USMNT takes care of what's expected -- but same questions persist
The U.S. men's national team did what was needed against Cuba in the group stage finale of the CONCACAF Nations League, prevailing 4-0 over the Lions of the Caribbean.
Jordan Morris continued his renaissance with two goals, with Josh Sargent adding two of his own. The win secured the Americans' place in the semifinals of the competition, as they edged Canada in Group A on goal differential.
Beyond that, there weren't any overriding takeaways from the match. Cuba's struggles with defections and organization -- the match was played in the Cayman Islands due to stadium issues in Cuba -- are well-documented. As such, it was a game the U.S. should have dominated, and it did, with a 69%-31% edge in possession and a 14-6 advantage in chances created.
That said, there was some sloppy play mixed in among the goals, as the U.S. clearly took its foot off the pedal in the second half. The match will not be included in any 2019 highlight reels.
One might argue that the Nations League gave a young U.S. side some needed experience for when World Cup qualifying comes around. Certainly, the Americans got punched in the face when they were beaten by Canada 2-0 last month, and the poor field conditions on display against Cuba might well be encountered again next year. But the Cayman Islands aren't exactly San Pedro Sula in terms of difficult environments. Neither is Toronto, for that matter. As tests go, there are much, much tougher ones to come.
As such, 2019 ends with many of the same questions that were present at the beginning. The U.S. won 11 games during the year, but there was no signature win among them to put a stamp on the Gregg Berhalter era. The Canada loss means the nerves present since the 2018 World Cup qualifying failure haven't really gone away. Granted, the fact that the U.S. secured passage out of the Nations League group stage counts as a positive. But such sentiments have more to do with the fact that if the U.S. had been eliminated from the Nations League, a full-blown crisis would have ensued. Now the pressure will ease a bit, and the U.S. can regroup when the calendar moves into 2020.
If there was one reason for optimism on Tuesday, it was the continued emergence of Morris. After a torn ACL wiped out almost all of his 2018, the Seattle native was an afterthought. But Morris found his form, settled into a wide position, won a title with the Sounders and added plenty to his team's attack, whether it was for club or country. The five goals in his past five games for the U.S. were the same total he had in his first 34.
Morris' progression might end up being a critical development for a U.S. team that has long been too dependent on Christian Pulisic. The fact that Morris provides more of a classic wing presence than Pulisic gives the U.S. attack an added wrinkle.
Sargent's two goals came in vastly different ways, bundling home Paul Arriola's deflected cross with the game just 36 seconds old and then a powerful finish from Tyler Boyd's deft pass in the 66th minute. His performance highlighted what a critical season this is for him. Gyasi Zardes might lead the U.S. with six goals this year, but it is Sargent who has the higher ceiling. He'll need to develop with Werder Bremen and show his ability when Berhalter calls him in. With Jozy Altidore still struggling to be consistently fit, having Sargent play at a high level would be a boon for the U.S.
But the same could be said for so many other players on the U.S. team from front to back. The matches in 2020, be they Nations League, World Cup qualifying or even Olympic qualifying for the U-23s, will be more intense.
Success on those fronts means the level needs to be raised.