LAS VEGAS — Thursday’s Concacaf Nations League (CNL) semifinal against Mexico was the US men’s version of “Everything, Everywhere, Everything at Once,” in that there were enough deviations from perceived reality to fill a feature film.
There was news breaking just before kick-off that Gregg Berhalter was making an unexpected return as USA manager. This after the US Soccer Federation (USSF) let his contract expire last December, investigated him for a domestic violence incident and later concluded that she was satisfied with his explanation and maintained that he was still eligible to return. Meanwhile, the USSF employed not one, but two interim coaches: Anthony Hudson and BJ Callaghan. He then used a search firm to hire a sports director, Matt Crocker, who simply brought the USSF back to where it was last December, handing Berhalter what is technically his second stint as USA coach.
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The game against Mexico was chaos, and not just because the USA prevailed 3-0 instead of their usual 2-0 score. There were two goals from Christian Pulisic, a third from substitute Ricardo Pepi and four red cards, two for each side.
The unbalanced score brought out the usual anti-gay chant of the trio fans, and with Step 1 of Concacaf’s anti-discrimination protocol already enacted, referee Ivan Barton blew his whistle when only seven of 12 minutes of second-half stoppage time were played. Concacaf insisted that the game was not abandoned and that it was stopped at Barton’s discretion. He later issued a statement that he “strongly condemns the discriminatory chants” and that “the Confederation is in the process of urgently establishing further details and reports from party and security officials and will make a further statement shortly.”
That didn’t change Team USA’s thoughts on crowd behavior.
“[The chant] it goes against everything we stand for on our side,” USA goalkeeper Matt Turner said. So, wearing something so divisive during a high-energy game…has no place in the game.”
Oh, and the US was led to the sidelines by Callaghan, who was serving as a head coach for the first time at the professional level. No problem. Although Callaghan led his team to its most lopsided score against Mexico in official competition, he will probably only be in charge of one more game: Sunday’s final against Canada. That said, his subsequent comments to the match made it sound like he’s been in the role for a long time.
“We were confident in the game plan that we were able to put together and I think the performance of our side speaks for itself,” he said. “We couldn’t be happier with the performance, but at the same time we also understand that we have to turn the page and start the recovery and preparation process now to play against Canada.”
Everything that happened served to overshadow the biggest pre-game talking point: the debut of Arsenal striker (and designated savior) Folarin Balogun. America has been looking for a reliable No. 9 for years, though historically there have been some good ones. Eric Wynalda was at one point the USA’s all-time leading scorer with 34 goals; Brian McBride also led the American attack for a considerable period. (Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey spent much of their international careers as midfielders.)
But in recent years, the US has struggled to get much, if any, production off-site. So when Balogun scored 22 times in 39 league and cup appearances on loan at French Stade de Reims this season, then declared for the US at the expense of England and Nigeria, American fans began to dream of big.
Meeting those lofty expectations will have to wait a bit. Balogun had some shining moments, including a dismissal from Pulisic that sparked an attack that ended with the US captain firing over the bar from just 10 yards out. But overall it was kind of off. He had the fewest touches of any US starter and rarely threatened in the attacking half. Some of that was due to his unfamiliarity with his teammates, who rarely gave Balogun the kind of channel passes that allowed him to use his speed.
“I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t my best game,” Balogun said. “I think it’s important at the same time that I have to be realistic going into a new environment with new teammates. And of course I’m playing in a semi-final, so it’s never going to be an easy football game, but in the end of the day that I am happy to have obtained a result”.
Still, Balogun managed to endear himself to his teammates and fans when, in the 69th minute, he went after Mexican defender César Montes, dispossessed him and committed a foul that resulted in a red card for Montes. It also caused a melee in which US midfielder Weston McKennie was also sent off.
The splinters didn’t end there, as American defenseman Sergiño Dest was ejected after an altercation with Mexican substitute Gerardo Arteaga, leaving both teams to finish the game with nine players each. As much as Callaghan tried to publicly endorse his men, he took some of the shine off the victory. McKennie and Dest will be suspended for Sunday’s victory, a reality that was not lost on Pulisic.
“It’s crazy. All year long, I’m never a part of games like this. And then I come here and it’s like, all of a sudden, the whole world is just…it was a mess,” he said. “But I was disappointed in the end. I really wish some of our guys would hold their heads a little better. It just turned into something that wasn’t this beautiful game. We did enough to show off on the field with our game that we deserve to win that game and a commanding performance, and now that all of this has happened, it just gets away from the way we played.”
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Pulisic was at the heart of that performance, putting the US ahead in the 37th minute by hitting a loose ball from Mexico and finishing past Memo Ochoa. He then doubled the lead just seconds into the second half by redirecting Tim Weah’s pinpoint cross after McKennie deflected it into space.
It was as complete a team performance as the US has had against Mexico since the turn of the century. The defense was barely noticeable, in a good way. The USA was superior in creating chances and finishing. And Pulisic’s performance proved one undeniable fact: Balogun may be the shiny new toy, but this is still Pulisic’s team, as evidenced by his goals and leadership.
It is also Berhalter’s team again. There were several reasons for Berhalter not to return. The domestic violence incident remains difficult to overcome. The same goes for his handling of Gio Reyna after the World Cup when he almost denounced the midfielder for having a bad attitude and nearly sent him home. A second cycle, when messages might become stale, was yet another reason to move to a different admin.
The reasons why the USSF leadership brought Berhalter back will be revealed in the coming days. But the vast majority of players, at least those who have spoken publicly, have backed him in recent weeks. Pulisic was among those who gave Berhalter strong support, and he reiterated it after the match.
“You see, today is a testament to the work that [Berhalter] put on this team, “he said.” BJ picked up right where he left off and it’s a testament to him, a testament to this team the way we just carry on and just put on performances like that. So if that’s not enough evidence [to support Berhalter], that’s ok. People are going to hate.”
As satisfying as the win was, the US still has one more game to win to repeat as CNL champions. It will be hard to beat Canada’s ability and speed on the wings, especially without McKennie and Dest. But the United States is determined to do whatever it takes to prevail, no matter how much chaos it may encounter.