COLUMBUS, Ohio – When the U.S. men’s national team took a break with El Salvador on Thursday without a goal, any sense of anxiety that could have crept into the home’s locker room would have been understandable. With a World Cup place not yet secured, anything but a victory would have been considered a massive disappointment.
For this American national team, however, it was a familiar and perhaps even a comfortable position. The team has struggled in the first half through qualifying – it has only two goals in the first half in nine games – but has routinely found ways to strike back in the second half. This game would not be any different.
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As he did against Honduras in September, left-back Antonee Robinson – who goes by the nickname Jedi – summoned the force to an important goal early in the second half, which held on to a decisive 1-0 victory.
“We call our backers our team’s superpower,” said United States manager Gregg Berhalter. “We do it because they produce; they provide assists and goals, and if you look at the World Cup qualifiers so far, our backs have contributed a lot.”
The feeling of being associated with mysterious abilities works fine for Robinson, who has been called a Jedi since he was a young boy because of his fascination with the Star Wars movies.
“I feel weird being called Antonee,” he said. “I prefer to be called a Jedi.”
The United States has received strong play from other backs – namely Sergino Dest and DeAndre Yedlin – but Robinson in particular has developed into one of the most important players on the list. His value was illustrated as Berhalter did not include any other natural left-backs on the list in this window and was reinforced throughout his performance against El Salvador, where he made significant contributions in both defense and attack.
Playing on the same side of the pitch as Christian Pulisic, who routinely fell into midfield and moved centrally, Robinson was tasked with staying wide, where he was able to press the opponent’s outside back with the ball and get in position to send post in. In defense, he was part of a unit that was rarely challenged throughout the game, often intervening in opposing attacks before they had a chance to develop.
On goal, Jesus Ferreira, who got his first start in qualifying, headed the ball into the area, where Robinson calmly slipped it home from about six yards close to the back post. It was a bit of a broken game, but Robinson credited Berhalter’s strategy of getting him to float near the back post when the ball came in from the opposite side.
He celebrated with a wagon wheel into a backwards to a fake injury and a festive strut that woke the sold-out crowd of 20,000 in Columbus, where the team is now 9-1-2 all the time in the World Cup qualifiers.
Striker Timothy Weah subsequently admitted that he briefly believed Robinson pulled his hind leg during the celebration, but Berhalter found himself in awe more than anything else.
“If a guy scores like that and chooses to do it, then who demands it [he doesn’t]. It’s a great physical achievement, “Berhalter said.” So congratulations to him for being able to do that at all. I think it’s really impressive. “
Along with Panama’s loss in Costa Rica shortly afterwards, the United States took a major step toward qualification. With five games left, the United States has a four-point lead over Panama in fourth place, the most important team to watch with the top three receiving automatic bids for Qatar 2022.
“It was not the most beautiful match and there were times when we played good football, times when we just had to dig it out,” Robinson said. “Chances that we did not put away, but we got the victory and are one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup.”
Throughout the week, the American national team players maintained the cold conditions in Columbus – it was 32 degrees at kickoff and snowed lightly in the hours leading up to the match – would not be a big factor and there was not much evidence that it was. With 18 points through nine games, the United States has six more than it did through nine games in the 2018 cycle (where qualification consisted of 10 games).
It trains on Friday in Columbus before a short flight to Canada later in the day ahead of Sunday’s match in Hamilton, which is about an hour outside Toronto. More than any perceived weather advantage that the United States thought it generated by playing in cold Columbus, it was the minimal travel after the game that it appreciated. Conversely, Canada has a 2,000-mile ride home after its 2-0 win over Honduras that allowed them to remain at the top of the CONCACAF standings.
After injuries kept Pulisic out of the starting lineup in the last five qualifiers, he was captain of the team during his return against El Salvador. It was an exciting prospect to see him start with midfield trio Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah for the first time, but the combination did not result in many threatening moments. With 65 minutes played, Pulisic had a fantastic opportunity to reply but his shot flew harmlessly into the side-netting of the goal.
“It’s just about him having to find his top form and really find ways to get him in front of goal, because that’s where it really shines,” Berhalter said. “When he’s in front, the penalty box is where he does his best work.”
Berhalter’s decision to start Ferreira as a striker was the only surprising decision in start XI. It looked like Ricardo Pepi, Ferreira’s former teammate with FC Dallas, had gotten the starting role after starting five of the last six games, but Ferreira offers something different. He’s not the finisher Pepi is – highlighted by two wasted chances in the first half – but he’s better at connecting games with the midfield and wingers who were also on display.
Ferreira conjured up four chances created against El Salvador, who are most of a USMNT player during a match in this qualifying cycle, and they match the four from the resident Jedi against Jamaica.
“[Ferreira] had enough chances to score a few goals, “Berhalter said.” So that’s the most important thing. If he had no chances in the match, I would have been worried. But he had chances and I just think it’s about him being able to finish them. As for his link-up play, I thought it was excellent. “