were generally very good. Mark McKenzie was the best in the backline, but as a whole, it wasn’t good enough from the team.
Josh Sargent had an excellent clearance off the line that saved the day for the U.S. team, but still was not able to finish or be involved as much as needed in the attack.
Zack Steffen made some big saves but also badly mistimed a cross that led to Sargent’s clearance.
Jackson Yueill got bumped off the ball way too easily.
Sergino Dest has a ton of quality but his defensive mistakes against Switzerland and then against Honduras are a major concern.
When John Brooks has time, he can make outstanding passes out of the back and he wins a ton of aerials – but his defending against solid dribblers in 1v1 situations or his defending in transition is also problematic, especially in CONCACAF when that is a major source of attack for many teams against the likes of the United States or Mexico.
Antonee Robinson really struggled to get forward or make an impact in the game.
There was a lot of blame to go around but this is a good representation of how the team looks at the moment. Sure, Tyler Adams isn’t completely fit, but banking on being able to field an ideal Best XI is unrealistic – especially in three game qualifying windows. The U.S. team had most of its top players – and that’s about as good as it is going to get.
A great representation of CONCACAF
The good news is that the U.S. team will now take on Mexico in the final and then host Costa Rica in a friendly. In CONCACAF, there isn’t any difference between winning pretty and winning ugly – and so long as a team wins, it doesn’t really translate much into the big picture.
Honduras tried to take the United States out of its rhythm – and it worked. A large percentage of the game consisted of Honduran players lying on the ground to receive treatment – at times when the U.S. was raising its game. There were also bits of scrappy melees, fulling of pushing and shouting. All of this was designed to prevent the U.S. team from gaining or continuing momentum.
Pulisic handled this well, but he was coming off a Champions League run where he was, at times, fouled over 10 times a game.
The problem for the United States, however, is that this game was at home. It is always going to be a lot more difficult on the road in Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Jamaica. When the U.S. team was successfully able to navigate CONCACAF, it came through talent but also experience and comradery.
"It wasn't an easy game at all," Berhalter said. "We had chances in the first half to finish, I think we got too open in the second half, at times not enough balance. But for the guys to dig and compete like that in altitude and heat, they did a fantastic job."
Must finish early chances
"We know it has to be better, and we know we have to put these games away as soon as possible," Weston McKennie said afterward.
Most of the U.S. team’s problems go away if they could finish their chances early. From the seemingly the opening minutes it appeared that Honduras would be more than happy to take their chances in penalty kicks – and it was good for them the game would have gone right to penalties after 90 minutes.
If Weston McKennie had buried his wide open header from Lletget’s corner kick, if Reyna had laid a short pass off to Sargent for a tap-in, or if Sargent had headed home the cross from Robinson – it would have changed everything. Honduras would have had to open up.
Honduras had a very well-organized defensive shape. They would have been forced out of that if the U.S. team scored early. The longer the U.S. team went without scoring, the more confident Honduras was defensively and the more momentum it had.
Heading into qualifying, the U.S. team must be more clinical in the first half. Early goals will solve so much.
The exact same thing could be said for Mexico after its win over Costa Rica in penalties following a 0-0 draw.
Looking ahead to Mexico
Looking ahead to the final against Mexico, Gregg Berhalter has a bunch of changes and approaches he must consider after watching film of this game.
Where will Pulisic play? Will he be on the wing or will he be central?
If he’s central, he should probably consider replacing Lletget out wide. He has the option of either Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah to play out wide. Aaronson offers the advantage of playing out wide and centrally – which might offer more in-game flexibility.
If Pulisic plays on the wing, central options will either be Lletget – who has now started back-to-back games inside of a week across two different continents – or Yunus Musah, who is talented and has played well, but was pretty sloppy off the bench against Switzerland.
Defensive midfield remains an open question. Obviously, Adams is lock-starter when healthy but it’s tough to assume a player who hasn’t played since April 25 will be ready for a final, against an archrival, in a game played at altitude, taking place on June 9 (six weeks after his last game).
Assuming Adams can’t start, it will be either Acosta or Yueill. While Yueill is good with the ball and can cover ground, Acosta can close down on defenders more and can deal with a scrappy game – which are very common whenever the U.S. and Mexico meet.
Fullbacks remain a very open question. Dest needs to be better than he has recently with his mistakes, but he will start. It seems like Dest playing left back over Robinson makes the most sense against Mexico. Then it will either be Cannon or Yedlin on the right. Cannon has been popular under Berhalter but Yedlin, who is still in his prime years, also brings a lot of experience to these types of games.
Finally, does Berhalter go with Sargent or Siebatcheu up top in a 4-3-3? While Sargent hasn’t scored, it might not be the ideal stage for Siebatcheu yet to start.
The best bet is that Berhalter goes with: Steffen: Yedlin (RB), McKenzie, Brooks, Dest (LB); Acosta (d-mid), Mckennie, Musah; Pulisic, Reyna, Sargent.
Player Ratings vs. Honduras
The Starting Lineup
- Goalkeeper: Zack Steffen - Rating: 6
- Right back: Sergino Dest - Rating: 4.5
- Central defender: Mark McKenzie - Rating: 6
- Central defender: John Brooks - Rating: 6
- Left back: Antonee Robinson - Rating: 4.5
- Midfielder: Jackson Yueill - Rating: 4.5
- Midfielder: Weston McKennie - Rating: 6
- Midfielder: Sebastian Lletget - Rating: 5.5
- Winger: Christian Pulisic - Rating: 7
- Winger: Gio Reyna - Rating: 7.5
- Forward: Josh Sargent - Rating: 5.5
- Winger: Brenden Aaronson - Rating: 5.5
- Fullback: Reggie Cannon - Rating: 5.0
- Forward: Jordan Siebatcheu - Rating: 7.0
- Midfielder: Kellyn Acosta - Rating: 5.5
- Defender: Matt Miazga - Rating: NR