Analysis: USMNT improves WC qualifying standing with 2-1 win over the Ticos
October 14, 2021
THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL team was in a bleak spot just two minutes into Wednesday night’s game against Costa Rica. After a lackluster loss to Panama, the U.S. team fell behind 1-0 and was staring at an uphill climb to salvage the October window and avoid being a perilous spot in qualifying. Like it did in the final game of the of September, window, this team responded.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter made several changes to his starting XI. Many were obvious – bringing back Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson, Miles Robinson, Brenden Aaronson, and Ricardo Pepi. On the flip side, however, he made the decision to replace Matt Turner with Zack Steffen.
The beginning was ugly. FC Cincinnati and Costa Rica right back Ronald Matarrita sent in a cross that found a wide open Keysher Fuller, who didn’t hit his shot well – but did enough – to get the ball past Steffen just a minute into the game.
The U.S. team didn’t wait for the second half, however. Sergino Dest drew the game even in the 25th minute on a brilliant individual play. He took the ball on a short, simple pass from Yunus Musah. Dest cut into the middle of the field, waited until he had an clear line to shoot, and then hit an unstoppable left-footed shot into the corner.
Keeping the starting lineup together into the second half, the U.S. team began to dominate possession. It wasn’t until the 66th minute when the team pulled ahead for good. Dest played Tim Weah into the box Weah’s shot hit the post, bounced off Costa Rica goalkeeper Leonel Moreira and dribbled across the line for what is technically an own goal, but was the result of Weah’s shot.
The U.S. began to make substitutions in the 75th minute and was able to preserve the win.
It wasn't always pretty. The U.S. team couldn't quite open the floodgates despite having 64% possession and a 12-4 edge in shots. There still needs to be more quality in the attacking third. Still the performance was mostly positive, the intensity was there, and the three points were crucial.
Here are some thoughts as well as the player ratings.
Dest’s remarkable window
The best player for the U.S. team this window was Sergino Dest. The Barcelona right back was able to come up with the difference making plays that were critical for the U.S. team walking away with six points.
Dest had the assist on Pepi’s opener against Jamaica. Then against Costa Rica, his stunning strike got the U.S. team back into the game. He then got an assist (uncredited) on the winning goal from Weah that was technically an own goal.
"Sergino is an interesting player because it's almost like the sky's the limit for him," Berhalter said. "He can be as good as he wants to be and you saw today with his attacking play. It's unreal."
Dest is in a great spot right now. He’s played over 60 times for Barcelona and has Champions League experience for both Ajax and Barcelona. While this Barcelona team is in a difficult transitional period, Dests’ career is extremely bright and his role within the team established. He can simply make the big plays that are the difference between wins and losses.
McKennie raises his game
After the highly publicized dismissal from the September camp for breaking team rules, Weston McKennie will be leaving October on a very high note – one that should give him confidence heading back to Italy. McKennie hasn’t been as sharp for Juventus or the U.S. team in recent months but this game against Costa Rica was a big reminder of just how good he can be when he’s on his game.
McKennie’s passing from distance was most significant. Against Costa Rica, he was a phenomenal 11/12 with his long balls (passes over 35 yards). This was critical to the U.S. team being able to switch the point of attack and find openings.
McKennie had 119 touches against Costa Rica and that give him a ton of opportunities to showcase his talent. He was 86/98 in passing. He wasn’t sharp at the start, but he grew into the game very nicely.
The other members of the midfield also had strong games.
Tyler Adams remains the most indispensable player on the U.S. team. Having him at 100% is critical to U.S. team playing the way it wants to play. He wins his duels, passes the ball well, covers so much ground – very few players anywhere can do what he does. When he is healthy, he does the work of two players.
Musah similarly was given a massive opportunity this window where he was the only player to start all three games. Overall, he showed that he is still young, makes mistakes, but has a very high ceiling.
The Valencia midfielder probably won’t start for the U.S. team when Gio Reyna is healthy, but Musah provides for a ton of athleticism and speed in the middle. Against Costa Rica, he drew three fouls and was eager to put Costa Rica on its back foot.
It’s also a learning curve for Musah. Defensively, he needs to be better. He an also have rough patches. Against Jamaica, he was excellent in the second half, but struggled in the first half. He was poor against Panama. Then against Costa Rica, he was generally solid.
The worry for Musah is that he just isn’t getting the reps with Valencia at his best position. Long-term, he will be a central player but at his club right now, he’s playing out wide – likely because he hasn’t established the trust to play him centrally, possibly for defensive issues. Unfortunately, that is probably going to slow him down reaching his potential.
The midfield trio, overall, worked out well.
Width is needed/was served
Against Panama, the fatal flaw for the U.S. team was its lack of width. The U.S. team was forced to attack up the middle – it wasn’t able to do so.
Against Costa Rica, the U.S. team was able to attack from out wide and it helped tremendously. Dest and Antonee Robinson had the ability to move deeper up the field. This then allowed the wingers to get more involved.
Tim Weah was clearly a big beneficiary in this. He looked sharp against Jamaica but struggled against Panama. He was not slated to start this game, but came into the game during warmups as an injury replacement for Paul Arriola.
On the second goal, Weah was able to play off Dest for the goal.
"We had a long meeting yesterday," Berhalter said of Weah. "We watched video together, and it was great to see him actually applying that to his performance today because he was disappointed with his performance in Panama, and he really responded with a great attitude and good performance. I'm so happy for him, happy that he got the goal and happy that we didn't make that sub."
One of the more interesting things about this game to help open the game up was the positioning of Brenden Aaronson and Tim Weah. It made it hard for Costa Rica to defend. Aaronson, who has been growing in importance to the U.S. team, drifted into the midfield and was on the same side of the field as Weah for the second goal.
Aaronson has been given a lot of freedom within the team to do what he wants and reflective in the trust he’s earned from Berhalter.
For Weah, it comes down to staying healthy while also getting repetitive minutes for Lille. His minutes have been improving at Lille but he needs a solid run of starts – which has yet to really happen in his career. He seems to be inching in that direction, which is good for him and the U.S. team.
Evaluating the window
The U.S. team learned a lot of obvious lessons in this game. It has depth and can win without Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic, but it still needs quality in certain roles open the door for other players.
It was a useful reminder that playing on the road in CONCACAF is still a challenge and it is tough to replicate these games while playing in the United States. It’s not just dealing with the opposing crowd. These games are in a vastly different environment.
Tyler Adams is particularly missed in these types of games with his defense, his running, and his helping in transitioning between defense and attack.
The U.S. team also desperately needs attacking fullbacks to be an offensive threat from the run of play – particularly without Reyna and Pulisic. If the fullbacks aren’t pushing forward, it becomes hard to also push up the middle. It’s a domino effect where the offense seems to fade.
It is a tough stage to break in young players, but having attacking-oriented back-ups to Antonee Robinson and Sergino Dest is one area where the team needs to improve. There are emerging options too – Sam Vines is back training at Royal Antwerp, teenage left back John Tolkin has been great for the Red Bulls. Right back is deep but has taken hits in recent months with the defection of Julian Araujo and the poor club situation of Reggie Cannon. Joe Scally will probably emerge in there sooner than later.
Central defense held up well this window too. Walker Zimmerman, Chris Richards, Mark McKenzie, and Miles Robinson held up well and probably all will be called back in November if healthy. John Brooks, however, could be a concern given his injury and recent form for Wolfsburg and the U.S. team in September. Matt Miazga also lurks as a potential option of he continues to play well for Deportivo Alaves.
So many players, however, are in close calls for call-ups and it will come down to form at club. Gianluca Busio is on the rise, Ricardo Pepi struggled against Costa Rica but is clearly a player that needs to be kept around.
But for bubble players like Daryl Dike, Gyasi Zardes, Luca de la Torre, Matthew Hoppe, Shaq Moore, Julian Green, Nicholas Gioacchini, Konrad de la Fuente, Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok, Matt Miazga, Ethan Horvath, - it will come down to playing well at the club level to earn a call-up.
The results of this past week weren’t the nine or seven points everyone wanted, but it keeps the U.S. team on a healthy pace. The November window is two games, not three – and this will allow the U.S. team use its best lineup possible of healthy players for each game.
The larger meaning from this window is that many backup positions still remain wide open and competition should be intense at the club level.
The starting lineup
Zack Steffen: It was a surprise start for Steffen and the Manchester City backup had a tough moment early on Fuller’s opener. He made a nice save later on a Celso Borges shot as well as on a few corner kicks. The U.S. team got the result, but Steffen probably didn’t do enough to reclaim the starting job from Turner. Rating: 5.5
Antonee Robinson: Robinson’s speed was clearly very useful for the U.S. team. He did a good job advancing the ball and combining with teammates. His crossing wasn’t there on the day. Defensively, he was okay. Rating: 6.0
Miles Robinson: The Atlanta United defender made one error when he coughed it up to Bryan Ruiz to spark a 1v1. Robinson’s defensive skill and athleticism got himself out of trouble. Aside from that, Robinson was very good where he won nearly every aerial and routinely cleared the ball out of danger. Rating: 6.5
Chris Richards: The Alabama native did well in his World Cup qualifying debut helping the U.S. team’s defense reset after conceding the opening goal (which he was not responsible for). He broke up a few Costa Rican chances. Rating: 6.5
Sergino Dest: Dest was the best player on the field in this game. His goalazo and his uncredited assist were the difference. He also was on the ball 89 times and was 49/56 in passing. Rating: 8.5
Tyler Adams: It was a typical strong performance from Tyler Adams – getting on the ball 102 times, winning 7/9 of his duels, completing 80/90 passes and advancing the ball deeply into the attacking half. Rating: 7.5
Weston McKennie: His best outing in a long time for the U.S. team. His passing from range was key and it allowed the U.S. team to switch the point of attack. He had a ton of touches and helped to open the game up while keeping possession. Rating: 7.5
Yunus Musah: The Valencia midfielder had an assist on Dest’s tremendous goal, although there wasn’t too much work for him on the play. His strength was making aggressive runs to gradually breakdown Costa Rica’s defense. Rating: 6.5
Tim Weah: After a tough outing in Panama, Weah rebounded well against Costa Rica. He worked well with Aaronson on the opposite wing to switch positioning and throw Costa Rica off. In addition to essentially scoring the second goal, he helped set up the first in getting the ball to Musah. Rating: 7.5
Brenden Aaronson: The Red Bull Salzburg attacker wasn’t as involved as Weah but still drew a lot of attention and respect from Costa Rica. He often shifted to midfield to give the team a different look. Rating: 6.5
Ricardo Pepi: It was a bit of an off-night for Pepi who wasn’t asked to save the day for the U.S. team. The chances he was part of weren’t very dangerous and he finished with three shots. At times he worked well when he got the ball but 25 touches over 88 minutes isn’t a lot for a team that has over 60% possession. Rating: 5.5
Matthew Hoppe: Came into the game in the 73rd minute but managed just six touches over 17 minutes. Two of his four passes, however, resulted in shots. Rating: 5.5
DeAndre Yedlin: Also came into the game in the 73rd minute and looked lively with 11/11 in passing. He helped to keep the U.S. team on the front foot. Rating: 6.5
Gianluca Busio: The Venezia midfielder came into the game in the 78th minute and was really good with his passing and in possession. Rating: 6.5
Walker Zimmerman: Had a solid window for the U.S. team but didn’t have much to do in this game as an 86th minute defensive sub. Rating: NR
Gyasi Zardes: Came on in the 87th minute to see out the win in his home stadium. Rating: NR