GOAL - Ryan Tolmich
Gregg Berhalter wanted the U.S. men's national team youngsters to experience what life was like in the CONCACAF region and they got just that in Thursday night's bruising Nations League semifinal clash with Honduras.
There was a first-half skirmish, an unpunished two-footed tackle from a 100-cap veteran on a teenager and multiple appearances from the stretcher crew to provide assistance to not-obviously injured players. You can add in a yellow card to Tyler Adams who didn't even play.
FULL TIME! @Theosonsmith's 89th minute goal sends us to Sunday's @CNationsLeague Final as we defeat 🇭🇳 1-0.— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) June 4, 2021
We'll face the winner of tonight's second match between 🇲🇽 and 🇨🇷. #HONvUSA pic.twitter.com/jgHR3c4DAy
The semifinal, the first of its kind for the competition, provided the young USMNT with unfiltered CONCACAF soccer. It had a little bit of everything the team can come to expect from games in this region and, despite the frustration, the delays, the confrontations and the nonsense, the U.S. somehow, someway, found the goal to get the job done.
Following 88 minutes of dealing with the game within the game, the U.S. finally took control of their own destiny with just moments remaining thanks to a goal from Jordan Siebatcheu, whose late winner booked the USMNT's spot in the inaugural tournament finale with a 1-0 win. They will face Mexico with silverware on the line.
Getting to there, though, was ugly. Honduras slowed things down using physicality and then briefly sped them up during the few moments they had the ball. They put the U.S. in uncomfortable situations and did their best to not allow the USMNT to do the same. What came of it was a game that was very much a grind.
It's been quite a night. See ya Sunday, 🇲🇽.— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) June 4, 2021
And Berhalter, having seen his team dazzle against several overmatched teams before a loss to Switzerland last week, was glad to see it.
"I think it was great," he said after the match. "I'll tell you what: it's what we needed. It's what this group needed to see: the urgency, the desperation, the importance of a team getting a result. They were doing everything they could to hang on and get a result, and that's what this is about.
"When you get into World Cup qualifying, it's that times two. So for our group, that's what we needed. It wasn't going to be a pretty football match. Honduras is a strong team, a compact team and a transition team, and that never makes a pretty football match."
Honduras, to their credit, did everything they could to win, and they very well could have too if they held on for just a few more minutes before Siebatcheu struck.
They man-marked Christian Pulisic out of the game, following the Chelsea star all over the field to prevent him from finding space. They turned up the physicality in the right way at the right time and, when the potential of penalty kicks drew closer and closer, they slowed the game down through old-fashioned gamesmanship.
Games like this will become commonplace over the next year or so with World Cup qualifying just ahead.
"You see it," said midfielder Sebastian Lletget. "You see the time wasting, you see the stuff that honestly the camera probably doesn't catch.
"These teams are tough to play against. They make it really, really tough. European teams have just a different way of playing, a different way, a different approach.
"Another thing is the conditions that we're going to get in Central America during qualifying aren't going to always be the best so it's stuff that you just have to deal with."
But to say Honduras only played ugly would be doing them a disservice. They also arguably had the best chance of the night after Zack Steffen was caught out on a looping ball to the back post. Fortunately for the Manchester City goalkeeper, who only recently came to camp after his side fell short in the Champions League final, Josh Sargent was there to clear the ball off the line with a miraculous headed clearance.
Sargent, who struggled to find space in the attacking end, wasn't the forward that saved the day, though. That was Siebatcheu, who made his first USMNT goal a memorable one. After a ball over the top from John Brooks, who was outstanding as always, Weston McKennie headed the ball back towards the center of the box. It was there that Siebatcheu was lying in wait for a header that would go on to win the game.
Crisis averted, at least for the night.
"Many of the guys, and then myself as well, for being like our first experience, real taste of what CONCACAF is gonna be like, I think we handled it pretty well," McKennie said.
"We could have easily lost our head. The boys kept reiterating and I also kept reiterating to the guys that we have to stay focused, we have to do our job, we have to complete the task we set out to do, which was to score, to win the game. And, as you saw, the the guys did it.
"It couldn't have been any more bittersweet than today. Whenever a team is wasting time and trying to keep the flow of the game from from happening and you score, then all of a sudden you see a change in other team as well, trying to get that time back.
"I think it was very, very good for us to have a game like this this test our mentality. But technically, tactically and just like how we played, we know that it has to be better and we know that we have to put these games away as soon as possible."
McKennie is right; the U.S. survived on the day, but they may not be so lucky down the line. Those little moments, the Sargent clearance, the Siebatcheu winner, were the moments that made the difference between qualifying and missing out on the 2018 World Cup and, at the end of the day, the U.S. didn't fall on the right side of too many of them last time around.
And, in Sunday's Nations League final against Mexico, they'll need more of those moments. They can't be limited to just a handful of chances, just a few real looks. This was a great introduction, sure, but the true tests are on the horizon.
But, until Sunday, the U.S. will have a chance to lick their wounds and celebrate their successes. It wasn't perfect, but it was a job well done.
"That's CONCACAF," Berhalter said. "We're not taking anything for granted. We're not taking any performance for granted. We'd like to have scored more goals and won more comfortably, but that's that's not reality. You'll see all sorts of difficult results in difficult games and that's part of it,.
We played the second-youngest team in the history of U.S. Soccer in a competitive match tonight, and these guys need that experience, so I'm really pleased with how the game went, really pleased that we had to go through this because it's it's a great learning experience."