The USMNT celebrate their latest dos a cero triumph on Friday night. (© Kareem Elgazzar/The Enquirer / USA TODAY NETWORK)
By Michael Lewis
A couple of words of caution to the wise:
After Friday night’s marvelous performance against Mexico, playing Jamaica hardly will be a pushover, if history is a lesson.
The U.S. men’s national team is 1-1-4 at Independence Park in Kingston, Jamaica – aka The Office. And at The Office the Reggae Boyz mean business. Eight goals have been scored in those six matches, four for each side. The first three results ended up as scoreless draws.
Now, I understand that some people think: Just because it happened before, it will happen again.
Every game is different. Tactics are different. Lineups are different. The environment is different.
The USA could get its feet back on the ground and take the momentum from the second half of the dos a cero result the best and run the Jamaicans out of their own stadium.
That is highly unlikely for a few reasons.
Away routs, particularly during World Cup qualifying in Concacaf are rare.
And then there is the weather.
As of 3 p.m. Sunday, the weather forecast has a gametime temperature (3 p.m. Jamaica, 5 p.m. ET) of 86 degrees and a 37 percent chance of thunderstorms. That is double the gametime temp of 43 degrees in Cincinnati on Friday night.
The Jamaicans are accustomed to playing in those conditions, the Americans aren’t.
I’ve been to The Office. The first time I went there in 2001, it was a midday match, and the sun was blazing (the writers’ area, BTW, was in the middle of the stands, without a roof, so we had our day, or in this case, our afternoon in the sun and it wasn’t pleasant, even with sun screen).
Imagine how the players feel.
And for whatever it was worth: there was the smell of marijuana, sometimes strong, sometimes weak, emanating from the stands. I’m not saying it effected play on either side, but it was part of the atmosphere, for good or bad.
Subs can become destroyers
For all you fans who think it is the end of the world for a player to start on the bench, a little reminder that in many instances that players coming on in the second half will make a greater impact than if they start.
They bring fresh legs to the pitch, especially around the hour mark, when many players start to tire (depending on conditioning, age and how much “useless running” – chasing the ball they have done).
Which brings us to one Christian Pulisic.
We all know that he just returned from a high ankle sprain that sidelined the Chelsea standout since the September qualifying window. That was two months. Neither squad can afford to have the 23-year-old midfielder to injure himself again and force him to miss more important matches, for club and country.
Head coach Gregg Berhalter has to use Pulisic as a late-game option and weapon.
It worked to perfection in the 74th minute on Friday night as Pulisic scored on his first touch, heading in a right-wing cross from Tim Weah to snap the scoreless deadlock.
Pulisic is likely to come off the bench in the second half. Will he be able to enter the match early? That will depend on how he feels and what the situation calls for.
And Pulisic wasn’t the only USMNT player to make an impact off the bench. Jesus Ferreira came on late and set up the second goal to make the result into that classic scoreline.
You don’t want to send damaged goods back to Chelsea and have another long recovery.
These players aren’t like those represented in FIFA 22 in which you can throw them on the field and they keep playing like an Energizer Bunny.
A little secret: every player performs with some kind of injury or knock. Very few are 100 percent. There probably is something going on somewhere in their body. If you have ever participated in competition, even as a youth or an amateur, you know that’s the nature of sports.
Remember, there are three matches in the January window, two at home. It starts against seventh-place El Salvador (1-3-3, 6 points) at a venue to be selected on Jan. 27, continues at third-place Canada (3-4-0, 13) on Jan. 30 and ends with a Feb. 2 encounter against last-place Honduras (0-4-3, 3) at a venue TBD.
In qualifying, you’ve got to try to win the game in front of you, but coaches need to play the long game as well, and I don’t mean long ball. The Concacaf Octagonal standings have the USA (4-1-2, 14 points) playing the bottom two sides in qualifying. That is ripe for six points. Make that a must for six points.
One last word on the latest dos a cero
I’ve had the opportunity to watch the USMNT play Mexico in person some 20 occasions in competitive matches – WCQs, Concacaf Gold Cups and the U.S. Cup and countless times in friendlies on TV or streaming.
It is quite safe to say I don’t remember the Americans dominating a half like they did in Cincy. It was no contest.
Actually, it started late in the second half as they started to breakthrough, stretching the El Tri defense, team and backline. The only things that stopped the hosts from celebrating a goal was some nifty saves by goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa and a few blocked shots.
I was not surprised that the USA broke through in the second half. They kept on stretching the defense and owned the right flank, thanks by in large to Weah.
Yes, the USA players are younger than the Mexicans, who had 11 players over the age of 30. Now, don’t get me wrong. Experience is vital, and it is important to have a few players who know how to deal with situations. But having too many players on the other side could spell doom for many teams who want to play at an elite level.
And the names they had on the roster, while talented and playing overseas, did not strike fear into this writer’s heart.
That doesn’t mean the Mexican players are bad, but they were worn down by the U.S.’s press, beaten to the ball in the second half and allowed the hosts virtually a free reign on the right wing.
At the international level, the difference between winning, losing or playing to a draw is that thin. A missed half step and then getting beat on a 10- or 20-yard run by one step could mean the difference between a cross into the box that turns into a scoring opportunity or a goal, or a tackle that starts a clearance.
Did the result signal in a new domination by the USA?
Well, the Americans won all three important encounters between the two teams this year – the Concacaf Nations League, Gold Cup and the WCQ. The USMNT has outscored Mexico, 6-2, in those three confrontations.
That’s pretty damn dominating.
Another test will come when the two tussle again at Estadio Azteca on March 24. A draw by the U.S. will be considered a victory. A win by the Americans could signal a pink slip for Mexican boss Tata Martino, if he hasn’t been sacked by then.