All good things must come to an end. For the United States men’s national soccer team, they tend to do so right away.
On Friday, the USMNT played its best game since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, dismantling Mexico as thoroughly as it ever has in adding another dos a cero win to its collection. On Tuesday, the Americans gritted and ground and were lucky to escape Jamaica with a 1–1 draw and a point. Sisyphus didn’t spend as much time pushing upward and slipping downward as these guys. At least this time, they didn’t hit rock bottom. This team has proved that it can dominate games when it plays well. It can play as the underdog, absorbing pressure and stealing a goal when the situation demands it. But it still has to learn how to shake itself out of its Plan A when things aren’t going well—how to seize control of the games that run counter to plan.
At first this didn’t seem like that would be necessary against Jamaica. The U.S. scored just more than 10 minutes in, when U.S. winger Timothy Weah played a one-two with Ricardo Pepi and ran right around Bobby Reid’s ineffectual challenge to finish off the far post.
Jamaica tried to turn the game into a demolition derby, swarming the ball in midfield and attempting to pin the U.S. on the sidelines.
The Jamaican game plan took full advantage of the theater of engagement. The field in Kingston was poor, the ball visibly bouncing even on the broadcast feed, and that (ironically) leveled the playing field. The field bought Jamaica’s defense time to recover when they might otherwise have been beaten; the extra touches the U.S. had to take to settle the ball and the imprecision with which their passes were hit introduced friction into the U.S. attack. Neither of the American fullbacks DeAndre Yedlin nor Antonee Robinson ever found the range with their crosses. Weah and Brenden Aaronson both struggled to weight their passes properly on the Independence Park stadium’s moguls. In this kind of contest, the U.S. missed Weston McKennie, who was ineligible to play after accumulating yellow cards in two previous qualifiers. McKennie is better suited to surf the chaos of games like Tuesday’s than his replacement Gianluca Busio; he seems to have a knack for reacting quickest in pinball situations, as on his goal against Mexico Friday. Aside from one narrow miss on a shot from distance, Busio was a nonentity, unable to convert his impressive Serie A form into CONCACAF results.
Jamaica hardly played better, but it was better prepared for this sort of contest. The Reggae Boyz put all their quality into one golden moment, a culmination for its recent push to secure the commitment of eligible dual-nationals. Michail Antonio––born in England to Jamaican parents and currently starring for Premier League surprise side West Ham––got the ball in an innocuous position, took one touch to change direction on Tyler Adams, and unloaded a devastating four-seamer that’s perhaps the most “I’m not even mad; that’s amazing” goal that will be scored all cycle.
Antonio has scored six goals in 10 games for his third-placed London club this season, but chances are this wasn’t in the Americans’ scouting report for him. All 52 of his Premier League goals so far have been scored from inside the box. Reid restored the fundamental balance of the universe early in the second half when he missed high on a golden opportunity from about five yards out after a mistake from Robinson. The Americans caught another huge break at the end when Jamaica had a late winning goal called back for some nebulous, foul-like activity committed in the box on a corner kick. The U.S. seemed to blow all its best scoring opportunities in the second half before a shot could be taken. A draw, in these circumstances, was something the U.S. would take.
Could the USMNT have done better? Sure. It had all the momentum after Weah’s goal, but it failed to convert it into a second one that might have taken the game out of reach before Antonio’s magical howitzer. This felt like a failure not of talent but of experience. No one who watched 18-year-old Yunus Musah boss Mexico around Friday would question his ability, but his lack of experience showed early on in Kingston, as he struggled to adjust to the field conditions and the Jamaican physicality. He showed a tentativeness driving forward that wasn’t there against Mexico, an imprecision with his receptions that slowed the U.S. down. (U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said after the game that he played through a case of strep throat, which could also explain some of it.)
Musah plays far better when he’s working in a side with both Adams and McKennie. All three seem to be essential parts for the U.S. to hit its top gears. The U.S. depth was supposed to be a strength, and while backups have stepped up in the attack—none of Weah, Aaronson, or Pepi were starters when qualifying kicked off—and in defense, where Walker Zimmerman was the best U.S. player over both games, the midfield reserves have remained a step behind. Kellyn Acosta has struggled to hold the center the way he did this summer in the Gold Cup. Sebastian Lletget, steady early in Berhalter’s tenure, has struggled in limited appearances during qualifying. Busio was better coming on as a sub against Costa Rica in October where he had more time against a tired defense.
This game should put the lie to the notion that the USMNT ought to steamroll their way through the CONCACAF away schedule on talent alone. Qualifying does not work like a game of FIFA, where every player has a number and if the numbers don’t all add up right then that must be Berhalter’s fault. Experience, nous, and familiarity matter. You can’t simultaneously believe that the U.S. is currently good enough to run the qualifying table and that they need the same three guys out there every single match in order to do so.
Even if all three of the MMA midfield trio plays, the U.S. won’t win all of the six games it has left in qualifying. It has too many tricky away dates left—at a resurgent first-placed Canada, at Mexico, and at Costa Rica—to do so. But draws in those and holding serve at home should be enough for the second-placed U.S. to qualify for the World Cup comfortably. Canada sits on top of the standings not just because it beat Mexico in Edmonton Tuesday night, but because it’s found a way to scrape a point from games in the U.S. and in Mexico. Third-placed Mexico is reeling after a dominant start to qualifying because it just lost two straight away games. Panama has ridden two straight come-from-behind wins to a tight fourth-place finish on goal differential. (The top three teams go straight to the World Cup. Fourth place will advance to a play-off with a team from either Asia, Oceania, or South America to win a spot.)
For all but the best and worst teams, international soccer is a game of wild swings. In the absence of a significant volume of data points, every game feels like the start of a new significant trendline. The Jamaica result could have been worse, but the next step for the USMNT will be figuring out how to make games like that one end better.