High School Regional Finals CHS Boys & Girls at Home Murray Stadium this Saturday
The #3 Ranked Carmel High Girls defeated Brownsburg 3-0 on the road Wed with a couple of Assists by former Carmel FC star Emily Roper to advance to the Regional Finals Saturday at Murray Stadium where they will face East Central at 3:30 pm. #2 Homestead downed #1 Noblesville 4-2 to advance to the Finals at Kokomo. The Carmel Boys defeated Avon 3-1 at Avon to advance to the Regional Championships at 1 pm on Saturday at Murray Stadium. Tickets for the games are $8 and available here. The Cathedral girls face Brebeuf Sat at 4 pm at Bishop Chatard.
US Wins 2-1 in Columbus – stands in 2nd in Concacaf standings 6 games in
The Youngest ever group to start a US Qualifier rallied from an early goal down to win 2-1 in front of a wild crowd at the Fabulous new Columbus Crew Lower.com Field. I was part of that crowd along with my neighbors Partha and Ed – check out the pics.
Barcelona Defender Sergino Dest scored a screamer to tie the game up in the first half before Lille’s Tim Weah’s 2nd half goal to put the US ahead for good. Coach Berhalter returned home to the place he once coached the MLS Crew and started his former Goalkeeper Zach Steffan in net for the first time in the Qualifiers. Listen I had no issue with Steffan in goal here and he played fine overall. The backline was solid with the return of Dest and Robinson on the edges and Miles Robison in the middle along with surprise starter Hoffenheim centerback Chris Richards. Richards definitely had issues with turnovers at times – and showed why he’s probably 4th in the pecking order of Center Backs – while Miles Robinson again proved why he should NEVER not be on the Field at Centerback for the US again for the next 15 years – he was a rock back there. Dest of course gave up the first cross that led to the Costa Rica goal before showing his offensive swerve with his game tying goal. He is honestly the flashiest player (check this rebono from Wed Destinho) the US has produced – can tell he plays for Barcelona. Meanwhile Antonee Robinson showed he is far and away our best left back option with his continued runs into the offense with solid cover on defense.
Speaking of cover – is there any doubt who the MVP and true Captain of this team is – Tyler Adams controls the game from his Dmid #6 slot and continues to prove we are simply not the same team without him. In the middle I thought Weston McKinney was solid if not unspectacular-he still disappears for entire portions of the game – and needs to press his will on the game more in my opinion. One of the biggest finds this year by Berhalter to me is Yanus Musah. The 18 year-old Valencia man is simply made to play in our midfield when McKinney and Adams are on the field too. Musah’s ability to move the dang ball forward instead of backwards (Roldan, Bradley, ) is what sets him apart. He really runs at the defense and breaks them down – and even though he hasn’t mastered the perfect pass yet – you can see he’s thinking it – the kid is 18 – and he really makes this US team better!
Speaking of making us better – Brenden Aaronson is the next coming of Landon Donovan – period. He’s going to be that good – and at just 20 years old he’s only going to get better. He runs forever – with a constant motor – and already you can tell he’s reading the game better after just a few months at Champs League side Salzberg. Honestly seeing as Pulisic is always injured – having Aaronson to fill in the 5 out of 10 games that Christian doesn’t play is a nice safety net – and if Christian is healthy – Aaronson is a super 2nd half sub on the opposite side. The opposite side (right wing) was the key position in my mind this game as Tim Weah (subbing for late scratch Paul Arriola) turned in a man of the match performance. His lightning quick bursts down the line were impressive finally leading to the 2nd half winning goal. Thank goodness fate stepped in and kept Berhalter from screwing this up!!
Speaking of Berhalter – I take my shots at him – and yes he seems to make some INTERESTING decisions sometime – but folks saying this was a do or die game for him are just flat stupid! All the guy has done is win 2 straight trophies using 2 completely different teams while beating our archrivals Mexico each time in the process. He’s invited more players – young players into camp than the 3 previous coaches combined – while only losing 3 games in the process. Yes Berhalter is trying to change the way the US plays – he’s trying to get this young talented team to possess the ball and control the tempo – something NO OTHER US TEAM – has ever done even against the Minnows of CONCACAF. We should absolutely control the possession against every team in CONCACAF except perhaps Mexico. But switching to this style of play takes talented players who can pass and control the ball – something the young guys seem to have. He just started the youngest ever team to play a qualifier and won. This team is the Golden Generation – and I for one think Berhalter is doing a fine job bringing this young team along. I can honestly say that every player who started tonight – could well be on the squad in Qatar and 4 years later in the US – in fact in 2026 many of them will really be hitting the prime of their careers. This team is building for the future – just like Berhalter is. He’s learning on the job- he makes mistakes along with way – but overall this team is trending up. We are the highest we have been ranked in forever – and this team will qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. Oh and Cudos to ESPN on Wed night – solid ½ pregame showing and decent 15 minute postgame –in wasn’t Paramount plus’s fantastic coverage with a 1 hr lead in and outtro- but it was better than normal.
The Ole Ballcoach is desperately looking for Mexico vs USA tickets next month in Cincy – if you have a line on tickets please let me know. 1, 2, 3, 4 tickets – willing to pay over price.
2022 WCQ Standings
Champions League is Back Tues/Wed –Paramount+ US Players Abound
Looking ahead to Champions League this week finds Americans in darn near half the games which are on Paramount – with the Golazo Show covering all the games on CBS Sports Network at 3 pm Tues/Wed. (See full schedule on the OBC) Wednesday 6 of the 7 games have American’s headed by Salzburg and American winger Brendan Aaronson vs Wolfsburg and Centerback John Brooks at 12:45 pm. Tuesday the big Game is PSG vs RB Leipzig with American coach Jesse Marsch and Tyler Adams on Paramount+ at 3 pm along with Liverpool traveling to Atletico Madrid also at 3. You have to see this Trick Shot by Dortmund’s Haaland.
US Ladies Play Thurs Night ESPN– Carli Lloyd’s Last Games
The US 2nd Leading Scorer of All time will lace them up for the USWNT just 2 more times as they play South Korea Thurs night on ESPN then Tues night on FS1.
US Ladies Roster
GOALKEEPERS (2): Jane Campbell (Houston Dash; 6), Adrianna Franch (Kansas City NWSL; 9)
DEFENDERS (7): Abby Dahlkemper (Houston Dash; 76/0), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars; 41/1), Emily Fox (Racing Louisville; 4/0), Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars; 36/0), Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit; 147/2), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC; 195/0), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit; 60/0)
MIDFIELDERS (5): Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC; 104/23), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign; 64/16), Catarina Macario (Olympique Lyon, FRA; 10/3), Kristie Mewis (Houston Dash; 30/4), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit; 19/2)
FORWARDS (7): Tobin Heath (Arsenal, ENG; 179/36), Carli Lloyd (NJ/NY Gotham FC; 314/134), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride; 188/114), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars; 65/18), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign; 185/61), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC; 8/1), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage; 42/13)
Indy 11 face Louisville at Home Sat 7 pm My TV 23
Indy Eleven could put a nice little feather in its 2021 cap by taking the season series against Louisville outright for the first time with a win on Saturday at 7 pm. Tickets are still available. Playoff chances are slim to none for the 11 so this might be the last real chance to salvage something out of the season by knocking off their heated rival Louisville. Sat night is Breast Cancer Awareness Night – Real Men Wear Pink !! – In conjunction with Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a limited amount player worn and signed warm up jerseys will be available for purchase at the game (while supplies last). Portions of the proceeds will support American Cancer Society and Indy Eleven Foundation. Pink Tshirts and Scarfs will also be available.
The BYB is Hosting the Annual ChILI COOK-OFF will be from 4:00 PM 6:00 PM before the game in the BYB Lot.
BIG GAMES TO WATCH
Sat 10/16 (American’s in Parenthesis)
9:30 am ESPN+ Freiburg vs RB Leipzig (Adams)
9:30 am ESPN+ Union Berlin vs Wolfsburg (Brooks)
10 am USA Leicester City vs Man United
11 am beIN Sport Lille (Weah) vs Clermont
12 Noon NBC Brentford vs Chelsea (Pulisic)
High School Regional Finals CHS Boys 1 pm & Girls 2:30 pm at Home Murray Stadium this Saturday
7 pm ESPN+ TV23 Indy II vs Louisville
10:30 pm EPSN+ LA Galaxy vs Portland Timbers
9 am NBCSN Everton vs West Ham
930 am ESPN+ Bayer Leverkusen vs Bayern Munich
11:30 am NBCSN NewCastle United vs Tottenham
1 pm ESPN NY Red Bulls vs NYCFC
2 pm CBSSN NC Courage vs NY/NJ Gotham FC NWSL
2:45 pm Paromout+ Juventus (McKennie) vs Roma
3 pm ESPN+ Barcelona (Dest) vs Valencia (Musah)
7 pm Paramount+ Houston Dash vs Portland Thorns
Tues 10/19 – Champions League
10 am Paramount+ Celtic vs Ferencaros (Europa)
12:45 Paramount+ Beziktas vs Sporting CP
3 pm Paramount+ PSG vs RB Leipzig (Adams)
3 pm Paramount+ Atletico Madrid vs Liverpool
3 pm Paramount+ Porto vs Milan
3 pm Paramount+ Brugge vs Man City (Stefan)
Wed 10/20 – Champions League
10:30 am Paramount+ Spartak vs Leicester City (Europa)
12:45 Paramount+ Salzburg (Aaronson) vs Wolfsburg (Brooks)
12:45 Paramount+ Barcelona (Dest) vs Dynamo Kyiv
3 pm Paramount+ Lille (Weah) vs Sevilla
3 pm Paramount+ Chelsea (Pulisic) vs Malmo
3 pm Paramount+ Young Boys (Pfuk) vs Villareal
3 pm Paramount+ Man United vs Atalanta
3 pm Paramount+ Zenit vs Juventus (McKinney)
12:45 Paramount+ Vitesse vs Tottenham
8 pm ESPN USA Women vs Korea KC
8 pm FS1 USA Women (Carli Lloyd last game) vs Korea KC
PARAMOUNT PLUS Live TV, Soccer & Originals Starting price: $4.99/mo. Features Champions League, US Men’s National Team, CONCACAF WORLD CUP Qualifying, , Serie A, Europa League Free Trial
USMNT World Cup qualifying: What’s working and what’s not through six games Bill Connelly ESPN
U.S. reliance on youth pays off as Dest, Weah lead comeback win ESPN hJeff Carlisle
USMNT vs. Costa Rica takeaways: Tim Weah, Sergiño Dest spark comeback in qualifier LA Times
USMNT player ratings from Dest-led comeback win over Costa Rica
Gregg Berhalter, USMNT stars applaud comeback: ‘The mentality is right’
U.S. men’s national soccer team erases early deficit, beats Costa Rica in World Cup qualifying
2021 NWSL Timeline: Amid league failures, players reclaim control
Embattled NWSL moves championship game from Portland to Louisville
NWSL championship final moved from Portland to Louisville after player complaints
USL’s new women’s league announces first president
Abby Wambach says she ‘failed to speak out’ as a player
Tobin Heath, Catarina Macario of USWNT score in Women’s Champions League
Canada are stronger than ever – and the best may be yet to come
England held as Hungary fans clash with police
Denmark qualify for 2022 World Cup
Germany qualify for Qatar 2022 but Belgium made to wait
Japan boss urges team to build on crucial World Cup win, Son scores again
Soccer on TV: Leicester City-Manchester United and a Bundesliga first-place battle bring European club soccer back to action
Plus, find all the info you need to watch the big games in Italy, Spain, MLS and the NWSL.Oct 14, 2021 The Philly Union – The Goalkeeper
Leicester City vs. Manchester United
Saturday, 10 a.m. (USA Network, Universo)
Leicester has endured a wobbly start to the Premier League season, with recent ties against lowly Crystal Palace (owned by the Sixers’ Josh Harris) and Burnley. The Foxes have the talent to get back on track in $33 million striker Patson Daka (a former teammate of Brenden Aaronson at Red Bull Salzburg) and midfielders Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, and Youri Tielemans Philly
Manchester United, of course, has Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba. The Red Devils are two points out of first, and probably won’t top the table after this weekend because the other top teams all have winnable games. But they have the look of title contenders.
Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich
Sunday, 9:30 a.m. (ESPN+)
At just 18 years old, Florian Wirtz has fired Leverkusen into a first-place tie atop the Bundesliga with Bayern. Can the challengers dethrone the nine-time reigning champions and win their first German league title since 1979? This game will tell us if they’re for real.
Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur
Sunday, 11:30 a.m. (NBCSN, Telemundo)
Newcastle plays its first game since the club was bought by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which everyone involved — including the Premier League — insists isn’t the same thing as the Saudi government. But PIF chair Mohammed bin Salman is the country’s crown prince, deputy prime minister, and minister of defense.Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were among many vocal critics of the deal. Amnesty accused the Premier League of “allowing those implicated in serious human rights violations to walk into English football simply because they have deep pockets.”Bin Salman has long been accused of ordering the killing of journalist Jamal Khasoggi, though he denies it; and the country’s government has a reputation for abusing rights activists and quashing dissent.For many Newcastle fans, though, all that seems to not matter. On the day the deal was sealed, a big crowd celebrated outside the Magpies’ St. James’ Park Stadium. Some fans chanted “We’ve got our club back!” after longtime owner Mike Ashley, whose reign had Newcastle as one of England’s most glaring underachievers, departed.
New York Red Bulls vs. New York City FC
Sunday, 1 p.m. (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
A few weeks ago, the Red Bulls were presumed to be too far out of the playoff race to make a serious run. They’ve since proven that presumption wrong, charging up the standings with a six-game unbeaten run. Two of those games were against NYCFC. A win or tie here would make this year the first since 2015, the Pigeons’ debut season, that the Red Bulls haven’t lost against their Hudson River Derby rivals.
READ MORE: The rest of this weekend’s MLS schedule
North Carolina Courage vs. Gotham FC
Sunday, 2 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)
Thanks to having two games in hand, Gotham has not just a shot at a playoff berth, but an outside chance at a first-round bye if it can win out. On paper, this is the hardest of the four remaining games for Carli Lloyd, Margaret Purce and company. The remaining three include a visit to last-place Kansas City and a home-and-home set against next-to-last Louisville.
Juventus vs. Roma
Sunday, 2:45 p.m. (Paramount+)
Juventus seems to finally be up off the mat in Serie A, in seventh place with four straight wins after starting the season with two losses and two ties. Roma is in fourth place thanks in part to English forward Tammy Abraham, formerly of Chelsea. This will be a measuring-stick game for both teams.
Barcelona vs. Valencia
Sunday, 3 p.m. (ESPN+)
Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest and Valencia’s Yunus Musah starred for the U.S. men’s national team in Wednesday’s 2-1 World Cup qualifying win over Costa Rica. They might get this game off to rest, but Barcelona can’t take it too lightly. Archrival Real Madrid comes to town next weekend.
» READ MORE: The rest of this weekend’s La Liga schedule
Venezia vs. Fiorentina
Monday, 2:45 p.m. (ESPN+)
Though Gianluca Busio only got limited playing time in the U.S.’ recent World Cup qualifiers, he looked great when given the chance. Now he returns to Italy to help Venezia continue its quest to avoid going back down to Serie B in its first top-flight season for 19 years.
By the way, if you’re a soccer fashionista, Venezia’s viral-sensation jerseys are coming back in stock. You’ll have to fork over $127, including all the shipping fees, you can’t get customization, and you might also have to gamble on getting the size right. But the jerseys are really sharp.
United States comes back to beat Costa Rica as Sergino Dest strikes
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter changed his lineup significantly, inserting goalkeeper Zack Steffen among nine changes to the starting 11 following Sunday’s 1-0 loss away to Panama as his team looked to pick up a needed three points against a veteran Costa Rica team. The Americans gave up a first-minute goal to Costa Rica’s Keysher Fuller, but drew level in the 26th when Sergino Dest buried a gorgeous shot from distance on the counter-attack to beat Keylor Navas.”I was like, I have to shoot it,” Dest said. “I was just so happy We needed that goal. It was a really important goal. Right now we are on track.”The home side continued to pile on the pressure after conceding early, but Costa Rica did not go away and saw a penalty shot waved off as half-time approached when Chris Richards appeared to trip up Johan Venegas in the area after a poor giveaway by the U.S. defense.A Costa Rica own goal saw the U.S. take the lead after the hour mark, when Timothy Weah‘s well-struck shot from a tight angle came back off the post and bounced off backup keeper Leonel Moreira, who came on for the injured Navas, before trickling into the net.Paris Saint-Germain keeper Navas injured his right adductor muscle and was replaced by Moreira at half-time.The U.S. had Costa Rica scrambling after it took the lead and saw several near chances go before seeing out the victory to move up to 11 points from six matches in the team’s quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.The three points was all the more impressive given the Americans fielded their youngest lineup ever in a World Cup qualifier, averaging 22 years, 61 daysNext up for Berhalter and the Americans is a huge Octagonal match against Mexico on Nov. 12 in Cincinnati (watch live on ESPN2 at 9:10 p.m. ET). The U.S. will visit Jamaica four days later.Over its final six matches, the U.S. must travel to Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica.
USMNT Is Positioned Well for Mexico, World Cup Qualification After Roller-Coaster Week
Two home wins sandwiched a dreadful road defeat, but the key moments tilted in the favor of the U.S., which is left with a positive World Cup qualifying outlook.
AVI CREDITOR SI
n such an intense, fast-moving period, it’s easy to become prisoner of the moment.As it relates to the U.S. men’s national team and its quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, that means, for those on the outside, contemplating a roller coaster of what-ifs, worst-case scenarios and knee-jerk reactions that may either be lacking the context of the bigger picture or may not entirely be rooted in reality—at least not with the full complement of evidence required to come to such conclusions. For those on the inside, it means tuning all of that out as much as possible and keeping one eye on the big picture and the other on what’s right in front of you.“What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces. We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way. We want to play well and we want to win games,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said following Wednesday night’s 2–1 win over Costa Rica. “But all of World Cup qualifying is difficult. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging. And sometimes I feel like people forget that and people think it’s a cakewalk and we’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a game, and we’re just going to breeze through these games. It’s not realistic.”The U.S. most certainly did not breeze through this October window, but on the surface, a six-point haul after home wins vs. Jamaica and Costa Rica and a lifeless road defeat to Panama represents another satisfactory effort in the grand scheme. Somewhat ironically, though, it was a series of individual moments that allowed the U.S. to emerge from the October window in good shape. The victory over Costa Rica was defined by a number of instants that went the U.S.’s way (after the first-minute calamity, that is). There was the 13-pass sequence that led to Sergiño Dest’s goal (and yes, the sequence nearly broke down after the first few passes, and you could argue that Tim Weah should’ve hit an early, first-time cross to Dest, but the play wound up with Dest’s banger of a goal, so all of that is moot).There was the potential-PK-that-wasn’t on Chris Richards’s sliding challenge on Jonathan Moya (Berhalter may wind up grateful after all that Concacaf does not have VAR available in this competition). There was Miles Robinson’s awful giveaway and heroic recovery tackle (he’s fortunate that was Bryan Ruiz who made the steal and not someone with the pace of, say, Alphonso Davies). There was the injury to Costa Rica star goalkeeper Keylor Navas that at least raises the idea that perhaps Weah’s shot that resulted in the game-winning own goal could have had a different fate. And there was the pregame injury to Paul Arriola that resulted in Weah’s starting to begin with. There’s no telling what Arriola could have or would have done in that place, but Weah wound up as one of the U.S.’s top performers on the night. Often, a complex picture boils down to the fine margins, and on Wednesday, the majority fell in favor of the Americans.So the U.S. moves forward as part of a trio of teams beginning to separate from the pack. The Concacaf Octagonal isn’t halfway done just yet, but the three 2026 World Cup hosts—Mexico, the U.S. and Canada—are positioned best to secure the region’s three automatic berths for the 2022 showcase. For the U.S., there’s a five-point buffer between its current standing and not making it to Qatar, though with road matches at Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica still to come, the hard part hasn’t yet hit.Since this is the first eight-team final round of Concacaf qualifying, there’s no previous data to draw upon to determine what would be a target number of points for the U.S. to hit to secure a top-three berth, but through six games, the U.S. is likely and roughly halfway to glory slightly less than halfway through the fixture list.There’s little time to rest on laurels, though. The home Mexico game is on tap next, and full focus will be on Cincinnati, where the U.S. can either pull even on points with El Tri atop the table or find itself dragged back closer to the middle of the pack, allowing the external doubts to creep back in ahead of a trip to Jamaica. Barring injuries, the U.S. will have a full deck for the Mexico match. It was imperative that Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, the indispensable midfielders they are, avoided picking up second yellow cards in qualifying Wednesday that would have rendered them suspended (Adams looked to be close to receiving one for dissent after Costa Rica’s opening goal, with the referee going to his pocket before ultimately not doling one out). If Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna are fit to rejoin the team—and take a second to consider that the U.S. has secured 11 points from six games by getting just one match out of Reyna, just over one and a half from Pulisic and one and a half from imposing center back John Brooks—then Berhalter may actually have a full complement of top talent for his first time as U.S. coach. Given that November’s is a more traditional two-game window and not a three-game one, squad rotation will be less of a requirement as well.All eyes will also be on the U.S. goal. Zack Steffen was handed the start in Columbus, and the first-minute fiasco made for a clinic of second-guessing. Did Berhalter need to make a change in the back and open himself up to the potential for criticism when Matt Turner had been so steady? In the long run, it may prove that getting Steffen that game has tremendous value, and while it’s nice that on one hand the U.S. feels it has two goalkeepers it can turn to in big spots and feel equally at peace, it helps when there’s consistency at the back. Steffen lost the No. 1 job due to injury and COVID-19, so in one sense it’s unfair to take it from him permanently, but Turner had deputized well in the previous five games, coming up with pivotal moments that are likely to be overlooked when qualifying is through, and, unlike Steffen, he plays regularly for his club. The scrutiny over the decision in goal doesn’t look to be ending anytime soon.But that’s a question to be sorted in a few weeks’ time. For now, the U.S. has emerged from another grind of a week in a position of strength. It’s sandwiched in the table between Mexico and Canada, who remain the only unbeaten sides left in the region. Elsewhere, Panama remains equally capable of stifling top foes at home while struggling on the road. Costa Rica looks old and severely limited. Jamaica got the win it needed to remain alive and will hope that the likes of Michail Antonio and Leon Bailey come back next month to fortify the squad before it becomes too late. El Salvador is still a tough foe that has little to show for its efforts in the points column. Honduras is in last place and onto a new coach, its hopes of qualifying for a third World Cup in four cycles dwindling by the game.All things considered, the U.S. remains right where it needs to be to achieve its ultimate goal, and after all the angst, worry and hypothesizing over the last few days, that’s a fine place to reside.
United States reliance on youth pays off in comeback win over Costa Rica
Jeff CarlisleU.S. soccer correspondent
COLUMBUS, Ohio — As Sergino Dest and Tim Weah were making their way back to the United States bench after being substituted, the two offensive heroes pumped up the home crowd at Lower.com Field. Dest high-fived teammates, as well as a few fans. Weah found time to give his jersey to someone in the crowd. Even though there were about 17 minutes left in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, they both showed their exuberance and confidence that the U.S. could see out the rest of the match.
That the U.S. did, prevailing 2-1 over the Ticos to grab a vital three points in its World Cup qualifying quest. The energy displayed by Dest and Weah was fitting in that this was a match where youth triumphed over experience. The U.S. starting lineup, averaging 22 years and 61 days, was the youngest it had ever fielded in a World Cup qualifier. Costa Rica, meanwhile, put out a starting XI with six players over 30. And its youngest player, 27-year-old Keysher Fuller, was older than the U.S.’s oldest player, 26-year-old goalkeeper Zack Steffen. The difference became even more pronounced later in the game when 39-year-old forward Alvaro Saborio, 37-year-old midfielder Christian Bolanos and 33-year-old defender Kendall Waston all entered the match.The U.S. certainly showed its inexperience at times, not the least of which was falling behind with less than a minute elapsed on the clock. But the U.S. showed plenty of resilience in recording a win that likely puts it second in the Octagonal standings.”For us to be navigating through this CONCACAF qualifying — which is a bear, a monster — with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal, and then the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well,” said United States coach Gregg Berhalter after the match. “I mean, Gianluca Busio comes on, and he looks like he’s 30 years old. So I’m proud of the effort. The guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing. They’re growing as a team.”The start couldn’t have been more inauspicious. Less than a minute into the match, Steffen — something of a surprise starter after Matt Turner had started the first five matches — came off his line to clear a through ball with his head, but it didn’t eliminate the danger. With the U.S. defense scrambling to get back in shape, Ronald Matarrita found a wide open Fuller at the far post to sidestep past Steffen.Yet this youthful U.S. team didn’t crumble. In fact, it immediately seized the initiative, and even as the U.S. looked overeager with some of its passing, it was first to a lot of second balls and put consistent pressure on the Costa Rica goal.
“We weren’t nervous at all,” Weah said. “Obviously it was a bummer to take the goal pretty early in the game. But we knew what our game plan was, and it was to expose their backline and I feel like we did that. The outside backs played a huge role today. The wingers played great. Everyone played great so it was us coming together and just staying focused and adding that intensity.”The fear was that with all-world goalkeeper Keylor Navas in net for the Ticos, it was going to take something otherworldly to get on the scoreboard. Dest delivered precisely that, taking a pass from Yunus Musah near the corner of the box, moving the ball to his supposedly weaker left foot and unleashing a rocket into the top corner that left Navas with no chance. Not even the fact that his shoelace was untied could stop him.”I think it was [Weston McKennie], he made the run in behind and the guy follows him, so there was space for me,” Dest said. “I just got put inside and I thought like the only thing I could do at the moment was just shoot it, because we had to score. We are 1-0 down, so I felt like you know, we needed this point so I was just trying to show it and it was an amazing goal.”A critical point in the match came at halftime when it was revealed that Navas had suffered an adductor injury and would have to be substituted for by Leonel Moreira. Without its talisman in net, the game was there for the taking.The U.S. eventually took advantage in the 66th minute, as Dest turned provider for Weah, whose tight-angled drive went off Moreira, hit the post and trickled in. It officially went down as an own goal, though Berhalter said he would try to get that changed.Still, it was a big moment for Weah, who only found out five minutes before game time that he would be starting after Paul Arriola was injured during the warm-up. And just prior to the goal he noticed he was about to be subbed out.”I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndre [Yedlin] on the sideline getting ready to come in, so I kind of had the idea that I was gonna get subbed out,” he said. “But my goal was just to stay focused on till then and it just so happened at the ball came out wide to Serge and I saw the run and I just hit it one time and it happened to go in. It’s just being focused in those moments.”It was a redemptive performance for the U.S. following last Sunday’s loss to Panama, but especially for Dest. Much has been expected of the defender, he of the Ajax and now Barcelona pedigree, yet he has endured a rollercoaster ride in qualifying, struggling during the last window, especially when playing on the left side of the U.S. defense. In this window, Dest succeeded in raising his level, and in this match, he was the difference-maker that fans and teammates alike expected.”It’s almost like the sky’s the limit for [Dest]. He could be as good as he wants to be,” said Berhalter. “You saw today with his attacking play, it’s unreal. For Serge it’s just hanging in there mentally, really pushing himself to be to be the best when he’s on the field.”Dest admitted that qualifying games in CONCACAF are “an eye-opener” and a different world from what he’s used to in Europe. He noted that the intensity is high, and the opponents are hardworking.”And it’s just physical,” he added.But Dest and his teammates are learning they can play that card as well. And they needed to use their physical attributes — and brains too – to get past the Ticos. One moment that crystallized the task facing the U.S. was when defender Miles Robinson gave the ball away in the second half, sparking Costa Rica captain Bryan Ruiz on an apparent breakaway. But Robinson ate up the yards in ravenous fashion and snuffed out the threat. Costa Rica just didn’t have the legs.In the process, the U.S. banished some ghosts too. It was the Ticos who sent the U.S. team’s qualifying effort during the 2018 cycle into a tailspin with a 2-0 road victory. Four years later, this Costa Rica team is clearly one that is in transition. But it’s a foe that still needs to be vanquished, and the U.S. this time protected its home turf.The win puts the U.S. second in the Octagonal standings, but the six points in this window are a smidgen less than what was expected, given that a draw in Panama was doable. And the road is going to get tougher. A Nov. 12 home encounter with bitter rivals Mexico looms, as does a road tilt against Jamaica, which looked revived in a 2-0 road win against Honduras. The U.S. will need to play with more consistency. But so far youth has served the U.S. well, and at least for the moment, the qualifying campaign is back on track.
The USMNT and Balancing Momentum, Changes and the Big Picture
Wholesale lineup swaps led to a disjointed effort in Panama, but it’s all part of a long-term strategy. Whether it proves worthwhile is the lingering question.
quick glance at travel options from Chicago, where U.S. Soccer is headquartered, to Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, reveals that, as of Monday, there are very few nonstop flights. The vast majority of routes come with stops along the way, some that may not be the most direct or convenient. This is not meant to be a travel advisory for those looking to book plans for next November, but more so a roundabout, metaphorical way at stating that for the U.S. men’s national team, making it to Qatar quite clearly won’t be achieved via the most direct and desirable means.In theory, having a top-choice team available for every World Cup qualifying match would be great. In theory, having to confront schedule compression that jeopardizes the wellbeing and ability of players more than it has in the past wouldn’t be a factor. And in theory, the quest to sustain momentum would not be in direct conflict with what’s realistically required over the span of such a hectic week.That’s how the U.S. wound up arriving at Sunday night’s approach, where the impact of seven lineup changes became a prevailing theme following a 1–0 defeat in Panama that, again, has the spotlight squarely on the U.S. to respond in its next match. With Weston McKennie (muscle strain) and Antonee Robinson (COVID-19 travel protocol due to his club being based in the U.K.) not making the trip, two changes were already guaranteed, but taking it a significant step further wound up throwing off the balance of the team. As manager Gregg Berhalter said, the U.S. was not great in duels vs. Panama, and its spacing was all off. The Americans didn’t manage a single shot on goal, and their expected goals total, something Berhalter has used as a data point to defend previous results where the final scoreboard hasn’t been fully flattering, was a paltry 0.22. As Berhalter succinctly and accurately said amid more detailed and self-reflecting remarks, “We were poor.”“Looking at the game [vs. Jamaica] on Thursday in Austin and then the travel and then what we’re going to be dealing with here, the conditions, we wanted to be able to get fresh guys on the field,” Berhalter said. “You saw some of the guys that played in the game in Austin had a difficult time bringing the intensity that we needed. So we were hoping with this lineup that we were going to get that, get mobility, and we didn’t play our best. We had a number of guys that performed below expectations, and that’s part of it. It’s a young group. It’s about learning, regrouping and going from here.”Winning the Nations League and Gold Cup this summer with different squads perhaps instituted a false level of expectation that the U.S. could effectively swap out lineups on a wholesale level and have little to no drop-off. But there’s nuance that gets lost in that. Not every player can step in and replicate to the same effect, and the number of the switches isn’t necessarily as important as the specifics of who wound up starting. Beyond that, the stakes are significantly higher here, and it’s become clear (if it wasn’t already) that Tyler Adams’s presence on the field can have a domino effect on everyone else. Trotting him out for the entirety of all three games this month, as was the case last month, was untenable, though, Berhalter said.“Prior to this camp, Tyler hasn’t been playing regularly for his team,” Berhalter said. “He had a little bit of injury, he was in and out of the lineup, so now to ask a player who has not had any load or much load in the last three weeks, to go play three 90s, I wasn’t comfortable with it, and I’ll take responsibility for that. The good thing is he’ll be ready to go against Costa Rica, and he should have full power for that game.”The number of changes was significantly higher compared with some of the U.S.’s chief competitors. It’s not apples to apples given the number of variables in play, but Mexico, playing with the luxury of having two straight home games with no travel in between matches, made three lineup changes from its first match of this window to the second. Perhaps more appropriate as it relates to the U.S., Mexico made five swaps last month between matches at Costa Rica and at Panama, and Los Canaleros held El Tri to a 1–1 draw—and would’ve taken all three points if not for a late Tecatito Corona equalizer.Canada, facedwith the difficulty of playing two straight road games before heading home, made five lineup swaps Sunday night. Costa Rica, the U.S.’s next opponent, played on the road and returned home, making just three changes in between games and knowing full well that a flight to Columbus beckoned.Los Ticos were in a considerably more desperate position, though, carrying only three points into their fifth game and knowing that defeat to El Salvador on Sunday would have spelled early doom. As much of a greater margin for error as there may be in a round that features 14 matches instead of the previous 10, there is still a giant match-to-match swing when it comes to comfort level in the table, considering the stakes.The level of comfort for the U.S., which hasn’t had the services of the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna for this full window, was different. Perhaps sitting atop the table entering Sunday’s game and having a slightly larger margin for error based on its most recent results, it felt able to take a calculated risk and make more sweeping changes, thinking that if it could steal a point or even all three in Panama that it’d be sitting pretty three days later vs. Costa Rica—and that even if it didn’t, it’d still be set up to succeed in its next match with a more full-strength squad. There’s a big picture to take into account, even if a quick-trigger fan base demands excellence on a game-to-game basis. The U.S. demands that of itself, too, but the practicality of executing that given all the constraints and long-term planning is not always considered. There’s no doubt that Berhalter and the U.S. got it horribly wrong Sunday night, but there’s little time to dwell on it when the next match and next chance to spin the narrative is less than 72 hours away.“I think the way to look at it—and this is how I looked at it—now it obviously doesn’t look like the best choice, but I think we have to wait until Thursday,” Berhalter said. “Because if we would’ve played the same players from the last game—first of all, two of them weren’t even here, so that was going to be impossible—but if we would’ve played the same players in this game, I’m not sure we would position ourselves in the best way to win again on Wednesday. The conditions that we’re dealing with here, the travel, with the weather, made it complicated. And we had to make I guess a somewhat risky decision, and the good thing is we’re still in second place.”He’s right about being in second place, but in such a congested table over a third of the way through the qualifying competition, the sixth-place team is only three points behind. And the problem with enduring such a self-inflicted stumble and coming up on the wrong end of that calculated risk is that the U.S. has put itself into a similar position as it did last window. It needs a win in its final match to stabilize its table standing and enter the next window feeling good about the big picture and its overall itinerary on what it hopes is a winding road that ultimately leads to Doha.“Our goal is to go into Wednesday’s game and get three points,” Berhalter said. “We take every game as it comes, and Wednesday is another opportunity to get three points and further establish our position in the group.”
Lot of Fight, a Little Fate and a Course Correction for USMNT
The U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifying campaign has proven to be about a young group’s capacity to respond, and that was on display in a second window-salvaging win in as many months.
BRIAN STRAUS SI
OLUMBUS, Ohio — The tifo hoisted by the American Outlaws behind the north goal of Lower.com Field was still fluttering in the evening breeze when disaster struck.“Our Future Is Now,” the massive banner read. But just 60 seconds into Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier against Costa Rica, the U.S. men’s national team’s future appeared imperiled. A short clearance by goalkeeper Zack Steffen, a somewhat surprising choice to start in place of workhorse Matt Turner, helped spark a Tico attack that ended with a slow, seeing-eye shot from defender Keysher Fuller bouncing in to Steffen’s right. And with that, the U.S. was losing this mostly must-win match before the smoke from the pre-game pyrotechnics had finished drifting into the Columbus night.This month’s three-game qualifying window was about responses. The U.S. had to respond to the absence of its two most dangerous attacking players, the injured Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna. It had to respond to Sunday’s loss in Panama, which was probably its worst performance under coach Gregg Berhalter. And it had to respond following that stunning first-minute breakdown. That’s a test for any team. And it represents an especially intriguing challenge for one so inexperienced and young. The starting lineup Berhalter chose to face Costa Rica was the youngest in the program’s World Cup qualifying history. It averaged 22 years and 61 days.“That’s basically unheard of in international football,” Berhalter said.
The Americans controlled the contest, pinned Costa Rica back and deserved the good fortune to come. Sergiño Dest, the 20-year-old outside back, brought the U.S. level with a stunning 25th-minute equalizer. The hosts survived a couple nail-biting defensive errors on either side of halftime and then in the 66th, Tim Weah—a last-minute addition to the U.S. lineup—fired home the game-winner. The 2–1 victory and three points lifted the second-place Americans to a 3-1-2 record, strengthened their hold on one of Concacaf’s three direct berths to the 2022 World Cup and helped boost morale ahead of the November showdown with Mexico.Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports Both three-game windows have been a grind. The U.S. didn’t hit its stride in September until the second half of the third game. There was a steep learning curve for a team of qualifying debutants, injuries and the sensational suspension of midfield anchor Weston McKennie. This month, a relatively easy opening win over Jamaica was followed by the faceplant against Panama, which generated considerable conversation and concern about Berhalter’s faith in the depth of his player pool and the team’s mental fortitude. Fuller’s goal provided one more symbolic hurdle. The Americans cleared it with aplomb. https://41be34960ab1bd05b2b76c8ba5ee64ce.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html “What I try to avoid, especially with the team, is putting pressure on them because of external forces. We have enough internal pressure that we want to play a certain way. We want to play well and we want to win games,” the manager said. “But all of World Cup qualifying is difficult. All of World Cup qualifying is challenging. And sometimes I feel like people forget that and people think it’s a cakewalk and we’re going to play the youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a game, and we’re just going to breeze through these games. It’s not realistic.”They’re young enough that seven players on the current squad, six of whom saw action on Wednesday, weren’t born when Columbus hosted its first World Cup qualifier back in the fall of 2000. The old Crew Stadium had become a symbolic and spiritual home for a national team lacking an official one, a fortress where the Americans routinely challenged Mexico for regional supremacy and lost only once. The venue is now different and far more modern. But if Columbus really is the national team’s spiritual home, then the ghosts delivered for the Americans on Wednesday.Winger Paul Arriola pulled up injured during warm-ups, and Weah found out five minutes before kickoff that he was going to start. The 21-year-old Lille attacker struggled in Panama but got an unexpected chance to make amends in Columbus. Moments before he was set to be replaced in the second half, he made a smart run between the Costa Rican left and center backs, positioned himself over a short pass from Dest and hammered a shot off the post and goalkeeper Leonel Moreira. It was scored as an own goal, which seemed unfair to Weah and rankled Berhalter.“I don’t think it’s an own goal. I think we gotta get that changed,” Berhalter declared. “I think it’s Tim’s goal. So we’ll talk to FIFA about that or whoever we need to and see if we can get that reversed.”Weah was just glad he started and was still on the field, and he made the most of that twist of fate. “I saw [Matthew] Hoppe and DeAndre [Yedlin] on the sideline getting ready to come in so I kind of had the idea that I was going to get subbed out,” he said. “My goal was just to stay focused until then, and it just so happened that the ball came out wide to [Dest], and I saw the run and I just hit it one time and it happened to go in. It was just being focused in those moments.”Moreira’s inability to corral Weah’s bid also represented a bit of good fortune for the hosts. Costa Rican legend Keylor Navas, a three-time UEFA Champions League winner, started the match but departed after the first half with a muscle injury. Perhaps he parries Weah’s shot. Perhaps that’s the difference between one point and three.But the U.S. earned its luck. Its response to the early deficit was confident and emphatic. All the movement, proactivity and dynamism that was missing in Panama was on display in Columbus, where Berhalter deployed nine new starters (Weah and Yunus Musah were the only holdovers). The Americans didn’t buckle after Costa Rica’s goal. Rather, they soon imposed their will in midfield and carried the play. By the time a quarter hour had passed, the U.S. was clearly in the ascendancy. Dest’s goal was a thing of beauty—a 13-pass move that included nine players and which finished with a brilliant, space-creating decoy run by McKennie and then an emphatic left-footed blast by the Barcelona back.He was responding too. Dest had a miserable night in the Octagonal opener in El Salvador and was lifted early. He then got hurt in the subsequent game against Canada. Wednesday was a welcome boost, and Dest acknowledged his return to form with animated exhortations to the crowd as he exited the match in the 73rd minute.“Obviously I grew up in Holland and the Concacaf teams, they play a little bit different,” Dest said. “The intensity is high. They work a lot. They work really hard and it’s just physical. It’s physical. But, I mean, we can also do that, you know? And I think if you just work as a team we can beat every team.”Nobody has ever doubted this squad’s potential. It’s loaded with players who are on the books at the sport’s top clubs and others who are attracting their attention. Putting that potential into practice, however, hasn’t been seamless. Berhalter has argued that ups and downs should be expected. That’s a function of youth and of trying to qualify from a region whose teams have a habit of nullifying edges in talent or pedigree. Conditions are tough, the travel is a grind and the opposition is desperate and savvy. Any point is a good one. Rebounding from a poor performance with a come-from-behind win is a sign that the composure and confidence required is developing. “The beginning we weren’t sharp enough,” Dest said. “After a couple minutes we came into the game and created more chances, and we were in their half. The mentality of this group is still right, you know? We work together. We do it together.”Berhalter didn’t have to stretch to draw a link between the Sunday’s loss and Fuller’s early goal.“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,” he said.“If you go look at the Germanys, Frances, Brazils, they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams. So for us to be navigating through this Concacaf qualifying, which is a bear—a monster—with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field, particularly going down a goal, and then the second half being up a goal and managing the game really well. … I’m proud of the effort,” Berhalter added. “The guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing. They’re growing as a team.”
Three Takeaways from the USMNT’s World Cup Qualifying rally past Costa Rica
By Charles Boehm @cboehm Wednesday, Oct 13, 2021, 11:15 PM
COLUMBUS, Ohio – By any means necessary, right?
Ws are the bottom line during World Cup qualifying, and while the US men’s national team took the long cut to get there at Lower.com Field – longer than the Olentangy and Scioto Rivers’ meandering paths past this lovely new venue, I reckon – they did indeed reach their goal, digging out a 2-1 comeback win over Costa Rica to put their Concacaf Octagonal campaign back on course.
Here are three observations from a massive, stomach-churning but ultimately quite encouraging victory.
Nightmare start, thumping response
Gregg Berhalter made nine changes from the XI that stumbled so badly in Panama last Sunday, most of which were understandable. But the one in goal was perhaps a bit more of a head-turner, so to speak: handing Zack Steffen his first World Cup qualifying cap and dropping Matt Turner after 11 consecutive starts across Gold Cup and qualifying action.
It’s not that Steffen hasn’t accrued both caps and credibility with this team, it was more a question of his sharpness – having played just two matches for Manchester City so far this season – and whether a change at this particular moment was necessary, from both a team and individual standpoint.
It looked like even more of a talking point when Steffen showed some hesitancy as Los Ticos surged forward and slipped a scruffy goal past him a mere 60 seconds after the opening whistle, a brutal punch to the gut on a night where an inspiring start had been a clear priority for the USMNT.
“My initial thought was, ‘Here we go, we got to respond,’” said Berhalter postgame. “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.”
And indeed they did, pushing through some obvious jitters and gradually connecting passes to build a rhythm. While they probably didn’t expect to see such a proactive early approach from Costa Rica, the energy, movement and bite of that rangy Tyler Adams-Weston McKennie-Yunus Musah midfield trio steadily tilted the field in the Yanks’ favor.
Marauding fullbacks are a core element in Berhalter’s ideal way of playing and Sergino Dest and Antonee Robinson filled the role to a T here, crafting crisp passing triangles along the channels and stretching the Ticos with their constant availability on big, booming switches. And then Dest calmed just about every US nerve in the building with this weaker-foot thunderbolt of an equalizer:
“It was early enough in the game, if we stayed calm and stuck to the game plan, I thought we’d be OK,” said Berhalter of the early setback. “It briefly flashed in my mind, Costa Rica just going into a really really low block. Thankfully they didn’t do that. So credit to the guys for staying calm, hanging in there and playing our game.”
Joy and rhythm
With an average age of 22 years and 229 days old, the USMNT starting XI was the youngest World Cup qualifying lineup in program history, breaking the record set just a month ago in the Honduras win. There’s reason to fear the downsides of that inexperience against a bunch of savvy vets like these Ticos – yet there are also major advantages, too.The young Yanks finally asserted control over the balance of a match, bossing the possession battle by a 64-36 ratio and forcing their much older adversaries to chase, shift and scrap. The visitors tired visibly down the stretch and while it was to their credit that they hung around until the very end, they looked a beaten, broken bunch as they limped off the pitch.Meanwhile, there was some entertainment on offer for the home faithful in addition to the vital three points. The US are playing this freakishly young lineup because they’re damn good, and with Dest, Tim Weah, Brenden Aaronson & Co., there’s skill and daring aplenty. The run of play was downright vibrant at times.Dest even made a point of thrilling the crowd not only with his golazo, flicks and backheels but also by being an impromptu cheerleader after exiting the match, which can only further endear him to the supporters:
“The crowd is amazing,” Dest said. “I love the fans, I was trying to get them hyped up, also for the other players. We can feel that the fans have our backs, so hopefully they continue like that.”
A third, clinching goal seemed close at hand, but when it didn’t materialize, the USMNT had to keep their focus and salt away the result – and it spoke volumes when Gianluca Busio, a 19-year-old WCQ debutant, was called upon to help do so, successfully.
“That’s basically unheard of in international football,” said Berhalter of his fresh-faced side. “If you go and look at the Germanys, Frances, the Brazils, they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams.
“So for us to be navigating through this Concacaf qualifying, which is a bear, a monster, with this group, and the amount of poise they showed on the field today, particularly going down a goal and then the second half being up a goal, managing the game really well – Gianluca Busio comes on and he was playing like he’s 30 years old. So I’m proud of the effort, the guys showed a lot of poise and they’re growing, they’re growing as a team.”
As mentioned above, the concept of control has been a recurring thread in this USMNT’s journey to date – the ability to put a thumb on a match’s metronome to slow it down it or goose it up as needed.
That trait was woefully lacking in Panama, and it burned them. Something similar can be said of the disappointing draw against Canada last month, and for significant stretches, the away tie in El Salvador as well.
On Wednesday the group put it all together, getting stuck in, knitting together passing combinations, coordinating their movements and turning the screw minute by minute. Costa Rica did tug open a few seams here and there and it took a jaw-dropping display of Miles Robinson‘s recovery speed to shut down a sudden Bryan Ruiz breakaway in the second half.
But on the whole, the Yanks remained protagonists, undergirded by the engine-room steel and athleticism of “MMA”: Adams – who remains irreplaceable – McKennie (an influencer who needed to step up here) and Musah.
If those three can stay healthy, build their chemistry and keep a focus on both the short-term work and the long-term rewards ahead, they have a real prospect of growing into a force to be reckoned with down the Octagonal stretch, and eventually in Qatar 2022.
“We know his talent,” said Berhalter of the excellent Musah. “The talent is off the charts, and I know it’s easy to talk really highly about a guy after he plays well in a win and everyone’s happy. But I’m telling you, the kid is a player.
“Regarding Weston, he’s another one that his physicality, his desire alone can carry him, and just can push the team. He plays with a lot of momentum, he plays with a lot of energy, in transition moments he’s explosive, he sees passes. For me, he’s really a quality player.”
A Dominant U.S. Midfield Overcomes a Disastrous Start; A Tremendous Team Goal Finished by Dest; the USMNT Is On Track for the World Cup
Sergiño Dest (left) scored on a left-footed rocket past Keylor Navas (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — Here are my three thoughts on the USMNT’s 2-1 win against Costa Rica in Wednesday’s World Cup qualifier, bringing the U.S. to 11 points after six games in the CONCACAF Octagonal:
• The U.S. midfield was hugely improved over the Panama loss. After going down 1-0 in the first minute in the worst start imaginable, the U.S. deserved to come back and win this game, not least because the midfield was dominant. Tyler Adams should start every game in the central midfield, period. He’s a game-changer in how much space he controls, and he makes players like Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie around him better. The U.S. had 63 percent possession in the game and was far smoother in its passing than the jumbled mess we saw in Panama Sunday. That central midfield completed just 11 passes to each other in the first half; Adams, McKennie and Musah completed three times as many in the first 45 on Wednesday, as noted by TruMedia’s Paul Carr. While Costa Rica’s aging players were exhausted in the second half of their third game in seven days, the U.S.’s midfielders kept ticking and the Ticos rarely looked threatening. The one time they did, when Bryan Ruiz had a breakaway thanks to a botched U.S. pass, Miles Robinson reeled Ruiz in like you might expect a 24-year-old to track down a 36-year-old.
• The USMNT scored one of its best goals in a long time. Sergiño Dest has a knack for producing highlight-reel goals, and he added a glorious one to the list by blasting a rocket with his left (weaker) foot—with his shoelaces untied!—past Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas to tie the score at 1-1. But I wish highlight packages would also show the other reason why it was such a great goal: The majestic U.S. buildup involving 13 passes among nine players over 35 seconds. That’s the kind of soccer this U.S. team is capable of playing, and when they do it’s something to behold. It was also the first time in nine games that the U.S. scored a goal in the first half. On Tuesday, Antonee Robinson said the U.S. players needed to remind themselves that they’re a good team and can be ruthless in the attack, that it was time to be less conservative. The result of that approach was one of the best U.S. goals—and build-ups—that we’ve seen.
• It’s hard to exaggerate the importance of the U.S. comeback. This was a pivotal match in the 14-game Octagonal. Had Costa Rica kept its lead, the Ticos would have overtaken the U.S. in the standings by a point, the U.S. could have fallen as low as fifth place and U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter would have been on a very hot seat. Instead, the U.S. finds itself in no worse than second place by the end of the night (and first if Mexico loses at El Salvador). That’s a much better place to be in heading into the next qualifier, a huge rivalry game next month against Mexico down the road in Cincinnati. Getting at least six points out of this window was crucial for the USMNT, and that job got done, even if the loss in Panama was ugly. At this rate, the U.S. is doing what it takes to get to the World Cup next year. The path getting there might be bumpier than U.S. fans want—that was certainly the case against Costa Rica—but they’re on track for Qatar.
Dest’s Golazo with an Untied Shoe Powers USMNT’s 2-1 Comeback Win over Costa Rica
Welcome to Fútbol with Grant Wahl — a newsletter about soccer. You can read what this is about here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to some friends. You can also click the button below to subscribe for free and receive every free post in your inbox the second it’s published. And if you do like it, consider going to the paid version to receive every post. I also wrote My 3 Thoughts on the USMNT-Costa Rica game at the final whistle. You can subscribe for free to the Fútbol with Grant Wahl Podcast, including our USMNT-Costa Rica breakdown with Landon Donovan and Chris Wittyngham, in partnership with Meadowlark Media and Le Batard and Friends.
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The great ones do it with their shoes untied. Remember when Usain Bolt won the 100 meters at the 2008 Olympics? He set a world record, and the laces on his left spikes were undone. Or remember when Diego Maradona did the most memorable warmup of all time, dropping outrageous ball skills before a 1989 UEFA Cup semifinal to the Opus song “Live Is Life”? Both of Maradona’s cleats were untied. The U.S.’s Sergiño Dest is not in the Mount Olympus realm of Bolt and Maradona—the Barcelona fullback is just 20 years old—but the equalizing goal he scored in the U.S.’s 2-1 win over Costa Rica on Wednesday was something special, a left-footed jolt of kinetic energy that felt like it could launch all of Lower.com Field into orbit. That Dest struck the ball with his weaker foot at the end of a 13-pass, 35-second buildup involving nine U.S. players was breathtaking. That his left shoe was untied the whole time made it preposterous. When coaches tell you to strike the ball with your laces, they presume that you’ll knot them first. Dest, however, is an unconventional character. When Lionel Messi held his tearful farewell press conference at Barcelona, Messi wore a suit and tie, and most of his teammates dressed for the momentous occasion. The Dutch-born Dest wore a red Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls full kit, shorts and all. “I never really think what I’m going to do,” Dest said after Wednesday’s game, referring to his goal, not the Bulls kit. “Weston [McKennie] made the run in behind, and the guy followed him, so there was space for me. I just cut it inside, and I thought the only thing I could do in that moment was just shoot it. Because we had to score, we were 1-0 down. I felt like we needed these points. So I was just trying to shoot, and it was an amazing goal.”Dest’s play so far In the Octagonal has explored the full spectrum of the Sergiño Experience. He was out of his element on Matchday 1 in El Salvador, his first game ever in Central America, leaving his teammates exposed while he dribbled into dead ends. Bringing a Barcelona starter to Estadio Cuscatlán felt like taking a bottle of Mouton Rothschild to a Jägermeister-drenched freshman dorm party. Last month’s window became a wash when Dest got injured against Canada. But he came back strong against Jamaica in Austin last week, serving a delicate cross for Ricardo Pepi’s first goal, and after sitting out the loss in Panama he brought the goods against Costa Rica.“Sergiño is an interesting player because it’s almost like the sky’s the limit for him,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said on Wednesday night. “He could be as good as he wants to be. And you saw today with his attacking play, it’s unreal. … For Serge, it’s just hanging in there mentally, really pushing himself to be the best when he’s on the field. And I think we’re forgetting how young he is. Defenders rely on experience, and he just needs to gain experience. He’s doing a great job now. He’s played over 60 games for Barcelona already. That’s a really impressive record, and he just needs to keep working.”
Truth be told, Dest hadn’t covered himself in glory defensively on the strange goal that Costa Rica scored in the first minute of the game, silencing the crowd as the American Outlaws were still lowering their tifo. Dest couldn’t keep up with Ronald Matarrita, whose cross found Keysher Fuller open in the box. Fuller’s shot beat an oddly rooted Zack Steffen, who was starting in the U.S. goal in place of Matt Turner. Dest, who was all the way over on the right side, kept the Costa Ricans onside despite U.S. protests, and suddenly the Yanks were down a goal and staring at a fate similar to the devastating home qualifying fixture loss to Costa Rica four years ago.
“My initial thought was here we go,” said Berhalter. “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. It was early enough in the game. If we stayed calm and stuck to the game plan, I thought we’d be okay. It briefly flashed in my mind, Costa Rica could just go into a really, really low block. Thankfully they didn’t do that. But credit to the guys for staying calm, hanging in there and playing our game.”
The U.S. had some luck along the way. After McKennie and Yunus Musah combined to gift-wrap a first-half scoring chance for Costa Rica, Chris Richards—making his World Cup qualifying debut—dove in for a tackle at the last moment and avoided what could have been a penalty and red card. Then in the second half, a bad pass in the back from Miles Robinson sprang 36-year-old Bryan Ruiz on a slow-motion breakaway, only for the 24-year-old Robinson to reel in Ruiz like a Bassmaster and prevent him from even releasing a shot. (Had it been anyone other than Ruiz, the Ticos could have equalized.)…
USMNT legend Landon Donovan will join me and Chris Wittyngham for podcast episodes after every USMNT World Cup qualifier to break down the game and share insights from his vast experience. Those podcasts, in partnership with Meadowlark and Le Batard and Friends, will post on the night of or the day after every qualifier. Every audio episode of Fútbol with Grant Wahl is available for free in the archives on my Substack site, Apple Podcasts, Spotify and elsewhere.
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Hey there. Welcome to Fútbol with Grant Wahl. Thank you so much for joining me. We’ve got another special episode today in partnership with Meadowlark and Le Batard & Friends with reaction from Landon Donovan, Chris Wittyngham, and me to the U.S. men’s national team’s 2-1 win over Costa Rica on World Cup qualifying Matchday 6. Landon is in San Diego, where he coaches San Diego Loyal. Chris is in South Florida, and I am in Columbus, Ohio, where I’m writing for my Substack newsletter, which you should subscribe to, free or paid, at grantwahl.com. Guys, it’s good to see you. How are you?
What’s going on, guys?
I feel like in that intro two things stay the same and one thing changes. And I feel like it’s just a reminder you that you’re at every World Cup qualifier.
That you travel a lot.
Do you think if Keylor Navas is in the game that he makes the save [on the U.S. game-winner]? “Yes. And when he came out at halftime, again, I was with my buddies in the bar and I said, “I have no idea what happened, but that is the biggest blessing for us.” 100% he makes the save. 100% he makes the save on Weah’s shot. And then who knows what happens after that? Maybe the U.S. do score again, but there’s no doubt in my mind. And so, that was a gift.” — Landon Donovan
I travel a lot, man. I am looking forward to getting home for a few days, but I love covering these things onsite. I love the travel, the away games, the home games too. Loved being in that stadium tonight in Columbus, brand new stadium, it’s absolutely gorgeous and just great location, great atmosphere. And the U.S. gets three points after a disastrous start going down 1-0 in the first minute on a truly strange goal by Costa Rica. Let’s start with Landon. What were you thinking at that point?
All right. So full disclosure, I was driving home. I was three minutes late to this bar with my buddies, and I get there and I see the screen and I’m like, “Guys, what the hell happened?” Last time we sat at that bar, we beat Jamaica 2-0. So they’re like, “It’s all your fault. You weren’t here in time. Blah, blah, blah.” So I actually had to see it on the screen of his phone.
And my thought was what everyone thought is, a little bit of a haphazard clearance by Zack [Steffen], but then just a sort of series of, I guess, mistakes, but also a bit of misfortune too. And then on first glance, you think, “Well, the player in front of Zack has to be offside.” And then when you watch the replay, you see Sergiño [Dest] is kind of back in the play. Maybe he’s off the field and that’s like sort of this gray area too. So it was a bit of just a weird play, but a horrible start.
Yeah. I can’t imagine a worse one. And Zack Steffen is involved in that play, but I want to ask you both, like how much was Zack Steffen at fault, and how did you feel about him getting his first start in qualifying ahead of Matt Turner?
“I am fascinated by this game. I think it’s going to be probably the most hyped U.S.-Mexico game ever.” — Landon Donovan
I wasn’t particularly bothered by it. I think there’s a segment of the U.S. men’s national team fan base that was kind of annoyed that this is another bit of tinkering that Gregg Berhalter did that felt unnecessary. I didn’t think that Matt Turner was particularly good in Panama, particularly from a distribution point of view. And so, I wonder if Gregg Berhalter was kind of looking to improve in that area with Zack Steffen coming in.
I was incredibly defensive of the decision. I thought that Zack Steffen has kind of been unfairly maligned now because of how well Matt Turner has played. I don’t think these are two things that are at odds. I still think Zack Steffen is an incredibly talented goalkeeper who has been chosen by Pep Guardiola to be a part of Manchester City. And also Matt Turner has had an incredible couple of years in Major League Soccer.
So I think that both are well capable of starting. But then in the first minute, he’s kind of involved in a moment where you almost see the lack of game experience that he has in recent times, because he is shielded by a defender. It is an awkward situation, he comes racing off his line, which he’s become comfortable with doing, playing for Pep and playing with Ederson.
And so he’s way out of his goal, but then he comes back in, and I think he’s kind of unnerved by this movement that happens in front of him, immediately goes to appeal for offside. And I think is kind of undone by circumstances that maybe if you were playing every week, wouldn’t feel as bothersome or as new to him. So I do think that he is unlucky, but I think the bottom line is that’s probably a save that he should be making, and probably would have made if he was playing regular games for his club.
But I would say, Witty, I can’t really tell, but I’m not sure he saw the ball. I thought maybe he might’ve been double-blinded by his own player and then by the Costa Rican player too. So it’s hard to know if he saw it because it looked like he just reacted late. The first part is, it’s exactly what you said. It’s just not being game sharp and making a little bit of a crazy play flying out of his goal like that.
But that being said, there was plenty of time for the U.S. to settle, defend the cross, block the cross, defend the cross when it came in and then make a play. And they just didn’t. So it was sort of a series of errors. But to the U S ‘s credit, the response was excellent. And what I’ve said over and over to you guys is, mounting pressure on teams, and they just did that over and over and over. And the last 20 minutes were basically a cakewalk because Costa Rica were so worn out.
We talked after the third game in the window last month about how exhausted Honduras was. And you could just see it on the field in the second half. And the U.S. has more players that they use. They have, I think, the advantage of more infrastructural support, they fly charters. They have this whole recovery arsenal that Gregg Berhalter described a little bit when I asked him about it yesterday. And the advantage I think becomes very clear in the third game. And Costa Rica is an old team. I think Costa Rica has players that are older than you, Landon.
[Laughs] That’s saying a lot.
And so, when Bryan Ruiz has the one great chance of the second half, a bad pass in the back by Miles Robinson, and then Miles Robinson catches up to Bryan Ruiz, who should’ve had a breakaway, and Robinson makes a great recovery run and the shot doesn’t even really get off. But you felt like this is an old Costa Rica team. It’s a lot of the guys from the 2014 World Cup team that got to the quarterfinals. And it’s frankly not as good a Costa Rica team as we’ve seen in recent cycles.
So I do want to ask you a little bit about the goal that the U.S. gets because you talked about the U.S. recovery. They didn’t panic after giving up the goal and kind of dominated, I thought, even in the first half. Hadn’t scored a first half goal in nine games. Finally did here. It’s a terrific goal by Sergiño Dest who can make special plays like this happen. But also it was a sequence of buildup that lasted 35 seconds, 13 passes involving nine of the 11 U.S. players. For me, one of the best U.S. team goals we’ve seen in a long time. What were your thoughts on seeing that one?
Phenomenal. It was a phenomenal goal. So when they started building, there is a part of me that was like, “This is dangerous. This is dangerous. This is Do you think if Navas is in the game that he makes the save?
Yes. And when he came out at halftime, again, I was with my buddies in the bar and I said, “I have no idea what happened, but that is the biggest blessing for us.” 100% he makes the save. 100% he makes the save on Weah’s shot. And then who knows what happens after that? Maybe the U.S. do score again, but there’s no doubt in my mind. And so, that was a gift.,” but they made the next pass and the next pass and the next pass and they broke pressure. And then it gets to [Yunus] Musah finally. And when he gave it to Sergiño, I was talking to my teammates about the value of Musah.
And there are so few players in the modern game that will take the ball and just advance it on their own. It’s always a pass, a pass, breaking lines, a pass, but players who can just take the ball and advance the ball on their own are so valuable. So when it gets to Sergiño Dest, I’m saying to them, “Just go, put them under pressure.” And then he went to his left foot and you’re kind of like, “Ah, the chance is gone.” And then he unleashes the shot.
My buddy said something about goals with his left foot. And I said, “There’s a decent chance he never scores another goal with his left foot. And certainly not like that. He’ll probably score a lot with his right foot,” but it was a phenomenal strike. Just the way it moved, it looked like he was left-footed and it was a phenomenal strike. We were just in awe.
To have it curling away from the keeper with your weaker foot, it’s crazy. And the fear is, when you go 1-0 down so early is Costa Rica are very used to playing in a low block, and they have Keylor Navas. So you’re going to have to beat him with something special. And that’s exactly what Sergiño Dest summoned. And I love the way that he has looked in the two home games in this window.
Because in the game script, when you’re going into teams that are defending, you see him with freedom, you see him in space getting forward, having the ability to cut inside. I thought that Jon Champion and Taylor Twellman were talking about the notion of him and [Tim] Weah perhaps having redundant skillsets, given that they both like to go outside, but Dest actually likes to cut inside, a way of keeping a fullback honest affords him that space.
Almost kind of wonder going forward, because there’s been so much conversation about how much he struggles away from home and how you can’t really play him as the right back in a four when you’re away from home and you’re going to be under pressure, and that’s not the environment for him. I almost wonder if given how good he is going forward and how much he enjoys that freedom, if playing him in a winger role might not be the craziest thing.
And putting him in an attacking position so that okay, away from home, we still have a little bit of a player who understands defensive responsibilities, but has the creativity, and you can kind of run your attack through him. And that’s something I thought that the U.S. missed when they made all those changes in the game against Panama away from home, is they didn’t have anyone that can run their attack through. And so I do think that Dest can represent a player who can do that and also put in a defensive shift.
That’s a great point. And I think if the U.S. are comfortable playing in a back three, at least when they build, when they have the ball, he’s perfect as sort of a right wingback, right winger and right back all in one, he can do all of it. And I think away from home, your point is perfect. I think using him to help defensively away from home as a right winger, and then he’s clearly good enough with the ball to make plays. So I think that as Gregg and the staff assess these first two rounds, I think that’s a very effective way to use him…
Yunus Musah’s Wait Was Worth it—and He’s Worth the Wait
The 18-year-old Valencia midfielder has had to be patient to make his contribution in competitive play for the U.S., but after being cap-tied vs. Jamaica, his time has come.
BRIAN STRAUS SI
PANAMA CITY, Panama — After the courtship, the trial run, the anticipation ad then the decision, there was an uncomfortable and unexpected wait.That doesn’t seem like the way this sort of story typically plays out. The presentation of record should follow the fanfare. But in the case of Yunus Musah, his March commitment to the U.S. men’s national team didn’t lead directly to his competitive debut. Months went by. He was benched. He was injured. And the squad Musah was so excited to join, and to which so many were eager to welcome him, progressed in his absence.orld Cup qualifying forces players to adapt to strange rhythms. They have to maintain a strong sense of internal equilibrium as they cross borders and time zones, adapt to different teammates and opponents and, now, in Concacaf’s Octagonal, play games in new countries on only two days rest. You may have to play a match that means everything on fumes. Or, in Musah’s case, you may be thrust into the spotlight after months of disappointment and delay.It’s still early for Musah. He’s 18. But there was a lot of hype over the New York City-born and Arsenal-bred midfielder two years ago, when U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter and assist Nico Estévez started reaching out to the teenager. Musah, a veteran of England’s junior national teams, had left North London for Valencia in the summer of 2019. Estévez had previously coached in the Spanish club’s academy. “It felt like the manager really wanted me to be here—be part of the group, be part of his plans, and that makes me feel kind of special,” Musah said here in the Panamanian capital, where the U.S. is preparing for Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against the hosts. “To be asked to be a part of that is a great feeling.”Musah started in a couple of friendlies that November and formed a tantalizing trio with Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. Musah’s ability to surge through midfield with the ball at his feet and to unbalance defenses with his acceleration, agility and vision stood out. He was an asset. And he was just getting started. But he was also eligible to play for Italy, where he lived as a child; England, to which he moved as a nine-year-old; and Ghana, his parents’ homeland. Those are all pretty good options.Berhalter and Estévez coaxed him into the U.S. fold, where a slew of young, talented and ambitious players were focused on launching a new international era. In March, Musah committed his international future to the U.S.
“It was a lot of conversations about what this young group could do and the potential of this young team and the players we have in the pool,” Berhalter said. “How we saw him fitting into our team, talking about America and what we want to do as a group, and I think that’s what really got him excited about the project.”Musah still hadn’t spent much time in the U.S., but he was sold on the idea of representing the country of his birth and on getting an early senior start with so many peers. There was considerable attention paid to the announcement of his commitment. But his competitive debut would have to wait. After appearing in three more friendlies, Musah was called in but didn’t play a minute in the two Concacaf Nations League games in June. Excitement morphed into concern. Did he not fit Berhalter’s system as well as many hoped? Would Musah reconsider his decision because he still wasn’t cap-tied?“I talk to all the guys about understanding that they’d be disappointed if they’re not on the field, not in the starting 11. And that’s just part of it. But part of building a strong team is to have everyone engaged and everyone pulling in the same direction,” Berhalter said Saturday.“In Yunus’s case, coming into the Nations League, playing at altitude [in Denver], he wasn’t playing regularly for his club and we didn’t feel like it was the right time.”Musah admitted here that missing out on Nations League minutes was “annoying,” but he said that he understood Berhalter’s decisions. And it didn’t weaken his allegiance. If anything, his connection to the U.S. was strengthened this summer by his time with the team (he started a subsequent friendly against Costa Rica) and then an extended holiday in NYC. Now a U.S. international, Musah finally had the chance to reconnect with his hometown and really tap in to the American inside him. He spent time with an uncle who lives in the Bronx and had the ideal guide in U.S. teammate Tim Weah, who was home for the summer after winning the French title with Lille.“We kind of just had a little experience together, went out to eat and stuff like that,” Weah said. “The bond that we have with this group is amazing and the bond I have with Yunus, he’s like my little brother obviously. I showed him around. He was with me and my family, just chilling and enjoying everything that New York has to offer. He even went around by himself and just kind of took everything in. Seeing that he wants to connect a lot more with American culture is great for him and it’s great NYC offered “a nice vibe,” Musah said.“I always love coming back to the U.S. and being with the national team,” he added. “It makes me connect with this part of myself and I love being here.”But Musah would have to remain patient as an ankle injury ruled him out of the Octagonal’s opening window in September. Those three games proved to be a vital learning experience for this young U.S. team as 16 men made their World Cup qualifying debuts. The Americans went 1-0-2.Finally, after returning to Valencia’s starting lineup toward the end of September (albeit on the flank), Musah was ready for International duty. Berhalter said that he and Estévez remained in constant contact with the player and his club. Musah was called up for this month’s qualifiers and he was on the field as the U.S. kicked off against Jamaica on Thursday in Austin, Texas. At that moment, his bond with the U.S. national team was sealed technically, even though it already had been cemented in his heart. Starting again alongside Adams and McKennie, Musah showed multiple flashes of the player who can bomb his way through midfield, and he played a key role in setting up Ricardo Pepi’s opening goal. The Americans went on to win, 2-0, and are 2-0-2 and in first place heading into Sunday’s meeting with Los Canaleros (1-1-2).“I thought he had an excellent game,” Berhalter said in Austin. “We talked about his quality of driving at the defense and unsettling the defense and he did that constantly. And it’s difficult, man, when you have someone dribbling at you who’s that agile and that mobile and that keeps the ball that close to them. It becomes challenging for the defense. We’ll look at some defensive work, but overall, I thought he had a good performance.” gonizingly, Musah’s participation in Austin was in doubt the day before thanks to an inconclusive COVID-19 test. He trained apart from the team and didn’t know until just before dinner on Wednesday that he was negative and able to play. He was understandably thrilled to make his bow in a meaningful game.“After being involved in the Nations League and not playing in the Nations League, thinking that was possible again due to COVID was really annoying. But I’m glad it was a quick process and they realized it was nothing, so I was happy about that,” Musah said. “It was a big moment for me, you know? In my mind I just wanted to win in my first competitive game and I’m happy we got a win.”Now after all that waiting, Musah may have to turn around and do it again less than 72 hours later. It’s a lot to ask, but the stakes are high and that’s the rhythm and resilience that qualifying demands. Berhalter is comfortable rotating men in and out of the lineup—he used 22 across the three games last month—but McKennie’s absence due to muscle soreness means there’s already going to be at least one new starter among the midfield three.Berhalter can turn to the experienced Kellyn Acosta, Sebastian Lletget or Cristian Roldan. But if he wants a player who can unlock the opposition and force a defense into tough decisions, Musah probably will be the choice. Panama is a rugged side coming off a loss suffered on a sodden field in El Salvador. While it may be tempted to approach Sunday’s vital home game on a more offensive footing, defense remains Los Canaleros’ strength. A fan of advanced stats, Berhalter said that Panama leads the Octagonal in expected goals allowed. The Americans are second.“Panama’s definitely a very physical team, an aggressive team. We’ve got to be able to match that right away,” Acosta said. “Now coming back home they’re looking from the first minute to kind of take it to us, so we need to be ready for that and match their intensity.”If called upon, Musah will most certainly been ready. After months of hurry-up and wait, he’s now living his ambition. This is what he signed up for.“Since I joined the U.S., I’ve always had this in mind,” he said. “Trying to be able to participate in a World Cup has always been a dream of mine. We’re on our way to doing that, and we’re trying our best to be able to go to the World Cup.”
The unstoppable dreams of USMNT prodigy Ricardo Pepi
Oct 6, 2021Roberto José Andrade Franco ESPN
IN THE TUNNEL of Toyota Stadium, Ricardo Pepi poses during a photo shoot. The late morning feels perfect. The sun casts a shadow over a good part of the grass, which looks as green as anything that’s ever been. The cool breeze rippling through the flags of Texas, the United States and FC Dallas makes it feel like the season is finally changing after another hot summer.
“Do something with your hands,” the photographer tells Ricardo. His voice echoes through the tunnel, as does the sound of the camera.Ricardo spreads his long arms to his side. His palms, near his waist, face out with fingers almost extended. His chin high, he looks straight into the lens.”The Zen pose,” is what the phoographer calls whatever Ricardo’s doing.”You’re a natural,” the photographer says.Ricardo smiles the grin of the rare teenager full of confidence.”I try to be,” says the 18-year-old.His voice lacks any hint of hesitation, as if he understands something no one else knows. Just weeks ago, Pepi made the momentous choice between two countries and joined the USMNT, a team trying to shake off its failure to qualify for the last World Cup. He has proved to be a revelation, scoring a crucial goal in the USA’s win over Honduras on Sept. 8, fulfilling the promise he makes to his family before each game: “I’m gonna score. I’m gonna score. I’m gonna score.”changing, even as he prepares for another round of games this week that will hopefully take him and his teammates to Qatar 2022, he seems so calm, peaceful. It’s like he’s always known it was just a matter of time and hard work before the attention would come. That his and his family’s sacrifices would eventually lead them out of El Paso to here. And that from here, he, and maybe they too, will go somewhere else.Somewhere farther than the 10-hour drive between this place and home.
EL PASO IS about 83% Latino, most of that of Mexican descent. But decades ago, the city was a lot whiter. And back in those days, Alameda Avenue was a sort of dividing line. If you were white, you likely lived north of that street. If Mexican, you stayed south. Between that avenue and the Rio Grande, on the eastern part of El Paso County where land is cheaper and it becomes clear that this is life deep in the Chihuahuan Desert, is San Elizario.San Eli is what everyone here calls it. That’s where Ricardo’s childhood home stands about a mile south of Alameda Avenue and double that distance north of the Rio Grande and the rust-colored border wall that scars the soul of this place. The overgrown weeds, the still-hanging Christmas lights, the empty rooms and the white car with deflating tires parked in the back, make it feel like the home was hastily abandoned. As if an opportunity came up that couldn’t be passed.Like many houses in this neighborhood, the Pepis’ former home looks like it’s still in the process of being constructed. Good enough to live in — the doors and windows lock, the water and electricity work, the roof doesn’t leak — but still unfinished.”I built it,” Daniel, Ricardo’s father, says in Spanish. Whenever extra money came in, it went to the house. Little by little, working on the weekends and after long weekdays doing construction, Daniel built this with his hands.”When Ricardo was growing up, the conditions weren’t the best for us,” Daniel says. “That was part of the reason we lived in San Eli. It wasn’t because we wanted to. I didn’t grow up in a rural area where the roosters wake you up, where the neighbors have cows.”From this house, Daniel and his wife, Annette, raised their young family. It was a life common to many El Pasoans. Monday through Friday, while working or at school, they stayed on the north side of the Rio Grande. On weekends and the random weeknight, the Pepis returned to the south side of the river to spend time with family still living in Juárez, Mexico.”We consider it one city, one community,” Daniel says of El Paso and Juárez. “It doesn’t really matter if you live in El Paso or live in Juárez, you cross that bridge as much as you can.”From this house, Ricardo — the oldest of the three Pepi children — started playing soccer at 4 years old. He’d grown up watching his father play, and Daniel coached him for a few years. Apart from practice, they’d sometimes do drills on a field in the shadow of a church that traces its roots as far back as the U.S. Constitution.Daniel put his son in leagues a year or two above Ricardo’s age. Yes, he did it to push him. To challenge him. But he also did it because Ricardo was always bigger than his peers. His family nickname had once been Gordo. Outside of El Paso, Daniel had to carry his son’s birth certificate to show that he wasn’t older than the competition, he was actually younger.
Ricardo had, what Daniel says in Spanish, “el olfato de gol.” Some words or phrases lose their beauty in translation. This is an example. But the idea is that even at a young age, Ricardo had a nose for goal. Like he could smell it. Like he could feel it. Like he could seemingly score at will — which he often did — even when his father had him playing defense. And as he did that, the opponent’s parents doubted Ricardo’s age again.”QUINCEAÑERO!” those parents screamed, implying the young boy was 15.”¿CUÁNDO ES LA BODA?” they yelled, sarcastically asking when he was getting married.Daniel laughs when he remembers those days. But he turns serious when asked if he feels like he pushed his son too hard. Like during those games when Ricardo didn’t feel like running because sometimes that’s the last thing 7-year-olds want to do. When that happened Daniel would take Ricardo out the game, then drive him home. It’s a long, lonely drive out to San Eli. It’s a perfect stretch of road for a proud man to brood in silence.”Yes, I was hard on him,” Daniel admits.”I’d make him take his uniform and cleats off and put them in the trash. I’d tell him, ‘Look, if you don’t want to play, that’s fine. Don’t play. But you’re not going to be wasting my time and much less, my money.'”
WHEN YOU’RE THE child of immigrant parents, you often feel as if you’ve got to make their struggles and sacrifices count for something. Calling it a burden is too much. Call it that feeling you get when you look at your father or mother and wonder what dreams they had before life shook them awake.Because sometimes your mother is 16 years old when she had you. And sometimes your father pawns the family car and borrows money because those can become tomorrow’s problems if it means everyone’s eating today. And sometimes, you live in a place like El Paso and Juárez that are often neglected by their governments, and it feels like you must escape.Like the rest of the communities, largely of Mexican descent, along the north side of the Texas-Mexico border, El Paso County has a substantially higher poverty rate than the rest of the country. Its per capita income is over $12,400 lower than the national average. It has lower levels of educational attainment. It has more than twice the national percentage rate of uninsured residents under 65.It’s why when you come from the El Paso-Juárez borderland — as I do — it’s easy to feel an urgency. It’s disquieting to notice how few things grow here. The barren surroundings don’t help. Out in the wide-open spaces of West Texas and Northern Mexico, it’s easy to get lost.To live here is to feel the questions that are as omnipresent as the mountains surrounding the region and as persistent as the winds racing down from them. On the worst of days that wind howls. It makes the desert floor dance until the sand blocks the sun and turns the sky from a hue of blue to a reddish-brown.That wind can rip the roof off buildings and tear doors from hinges. It can choke and blind you, sometimes worse. It’s on those days when it feels like we should all run away from this desert. Run away from this separate world between two countries. On those days when it sounds like some invisible hand is continually throwing dirt against locked doors and windows, it’s like the wind carries the existential questions that most here wrestle with.If I stay, will being around family and all that I know be enough to make me content?
If I leave, will the things I hope to gain be worth the hurt of missing what I’m about to lose?
“IT WAS LIKE they took a piece of my heart,” Annette says, in Spanish, of Ricardo moving to Dallas. It was 2016. Ricardo was 13 years old. FC Dallas offered him a place in their academy. Ricardo said yes. And he left.”The only thing I could do was support my son,” Annette remembers. “It was very difficult. Very difficult.”Those first few weeks when her baby was away from home, Annette cried herself to sleep. In the mornings in between phone calls to her son, asking how his host family was treating him and if he’d already eaten, she’d cry some more.”I can’t be without him,” she’d tell Daniel. “I can’t.”Daniel would try to comfort her, telling her it was what Ricardo wanted. That the only thing they could do is support him. But even for Daniel, that distance became too much.About a year after Ricardo left, his family drove to Dallas for a tournament. Twice a month they’d make that 10-hour, 635-mile drive. Coaches told Daniel that Ricardo was doing very well, and he had a bright future. During the visit, Ricardo told his father he wanted them all to move to Dallas so they could be together again.”Son,” Daniel told Ricardo. “I’m not moving here. We’re not coming.”If that wasn’t deflating enough, Daniel turned the question on Ricardo.”I want to know if you’re ready to come back?”As soon as Daniel asked the question, Ricardo started to cry. Whatever dreams he imagined himself pursuing were suddenly in doubt. To be 13 years old and to say no to the person who’s given you so much feels like the most difficult answer you’ll ever give.In between tears, Ricardo said he understood how hard the distance between them had been, because he felt it too. He missed his family the most, but he also missed El Paso and Juárez. He missed the friends and family on both sides of that river that separates everyone there.”I love you all,” Ricardo told his father. “But this is my dream and I’m going to stay. I’ll miss all of you.”As soon as he heard that, Daniel felt chills. He began to cry. If you’ve seen the tears of a stoic Mexican man hardened by life, it stays with you. They hugged and kissed. Daniel told Annette what was happening, and she told him she was ready to move. “I don’t want to be without him,” she said.Four years ago, the entire Pepi family — father, mother, brother and sister — moved to a suburb north of Dallas. Ricardo left his host family and moved in too. And just like it had in their old house in San Eli, their life revolved around soccer. When they weren’t at games, or at school, or Daniel at some construction site, or Annette cleaning another office, they’d watch Liga MX. And, as always, because the Pepis are “Américanistas de corazón,” they’d cheer for Club América, just like they’d always done.”I was raised watching Mexican soccer,” Daniel says. “And that’s how I raised my children.”So much Mexican soccer — the league, yes, but also El Tri — that as a young boy, Ricardo said something his father still remembers.”Hey dad,” Ricardo told Daniel while watching El Tri play.Maybe they were playing at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City. Or maybe the Mexican national team was playing in the United States, where they’re this country’s most popular team. Who knows?”Imagine when I’m playing there,” Ricardo said.
“I WAS 99 percent sure he was going to pick Mexico,” Manny Ruiz says.Ruiz, an FC Dallas season-ticket owner, is also a member of El Matador. They’re a bilingual group of FC Dallas supporters who during tailgates, play salsa and rap, and talk to each other in some combination of English and Spanish. Ruiz first watched Ricardo play in 2019, back when the precocious teen was a member of North Texas SC and scored a hat trick in his first professional game. Born and raised in Dallas, Ruiz is also a fan of El Tri.And so, after a summer of watching Ricardo score at an increasing pace with FC Dallas — including becoming the youngest player in MLS history to notch a hat trick — Ruiz figured the dual national kid from El Paso would choose Mexico. Yes, Ricardo had attended international youth camps with both countries and was a member of the United States’ 2019 U-17 World Cup squad. Still, there has long been a perception that players coming from the U.S.’s Latino communities, playing in city leagues and not expensive suburban academies, get taken for granted, at best. At worst, the system ignores them. About two weeks before Ricardo decided, Mexican American player David Ochoa said he was playing for Mexico.
Then in late August, a day after Ricardo scored the game-winning penalty for the MLS All-Stars to beat the Liga MX All Stars, the USMNT announced its roster for World Cup qualifying. They’d called up Ricardo and he said yes. When he announced his decision, Ricardo said that even though he’d chosen the United States, he was proud of being a Mexican American and that “will never be taken away from me, no matter what national team I play for.””I was pretty devastated,” Ruiz says of Ricardo’s decision. As soon as it became public, the USMNT fans within El Matador called Ruiz to taunt him. It hardly mattered that they too were surprised.”I was in shock,” Miguel Villalpando says. Villalpando, born and raised in Oak Cliff — a predominantly Latino neighborhood in Dallas — first heard about Ricardo when he played in the FC Dallas Academy. Villalpando says he immediately started paying attention to him because of their similarities. “He’s pretty much a Chicano,” he says, a term that describes someone of Mexican heritage born in the United States.”He’s from here and his parents are from Mexico. You have to take pride in that, especially him being with FC Dallas along with me being a U.S. fan.”To hear Villalpando tell how he, of Mexican descent, became a fan of the USMNT, it almost sounds like the origin story of a comic book villain. He was about 11, and the United States was about to play Mexico. “My dad was like, ‘a quién le vas? A Estados Unidos o México?‘” Which team did he want to win: United States or Mexico?But before he could say anything, his father — from Irapuato, Guanajuato — answered for him. “Ah, tú eres Chicanito, you have to go for the USA.”Villalpando, who laughs while telling the story and sprinkles Spanish words in every few sentences of conversation, admits it was his father’s way of being playful. But still, not every game is fun.”He was trying to insult me,” Villalpando says. “But I took it as I’m going to embrace this. Ever since that, I’ve always been a U.S. fan because my dad did that to me.”Friends and family — often playfully — call him a traitor. They tell him he should remember where he and his parents came from. And before each United States versus Mexico game, they tell him to get ready to lose. “I’m used to that,” Villalpando says, “it’s happened ever since I was a little kid. To me, it’s nothing.”During this long, scorching summer, the United States beat Mexico twice in the final of two different tournaments.Ruiz says that hurt. He says if Ricardo ever scores against Mexico, that’ll hurt too.Villalpando says that felt great. He says he’ll soon buy Ricardo’s USMNT jersey.
BETWEEN PHOTOSHOOT LOCATIONS, Ricardo says choosing to play for the United States was one of the toughest decisions of his life. “I talked to my parents about it,” he says, standing a few feet from the pitch so unlike the ones he grew up playing on in El Paso. Those were full of rocks and weeds with thorns that’d get stuck to his shoes, laces and socks.”I got the call-up from the national team,” Ricardo says. “I asked my dad for his opinion, and he didn’t really say much. He said wherever I wanted to play, he would support me.”Like Daniel, the rest of the Pepi family, immediate and extended, have supported Ricardo’s decision, even if some still ask about it. Ricardo’s friends back in El Paso have been supportive too. They’ve even bought their USMNT jerseys with “Pepi” on the back.Still, Ricardo says he knows there are a lot of people and even media who think he should have chosen Mexico. Explaining only that it was a better opportunity, he says he made the right choice.Whenever he talks of that decision — he’s asked the same question in each of his increasing number of interviews — there’s zero doubt in his voice. He’s calm and at peace just like he is before every game, when he sits in silence and meditates. “This all has a lot to do with the mind,” he says. “If you’re prepared for it, if you expect it, then it’s going to come.”But just because he’s at peace with the decision doesn’t mean he can ignore what’s about to come. On Nov. 12, the United States plays Mexico and there isn’t a Zen with an energy strong enough for Ricardo to pretend it’ll be just another game. To not feel any type of emotion when he hears the Mexican national anthem play, and he’s not singing along. Maybe even cry, since members of El Tri and their fans have been known to do just that.Ricardo says that game will be different. He knows two countries will be watching and the line between who cheers for whom isn’t always clear. He knows he could become the first Mexican American superstar on the USMNT, and that there will always be those who think he made the wrong choice.He knows his father’s dream was once to have a son play for El Tri. But now, Ricardo knows he has his father’s full support.”With all due respect,” Daniel says, “I’m still Mexican, and continue to love my country, but right now, my jersey is that of the United States.” I DON’T QUITE remember when I figured out that even if I wasn’t physically there, I could never escape living in a borderland. That away from this place between the United States and Mexico, I’d always feel a barrier between me and whatever place I lived. That while here, I’d feel the closest sense to belonging in the middle of the river that both divides and unites El Paso and Juárez. That’s the thing about this place. It’s a lot of things and some of them are contradictory.It sometimes feels like the most beautiful place in the world. Other times, it feels like living in the middle of the desert was always going to end with an escape. That same rugged beauty can inspire the wildest of dreams: a young boy playing soccer in Europe’s biggest leagues, a former construction worker writing this. But it’s also the type of place that can suffocate you.
So, you leave because there’s no other choice. But sometimes running away creates a sense of guilt.Leaving can cause irreparable damages to bonds once so strong you would have bet they could withstand any distance. Leaving makes you understand that the farther away you are, the less likely you’ll ever feel at home.”Whenever I get a chance, I try to make it over there,” Ricardo says of the borderland. He misses the culture, how everyone’s friendly and humble and how Spanish is what you most often hear on both sides of the Rio Grande. He misses his family. The season is long, so it’s harder to return. But, he says, when he’s back, on Saturday mornings he likes to eat barbacoa in Juárez at a place called El Chivo Brincon.
“You ever eat there?” Ricardo asks me.When I tell him I’ve never been, he responds with an incredulous “nooooo” that goes on for at least two seconds. I tell him the place we used to eat was a simple cart next to a gas station that, if it had a name, was ignored.”Everyone called it ‘el güey de la gasolinera,'” I tell him. The f—ing guy at the gas station.We laugh and the people around us don’t even know why.Unless you’re from here, you’ll never know how comforting it feels to meet an El Pasoan or a Juárense away from this place. It’s difficult to describe but it’s in the way they talk, especially when the conversation turns to Spanish. It’s in the music they listen to and the food that they eat. It’s in the shared memories of this place.It’s in the interaction. Because, if nothing else, for once, you don’t have to explain where you come from. No need to explain how much you miss i. Or the struggle to stay or leave.No need to explain how the border wall never looks as jarring as it does when you leave and go back.Or that, because it feels like it has always been there, sometimes that goddamned wall becomes just another part of the desert.
“IT’S IMPOSSIBLE,” DANIEL says when asked to describe his emotions when he heard Ricardo was starting the World Cup qualifier against Honduras.The game before, against Canada, the Pepi family traveled to Nashville. Since the USMNT played a scoreless tie in El Salvador, a game in which Ricardo didn’t get any playing time, Daniel figured his son would get 10 or 15 minutes in Tennessee.”We traveled there with that hope,” Daniel says. “Unfortunately, he didn’t play. And to be honest, the U.S. only got two points in two games, I figured he wasn’t going to play much, if at all, against Honduras.”Two games into qualifying for the 2022 World Cup, and the USMNT looked lost. The team had been expected to win both games and managed only draws. For fans, those results awoke dark memories of the team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.That’s why the game against Honduras mattered. And why Daniel figured Ricardo wouldn’t play, since he was unproven. Of course, look at it from the opposite angle and it becomes clear that whatever USMNT had done wasn’t working. And so, on the plane to Honduras, Gregg Berhalter — maybe coaching for his job — told Ricardo he was starting.Daniel was driving around Waco, Texas, where he works Monday through Friday, when he heard the news.”Are you playing with me?” he asked Ricardo, the surprise so great that Daniel had pulled off the road.”No,” Ricardo answered.At halftime, losing 1-0, and again, thoughts that everything might be coming apart for the USMNT — maybe even thoughts that they’d chosen the wrong country — Daniel worried Ricardo would get replaced. Not because he was playing badly, but because it was his first start.”I see him starting the second half,” Daniel says, “and how he’s playing. I tell my wife, ‘A goal’s coming, a goal’s coming, a goal’s coming.’ And then it comes.”In the 75th minute, Ricardo’s header broke the tie, 2-1. And as he — the second youngest player to play for the United States in a World Cup qualifier, after teammate Christian Pulisic — ran and screamed and jumped in celebration with his teammates, his family did the same at home. All celebrating the euphoria of what Ricardo calls “a goal that changed the game completely.” A goal that, at least for one game, broke the USMNT free from the panic and doubt and insecurity that had surrounded them.”There wasn’t enough room in our hearts to fit such emotion,” Daniel says. Sitting beside him, Annette also jumped and screamed. She cried. Because that’s what she always does when Ricardo scores.”My son has always said that he was going to be a professional. That he was going to play on a European club. And always, always, always, when he scores, I get tears of happiness and joy,” Annette says. As she talks, her voice begins to crack.”I know this is his dream,” she says of her son, who finished his USMNT debut with a goal and two assists to beat Honduras 4-1.”That game was special,” says the teenager from the edge of two countries.
RICARDO STANDS BY his Camaro. It’s the last photoshoot location of the day.His car, a symbol of American muscle, looks as red and shiny as a candy apple. He got it about a month ago. It’s the first car he has ever bought for himself. And when he parks it, he’s careful not to touch the windows when closing the door. He doesn’t want his fingertips staining the tinted glass.”It’s been crazy,” Ricardo says about the past few months. He says he gets recognized lots more. Fans approach him and ask him for an autograph, and some — more than before — tell him they’re from El Paso too.Watching him play against men, it’s easy to forget how young Ricardo is. That, somewhere in the middle of his life-changing season, he graduated from high school. That he still lives at home with his parents. That when he’s not scoring goals, he takes out the trash, walks the dog and occasionally washes dishes.Ricardo misses home. But he has no second thoughts about the choices he has made. He says he understands how much his family has risked. They left the comfort and familiarity of El Paso and Juárez for Dallas, a giant of a city. Four years of living there, and they still use GPS to get around.This place is where they live now. For how much longer? No one knows. Soccer rumors mention Ricardo’s name along with some of the world’s biggest clubs in Germany, Italy, England and the Netherlands. Daniel says the family thinks about that every day.”But we don’t think of it as wondering what comes next,” Daniel says. “We know what comes next. He’s long visualized his path. He knows where he wants to go, and the path to get there.”But no matter where he, or they, as a family, live, they speak as if they too know you can’t escape the El Paso-Juárez borderland. They still own that unfinished house in San Eli. They talk about visiting as much as they can, crossing that bridge that divides and connects home. They say it never feels like enough. Because even if Ricardo chooses to play for the United States instead of Mexico, they all seem more comfortable in that place between those two countries.It’s like the last thing they want to do is forget where they come from. It’s why even if Ricardo and his magical right foot play for the United States, they only speak Spanish at home.Roberto José Andrade Franco is a fronterizo from the El Paso-Juárez borderland. Follow him @R_AndradeFranco to read more of his work.
The USWNT October friendlies roster has been released
A few new(er) faces join the roster for the upcoming friendlies
With a few more months left in 2021, Vlatko Andonovski continues to let those who played in the Tokyo Olympics be celebrated and still bring in some new faces in his USWNT roster.
There are a lot familiar faces as expected and with everything going on within the NWSL, Andonovski was keen to point out that his selection was based on the “well-being of our players”. Andonovski wants to the team to keep developing with each game while also entertaining the fans that will come out to see the team. Finally, the USWNT head coach noted that as this signals the last time Carli Lloyd will be playing in front of the home fans, he want to give Lloyd the “send-off she deserves.”
Emily Fox comes in once again
With Crystal Dunn choosing to opt out of these friendlies, Racing Louisville’s Emily Fox has been called up. Her form during the league has been deserving of another call up to the national team and she has been a bright spot for the new team to the league, despite their league position right now. Fox is definitely one for the future and if she continues to develop as quickly as she has, I wouldn’t put it past her to be on the World Cup roster in two years time. She, and those who want to see her on the team will certainly hope that is the case in 2023.
Injuries remain with key players
Alyssa Naeher, Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz will be at the training camp for these friendlies but all three are still a long way out from playing with the national team again. Those three names are probably three names that will be guaranteed starters had they been fit but instead, they will be watching from the sidelines as the likes of Andi Sullivan and Jane Campbell try to make a name for themselves with the team in their place.
Opt-outs provide opportunities for younger players
As already noted Emily Fox has been named to the team in this roster. She will be taking the place of Crystal Dunn who has opted out of these October friendlies. We can never fault a player for deciding to take some time out for their own mental health and given the importance of Dunn to the team, it looks like Andonovski has no problem giving her the time to do so. Christen Press also continues to be on sabbatical which allows the likes of Sophia Smith to be given another chance to impress. There’s no guarantee that some of these newer names will become mainstays on the team but if someone like Smith shows out like she did in the September friendlies, given her age, she could easily become another permanent fixture with the USWNT.
The full 21-player roster is listed below:
Goalkeepers (2): Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Adrianna Franch (KC NSWL).
Defenders (7): Abby Dahlkemper (Houston Dash), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC) Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC), Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit).
Midfielders (5): Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign), Catarina Macario (Olympique Lyonnais), Kristie Mewis (Houston Dash), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit).
Forwards (7): Tobin Heath (Arsenal FC), Carli Lloyd (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage).
PREVIEW | INDY ELEVEN VS. LOUISVILLE CITY FC – OCTOBER 16, 2021
By Indy Eleven Communications, 10/14/21, 6:15PM EDT size=1 width=”100%” align=center>
#INDvLOU Gameday Preview Indy Eleven vs. Louisville City FC Saturday, October 16, 2021 – 7:00 P.M. ET IUPUI Michael A. Carroll Stadium – Indianapolis, Ind.
2021 USL CHAMPIONSHIP REGULAR SEASON RECORDS
Indy Eleven: 8W-14L-7D (-13 GD), 31 pts.; 7th in Central Division
Louisville City FC: 16W-6L-7D (+22 GD), 55 pts.; 2nd in Central Division
Yes, there are deep playoff implications for both Louisville-Indianapolis Proximity Association Football Contest combatants surrounding their affair Saturday night at “The Mike”, but we’ll get to that later. Judging from the passion of players and fans alike in their three previous meetings this season, the motivation to capture this year’s LIPAFC series crown will be more than enough stakes for the evening – with the Boys in Blue perhaps having a little more “oomph” in order to play spoiler against their archrival.Another impetus for Indiana’s Team is to simply end the season on a positive note, playoff situation regardless. Louisville’s 2-0 win at Carroll Stadium on Sept. 18 marked the start of the Eleven’s current six-game winless streak (0W-4L-2D), and the Boys in Blue would love nothing more than to get their groove back starting with a rivalry triumph that could springboard to a solid finish.Help on that front could come with the possible returns of key contributors from injury, as defenders Neveal Hackshaw and A.J. Cochran and midfielder Rece Buckmaster all returned to full training earlier in the week, potentially giving Interim Head Coach Max Rogers more options to dampen the Eastern Conference’s highest-scoring attack (57 goals). On the offensive side of the ball for Indy, early returns from Emmanuel Ledesma’s much-anticipated debut last Sunday in Birmingham were positive, as the Argentine playmaker earned the “hockey assist” on the squad’s 41st minute equalizer in an eventual 1-3 defeat. The chemistry between he, fellow “Manu” Manuel Arteaga, and whomever else Rogers deploys on the squad’s top line will be one of the more intriguing developments down the stretch for a goal-hungry squad that has failed to score multiple times in nine consecutive contests.On the opposite side, Louisville enters the LIPAFC rubber match stinging from a 1-2 defeat at Memphis 901 FC on Wednesday night, a result that snapped LouCity’s seven-game unbeaten run (four wins, three draws) and allowed a red-hot Birmingham Legion FC side to claim the Central Division’s top spot by a mere point.That match came in the middle of a three-game week, but the Indy faithful shouldn’t expect to see a sluggish squad come Saturday as newly-minted full-time Head Coach Danny Cruz managed the minutes of one of the deepest rosters in the Championship to allow for plenty of fresh legs on the weekend. While that may or may not include the league’s third leading scorer, Cameron Lancaster (17 goals), who went the full 90 in both contests, we can expect to see a heavy dose of the Championship’s assist-leader, Brian Ownby (10 assists, 4 goals), starlet winger Jonathan Gomez, and perennial thorn-in-the-side of the Boys in Blue, Antoine Hoppenot (3 goals, 4 assists).
SCOREBOARD WATCH CENTRAL (DIVISION)
When it comes to possible postseason inclusion, “The Math” has finally caught up to Indiana’s Team, which knows it must win Saturday – and over the following two weekends – in order to keep its slim USL Championship Playoff hopes alive.
Alas, here’s all that needs to happen for the Boys in Blue to make a mind-bendingly complicated run to the postseason come to fruition:
- Indy wins its final three games (would earn maximum of 40 points)
- Tulsa (currently on 39 pts.) loses their final five matches
- Tulsa would end on 39 points
- TUL owns fourth tiebreaker – regular season wins vs. in-division opponents – over IND (would be 10 vs. 11)
- OKC Energy (currently on 36 pts.) loses their next two matches AND defeats TUL in season finale
- OKC would end on 39 points
- OKC owns second tiebreaker – goal differential in head-to-head meetings (5 to 4) – over IND
- Atlanta United 2 (currently on 34 pts.) ties or loses to its next match to Memphis AND defeats Tulsa in its season finale
- ATL could end on 37 or 38 points
- ATL owns first tiebreaker – head-to-head regular season record – over IND
SERIES HISTORY VS. LOUISVILLE CITY FC
All official competitions: 3W-8L-5D (16 GF/28 GA)
All competitions at home: 2W-5L-1D (6 GF/14 GA)
USL Championship regular season: 2W-5L-5D (12 GF/18 GA)
USLC regular season at home: 1W-3L-1D (3 GF/8 GA)
Indy Eleven could put a nice little feather in its 2021 cap by taking the season series against Louisville outright for the first time with a win on Saturday. Indiana’s Team turned the LIPAFC series on its head back on May 22 with a 2-1 comeback win at Lynn Family Stadium, which snapped Indy’s 10-game winless streak in the rivalry and gave Indiana’s Team its first win in the series since their first USL Championship regular season affair on May 5, 2018. The second meeting also came on the wrong side of the river on June 26 and was no less entertaining, starting with Cammy Smith (9’) and Neveal Hackshaw (20’) equalizing within the first 20 minutes and followed by Manuel Arteaga’s go-ahead goal just prior to halftime. However, Corben Bone’s 78th minute strike helped Louisville share the spoils from a 3-3 draw. The first meeting at Carroll Stadium on September 18 was all LouCity, which us
IND PLAYER TO WATCH: DF/MF JARED TIMMER
Timmer’s versatility has been amplified in recent weeks as Indy continues to recover from an injury bug that has kept several defensive players from the team sheet. The Butler University alumnus’ athleticism paid huge dividends through the busiest stretch of the season, and he enters the final slate of games as one of only three Boys in Blue to have played more than 2,000 minutes. Onlookers have seen the 24-year-old primarily in the midfield, but he has since cemented his role as a center back while defender A.J. Cochran recovered from an injury sustained in August.
Despite falling 3-1 at Birmingham Legion FC last Sunday, Timmer had a standout defensive performance, leading his teammates in clearances (4), interceptions (3) and passes/successful passes (51-41). The tandem effort between Timmer and new in blue Tobi Adewole saw the pair nearly paint the heatmap in Indy’s defending half entirely green. The efforts between the two could’ve seen end the night at least with a draw, had it not been for a dipping shot from distance by Legion FC’s Eli Crognale that put the hosts up late in the game. Continued stout defending around the 18-yard box and shutting down Louisville’s crossing plays into the area, such as forward Cameron Lancaster’s stoppage time game-winner against Sporting Kansas City II on October 9, will be a top priority from Timmer and company.
LOU PLAYER TO WATCH: MF OSCAR JIMENEZ
After spending majority of the year sidelined by injury, Jimenez’s reintroduction to the lineup has added a late-season depth boost for Louisville. Though the fifth-year boy in purple has been readjusting to consistent minutes since returning on August 22 in LouCity’s away draw at OKC Energy FC, he has finally started to pick up where he left off in the first two months of the 2021 campaign after registering a goal, two assists and eight chances created in his last three appearances. The remaining three games for the Kentuckian side provide an optimal chance for Jimenez to continue building match fitness before entering the postseason.
Jimenez is as versatile as it gets – he can play forward, he can distribute passes, he can play box-to-box, he can create chances, and has been instrumental in a Louisville attack that has tallied eight goals in the last three outings, including his assist on Paolo DelPiccolo’s game-winner against New Mexico United on October 3 and his 88th-minute equalizer in City’s 4-3 win against Sporting KC II. In the last three matches, Jimenez has been seen marshaling both flanks (starting along the left twice and right once), taking the bulk of his touches along the touch line on either side of the pitch. Though he hasn’t put up the highest passing stats in that time (73.8% average passing accuracy), his possession along the edge of the field has been successful in pulling opposing players out of position, opening channels for his fellow midfielders to play forward, especially in Louisville’s defending half. Shutting down passing lanes through the center of the pitch will be key for the Indy Eleven midfield come Saturday evening.
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