A spectacular, 25-yard strike from defender and newly-minted scoring threat Sergiño Dest sparked the U.S. national team and highlighted a deserved 4-1 victory over a makeshift Jamaican side in Thursday afternoon’s friendly in Wiener Neustadt, Austria. Goals during a second half marked by a flurry of substitutions from Brenden Aaronson and Sebastian Lletget (two), as well as Jamaica’s Jamal Lowe, provided the final margin.
Dest, 20, served notice of his offensive potential last weekend in La Liga, where he scored twice for Barcelona in a 6-1 defeat of Real Sociedad. Dest has been flourishing as a right wingback for Barcelona, but for the USA, he’s more frequently deployed on the left in a 4-3-3. Coach Gregg Berhalter has other right-sided specialists at his disposal.
Dest looked comfortable on the left as the Jamaicans occasionally pressed the U.S. early, and he then demonstrated his full-field versatility in the 34th minute. The Americans had been dominating possession but had been unable to break through. A more direct run from deep did the trick. Midfielder Yunus Musah, playing for the U.S. for the first time since declaring his permanent allegiance to the program, played a smart pass into space for the onrushing Dest. The left back picked up his dribble in midfield, tore down the left channel and then cut sharply inside past Jamaica’s Michael Hector, who plays in the Premier League for Fulham.
Then, came the unstoppable, curling blast that left Reggae Boyz goalkeeper Jeadine White no chance. It was Dest’s first goal for the USA.
“He told me he was going to score,” Berhalter told ESPN at halftime. Dest has been on that kind of roll.
Berhalter’s team has been on a roll as well, albeit in friendly competition. The win was the USA’s fourth straight (and it’s 7-0-1 over the past eight), a streak during which the Americans have outscored Concacaf opposition by 23-3. The USA finally will venture outside the confederation on Sunday when it plays Northern Ireland in Belfast, then the matches will start to count. The Concacaf Nations League finals are coming in June, the Gold Cup in July and then World Cup qualifying begins in September.
While this young U.S. national team has been taking shape, Jamaica—a future World Cup qualifying opponent—has been in flux. As several players sat out this international window while in a contract dispute with their federation, the Reggae Boyz have been trying to deepen their talent pool by seeking out players—mainly from England—eligible for Jamaican passports. On Thursday in Austria, coach Theodore Whitmore started six uncapped players from English league clubs. Lowe, a 26-year-old from Swansea City, was one of them.
Not surprisingly, this brand-new side didn’t have much chemistry with the ball and failed to establish much possession. Jamaica did pose an early challenge defensively, however, pressing at select moments and then retreating into two compact, well-organized blocks of four. For most of the first half, when both teams’ starters were on the field, the Americans struggled to break down those blocks and get attackers in behind. The initiative was there, however, and the lead secured through Dest’s brilliant effort was well-earned.
"I still think it’s important, getting goals in, assists, and I’m thinking I’m on the right way," Dest told ESPN following the match. "Three goals in one week! So I have to try to keep continuing this—just on to the next one."
Playing for the USA for the first time in 16 months, Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic usually looked like the American player most likely to find the crack in the Jamaican rearguard. He appeared comfortable searching for and receiving the ball and usually was a good bet to beat the first defender on the dribble. Although the final product was lacking—he shanked an open look in the 43rd minute—overall it was a promising night for a player who’s spent most of the past two months on the bench at Chelsea.
"I thought he grew as the game went on, and he became really dangerous, very aggressive coming inside,” Berhalter said of Pulisic, whose halftime exit was a pre-game plan. “They were compact. They had a lot of numbers and it was difficult to get his shots through, but he was certainly a major factor in that first half."
On the right, Gio Reyna had a similar evening. Playing in his third match for the senior squad, the Borussia Dortmund attacker created a few opportunities to do damage but typically found his shot or final pass to be missing the required precision.
Pulisic's halftime replacement, Aaronson, made an immediate impact playing just three hours east of his new home in Salzburg. In the 53rd minute, Aaronson doubled the U.S. lead after some outstanding interplay with striker Josh Sargent, who didn’t score Thursday but helped create a few dangerous moments with his movement inside the penalty area. Aaronson headed the ball to Sargent, who did an excellent job controlling it and dragging the Jamaican defense toward the left post. Aaronson raced into the space left behind and touched Sargent’s return cross past the goalie.
More substitutions followed for both sides and the game loosened up considerably. Jamaica ruined Zack Steffen’s shutout bid in the 70th minute. Lowe made a delayed charge into the penalty area, ran onto a short through ball from Andre Gray and chipped a shot over the American netminder. Starting U.S. midfielder Lletget then finished off the scoring with two well-placed one-timers in the 83rd and 90th minutes.
"I thought we got better and better. It was coming to terms with what that compactness was going to look like. It was trying to wear them down. It was trying to take advantage of the transition moments,” Berhalter said after the game regarding his side’s effort to solve Jamaica’s compact defense.
“I thought we did that pretty well, and the only thing we lacked was the movement behind the back line,” he continued. “Runs behind the back line, balls behind the back line—I didn’t think we did that quick enough. But when you think about, you know the first half when you look at the possession, when you look at the passing accuracy, when you look at the fact that Jamaica’s a very athletic team, and they had a really hard time catching our guys. Really quick technical players, very good on the ball, and it causes problems. And I think as we get more comfortable with each other and as we play more together, I think there’s going to be some really nice combinations."
Berhalter will take most of his team to Belfast for the national team’s first game against Northern Ireland since 1948. Defenders John Brooks and Reggie Cannon, who started Thursday, as well as reserve forward Nicholas Gioacchini, who set up Lletget’s first goal, will return to their clubs because of pandemic protocols.