For the past several years, the US men’s national team has been focused not just on winning, but on winning in style.
Since Gregg Berhalter took office, top-down principles have been established that dictate how an American men’s team should play.
Those principles call for fast and dynamic attacking football, which involves playing from behind and exploiting wide spaces. The USA must always be at the forefront and avoid the bad habits that come with playing reactive soccer.
On Thursday, however, the under-23 men’s team did not win in style in their first Olympic qualifying game. They did not fire weapons at an attack masterpiece.
For most of the game, they weren’t up front and generally held their own, relying on a fiery goalkeeper to rescue them after careless mistakes.
However, on this day, for this team, in this situation, style didn’t matter. Possession numbers, completions, shots on goal, that didn’t matter either. What mattered was a result, even an ugly one.
Thanks to a grind-em-out effort under the scorching Guadalajara sun, the USA defeated Costa Rica 1-0, with FC Dallas star Jesús Ferreira providing the only goal of the game.
It certainly wasn’t pretty either, arriving as he did just 10 minutes before halftime after a series of careless mistakes on both sides, but, in the end, it turned out to be enough.
The nature of the goal pretty much summed up the game. There was little quality to the show, but a lot of hope and prayer, a lot of back foot defense after bad turnovers and several saves for the undisputed Man of the Match David Ochoa.
But even though this game could have gone bad, it never did, and the United States is one step closer to the Olympics for that.
“It wasn’t great,” admitted head coach Jason Kreis. “It was an important result for us, but I would say that we would have hoped to have achieved that result in a little better way.”
It may not have been great, but it was exactly what America needed. This is a team and a program that has not qualified for the Olympics in each of the last two cycles, with the 2012 and 2015 teams undone by their own mistakes.
Starting with what everyone knew would be a decisive match for the tournament, the US limited those mistakes, covering for each other when they arrived. There were careless gifts, sure, but none that led to that paralyzing, game-breaking moment.
There were difficulties in attack, but there were enough early chances to catch that goal that the United States so desperately sought. And he spent a lot of time on his back foot, but that foot never buckled against a Costa Rican team that boasted far greater familiarity within their ranks than the United States.
In general, the performance is explainable. This is still a team made up almost exclusively of MLS players, many of whom haven’t played in months. Add in 90 degree temperatures and you have fitness issues and some cramps, which obviously got more of a problem the longer the game went on.
The United States had started brilliantly, with Ferreira’s shot to the post in the opening minutes of the game that served as a warning signal.
By the time Ferreira found the back of the net after a fantastic cross from Sam Vines, it was fair to say that the United States had deserved his goal.
But if the US deserved one for its efforts in the first half, Costa Rica arguably deserved some for its momentum in the second half. It was during that second half that Ochoa shone, making the most of his nine total saves.
From routine to game change, Ochoa reached them all, justifying his starting position after a week of speculation that he would be the second number for this team heading into the tournament.
“He was arguably the most important player for us today,” Kreis said of Ochoa. “I think he stepped up in an important way. Some of the times he went out of line to replace balls that got behind us were second to none.”
“We believe that Ochoa has a great future ahead of him and it is good to see that he is beginning to give his best.”
With Thursday’s victory, the United States gave their best. They will head to Sunday’s game with the Dominican Republic knowing that a victory would secure their place in the semifinals, giving them a chance to reserve their spot in the Olympics. A victory would also help them avoid a possible life or death match with Mexico.
By the time Mexico arrives on Wednesday, Kreis will be hoping his team is more in tune than Thursday. You will expect them to look more like a unit that can combine style and substance.
But, if forced to choose between the two, the United States will choose the substance each time during this Olympic qualifying tournament, as it was that substance that brought them one step closer to Tokyo on Thursday.
“It’s one thing that you’re looking for from your players: to be able to get a result when things may not go their way and when they are super, super fatigued,” Kreis said. “You saw at the end of the game how difficult it was for some of our players to get through that match.
“And now we say ‘Yes, we have all three points in our pocket’, and we are going to be a team that will improve over the course of this tournament.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.