Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie propel USMNT past Jamaica into Gold Cup final

Christian Pulisic scored twice as the U.S. sped past Jamaica and into the 2019 Gold Cup final. (Getty)
Christian Pulisic scored twice as the U.S. sped past Jamaica and into the 2019 Gold Cup final. (Getty)

NASHVILLE — It has been a long time since a U.S. men’s national team game brought unbridled, widespread smiles. Certainly more than a year. Perhaps even two.

But on Wednesday night in the Music City, Christian Pulisic and the USMNT sped past Jamaica in the Gold Cup semifinals. They won 3-1. They started strong, wavered momentarily, but finished with a flourish.

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And they did so much of it with joy. A nearly-90-minute weather delay couldn’t suppress it. Neither could Jamaica. Weston McKennie was a catalyst. Pulisic dazzled.

[Breakdown: How McKennie’s masterclass showcased his growth]

They, and so many others, met their biggest competitive test of the nascent Gregg Berhalter era with some of their best soccer yet.

Now, their reward is an even bigger test: Sunday night. Soldier Field in Chicago. As the final minutes ticked away on Wednesday’s win, fans reminded them of the opponent.

“We want Mexico,” thousands chanted. “We want Mexico.”

Minutes later, McKennie echoed the sentiment.

"I want Mexico,” he said. “The team wants Mexico."

And with the way they played Wednesday, they have every right to.

The USMNT’s flying start

If the second half of Sunday’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over Curacao was somewhat stale and lethargic, this was just the opposite. The American 11 flew about, with the ball and without it, right from kickoff. They snapped into challenges. They moved like clockwork. They played with intensity and intent, galloping forward at every opportunity.

Pulisic created an early chance down the left. Then, off a goal kick in the fourth minute, Jozy Altidore flicked a header into the path of Jordan Morris, whose cross slithered through to Paul Arriola at the back post. Arriola’s first touch was slightly loose, though, and his close-range attempt was smothered by Jamaican keeper Andre Blake.

Reggie Cannon had a chance, but rippled the side-netting. Tim freakin’ Ream was playing no-look passes. Pulisic hit the post with a free kick. Everybody and everything was humming. For 15 minutes, favorites were all over underdogs, pulling them apart with unpredictable movement, winning duels and turning on the style.

And they got the early goal their endeavors deserved.

Breaking down the USMNT’s opening goal

The buildup to the U.S. goal had it all. Interchanges. Purposeful runs. Pinpoint passes. Velvety first-touches.

It began on the left with Arriola tucking inside and Pulisic drifting outside – a movement that has become customary in Pulisic’s evolving role. No Jamaica midfielder followed him out to the touchline. Then, when Tim Ream found him with a clever outside-of-the-foot pass, two Jamaicans did:

(Original video: Fox Sports 1)
(Original video: Fox Sports 1)

The double-team pulled others toward the ball, and left Michael Bradley in space at the base of midfield:

(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1 | Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)
(Screenshot: Fox Sports 1 | Illustration: Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

And when the ball finds Bradley with time at the base of midfield, USMNT players know what to do. Whenever he picks his head up, there is almost invariably one teammate sprinting in behind, looking for a lofted diagonal. Because Bradley hits it as well as anybody in the U.S. player pool.

And he hit it here, intentionally keeping it outside the Jamaican fullback. Reggie Cannon, who made the run, adjusted mid-flight. When he picked it out of the air with the side of his foot, Weston McKennie darted into the box, took it in stride, and finished:

McKennie was alert. His touch was composed. His celebration – which included a “let’s f—-ing go!” and another rehearsed handshake – was impulsive and fiery.

He was everything the U.S. was for 15 minutes. Then Mother Nature interrupted.

Weather delay

With the game clock at 15:27, the referee paused play and consulted the fourth official. He called the two captains together. And he sent the two teams trudging off to the locker room.

There was a “band of lightning strikes approaching the stadium,” according to the public address announcer. Fans were told to scatter to the concourses. Some did. Others waited for security guards to send them to shelter, one by one.

Rain started, then stopped. Players waited. Fans, one story above them, did likewise. Two ran onto the field, only to be flattened by security guards.

Those who had stayed in their seats partook in the wave.

Many of the 28,473 in (announced) attendance stuck around. Waited out almost 90 minutes. And were rewarded with more entertainment.

The effects of the weather delay

The 1-hour, 28-minute delay didn’t mute the USMNT’s energy or attacking intent. Players bounced around in the tunnel as they waited to retake the field. When they did, they got ample warmup time. And within a couple minutes of the restart, Morris very nearly latched onto the end of a looping Arriola ball in behind the Jamaica defense.

The delay did, however, seem to impact their sharpness. McKennie had several loose touches in midfield. The visitors shanked shots, or had them pushed away by Zack Steffen, but for the first time, they had a foothold in the game.

The final 30 minutes of the first half were almost as eventful as the first 15. Toward the end of them, late challenges began to fly in. A few yellow cards were brandished. Pulisic sauced a Jamaican defender with a ridiculous turn:

The U.S. remained the better team. But the advantage was no longer definitive.

U.S. extends the lead

Six minutes into the second half, though, McKennie, Morris and Pulisic combined to double the lead.

McKennie’s playmaking was excellent all night. His passing was ambitious and precise. With this ball, he spun around a Jamaican defender and made Morris’ run for him.

Minutes later, Gyasi Zardes replaced Altidore. McKennie played Zardes in with a chance to make it three. His shot was wayward – very wayward – but the Americans were firmly in control. For the most part, they remained in control until Jamaica halved the deficit.

Jamaica’s near-comeback

With 21 minutes remaining, Leon Bailey sized up a double team and dug out a cross. Matt Miazga’s marking was loose. Shamar Nicholson skimmed a header in off the post.

It was the first goal the U.S. had conceded all tournament. And the first time all game the home crowd sensed trouble. Berhalter brought on Christian Roldan for Morris immediately thereafter, a move clearly designed to see the game out rather than put it out of reach.

In the end, though, the hosts did both. Despite a few shaky moments, they held firm. Then Pulisic wove into the box. His final pass was stray, but he stayed in the play and pounced on a rebound for his second, his team’s third ...

... and a date with Mexico. For the first time in a Gold Cup final since 2011.

It’ll be part of a Super Soccer Sunday, with the women playing for their World Cup at 11 a.m. ET and the men at 9 p.m., with a Copa America final sandwiched in between. It may very well be the biggest day in American soccer history.

USMNT lineup

Berhalter made four changes to the lineup that started on Matchdays 1 and 2, and in the quarterfinals. Cannon replaced Nick Lima at right back. Miazga came in for Walker Zimmerman at right center back. Morris started on the right wing ahead of Tyler Boyd, and Jozy Altidore replaced Zardes up top.

Here was the U.S. 11, from back to front, left to right (substitutes in parentheses):

Zack Steffen; Reggie Cannon, Matt Miazga, Aaron Long, Tim Ream; Michael Bradley, Weston McKennie, Christian Pulisic; Jordan Morris (Christian Roldan, Jozy Altidore (Gyasi Zardes), Paul Arriola (Daniel Lovitz).

The changes were likely governed by the short rest – only two days – in between quarters and semis. But they also gave Berhalter a lot to think about ahead of the final.

Zimmerman should return. Lima probably will as well. But the attack was more connected with Altidore linking with midfielders. Morris provided a dimension that Boyd hasn’t. Berhalter has five capable starters across his forward line for only three spots.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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