The US Men’s National Team got their second window of the final round of World Cup qualifying off to a flying start, beating Jamaica 2-0 at Austin’s Q2 stadium on Wednesday night. Gregg Berhalter’s side improved significantly after the break to breeze past Jamaica for a comfortable three points. Here’s what we learned from the game.
Ricardo Pepi is the present and the future
The 18-year-old striker scored two goals in his second ever international cap. The FC Dallas man has translated his exceptional club form to the international stage; he’s scored 13 goals for Dallas in MLS, and is the league’s highest scoring American player. The only other two Americans to reach double digits in MLS play (Fafà Picault and C.J. Sapong) are 12 and 14 years his senior.
While his club form is impressive and set to earn Dallas a hefty transfer fee, the way he’s seamlessly translated his game to the international level in meaningful, high-pressure games is remarkable.
Pepi has played 166 minutes of World Cup qualifying and has three goals and an assist. That’s a goal contribution every 41 minutes, 30 seconds. And while that’s an unreal number to expect going forward, he’s quickly proving to be the most goal dangerous striker in the pool.
Off ball movement, hold up play and “verticality” are all great to have in a striker, but the number one job of a number nine is to put the ball in the back of the net. Pepi can do all of it, though, and he’ll only get better. It won’t be long before we’re watching him at a major club in Europe, and from the looks of his first two caps, he’ll be in the USMNT starting XI for years to come.
A new first-choice center back pairing?
How quickly things have changed for Walker Zimmerman. The Nashville SC stalwart went from wearing the captain’s armband at the Gold Cup to missing nearly a month with injury to not playing a second in the last round of qualifiers to not making the initial roster for October’s matches to being brought in as a last-minute replacement to starting against Jamaica, and then finished it off wearing the captain’s armband once again.
Zimmerman absolutely looked like he belonged, albeit against a Jamaica side that’s arguably the weakest in the Octagonal. He won everything in the air as he does weekly in MLS, was assured in possession, and continued to build chemistry with Miles Robinson.
John Brooks will return from injury, as will Aaron Long. It’s just a matter of time before Chris Richards pushes for a larger role with the national team. But next to Miles Robinson, who is as close a lock as it gets, it’s hard to argue there’s a better partner than Zimmerman in the short term.
The US have unprecedented depth
It wasn’t long ago that losing players to injury like Christian Pulisic or Gio Reyna for a window would significantly lower this team’s floor, but the amount of players playing at a high level every week means there are plenty of options in replacement. Brendan Aaronson is a prime example. He outperformed both Pulisic and Reyna in the last round of matches, and once again stepped up against Jamaica.
Paul Arriola put in a shift on the wings, and Tim Weah changed the game off the bench. Gyasi Zardes nearly scored off the bench, and the roster is at least two deep with starting caliber players at every position. The US squad is more competitive than ever, and is more equipped to deal with injury absences than ever before.
The next 13 months leading up to the World Cup will be absolutely fascinating as players compete for a spot on the final 23 man roster, and there will be more deserving players left out than ever before.
- Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah impressed in just their third match together. Musah in particular put in a standout performance, with an authoritative run from deep in midfield leading up to the opening goal. At just 18, he’s already a key player for Valencia in La Liga, and will only get better. After missing the last several windows with injury, he reminded everyone why his commitment to the US was such a big get.
- Speaking of big gets, Sergiño Dest looked much more comfortable on the right side. Granted, he wasn’t asked to do much defending against Jamaica, but he’s special on the ball. He probably shouldn’t start every match for the US, especially in games where they’ll be on the back foot for long stretches, but last night was the type of performance he’s needed for a long time.
- Zimmerman, Shaq Moore, Yunus Musah and Luca de la Torre all made their World Cup qualifying debuts. For de la Torre in particular, it’s been a long road back to the national team picture. Last night was just his fourth cap since his debut in June 2018, and his excellent form for Heracles Almelo in the Dutch Eredivisie has been rewarded with a return to the USMNT. He’s an asset in possession and unlike most midfielders in the pool. Look for him to get more involved as his club form continues to impress.
- Finally, MLS players played a major role last night. Five in the starting eleven play in Major League Soccer, as did two of the five substitutes and three more on the bench. MLS isn’t some second-tier league that can’t be relied on to supply high-level players to the national team anymore. It’s an increasingly important part of the national team picture.
- Sure, MLS can (and should) be a selling league. And yes, the best prospects will leave the league and test themselves in Europe. But every national team with sustained international success has a vibrant domestic league that create core members of their national team. Eight teams have won the FIFA World Cup, and every one had a strong domestic league that either plays at the highest level or sells players to those top leagues. 16 players in the squad last night either play in MLS or came out of MLS. It’s more important now than ever.