For 88 minutes, the U.S. men's national team's first competitive game in 562 days appeared to be petering out with a whimper, toward a penalty shootout, perhaps toward disappointment.
For 88 minutes, the USMNT's performance in its most significant match since July 2019 was, in a word, underwhelming.
Then a 25-year-old who'd never scored a national team goal came to the rescue.
Jordan Siebatcheu's 89th-minute header beat Honduras in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinals on Thursday, and sent the U.S. to Sunday's final, where it will meet Mexico.
Siebatcheu was born in Washington, D.C., but spent much of his childhood and all of his youth career in France. He played for the French U21s and French pro clubs, before going on loan to Switzerland's BSC Young Boys in 2020.
But he chose to play for the U.S. internationally, and debuted in a friendly earlier this year. Thursday's match was his first competitive one with the Yanks. He came off the bench to replace Josh Sargent in the 78th minute. And not too long after setting foot on Denver's Sports Authority Field, he pounced on a Weston McKennie knock-down, and powered his own header into the roof of the net.
John Brooks, who was commanding as usual from his left center back position, played the delicate chip that unsettled the Honduran defense and sparked the sequence.
The goal, though, masked a mediocre U.S. performance overall. The Americans were fluid and at times purposeful, but wasteful and unconvincing in the final third.
They were, on several occasions, susceptible to counterattacks, and nearly conceded on a set piece.
In both halves, Honduras crafted glorious chances to take a lead of its own. Because it squandered them, the U.S. has an energizing victory, a winning start to its ramp-up toward World Cup qualifying, which begins this fall.
But the U.S. also has plenty of work to do between now and then.
Analysis of the USMNT's win over Honduras
The USMNT starting 11 was, with one notable exception, pretty darn close to its first-choice 11. Tyler Adams missed out due to injury. But Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen returned from Champions League final duty to fill out a strong U.S. lineup.
And with Pulisic involved, so much of what the U.S. did going forward revolved around the 22-year-old winger.
Pulisic was a winger in name only. He roamed all across the field, sideline to sideline, often picking up the ball near midfield and deputizing as a deep playmaker. McKennie and Sebastien Lletget, the USMNT's two advanced midfielders, would push high and leave him room to operate. Left back Antonee Robinson would bomb up the sideline and take Pulisic's place on the left wing.
At times, with Pulisic on the ball, the USMNT would get stagnant, and the midfield isolations would be ineffective.
At other times, he'd attract Honduran attention, and allow teammates to create. Pulisic was at the base of the U.S. midfield when Gio Reyna danced into the penalty box and dragged a shot just wide of the far post:
There's a downside to fluidity, though. Attacking freedom comes with side effects. When the U.S. broke from its 4-3-3 shape to try to "disorganize" Honduras, as head coach Gregg Berhalter likes to say, it also disorganized itself. When it lost the ball, it left itself vulnerable.
Late in the first half, with McKennie, Lletget and Robinson all high, a turnover left the Americans scrambling to deal with Honduran forward Alberth Elis. Mark McKenzie rotated over and got dusted in space. Elis' cross narrowly evaded Anthony Lozano in front of goal.
In the second half, the U.S. counterpress was invisible when Honduras' Deybi Flores picked up a loose ball. With McKennie and Lletget ahead of the ball, Flores had time and space to spring Lozano. Steffen's biggest save of the night kept the visitors off the board.
Sergiño Dest's lack of awareness had kept Lozano onside. The Barcelona fullback was once again an attacking asset for the U.S., but his defensive shortcomings were once again exposed.
The U.S. created enough going forward to (deservedly) win the game. But an unstructured attack needs a more consistent end product, or a better plan to control the defensive transition phase. In both areas, the USMNT remains a work in progress. Promising, but unpolished. Sargent isn't yet a reliable No. 9 – his main contribution Thursday was a goal-line clearance.
And without Adams available, the U.S. lacked bite in midfield. More specifically, it lacked mobility in its defensive midfield position. Jackson Yueill's performance didn't inspire confidence.
The defects didn't cost the U.S. on Thursday. But they could on Sunday against Mexico, which topped Costa Rica on penalties in the second semifinal. Or the defects could begin to disappear as the Americans acclimate – to one another and to Berhalter's system – and improve.
The overarching takeaway from this semifinal victory is that it was, in fact, a victory. What it does or doesn't portend remains to be determined.
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