Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic Help USMNT Get Their Swagger Back

“I’d classify today as a good game.”

That was a bit of an understatement from Gregg Berhalter, whose USMNT steamrolled Trinidad and Tobago 6-0. The U.S. are now assured of a spot in the Gold Cup quarterfinals. 

Their performance against T&T is satisfying confirmation of the progress they made against Guyana in the first group stage game. Guyana’s quality meant that the U.S.'s initial 4-0 win could be taken with a grain of salt, especially given the Americans’ dire performance in pre-tournament friendlies. But it looks now like the U.S. have gained confidence and familiarity. At least for one fruitful stretch, they showed they can break down bunkered shapes.

A blowout win against Trinidad is not a measure of substantial progress in itself. This game took place in Cleveland, not Couva, and the U.S. usually have little trouble at home against most non-Costa Rica Caribbean and Central American opposition. 

But there seemed to be a shift in mentality against Trinidad. The U.S. players played with urgency as the game wore on, negotiating Trinidad’s tricky man-marking system and playing better defense from the front of the formation. The midfield, with Michael Bradley and Weston McKennie deep, continued to improve its ball-tracking and possession-winning savvy. Once Gyasi Zardes scored the U.S.'s second in the 66th-minute, the floodgates opened, and the U.S. played with energy and confidence. 

The last time this type of joy emanated from the U.S. was in 2017 — when they annihilated Panama at home in a must-win qualifier a few days before the infamous Trinidad game. Christian Pulisic, who sometimes looks unconfident in a U.S. uniform, finished with a goal and two assists Saturday night and joked with reporters after the game. The stoic Berhalter seemed unusually pleased. Once they cracked the T&T code, everything went swimmingly.

Some tactical kinks will be ironed out. The preceding friendly losses will not be forgotten — the issues that shone through then could arise at some point in the future, perhaps against better opposition. It is fair to be concerned about the midfield still, despite the improved performances. The U.S. rely on just two deep mids — Bradley and McKennie — and could be outnumbered by teams that play more on the front foot. 

Bradley has been mostly good, but he doesn’t have the ball-winning presence and nuance that a player like Tyler Adams does:

It was much worse with Wil Trapp in there. Bradley and McKennie do the job. McKennie, especially, has improved, and fares well when ranging forward. He has good vision and can hit well-weighted passes, adding another facilitator centrally when the U.S. set up shop in the final third to break down park-the-bus opposition. 

It was McKennie who seemed to spark the U.S. ahead of their second-half goal outburst. His fracas with Trinidad center back Daneil Cyrus, prompted by a dispute between Cyrus and Zardes, fired everyone up and induced soccer’s equivalent of benches clearing; all the players crowded around and produced some further pushing and shoving, with Zack Steffen jogging forward out of his goal. Things were tense for an instant, with fiery Trinidad keeper Marvin Phillip berating McKennie. 

Players downplayed the effects of the melee after the game. Asked if it fired him up, Pulisic said that “it fired Weston up,” and added that he “tries not to get into that stuff.” Aaron Long expressed similar conclusions. 

But it’s hard to ignore the correlation between the McKennie-Cyrus altercation and the outpouring of goals — the quarrel occurred in the 56th-minute, and Zardes scored the U.S.'s second goal in the 66th. There was a noticeable increase in the U.S.'s confidence and intensity. The ability to whack down inferior opposition in style has been missing from this national team. 

If, by the way, we’re playing the correlation game: Jordan Morris entered on the wing for Tyler Boyd just before the U.S. scored five goals from the 66th-minute on. Morris had two assists and a profoundly positive effect on the game. 

The way that Berhalter wants to use his right winger fits Morris’s style of play. Boyd spent much of the game shifting up top alongside Zardes when the U.S. were in possession, ensuring that the U.S. had sufficient numbers centrally and allowing Pulisic to roam and create overloads. When Boyd rotates up next to Zardes, defenses have to deal with two channel runners in addition to Pulisic’s chance creation and Nick Lima’s constant overlapping. 

Morris, when he subs on, is a speedy, channel-running forward who primarily masquerades as a winger. He’s perfect for the role, and perfect to throw on as a super-sub. Boyd, though, won’t relinquish the starting job. He has impressed in his Gold Cup minutes, with aggressiveness on the ball and a willingness to attack off the dribble. 

Berhalter, while reluctant to admit tactical changes he made prior to the tournament, mentioned after the game that he adjusted Boyd’s positioning slightly to deal with Trinidad’s man-mark system. By withdrawing Boyd, and then Morris, deeper in the formation, he drew their markers out and unlocked space for Pulisic, McKennie, and Bradley.

With one more group stage game remaining and a spot in the quarters already clinched, Berhalter could switch up his lineup and test other guys. When asked after the game how he would approach that situation, Berhalter emphasized that he hasn't been in this situation before and will consider his options. International tournament management is a unique beast.

However Berhalter approaches Wednesday’s Panama game, he will have to find a way to maintain the level of confidence his team showed against Trinidad, particularly in the second half. Simplifying the tactical approach has worked. Jozy Altidore could start ahead of Zardes at striker, a change that would drastically improve the U.S.. Signs point to the U.S. returning to a positive trendline.

Harrison Hamm is a sportswriter who covers American soccer and MLS for FloFC. He also covers sports for FanSided and The Comeback, and has freelanced for the Washington Post.

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