Zack Steffen: “We took the game, made them run and killed them to get the three points at home.”
Down a goal after less than a minute in their spiritual home of Columbus, the remaining 89 of the clash with Costa Rica quickly turned into a test of this team’s mettle.
The USA motto is ‘We respond’
On Wednesday, it was another day, another scare for the U.S. men’s national team. Down a goal after less than a minute in their spiritual home of Columbus, the remaining 89 of the clash with Costa Rica quickly turned into a test of this team’s mettle. What a test it was, and what a response they came up with. This was arguably their most impressive performance of the window, a 2-1 triumph as the U.S. bounced back from Sunday’s Panama setback in a big way. “Our motto is ‘we respond’, no matter what happens in the game because we know there’s going to be ebbs and flows, and it’s not always going to be perfect,” said goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
“That’s just what happened tonight. I’m very proud of the guys and how we responded. We took the game, made them run and killed them to get the three points at home.”
The three points were as crucial as ever after Sunday’s disaster in Panama
Added USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter: “My initial thought was, ‘Here we go, we’ve got to respond.’ We challenged the guys to respond after a poor performance in Panama, and this was going to be another element that we needed to respond to.” These three points were as crucial as ever after Sunday’s disaster in Panama, one which saw Berhalter criticized for his lineup decisions. He responded by fielding not only the youngest lineup in the USMNT’s World Cup qualifying history but also in any official competition. It took less than 60 seconds for the young USMNT’s backs to be against the wall, with Keysher Fuller popping up at the back post the punish the U.S. for a calamitous sequence. Steffen brought in for the red-hot Matt Turner in goal, came out, and could not stop the shot a few seconds later. Sergino Dest, among other USMNT defenders, fell asleep.
The U.S. are back on track
The USMNT was down 1-0 even before the American Outlaws’ tifo came down. For a split second, panic appeared to set in. Heads dropped just a little, the crowd grew frustrated. But then came the fight back. The U.S. started putting together sequences that fans did not see against Panama as the first half wore on. The midfield, lifted by the returns of Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams, connected. Dest bombed forward in typical fashion. Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson were active and dangerous, putting a bunkered, ageing Costa Rica team on the backfoot. Dest provided the equalizing goal, a stunning left-footed missile that left even the great Keylor Navas helpless. You will not see many better finishes; even it was Dest’s second career USMNT missile. Just like that, the U.S. was back on track.
The team knew what their game plan was
From that point forward, the U.S. did not tire or take their foot off the gas. Instead, they ran Costa Rica’s old dogs ragged before finally getting the game-winner. The second goal was a scrappy one, deemed an own goal as Dest found Weah, who fired a shot off substitute goalkeeper Leonel Moreira and into the back of the net. But it was fully deserved for a U.S. team that never withered, despite an early catastrophe. What a night it was for Weah, a player that did not even know he was starting until moments before kickoff. An injury to Paul Arriola thrust him into the lineup, and he took full advantage. “We weren’t nervous at all,” Weah admitted.
“Taking the goal obviously was a bummer pretty early in the game, but we knew what our game plan was. It was to expose their backline, and I feel like we did that.”
Up next: a clash with Mexico in Cincinnati
The USMNT will finish the international break in second place, with the team’s young core having taken two steps forward despite that step back in Panama. If they had lost, Costa Rica would have leapfrogged the U.S. in the standings by a point, potentially pushing the U.S. down as far as fifth place. But that did not happen. It was a perfect bounce-back effort, a game that showed that they could respond to different types of setbacks on this messy road towards Qatar. Up next, though, is the big one: a clash with Mexico in Cincinnati. After that match and the following trip to Jamaica, the U.S. will have an excellent idea of where they stand. Nights like Wednesday will get them there. Good teams get points when they are at their best, while World Cup teams get points when their backs are against the wall.
“The main goal on the to-do list qualifies for the World Cup, and we’re not there yet,” Berhalter said .” We can’t rest until we’re there, and then even when we get there, it’s about how can we perform in a World Cup. The goal is to give guys experience. We knew going into this qualifying group that many guys were going to be getting their first experience in it, and that was part of the package. Internally, we’re calm. We understand what we’re doing.” Berhalter and co. may be peaceful, but these games are anything but. Wednesday night, though, showed that this young U.S. team will not be one to let setbacks get them down for too long. As Steffen said, “we respond”. That they did, so onto the next.”