It was disappointing in that the USMNT failed to build off the momentum it generated with a tantalizing 2-0 win against Mexico on Friday. That’s the vibe coach Gregg Berhalter picked up on in the locker room after the game, where he saw the unhappiness on his players’ faces.
Playing in a humid environment on a less than ideal field, the U.S. was sluggish and rarely threatened after the game’s first 20 minutes. Combination play was lacking, touches were heavy and the team seemed gassed well before the final whistle blew.
For Berhalter, though, disappointment shouldn’t be the takeaway.
“We’re not looking at it as a disappointing result. We’re looking at as a good result,” he said. “Anytime we can get a point away from home is a good thing and CONCACAF qualifying and I want to be very clear by saying that. I think for the guys to have their heads down because we wanted more is completely natural, but this is a point that will absolutely take on the road.”
That, of course, is the glass half-full approach. Through eight games of World Cup qualifying, the United States is well on its way to punching its ticket to Qatar 2022. With three automatic qualifying spots, the road point ensured the United States would sit first or second in the standings with two three-match windows remaining.
“That was our objective of the window,” Berhalter said.
The absence of Weston McKennie in central midfield due to yellow card accumulation was felt throughout the game. His partnership with Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah has been a revelation for the USMNT and with 19-year-old Gianluca Busio playing instead, the team didn’t have nearly the same bite in the middle of the park. Musah was also playing through strep throat, Berhalter said, which undoubtedly limited his ability to make his usual impact before being subbed out in the 66th minute by Kellyn Acosta.
Following Canada‘s 2-1 win against Mexico later Tuesday night, the United States (15 points) is in second place, a point behind its northern neighbors. Mexico and Panama are tied for third (14 points) after Panama erased a 1-0 halftime deficit to beat El Salvador 2-1. It was Panama’s second comeback victory of this window.
After missing out on Russia 2018, Berhalter’ stated objective is a completely reasonable stance, even if it hints at a lack of ambition. What that doesn’t touch on is that the United States should feel fortunate to have gotten the point in Kingston.
Last month in Austin, Texas, it was the U.S. that felt hard done against Jamaica by the lack of VAR (video assistant referee) in CONCACAF qualifying. There were two challenges that resulted in yellow cards in that game that could have easily turned to red upon further review. However, it didn’t end up factoring into the final result, with the U.S. scoring two second-half goals to win 2-0.
The roles were flipped in this game, with the major difference being the lack of VAR likely cost Jamaica the win. Damion Lowe headed in what appeared to be the go-ahead goal in the 84th minute, only for it to be called off for an apparent foul on Lowe. Replay showed minimal contact between him and U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman as the two jostled for position with the ball in flight.
“That is something I don’t think I want to talk about,” Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said. “I think the officials are there to do their job. From the sideline, I can sit and say anything. … I’m not a person that complains about officiating.”
Privately, Whitmore has a right to be steaming. Jamaica started the day five points behind Panama. To fall two points further behind with only six matches left could end up being the difference in reaching the playoff match to earn a World Cup bid for the first time since 1998 — and just second time ever. Jamaica has the talent to reach that level, best illustrated by the play of Michail Antonio, whose brilliant strike from over 30 yards out beat USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen in the 22nd minute.
The English-born West Ham United forward became eligible to play for Jamaica this year after receiving his passport. The 31-year-old had been called in to multiple England youth national team squads in the past but never featured. He has now scored in both his games during this window for the Reggae Boyz.
“It’s one of those goals where really you just turn around and clap your hands and say, ‘Amazing goal, amazing individual effort,’ and you can’t do much about that,” Berhalter said.
Prior to Antonio’s goal, the U.S. looked like a team ready to pick up right where it left off Friday night in Cincinnati. The team dominated possession, created several dangerous attacking sequences and led 1-0 through an incredible goal from Timothy Weah, whose emergence over the past three matches has showcased the pool’s impressive depth of attacking players.
“When I’m [with the national team] I feel amazing,” Weah said. “It’s like a breath of fresh air being with the boys. We play so well together. We’ve known each other for a long time. So it’s truly, truly amazing coming back here.”
After playing 90 minutes against Mexico, Weah slowed down about midway through the second half and was replaced by Christian Pulisic, who continues to work his way back to fitness. Berhalter raised the possibility on Monday that Pulisic could start, but acknowledged Tuesday it was a bit of gamesmanship on his part in order to complicate the game planning process for Jamaica. After scoring on his first touch against Mexico, Pulisic’s impact was minimal against Jamaica.
The United States will resume World Cup qualifying Jan. 27 at home against El Salvador in a window that will include a trip to Canada (Jan. 30) and a home game against Honduras. Prior to that, it will play Bosnia and Herzegovina in a friendly on Dec. 18.