On a night when the U.S. men’s national team was left frustrated by the inexperience of the referee and the lack of a video assistant referee, they finally put it together in the second half as Ricardo Pepi scored both goals to give them a shutout win over Jamaica at the Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas on Thursday.
After starting World Cup qualifying last month with disappointing ties between El Salvador and Canada followed by a big win down in Honduras, the Americans were looking to get away from the naivety and push the game towards their opponents to get themselves in the thick of the battle for one of the automatic spots in CONCACAF’s Octagonal.
However, they would have to go about without the services of Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, and John Brooks as they were all sidelined due to injuries. If there was any time for players to step up, it was in this game.
U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter elected to go with a 4-3-3 formation, with Walker Zimmerman getting his first start for the team as he replaced Brooks. Yunus Musah also got the nod for his first qualifier as he teamed up with Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams in the midfield. Up top, Pepi led the attack with Brenden Aaronson and Paul Arriola on the wings.
The controversy with CONCACAF not using VAR for the qualifiers was felt 30 seconds into the contest when Arriola was on a clear run towards the goal when he was brought down by Kemar Lawrence with a tackle from behind. That should have been an automatic red card, but Reon Radix, who was officiating his first World Cup qualifier, gave the Jamaican defender a yellow to the dismay of the fans.
That did not deter the young American team as they continued to press for goals in the first half.
McKennie and Aaronson would link up for an attempt on the half-hour mark when the Juventus midfielder charged into the area to put pressure on Jamaican goalkeeper Andre Blake, with the effort leading to a corner kick. Aaronson then had a chance a minute later with a shot just inside the area that went sailing over the bar.
The host kept the pressure going when controversy reared its ugly head again in the 32nd minute as Aaronson had a clear path towards goal when he was clipped by Damion Lowe. It was another good argument for a red card that would have sent Jamaica down to nine men, but the referee once again gave a yellow.
The resulting free-kick on the edge of the area was taken by McKennie but proved to be no threat to Blake.
With the game still scoreless as halftime approached, Jamaica started to grow in confidence and had a chance to take a shock lead in the 41st minute when Jamal Lowe fired a curling shot towards the U.S. goal. However, Matt Turner read it well and made a good save to parry the threat away.
The visitors had another chance to take the lead three minutes later from a corner kick, but Shamar Nicholson’s glancing header went wide of the mark.
The half ended scoreless and the U.S. side was clearly frustrated by the poor calls and failed chances to score, but there was an air of confidence in the team this time around compared with last month’s qualifiers, and it showed as both teams came out for the second interval.
The U.S. finally broke through Jamaica’s defense in the 49th minute thanks to 18-year-old phenom, Pepi. Turner would gain control of the ball and roll it out to Sergino Dest on the right side and then gave it to Musah. The midfielder then made a deep penetrating run into Jamaica’s area before passing the ball back to Dest who then supplied the cross that found Pepi in the center to head past Blake.
Musah, who is 18 years old himself, also put his mark on the game with his dribbling up the middle of the field that left Jamaica in fits trying to stop. He almost had the chance to score his first international goal in the 51st minute when another threatening run into the area with the ball but was stopped before he could unleash a shot.
The U.S. would then double their lead in the 62nd minute and it was Pepi once again on the receiving end to seal the game. Antonee Robinson released Aaronson with a through-ball on the left flank and he would it to the center for the FC Dallas forward to slot home. That makes it three goals in two appearances thus far for Pepi who seems to have solidified himself as the top striker for the team at the moment.
With the job nearly done, Berhalter went to his bench, but that did not stop the U.S. from continuing to press for more goals.
Gyasi Zardes should have added a third goal for the host in the 78th minute when Timothy Weah, who looked good during his time on the field, sent in a dangerous low cross from the left, but the Columbus Crew forward could not get his foot on it. He had a second opportunity in the 84th minute, with the ball rolling towards the goal line, but Blake would get back in time to stop it from crossing over.
Overall, it was a strong win for the team on the night when there will be many questions laid to CONCACAF and their failure to use VAR during the qualifiers.
The U.S. currently sits atop the Octagonal with eight points from four games. Next, they will head to Central America where they play against Panama on Sunday.