CINCINNATI — U.S. men’s national team players, coaches and staff—or at least the staff who had access to the stadium PA system here—weren’t too fond of the suggestion that they see only Mexico when looking in the mirror.
El Tri captain Guillermo Ochoa implied last week that Mexico is and always will be the Americans’ exemplar and measuring stick. But with Friday night’s emphatic 2–0 World Cup qualifying win, which was its third straight competitive triumph over Mexico in just five months, this young U.S. side demonstrated that it’s developing its own identity. It has broader ambitions.
There’s a catch, however. There’s always a morning after, no matter how glorious the previous evening might have been. And there’s always a response required, whether you win or lose. The U.S. (4-1-2) may be in first place at the halfway point of Concacaf’s Octagonal qualifying competition, but this isn’t the summit. Tickets to Qatar aren’t yet secured, and Jamaica (1-3-3) is on the schedule next Tuesday. If the U.S. spends too much time basking in the afterglow of Friday’s win or admiring its own robust reflection, it risks squandering its momentum and advantage.
“This game is behind us now,” said U.S. winger Christian Pulisic, whose timely match-winning goal and “MAN IN THE MIRROR” undershirt were the talk of TQL Stadium late Friday. “It’s huge to help us to get three points, and now we’re first place in the group and to be in this position is unbelievable. But we haven’t accomplished our ultimate goal yet. Jamaica is going to be a tough match. We know what they’re about. We’re going to get the scouting report. We’re going to prepare as best we can. That’s all we can do now.”
Tuesday’s game in Kingston will mark the second time during this World Cup qualifying cycle that the U.S. plays again shortly after a win. And the first one was a disaster. Last month, the the Americans eased past the Reggae Boyz in Austin, Texas, before flying to Panama City and face planting. The 1-0 loss to Los Canaleros marked their worst performance in almost two years.
There are differences between that game and this week’s. That loss in Panama came on just three days rest and was the second of three October qualifiers. As a result, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter deployed a heavily-rotated squad in Panama that was missing the requisite chemistry, movement and attacking verve. But next Tuesday’s qualifier will come after four days rest and will conclude this international window. There’s almost no need to be cautious.
“It should be reasonable that if we’re happy with the performance of the players in the first game, that they can continue on and play the second game and we won’t need to rest them or rotate them,” Berhalter said after unveiling this month’s squad.
He had every reason to be happy with every performance against Mexico. But he’s not going to just send out the same XI. There are two suspensions to contend with, and they’re significant. Midfielder Weston McKennie is a casualty of the stupidly draconian yellow card accumulation rule that requires a player to sit out after receiving only two cautions across the entire qualifying competition. The scorer of Friday’s second goal, McKennie saw yellow following a second-half confrontation between several U.S. and Mexico players. He was also booked in the Octagonal opener at El Salvador.
The U.S. will also play Jamaica without center back Miles Robinson, who’s arguably traversed more ground on Berhalter’s depth chart than any other player since the summer. The Atlanta United defender probably should’ve won the Concacaf Gold Cup MVP award, and he was excellent on Friday, partnering with Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman to take Mexico front man Raúl Jiménez out of the game. Robinson was sent off with a second yellow card in the 90th minute for a tug from behind on Hirving Lozano.
Berhalter said following the game that he was considering adding reinforcements to the U.S. roster, and on Sunday he called in New York City FC's versatile James Sands. The U.S. has cover in both positions, regardless. In back, Berhalter could go with Chris Richards (more likely) or Mark McKenzie. In midfield, the options to replace McKennie include Kellyn Acosta, Gianluca Busio, Sebastian Lletget and Cristian Roldan.
Further forward, Berhalter will have to figure out how much fuel wingers Brenden Aaronson and Timothy Weah have remaining after hard-working outings. Pulisic played 21 minutes in relief of Aaronson and likely will have a similar role in Kingston. He hasn’t started a game since injuring his ankle on international duty in September and has totaled just 42 minutes of action overall in three recent outings for the U.S. and Chelsea.
A game against the Reggae Boyz, whom the Americans have dominated historically, doesn’t come with nearly the same amount of hype or cache as a renewal of the U.S.-Mexico rivalry. The atmosphere in Kingston won’t come anywhere close to Friday’s in Cincinnati. Only 5,000 fans will be permitted inside the stadium known as The Office. It’ll all feel relatively subdued. But that’s another part of the trap that the Americans can’t afford to fall into. The three points at stake on Tuesday are worth the same as those secured against El Tri. And as Pulisic said, nothing’s been accomplished yet.
There’s finally a bit of separation in the Octagonal standings, but the U.S. can’t get caught enjoying the sights in the rear-view mirror either. The gap between the U.S. and elimination—fifth place—is eight points. That seems significant with seven games to go. But the gap between the U.S. and fourth place—which means a spot in a home-and-away playoff against a team from South America, Asia or Oceania—is only three. Imagine having to secure a result in a place like Montevideo or Tokyo in order to make the World Cup. The Americans should want no part of that.
The U.S. may be halfway through the Octagonal, but it’s contested the easier half. The three toughest games on the schedule—the road tilts in Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica—remain. No U.S. team has ever won a qualifier in Mexico City or San José, Costa Rica, and this iteration will want to avoid a must-win scenario when it visits those forbidding sites in late March. The Octagonal runway is shorter than it might seem, and that adds just a bit more pressure to get a good result in Kingston.
Concacaf qualifying asks a lot of any team and responses are required, win or lose. After Friday’s cathartic and euphoric win, this young U.S. team will have to ensure that it’s engaging in the right kind of reflection.
“For us, it’s about how quickly can we get over this win,” Berhalter said. “Get back down to ground and get focused on what the next task is. Same thing when we lose a game, It’s about, ‘How we do we refocus and get that energy out?’ So for this, we want to turn around and have a strong performance in Jamaica.”
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