By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Nov 21, 2023) US Soccer Players – Like several previous trips to the Caribbean over the decades, the USMNT’s Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal second-leg in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago took on a “surreal” tone, in Gregg Berhalter’s words, on Monday night. Two first-half yellow cards to Sergiño Dest and the furious Soca Warriors rally that ensued forced everyone on the pitch to scramble, dig deep, and grind together. In the end, a sturdy display of collective resilience and game management got the job done and booked passage to both the Nations League semifinals and next year’s Copa America on home soil.
“Disappointing we didn’t come and get the win. We obviously wanted to make a statement, come and win on the road,” goal scorer Antonee “Jedi” Robinson told Turner Sports. “We started the game pretty well, I think we had things under control. And then obviously a moment of unprofessionalism kind of went against us. But we take it. At the end of the day we’ve come through to the semifinals of the Nations League, we’re in the Copa America. So it’s still a successful break.”
With a goal in each match, the game-winning assist in Thursday night’s 3-0 first-leg victory in Austin, and energetic two-way play throughout, Robinson was one of this international window’s top performers.
“He was absolutely fantastic,” Berhalter said. “He was one that looked like he could keep going for another 90 minutes if he needed to. “A great effort by Antonee, and a great camp for him, I thought both games he played extremely well … Overall, happy with the way that all the guys on the field responded. It wasn’t an easy situation to deal with, and they responded.”
Those efforts exemplified the team’s commitment to prevent Monday’s match from spinning out of control amid adversity in hostile territory.
“Obviously we know what the scoreline needed to be. When the second goal goes in, I just tried to grab guys, bring everyone in and say right, we need to do more, not do less,” said captain Tim Ream in a postgame press conference. “We’re down to 10, but everybody has to work that much harder. So yeah, it’s just keeping guys mentally focused, not getting too down about anything negative, any of the bad stuff that happens, be it a goal, be it a foul, be it whatever.”
The situation also challenged Berhalter and his staff. The coaches had to adapt on the fly even as they continued to try out a new 4-2-2-2 formation led by two out-and-out strikers in Folarin Balogun and Ricardo Pepi, who were starting together for the first time, and ensure that no one was exposed to elevated injury risk on a wet pitch in muggy tropical conditions.
“The plan gets thrown out the window a little bit when you’re down to 10 men,” said Berhalter. “We had Alejandro (Zendejas) warming up, he was going to come in for Gio (Reyna). We had [Joe] Scally coming in, he was going to come in for Sergiño at halftime, and we were going to get some other players on the field. But when that happened, it changed the scenario, and that’s fine. Those are things you have to deal with.”
First the USMNT took up a 4-3-2 shape to push Trinidad and Tobago’s buildups into wide areas and maintain outlets for attacking transitions. As players tired in the heat, it later shifted to a 4-4-1 to provide the more familiar defensive framework of two banks of four.
“We weren’t giving up many chances (in the first-half),” Berhalter said, “and Gio was going to be a planned sub at 45 (minutes). That seemed like the sensible thing to do. We played a 4-3-2 and with the way they were building, not having double width with three and players inside, we felt like we could keep them out pretty well – wasn’t too upset with that immediate reaction. We actually had a lot more possession in that time. But as we tired, it became harder to keep the possession. We went to a 4-4-1 even though they had single width on the edges, we thought the two lines would give us some stability.”
Later Berhalter revealed that the squad had relatively limited time to drill the new look, due to the particular scenario of a consequential away match far from home.
“We actually didn’t train it at all,” he said. “We came up with the idea matchday -1 yesterday and with training in Trinidad, we were concerned about people seeing it, so we didn’t train it, but we talked to them about it. And I think, in general, for the first 35 minutes it was working as planned. One (striker) was coming, one was going, nice interactions with the 10s in the pocket, fullbacks getting forward. Our goal was actually fullback to fullback, which we always like, it showed that the guys were getting nice and aggressive. We had a number of chances, with Brenden Aaronson, with Balo, with Rico. So overall, pleased with it, but I wish we would have had a bigger body of work to go on, because after the red card it was more challenging.”
Despite the challenging circumstances and limited sample size, the concept sounds likely to be utilized again in future camps. Berhalter pointed to “moments, particularly in the first half, where they (Trinidad and Tobago) had a very hard time getting the ball, even though we were down a man,” even if heavy legs and the numerical disadvantage eventually led to the 10 man hanging on towards the end.
The modest difference in the two sides’ expected-goals numbers, even with more than half the match played on unequal terms, hinted at the way the Yanks managed the second-half. As disappointed as Matt Turner probably was to concede Alvin Jones’ game-winner, it was a well-hit free kick from long range, not a team buildup in which the US defense was pulled apart and exposed.
It was a night to check the required boxes and move ‘on to the next,’ as the familiar mantra goes. Berhalter will aim to ensure the ramifications of Dest’s mistake are processed with similar grounding.
“Serg has done a great job of maturing and growing over the years that he’s been with the group,” the coach said. “For him, this has to be a learning experience. It will be a learning experience. You know how we work, we give people second chances, we work with people, we help them overcome instances like this. So we’ll do the same with Serg. He’s a talented player, an important part of our team, and we need to have good conversations with him, make sure we get him on the right track.”
The USMNT will learn its semifinal opponents in the coming days when the details of Nations League’s finals weekend, set for AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas March 21-24, are set. The team will aim to win its third consecutive title in the competition while also setting a positive trajectory in the runup to Copa America, which could well be the biggest occasion of their preparations for the 2026 World Cup.