There was a moment in the first half, not even 20 minutes into the United States’ World Cup qualifier at Jamaica, that American midfielder Yunus Musah gathered the ball in the center of the field at Independence Park and contemplated one of his favored rampages toward the opposing goal. He had demolished Mexico with his physical strength and dribbling skill, and it was time to do the same to the Reggae Boyz.
As Musah advanced, though, the ball did not. The field — yes, the field — had other ideas.
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It’s not always the opposing fans or the refs or the pressure of the circumstance. Sometimes, it’s as simple as lacking the comforts of home. For a squad that included three teenagers and was the second-youngest the USMNT ever deployed for a qualifier, being unable to count on the ball rolling evenly was among the many reasons it left Jamaica with a 1-1 draw and a single point to add toward its total.
“We’re not looking at it as a disappointing result. We’re looking at it as a good result,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter told reporters. “Any time you can get a point away from home is a good thing in CONCACAF qualifying. 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 we’ll absolutely take on the road.”
It’s a point more precious than American fans are likely to appreciate. The U.S. easily could have lost, given one blown opportunity at a wide-open tap-in for Jamaica’s Bobby Reid and a disallowed goal from his teammate, Damian Lowe, on an 84th-minute set piece.
The U.S. took a 1-0 lead on forward Timothy Weah’s inventive 11th-minute goal, which required a sweet feed from striker Ricardo Pepi, two nifty moves from Weah and a left-footed finish past ace goalkeeper Andre Blake. That was answered 11 minutes later, though, when Jamaica’s Michail Antonio — currently third in the Premier League in goals for West Ham United — drove to the left against U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, stopped and cut back to his right foot and left Adams behind. He blasted a searing shot from 34 yards that found the top right corner, beyond the reach of goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“Obviously, it was a rough game. Not the result that we wanted,” Weah said. “We knew it was going to be difficult.
“Conditions were rough, but that’s no excuse. We wanted to execute, but it wasn’t there today.”
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It’s difficult to reconcile this torpid performance against the brilliance of Friday night’s victory over Mexico. But combining the two gives the USMNT four points from the two-game window in CONCACAF qualifying, and still leaves it in position to earn an automatic position in the 2022 World Cup field.
The Americans now have five points from four road games, slightly ahead of the “win your home games, draw on the road” standard that tends to assure qualification in this format. However, they’re also a couple points behind at home because of a 1-1 September draw against Canada. Their 15 points through eight games is three more than they earned in the entire 10-game qualifying round when failing to qualify for Russia 2018.
Qualifying will not be easy. Not that it ever has been.
“It was difficult conditions, it really was,” Berhalter said. “Controlling the ball, playing the ball was challenging. You can chalk it up to simply that. It was challenging field conditions, and the movements weren’t always clean. That’s something you can’t control.”
This is not something Musah would have encountered often while growing up in Italy or later England, where he trained in the Arsenal youth program. Pristine pitches predominated once he moved to Spain to join Valencia in 2019, and that’s what was in place in Cincinnati — even though it rained — when the USMNT dominated rival Mexico to earn a 2-0 victory and take over first place in the final round of World Cup qualifying.
After that moment in the 18th minute, though, Musah seemed to abandon the skill that had made him such a force against Mexico. With midfielder Weston McKennie out because of a yellow-card suspension — and with Musah muted and fellow teen Gianluca Busio just a shade hesitant in his first qualifying start — the Americans lacked the engine that had driven them four days earlier.
Berhalter allowed that he thought Musah was bothered by the conditions, then told Sporting News he also was bothered by a case of strep throat.
“We could tell that was taking a toll on him,” Berhalter told SN. “I don’t want this to be about the field, I really don’t. It was the same for both teams. We had enough time to be moving the ball. It was difficult, but we had enough time. And it’s just something you have to deal with. And we’re used to dealing with that.”
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Are they, though? Most of the USMNT still has played in just a few CONCACAF road qualifiers. Hesitation was horrifically huge for many of those who played Tuesday. So many circumstances that could have been devastating developed because players expected balls to roll into their feet, only to see them die and be beaten to the play by the opposition. There were passes fed in the direction of teammates that lacked the necessary pace, including one to Steffen that traveled so slowly it nearly allowed Jamaica another simple scoring chance.
That’s what happened on the play that set Reid up, with U.S. right back DeAndre Yedlin waiting too long to pursue what should have been a simple clearance. Instead, Jamaica was able to feed a cross to the far post, where left back Antonee Robinson tried to clear it for the Americans. Instead, he knocked it directly across the goal to Reid. What should have been a simple tap-in was blasted over the crossbar because Reid panicked.
In the 84th minute, Jamaica’s corner kick was pursued by Lowe directly in front of the goal, but he was called for climbing over defender Walker Zimmerman’s back to head the ball past. Berhalter said he heard the whistle quickly, so he believed referee Juan Gabriel Calderon of Costa Rica was convinced of his call.
“When you think about the youth of this group, the inexperience of this group in CONCACAF qualifying, we’re on the right track,” Berhalter said. “Just thinking about it, you don’t often get where you’re in a qualifying competition, one venue is freezing cold, and the next venue is this tropical climate.
“Most continents, when they have qualifying, the weather’s consistent. So we’re going through a lot here, man. We’re learning on the fly. The guys have done a good job with that. We’ll take our position now and focus on 2022.”
To be clear, he meant the six games remaining in qualifying that will be played in the new year — not “Qatar 2022.”
The Americans are not there yet. And the road to get there will remain bumpy.