The U.S. men's national team didn't leave anything to chance, for a change.
A one-sided rout was expected, and a one-sided rout was delivered, as the U.S. thrashed Cuba 7-0 to open group play in the Concacaf Nations League on Friday night at D.C. United's Audi Field.
Weston McKennie scored a hat trick less than 13 minutes into the game, Jordan Morris had a goal and three assists and the U.S. was dominant in all facets in a match that had all suspense removed in the opening minutes.
In halftime comments made to Fox Sports, U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter praised his team's focus from the opening whistle, not letting up or straying after McKennie's first goal half a minute in, and the result puts the U.S. in position to seize control of the group if it can beat Canada in Toronto on Tuesday. The scoreline, which was punctuated by Josh Sargent's 40th-minute goal and Christian Pulisic's 62nd-minute penalty kick, put the U.S. level on goal differential with Canada, which beat Cuba 6-0 and 1-0 in last month's group openers.
Here are three thoughts on the rout, in which the U.S. scored more goals than it had in its last six games combined, though must be absorbed with proper context and perspective:
They did what they were supposed to do
This game marked the USA's 11th straight win over Cuba in the all-time series between the two sides, and in five of the last eight, the U.S. had scored at least four goals. The U.S. made sure to hit that tally by the 13th minute, starting the competition on the front foot.
Games vs. the likes of Cuba, ranked 178th in the world and 25th in Concacaf, are mostly no-win propositions for the U.S. If the Americans don't win handily, then something is wrong. If they do, then that's what's supposed to happen. There's little to gain, everything to lose, and it's hard make any sweeping declarations about the direction of the program after such a one-sided exercise. But for this U.S., which has not made a habit of taking care of business without any "yeah, but" conditions aside from Gold Cup group games vs. Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, a start-to-finish rout was necessary.
The last time the U.S. played at Audi Field was in early June, when it lost to Jamaica in a Gold Cup tune-up. That was not a particularly strong Jamaica side, and on that night, the U.S. failed to do what it was supposed to do. Upon its return, it certainly did just that, and in the process snapped a three-game winless stretch.
A dominant right
Much of what the U.S. was able to create early came from a familiar formula: relentless pressure down the right, cross into the box, watch the good things happen.
Morris was everywhere for the U.S. on the night, and he did damage on both sides of the field. But it was his early contributions on the right that set the stage for what followed. His two crosses in the first and fifth minutes that wound up at McKennie's feet were carbon copies of one another, and he issued a variation on that theme when he crossed for surging right back Reggie Cannon deep in the Cuba box, where the FC Dallas standout then turned it in for McKennie at the goal mouth to complete the hat trick.
Playing through the middle hasn't been a strong suit of the U.S. under Berhalter, and even on a night when it could do little wrong and dominated the ball to the tune of 75% possession, it remained largely a cross-and-shoot kind of night.
Cannon, in particular, showed well. That he did so Friday is not all that commendable given the circumstances, but it is worth noting that he quietly has become a consistent contributor at the position. With Tyler Adams dealing with a long-term injury and DeAndre Yedlin just coming back from one, perhaps the 21-year-old can state his claim for the long run. If he gets a chance to tangle with the likes of Alphonso Davies on Tuesday, then there may be able to be a more fair assessment of his progress.
This is the reality of the Nations League
In such a top-heavy confederation like Concacaf, these results are going to happen. There's been plenty of criticism of the Nations League as it relates to this region in the world and its usefulness in the big picture. In practice, it's way more conducive for the lower-ranked nations to raise their game then it is for teams like the USA and Mexico to improve. But with the change to Concacaf's competition formula, the tournament essentially takes the place of the semifinal round of World Cup qualifying on the calendar, featuring the same kinds of games that the U.S. would have had in past cycles, just labeled differently and featuring different stakes.
The U.S. is all but guaranteed to reach the World Cup qualifying Hexagonal under the new structure, but the Nations League can still be used to try to reclaim some regional bragging rights after falling short in the Gold Cup. Canada, which needs a win over the U.S. for both self-esteem and practical, World Cup qualifying reasons, will surely provide more resistance and something that should resemble a more proper test after Friday night's training exercise.