USMNT close to Copa America qualification after ‘disappointing’ win

As the clock ticked toward 90 minutes and scoring opportunity after scoring opportunity went begging for the United States men’s national team Thursday night against Trinidad and Tobago, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter began to fear the worst.

“You know, crazy things happen,” Berhalter said after the Americans’ eventual, way-too-nervy 3-0 win against a Soca Warriors squad that played more than half the match with 10-men after defender Noah Powder picked up a pair of yellow cards. “I was on the sideline today thinking this may end 0-0 because of all the chances we’re missing, particularly the second half.”

A scoreless draw would’ve been close to a nightmare result for the USMNT, which would’ve had to travel to T&T capital Port of Spain for the decisive second leg of this total-goals, CONCACAF Nations League quarterfinal and win to ensure a spot in the semis and next year’s Copa América on home soil. U.S. fans don’t have to be reminded what happened the last time the Americans visited the two-island Caribbean country needing a result: an upset loss a little over six years ago that prevented them from reaching the 2018 World Cup.

Fortunately for Berhalter and his team, the hosts finally found the breakthrough goal in the 82nd minute, when Ricardo Pepi’s glancing header opened the floodgates. Two more goals over the next seven minutes, by Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and Gio Reyna, all but ensured that the U.S. will qualify for the Copa América and compete for a third straight Nations League title in 2024.

While Berhalter’s angst on the sideline was understandable, his players insisted afterward that they weren’t nervous — even as the game stayed scoreless into the final 10 minutes of regular time.

“It always felt like it was going to come eventually,” Robinson said of Pepi’s all-important opener, which he set up with a pinpoint cross. “It’s one of those things when you score that first one, they kind of keep coming.”

Keep coming they did. The hosts deserve plenty of credit for not panicking, for continuing to pepper the visitors’ net with shots until the end of the contest. The 10-man Trinidadians warrant even more for the way they defended after going down a man. 

But this wasn’t a great performance by a U.S. team that wasn’t sharp enough and didn’t play quickly enough, especially in the first half. 

“We lacked a little bit of precision,” Berhalter said. “There was a lot of moves in the first half that were pretty good moves that just the final pass was missing. Or the first touch was missing.”

Dangerous shots on goal were missing, too. The Americans didn’t test T&T keeper Denzil Smith nearly enough despite what the stat sheet said: Smith finished the game with eight saves.

“At some point we have to take some shots even if they’re from outside the box,” defender Tim Ream said. “We were just trying to walk the ball across the line, really.”

“Overall, it was kind of disappointing that we didn’t do more,” Robinson said. “We were just a little bit slow, a little bit naive to just keep possession and we weren’t really threatening as much as we could’ve been.

“But we kept going until the end,” he added. “And, luckily, we got three goals to go into the second leg.”

Pepi’s was easily the most important. And it was no surprise that it came from the former FC Dallas striker, who has scored five of his seven USMNT goals in 2023 after coming in off the bench.

“Being local from Texas, I feel like there was no way I wasn’t gonna score tonight,” said the El Paso native, adding that he told Robinson to find him in the box a few minutes before the first goal came. Reyna’s goal, in the 89th minute, provided some welcome breathing room.

The job isn’t done yet, though. Despite what seems like an insurmountable 3-0 aggregate lead in what is essentially a 180-minute match, the U.S. knows better than to take anything for granted in Trinidad, the site of the worst failure in the modern history of the USMNT program.

“You can’t win in the first 90 minutes, but you can definitely lose,” said Ream, the only player on the current roster who was also on the team that lost there in 2017. “That’s our mindset. We have to go down there and we have to win another game.

“We do that, and we’re through to the semifinals of the Nations League and qualify for Copa,” he continued. “That’s the goal.”

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United Statesmen’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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