Analysis: USMNT must make the first half of matches count

USMNT team celebration at Field
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ANALYSIS – Three points are three points, a win is a win. For the USMNT, winning by any means has been exactly that and it has given them a strong position to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. After the 1-0 win against El Salvador Thursday night, they sit second on 18 points in a tight battle for the top spot with the likes of Canada, Mexico and Panama.

But we all see the games, and the majority of them haven’t been pretty viewings. Gregg Berhalter made numerous changes to the starting lineup, opting for the MMA lineup of McKennie, Adams and Musah, Jesus Ferreira over Pepi and leaving out Miles Robinson. And it was starting well in the first half with some decent passing and runs into opposition channels. But then Ferreira missed two chances to put the hosts in front, and the first 45 minutes finished scoreless. Eight shots and four corner kicks amounted to nothing on the scoreboard. It has been a theme that has persisted throughout this qualifying cycle, and there seems to be no answer to it.

Antonee Robinson’s game-winning goal was a ball that was initially blocked, headed across the box and swept home. It was scrappy and did the job in the end, but it arguably should’ve been more after that. And the fact that there weren’t more goals speaks to a larger issue that must change if the USMNT wants to make themselves a more scary outfit going forward.

The first half worries for the USMNT

Here’s a question: do style points matter? The answers provide great conversation because there’s no right answer. Many believe a win is a win and that’s it, while others think that playing champagne football and bossing the opponent with loads of goals is just as good. Against La Selecta, there wasn’t much pretty play, and much of that was down to the opponent frustrating USMNT and making their presence known. It was always likely to be that way, but the front three of Pulisic-Ferreira-Weah did little to cause much havoc.

Most of the danger came from full-backs Dest and Robinson, who were both excellent. But it’s the attacking unit that has done little and needs to do more to help propel this side into a higher level. Berhalter mentioned the team creating enough chances to score in the first half. Against lesser opposition like El Salvador and Honduras earlier, that is okay once the second-half goal comes in. The best way to improve first-half fortunes is for the attacking players to impose themselves in the game better.

So far, the USMNT has scored 13 goals. Of the baker’s dozen, 10 of those were scored in the second half, only two scored in the opening 45 minutes while nabbing one own goal. It’ll require guys like Pulisic to step up after an awful showing Thursday night and got the captain’s armband. Ferreira may not see much more of the field if he squanders more chances, guys like Pepi and Gyasi Zardes are right there ready to roll. Berhalter will need to find solutions, while players will need to force the issue to make life easier for themselves.

The away trip to Canada will answer many questions

There are obvious benefits to being able to get first-half goals. Firstly, it settles the nerves, especially for a young squad such as this where its fans all want them to excel. This batch of talent is rare and so the lack of early scoring has shown them to at times overexert in search of a first goal. Secondly, it gives you more control of proceedings. Once the Robinson goal came, the USMNT midfield bossed possession. It at times looked like a stroll to the final whistle, which is a bit of a worry considering it finished a 1-0 game. A second goal would’ve killed the game off and added a killer instinct to the performance. Again, it’s little things but they matter.

Looking forward, the USMNT goes up north to play leaders Canada. Berhalter has massive decisions to make, but the MMA midfield isn’t one of them and that’s a big plus. However, the form of Pulisic is extremely worrying considering he played too narrow and added little after that. It could very well see the Chelsea man dropped in favor of Brendan Aaronson. Pepi will likely get the nod up top, while Weah should retain his place.

Miles Robinson could come back in defense over Chris Richards for rotation. And yet, it’s still about the first goal. In games like this, the first goal means everything. For the USMNT, it can quiet the crowd, bring the players into a groove and help players grow into the game. Should they fail again to score in the opening 45 minutes, Canada has too much firepower to overwhelm them. It’s a worrying theme that needs fixing as qualification is all but confirmed.

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