ORLANDO — The United States men’s national team desperately needed a win against Canada on Friday in the CONCACAF Nations League. They got it— with a little bit of revenge thrown in for good measure.
Jordan Morris, Gyasi Zardes and Aaron Long scored first-half goals for the Americans en route to a 4-1 rout of Les Rouges, which beat the Americans last month in Toronto for the first time in 34 years.
Here are three quick thought on Friday’s match.
A sigh of relief for the USMNT
The pressure on the hosts was huge after their historic October defeat, a match in which the Canadians were the better team in every way. More than anything, the U.S. lacked the fight that had defined the program for the better part of 30 years.
From the opening whistle at Exploria Stadium, it was clear that at the very least, the U.S. came to play in the rematch.
Morris, who arrived in camp fresh of Sunday’s MLS Cup win for his hometown Seattle Sounders, set the tone for the evening when he opened the scoring less than two minutes into the contest by getting on the end of a corner kick from Dutch-born fullback Sergino Dest, whose appearance in the lineup officially cap-tied him to the American program:
The much-maligned Zardes, who started in place of 19-year-old Josh Sargent (more on that later) doubled the home side’s advantage 20 minutes later. Morris was at the center of things once again, setting up Zardes’ header after settling a clever long pass from Paul Arriola:
Long made it 3-0 off another set play before the first half was over. This time, Tim Ream played the provider, pinging the ball off his fellow defender’s head to effectively end the match then and there:
It was exactly the response the U.S. was looking for, as well as their long-suffering supporters — just 13,000 and change showed up to watch, about half the capacity of Orlando City’s pristine arena.
It wasn’t a perfect performance. The Americans were once again sloppy in possession in front of their own goal and lucky not to be punished for it on more than one occasion. Canada also pulled a goal back through Steven Vitoria before the night was done.
Still, a win is a win, and this one provided some badly needed good vibes for a fanbase that hasn’t had much to get excited about during coach Gregg Berhalter’s first year at the helm.
It also put the USMNT in position to advance to next June’s Nations League semifinals. Any win over hapless Cuba on Tuesday in the Cayman Islands would be enough for that, while also ensuring that the U.S. ends an up-and-down 2019 on a high note.
Berhalter’s lineup gamble pays off
The coach made six changes to the lineup that lost north of the border. Some of those were out of necessity, with starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen, grizzled midfielder Michael Bradley and headliner Christian Pulisic all unavailable because of injury.
But Berhalter also went with Zardes in place of Sargent, even though the former had played just 17 minutes for club or country since early October while the latter continues to see time in the German Bundesliga. Zardes rewarded him with two goals, the second of which made it 4-1 in the 89th minute.
Berhalter also made a pair of changes in central midfield, with Sebastian Lletget and Jackson Yueill preferred over Cristian Roldan and Alfredo Morales. Those switches paid dividends, too, with the 22-year-old Yueill turning in an excellent performance in just his third career cap.
Still more work to do for the Americans
Again, the U.S. did what it set out to do. In a chippy affair, the hosts’ battle level was apparent from start to finish.
Yet there’s still an awful lot of work ahead if Berhalter’s side is to evolve into the slick-passing, possession-heavy squad the coach envisions. There are still simple mistakes being made, errors that won’t cut it next summer against the likes of Costa Rica and Mexico, let alone the truly elite teams the Americans will come up against if and when they qualify for the next World Cup.
The defending must improve; Vitoria’s strike was too easy and made for nervier-than-necessary end to the contest until Zardes sealed the three points:
They also need to take care of business against the Cubans. U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart said earlier this week that he has “no fear at all” that the Americans will miss a second consecutive World Cup. As much as his team justified that confidence on this night, you have to forgive the U.S. fan base if they’re not yet quite as convinced.
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