Call it a soft opening—a very soft opening. The U.S. men's national team on Sunday night kicked off what promises to be a busy and pivotal 2021 with an easy assignment and an emphatic victory, a 7-0 thumping of a makeshift Trinidad & Tobago side that barely belonged on the pitch.
Fielding a mix of senior players and Olympic hopefuls, USA coach Gregg Berhalter saw his team establish its obvious superiority mere seconds after the opening whistle. Following three weeks of going up against each other during January camp training in Florida, the Americans clearly had an appetite to beat up on an unfamiliar opponent. The USA was ahead by two goals after 10 minutes at Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium and coasted to the easy win.
It’ll be more difficult going forward. Berhalter hopes to schedule a pair of friendlies in Europe in late March, at which point MLS players conceivably could be locked out (if not, they’ll be in preseason). At the same time, the U.S. U-23s will contest the Olympic qualifiers in Mexico. The games then get progressively more important. In June, there’s the inaugural Concacaf Nations League finals. In July, there’s the Gold Cup and then in September, the road to Qatar begins with the first three World Cup qualifiers.
It’s hard to make the case that Sunday’s game prepared anyone for any of that, but it certainly looked fun for the hosts, and the men who padded their national team stat sheets surely enjoyed the evening. Here are three thoughts from the USA’s dress rehearsal for a critical year.
Berhalter sends another message that Olympics matter
There’s still some concern the Olympics may not happen, but if they do, U.S. Soccer desperately wants to be in Japan. The American U-23s have missed out on the past two tournaments, and this year, in order to boost their chances, Berhalter and U-23 coach Jason Kreis conducted an unprecedented January camp that saw the two teams commingle. More than two-thirds of the players invited to camp in Bradenton, Fla. were Olympic-eligible.
Although several were sent home before Sunday’s game, Berhalter still started a team featuring six U-23s, along with five senior players. It was a clear message—giving a few potential Olympic contributors some additional international seasoning was more important than beating Trinidad by an extra goal or three.
Three-quarters of the back line (Miles Robinson, Aaron Herrera and Sam Vines), the defensive midfielder (Jackson Yueill) and two-thirds of the front three (Jesús Ferreira and Jonathan Lewis) were U-23s, and they factored as heavily into the win as their older teammates. Vines, the left back, was an especially dynamic contributor as the USA pulled away in the first half, taking advantage of opportunities to get forward and playing several excellent passes that broke lines or created good looks for others. His swerving, early cross in the second minute set up the Americans’ first goal.
Yueill was a solid organizer in front of the back four and exhibited good discipline. And Lewis and Ferreira (see below) were especially active and attacked with confidence. Each scored his first two senior international goals. Robinson also tallied his debut goal on a close-range header early in the second half.
At halftime, newly eligible midfielder Andrés Perea, 20, replaced senior stalwart Sebastian Lletget. Perea recently filed for a permanent switch to the USA after representing Colombia at the U-17 and U-20 World Cups. He was whistled for a penalty on a high kick in the 65th minute, but goalkeeper Matt Turner, making his U.S. debut, made the save on Alvin Jones.
Ferreira repays Berhalter’s faith
The son of former MLS MVP David Ferreira, Jesús appeared to be well on his way to stardom one year ago, as he followed up an eight-goal rookie season with FC Dallas with his first senior cap in last February’s win over Costa Rica. But 2020 was rough year for many, and it was a tough one for the young attacker. He managed just one goal and one assist in 20 appearances for FCD.
Nevertheless, Berhalter continued to see something in the 20-year-old and invited him to this month’s camp. On Saturday, Berhalter announced that Jozy Altidore, the third-leading scorer in USMNT history, would be held out of the Trinidad match as a precaution, hinting that a move away from Toronto FC was possible for the veteran. That left the door open at center forward for Ferreira.
“Jesús made his debut last year in January for us and we thought he did an excellent job,” Berhalter said this week. “He continued where he left off in this camp. He’s done a good job, so we know what Jesús brings—very good dropping down, very good linking up play, really good starting defensive pressure, and then in the penalty box he’s very calm and can finish his opportunities.”
Ferreira demonstrated everything Berhalter listed in a historic performance that ended with two goals and three assists. On Lewis’s second-minute opener, Ferreira ran onto Vines’s cross and after cutting off his own shooting angle, he had the awareness to lay it off for Lewis for an easy finish. In the ninth, Ferreira opened his U.S. account with a first-time finish of a cut-back by Vines.
D.C. United veteran Paul Arriola scored his first on the night in the 22nd after Ferreira carried his pass into the penalty area, drew the goalkeeper and a defender out then slipped the ball back to Arriola. Ferreira set up Arriola again in the 41st with a well-placed header, then scored his second of the game in the 61st as Arriola returned the favor and found Ferreira in the penalty area. Ferreira's adroit left-footed touch and right-footed finish made for a perfect cap to his performance.
“Ever since we started working with him last January, we had a really good feel for him and a really good impression and idea of what he could do in our system. We can’t control what happens at the club level. We really can’t. For us it’s still having faith in a player, believing in a player, and we’re excited to get him back into camp this January,” Berhalter said. “He gives us a lot of options and a lot of flexibility, and we really like how he performs for us at the forward position.”
Ferreira exited in the 64th, making way for Orlando's Chris Mueller. He’d made an impression in a position that’s still uncertain for the U.S., making good decisions in the penalty area, involving himself in the build-up and finishing multiple chances. He should be in frame to help the U-23s in March.
"I think that coach Gregg had an idea for us for this game. We had a long camp of trying new things, trying to get to know each other, and as you can see in the game it worked,” Ferreira told FOX following the game. “We all put it together today.”
The pandemic continues to wreak havoc, even once games resume
Trinidad wasn’t supposed to be Sunday’s opponent. The original plan was to bring over Serbia, whose junior varsity (this friendly wasn’t contested during a FIFA window) still would’ve presented a much stiffer challenge. But visa and travel issues prevented Serbia from coming, and so the Soca Warriors were a last-minute replacement.
Berhalter’s team already had endured sub-par opposition in December, when El Salvador barely showed up for an ad-hoc friendly that ended in a 6-0 decision for the Americans. Trinidad was even worse. But it had every excuse—as many hurdles as the pandemic has put in Berhalter’s way, it’s nothing compared to the devastation it's wreaked on Trinbagonian soccer.
The national team, under new coach Terry Fenwick, hadn’t played a game of any kind in 14 months. The national league has been shut down since the pandemic struck in March. Some players have no clubs, and many hadn’t played a game of any kind in almost a year. Fenwick brought 13 uncapped men to Orlando, and only three had reached double digits. It showed, and it was tough on both sides. The game featured water breaks midway through both halves, a move that was made in deference to the visitors. Trinidad offered no threat and was routed, and the U.S. was stuck with an exercise that probably was less taxing than most of its practice sessions in Florida. The visitors had no defensive chemistry, but didn't seem interested in playing deep and packing it in.
“I feel bad for Trinidad. … These are all things, this is all fallout of the pandemic and things we’re going to have to get used to and adapting to,” Berhalter said ahead of the game. “It’ll be nice for them to kick off with a game. My expectation is that they will have some fitness issues. I think that’s normal, based on them not playing, the domestic league not even being active.”
It’s hard to argue with Berhalter’s calculus—a game is better than no game. But it’s also tough to imagine what the Americans got out of Sunday night other than some goal celebration practice.
"You can only play against the opponent on the field,” Berhalter said. “And what I really liked from the guys was the focus and the intensity. After three weeks of training, with a relatively new group, a young group, it’s good to be able to see those elements on the game field against a real opponent.
"We know that [Trinidad] wasn’t a World Cup qualifying-caliber team, based on who they had available,” he continued. “But nonetheless, it was good to see the focus of the team.”