Weston McKennie celebrates the USA triumph. (Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch)
By Michael Lewis
Some thoughts after Wednesday night’s win in Columbus, Ohio:
* Few times a full team
After the U.S.’s 2-1 victory past Costa Rica, one of the ESPN2 commentators – I believe it was former USMNT player Jermaine Jones – said that he was looking forward to a full American team – the best performers from Wednesday and the addition of the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna.
Well, while that is a hopeful thought, the one thing that I have learned from World Cup qualifying is that teams rarely have full teams for matches. Injuries (and sometimes COVID-19) and suspensions (yellow-card accumulation and red cards).
In a perfect world, every team would have its desired Starting XI and the proper personnel coming off the bench.
Perhaps the USA will be able to change its luck with Mexico (home) and Jamaica (away) looming Nov. 12 and 16, respectively.
The USMNT started its young team in a qualifier ever against the Ticos – at 22 years and 199 days. That’s pretty damn young.
To put it into perspective, that’s just about the equivalent of a college team starting all senior-year players in a match.
Yes, that’s how young the USA is.
Yes, these players are inexperienced to many teams in the rest of the world.
But the upside is tremendous. The Americans have talent and a dozen have European clubs participating in the Champions League, the highest level of competition on the continent. These kids are still learning and growing and are a few years away from their prime.
* Dest, as in the best pest
No doubt that Sergino Dest gives the USA a unique weapon on the flanks at fullback. His magnificent goal Wednesday reminded us of that.
Not many fullbacks – right or left – can strike for such spectacular scores as Dest did.
Of course, on the flip side is his defense, or sometimes lack of it. At best, Dest is an OK defender who will make mistakes. He was beaten on the cross that led to the Costa Ricans’ goal in the opening minute.
His equalizing goal in the 25th minute not only leveled the game but energized the team. And the Barcelona defender set up the eventual winning goal that was shot by Tim Weah. That goal went down in the record books as an own goal.
* Adams is the key
After watching Tyler Adams perform for the Red Bulls for a few years, I got an appreciation of when he was a teenager. He broke up plays and turned them into scoring opportunities for his teammates. He still had a lot to learn, but he became a quite study in learning the game.
He is quick and seemingly can be in two places at the same time.
Adams is willing to do the dirty, dirty work, allowing his teammates go forward and attack.
And oh yes, he is improving his game for club (RB Leipzig) and country.
* A couple of qualifying scenarios
The saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” must have been created for the Concacaf Octagonal.
Every week teams are rooting for different teams to either win, lose and draw, depending on the circumstances and point totals. This will keep fans from all eight countries anxious and biting their fingernails for a while.
Here are two scenarios that I thought of that would help the USA:
— Have Mexico run the table (except when the Americans play them). The Mexicans are odds-on favorites not only to qualify, but to win the final group. By El Tri winning every game and accruing every point (except against the USA, of course), will take away points, especially road points from other squads. That could only help the USMNT.
— As for other teams playing each other, I am not an expert mathematician to figure out every scenario, but I can think of one.
If there are more draws between teams, that third point disappears. That can be devastating if a home team plays to a tie. The less points secured by foes, the better it is for the USA.
Remember, it’s not necessarily about winning the group, but to qualify. The top three teams will go to Qatar in 2022. Finishing third shouldn’t affect the World Cup draw because all Concacaf teams will be bunched together, if history is a guide.
* Money in the bank
It is imperative for the Americans to accrue as many points as they can in 2021, because 2022 will be more difficult with away matches at Mexico and Costa Rica.
We’re almost halfway through the Octagonal, having played six of 14 games (42.9 percent). By Nov. 16, it will be more than halfway at eight contests (57.1 percent).
* The Pepi quandary
Ricardo Pepi certainly has been an impact scoring goals and setting up teammates.
Given his age – 18 – it is unfair to expect goals from him every time out. He is still learning and at the present time he is the best option as the No. 9 – until he enters a drought or another forward steps, well, forward.
Sooner or later, he will be transferred to a Euro side.
I would like to see it later, as in after qualifying.
Let’s say the FC Dallas forward join a European team after the Major League Soccer season. What are the chances that he will play regularly with his new club after the transfer? If he doesn’t play regularly, how would he be match and scoring fit to perform with the national team, especially with vital matches in Mexico and Costa Rica next March? It would be better off if Pepi doesn’t join a new team until after qualifying.
Some Tico thoughts
The Costa Rican team that we saw Wednesday night looked like a shell of its former self. The team has relied on way too many over-30 veterans.
Saying that, I still feel the Central Americans are a danger to any Concacaf side because of their experience. Several players might not have the pace of the younger Americans – remember Miles Robinson catching up to Bryan Ruiz on a breakaway? – but the team still can make life difficult for many of its foes.
Even before a ball was kicked, there was controversy as head coach Gregg Berhalter switched goalkeepers – from Matt Turner, who has been hot during his USMNT tenure, to Zack Steffen, who has played twice for Manchester City this season.
A lot of people weren’t happy with the decision – yours truly as well. And the match didn’t start well for the U.S. as the hosts conceded in the opening minute. It looked like a horrible move.
While he wasn’t tested severely, Steffen did OK. Don’t be surprised if he is back in net for the Mexico match.