USMNT builds confidence, chemistry in Nations League rout of overmatched Cuba

WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the first and most obvious question posed to coach Gregg Berhalter after his United States men’s national team beat overmatched Cuba 7-0 in its CONCACAF Nations League opener here on Friday night. And while it wasn’t asked precisely this way, the underlying meaning was clear: What could his squad possibly take away from a game like that?

To hear Berhalter tell it, more than one might think.

“It was another opportunity to keep rehearsing some of the movements we've been working on in training all week, and then you get a live opponent in a meaningful game and you have to go execute,” Berhalter said. “Overall, I think it was a worthwhile game.”

Mainly because of what didn’t happen. The Cubans were expected to sit deep and defend from the opening whistle, to try their damndest to make the match difficult on the hosts. Didn’t happen. Weston McKennie scored the first of his three goals just 31 seconds in and had completed his hat trick before the quarter-hour mark, at which point the Americans were already up 4-0.

“We wanted the game to go like this, to be honest,” said Berhalter, whose team will travel north of the border for a much stiffer test Tuesday in Toronto against a fresh and rested Canada. “If I could have written the game up, it would have been exactly like this: score many goals early and then cruise. That was important. So I think we saved ourselves. I think we’ll be fit, ready to go.”

Weston Mckennie (right) and the U.S. men's national team destroyed Cuba on Friday in the Americans CONCACAF Nations League opener. (Toni L. Sandys/Getty)

They’ll need to be. With the new Nations League serving as a de facto qualification process for the final round World Cup qualifying, for the region’s lesser programs like Canada, a win against the Americans could help them move into sixth place in FIFA’s ranking of CONCACAF teams.

The top six teams will take part in the “Hexagonal” when it kicks off next September. The Canadians haven’t beaten the U.S in more than 30 years, but they also boast their strongest team in at least the last quarter-century, with an attack led by Bayern Munich teenager Alphonso Davies.

“We did what we needed to do today, obviously took care of the business and scored seven goals,” said U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic, who provided the Americans’ final strike from the penalty spot in the 62nd minute. “That should just give us confidence just to be ready for Canada. But we have to know that it's not going to be an easy game.”

This one was easy, though. And as Pulisic said, it certainly can’t hurt as a confidence booster for a team that hadn’t won a game since defeating tiny Curacao in July’s Gold Cup semifinal. Cuba’s lack of resistance allowed the U.S. front three of Pulisic, Josh Sargent and Jordan Morris — who finished the night with a goal and three assists — to develop some chemistry.

“It’s fun to play with them,” Pulisic said. “It’s not hard to play with good players.”

Then there was McKennie, the hat trick hero, who joked that his seemingly telepathic understanding with Morris, on this night anyway, was forged by playing the video game Fortnight. “We play it on our downtime a lot, so I think we understand each other very well,” McKennie said. It was hard to tell if he was joking. “We have a good connection off the field as well, and the whole team … we all understand each other. So I think that that really definitely shows in our play on the field.”

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Sargent also scored his first goal for the national team since 2018, and his first since breaking into the starting lineup at German Bundesliga club Werder Bremen. “It was kind of a relief to get that goal out of the way,” said the 19-year-old Sargent, who rolled his ankle in the second half but insisted he’ll be ready to play by Tuesday if called upon by Berhalter. “Hopefully I can keep getting more playing time there, and also more playing time here.”

Now, the focus turns to Canada. With Cuba up first during this international window, the Americans haven’t spoken much about Tuesday’s match yet, haven’t watched much video. The contest at BMO Field will also mark the first match outside the U.S. since Berhalter was hired as coach late last year.

“We also want to show that we can win away,” McKennie said. “I think it's very important for us to take this as practice and getting prepared for World Cup qualifiers. It'll be a great experience, a good challenge for us to really see how we how we handle it.

“I think they're more tactically organized,” McKennie added. “They have speed up top, they have some good individual players as well and many players that are playing in high level. So I think it'll be an interesting game.”

In part because it won’t remotely resemble the one they just played.

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