What Is This Strange Feeling Of Watching The USMNT Win?

The U.S. has won five straight and is undefeated in its last nine. Has the corner been turned?

Five straight friendly wins for the U.S. after it beat Northern Ireland 2-1 on Sunday, a rare victory in Europe; nine games without a loss tallying a 33-5 goal margin. The USMNT is playing better than it has in years, and while the competition hasn’t been the best, there’s an undeniable new mood around the team. 

It’s a strange feeling for U.S. fans watching Gregg Berhalter’s team right now. Since the debacle of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, fans are understandably cautious about becoming invested in the USMNT. But with recent performances, there’s growing optimism that these youngsters we’ve been talking about for four years might be able to take the U.S. to places it’s never been (in the men’s game, at least). 

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The U.S. put in a strong performance to beat Northern Ireland, at times dominating but also looking a bit vulnerable. It was the USMNT’s first road win in Europe since 2015, first win at British opposition and first win in Ireland (Northern or the Republic). 

The last time the U.S. lost was a surprise 2-0 defeat to Canada in the Nations League on Oct. 15, 2019. Since then, the USMNT has been on a tear, starting with an avenging 4-1 win over Canada a month after the loss. 2020 was a bit of a lost year because of the global pandemic, but the Americans managed to get in a few friendlies at the end of the year, drawing Wales and beating a pair of Concacaf foes. 

The U.S. has won five straight, with four of those against teams from its own federation. While wins over Panama, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica won’t excite most American soccer fans, those are the types of teams the U.S. needs to beat to ensure it qualifies for the 2022 World Cup. Sunday’s win was a bit different, showing the USMNT can beat European squads too. 

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Northern Ireland is by no means one of the top teams in Europe, but ranked 45th in the FIFA world rankings, the nation would be the third-best team in Concacaf right now (based purely on the world rankings, which admittedly has its flaws). 

Given the immense size and economy the U.S. has at its disposal, maybe the USMNT should expect to win these types of games. But after the nightmare of missing the last World Cup, nothing has been given. 

It is indeed strange to watch the USMNT win games like the USWNT. Being a fan of the USWNT is like being a fan of Alabama football: they’re expected to win every single game and it’s a huge upset when they lose. The USMNT isn’t nearly on that level and probably never will be. But five straight convincing wins has American fans feeling a bit better about their chances to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. Granted, the mood could change drastically later Sunday if the USMNT U-23s fail to qualify for the Olympics. 

Of course, all of these wins have been in friendlies, and it’s never wise to read too much into them. Northern Ireland started just one player who played in its 2-0 defeat to Italy in World Cup qualifying a few days earlier; even the U.S. deployed an experimental new formation. 

But a win on the road at European competition is nothing to scoff at for the U.S., which couldn’t even get a draw at Trinidad and Tobago with a World Cup berth on the line four years ago. 

While Sunday’s victory wasn’t a completely dominating performance, it was a quality win. Gio Reyna was a bit fortunate to score the opener but the U.S. was worth its 1-0 halftime lead. Christian Pulisic wore the captain’s armband for the first time for his country and was on the ball early and often, scoring the game’s second goal. 

The new 3-4-3 formation at times looked effective both offensively and defensively but at times looked suspect, particularly when Kellyn Acosta was caught in possession in midfield. Yunus Musah looked more comfortable in the role, but it’s important to remember a full-strength squad would probably have Weston McKennie and maybe Tyler Adams in those positions. 

Musah started his fourth match with the USMNT, which cap-tied him to the U.S. The 18-year-old Valencia midfielder had verbally committed himself to the U.S., but Sunday’s match made it official. Musah also could have chosen to represent Italy, England or Ghana internationally. 

USMNT Highlights vs Northern Ireland

The USMNT was clearly on top early, but just as Northern Ireland was growing into the match, the U.S. struck in the 30th minute.

Tim Ream found Reyna wide open about 25 yards out. The Dortmund player danced around one defender before hitting a shot that took a big deflection on its way into the back of the net.

The U.S. still looked susceptible when turning the ball over in midfield, as Acosta did a few too many times. Northern Ireland’s best chance in the first half came off one such giveaway, but Zack Steffen was there to make the save.

The U.S. made it 2-0 in the 59th minute after some nice combination play resulted in Pulisic earning a penalty kick. The captain’s spot kick wasn’t the best, but when you’re going at a 6-6 goalkeeper anything low has a good chance of going in.

Northern Ireland scored a late consolation goal through Niall McGinn, who struck a vicious volley from a wide angle in the 88th minute. 

The U.S. probably should have added a third in the final minutes but Antonee Robinson lost possession on a two-on-one as the match ended 2-1.

The U.S. has a friendly against Switzerland on May 30, then things start to get serious, finally. First up is Honduras in the Concacaf Nations League semifinal on June 3, followed by either the championship or third-place game three days later. The Gold Cup kicks off in July followed by the Olympics (assuming the U.S. qualifies) and then it starts to get really real in September. The USMNT begins 2022 World Cup qualifying on Sept. 2 with three matches over a seven-day span. 

The U.S. has been playing quite well and there’s some understandable optimism. We’ll find out in the coming months if that optimism can be converted into actual results. 

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