Soccer in the States: U.S. Men’s National Team is giving us hope once more

In my time spent watching the United States play soccer, the team has fallen flat plenty. I’m used to watching an otherwise promising nation flop on the biggest stages. This instilled sense of pessimism is ingrained into my mind, and it creates a massive cognitive dissonance when things actually go the U.S.’ way. 

There’s no other way to describe the feeling of watching your nation finally overcome its history of failure with a massive third win over its rivals in 2021. Simply put, USMNT shocked me on Friday. 

I didn’t expect manager Gregg Berhalter to pick one of his best starting 11’s yet. I didn’t expect the players to come out of the gates aggressively pressing the Mexico backline. I didn’t expect the U.S. to catch a break or two as Mexico let some chances go unfinished. 

But the one thing I can truly say I was counting on came in the 69th minute. Star winger Christian Pulisic ran onto the pitch for the USMNT for the first time since his injury in the first qualifying window. As a Chelsea fan as well as a U.S. fan, Pulisic is by far my favorite player, and I had a feeling he wasn’t going to stay quiet. 

Who else could it have been but the super-substitute Pulisic to break the deadlock? The national team star returned from injury and wasted no time making an impact. He came flying in out of nowhere to meet a cross in the box, thumping a header home in the 74th minute to give the U.S. the lead and sending the stadium in Cincinnati into a frenzy. The goal also sent me into a frenzy, as I ran around my apartment yelling louder than I should’ve. 

Another goal from midfielder Weston McKennie sealed the deal, and the U.S. claimed a third victory over Mexico in 2021. 

Of course, the initial reaction after the game was to ask: What went right? The match felt like the perfect storm, but, for me, it really boiled down to two things. 

First, the USMNT had a visible tactical game plan, something that we haven’t always seen in Berhalter’s time in charge. I can’t count on my hands the number of times I’ve watched the U.S. play a full 90 minutes without any indication of what might’ve been the game plan. I’m so used to the unpredictable free-for-all World Cup Qualifying games where the attack has little cohesion and the defense remains sloppy. All of this being said, I have to credit Berhalter for finally coming out with aspirations. 

The U.S. demonstrated a clear strategy from the first whistle: They put on an aggressive press that forced the ball back to Mexico’s keeper and forced El Tri to make quick clearances that oftentimes resulted in a loss of possession. From there, the U.S. was picking the ball up in advanced areas with numerous players ready to make runs. It just made sense. Berhalter placed trust in his back line to snuff out counter-attacking chances, a risk that paid off. 

The second key to the game was execution in key moments. I know, I’m sounding like every football coach ever when I say that, but I promise I have more unique insight to offer. In games where the team might not get more than two or three good looks on goal, having the composure to take those chances is the difference between a win and a draw or loss. If goalkeeper Zack Steffen didn’t make a top-class save on winger Hirving Lozano’s low strike, the U.S. would’ve fallen behind early and likely wouldn’t have gone on to win the game. The same thing goes for Pulisic’s goal: Had the chance been missed, I don’t think Mexico would have conceded its second goal (a sloppy defensive error that really showed they were done trying). 

Berhalter can only do so much to set the team up for success. It’s these moments of execution — much like Pulisic’s penalty in the Nations League Final, or defender Miles Robinson’s extra-time header to win the Gold Cup Final — that separate average teams from lethal teams. It brings me the utmost joy to report that, as of now, the USMNT falls into the lethal category. 

But slow your roll on the party train because it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows this window. In classic USMNT fashion, the team played down to its opponent’s level in a 1-1 draw away against Jamaica. 

USMNT fans were a little bit too high on the Mexico win in their assessment of the Jamaica game. I saw fans across social media brushing off another lackluster performance in which the U.S. very well could’ve lost (Jamaica had a goal disallowed unfairly toward the end of the game). 

My main issue is that, however great the U.S. was tactically in the Mexico game, the team can’t seem to figure out how to break down teams who park the bus — in other words, put every man behind the ball and defend for their lives. This especially matters in CONCACAF play because some of the lower-level teams will do whatever they can to prevent defeat. The U.S. hasn’t cracked the code on scoring when its opponents park the bus, and one goal from the opposing team, no matter how scrappy, can prevent the U.S. from getting a full 3 points. 

After Canada’s dramatic win Tuesday over Mexico, the U.S. sits in second place in the Octagon with 15 points after eight games played. It looks as though Panama, Mexico, the U.S. and Canada will claim the top four spots, although a lot can change in the last six matches. 

With some key away fixtures coming up, the USMNT has a chance to bolster its qualifying chances. For now, the team can rest easy knowing that 2021 was its year. For the first time in forever, the hope that I have for this team is unchecked, unlimited and no longer restricted by the disappointment of the past. 

Adam Jasper is a sophomore providing updates on the U.S. Men’s National Team and its road to qualifying for the World Cup as well as general soccer news. He is also a sports editor at the Daily Trojan. His column “Soccer in the States,” runs every other Thursday.