Northern Ireland’s B-team scared the USMNT a couple of times but the Americans were by far the superior side over 90 minutes of a 2-1 win in Belfast on Sunday.
Easy Man of the Match Christian Pulisic won and converted a penalty in the second half after Tim Ream set up Giovanni Reyna’s deflected first-half as the U.S.
Niall McGinn scored a wild goal from an odd angle to bring the hosts within one with three minutes plus stoppage left in the game.
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The Yanks are now off until May, when they’ll face Switzerland ahead of the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal, which kicks off a wild summer and fall that includes the Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying.
It will also include the Olympics should the U.S. U-23 team beat Honduras in a CONCACAF Olympic qualifying semifinal at 5:30pm ET Sunday.
Three things we learned from Northern Ireland – USMNT
1. Last USMNT match until May, and what do we really know? There’s no question the United States men’s national team is better, deeper, and more promising than it’s been in a long, long while (if not ever), but the pandemic has combined with the MLS’ non-European calendar and an even goofier and congested international calendar to give Gregg Berhalter very few chances to match up with A-teams outside of CONCACAF.
U.S. Soccer couldn’t do much about the fact that Northern Ireland kept most of its top players out of the match given the Norn Iron’s World Cup qualifiers sandwiched around the friendly, but it was a reminder that the Yanks will not often be able to measure themselves outside of their continent ahead of the World Cup (presuming they make it).
Berhalter entered Sunday’s match with 16 wins, three draws, and five losses in charge of the team, most of those against B-sides and all but six against CONCACAF opposition. Those half-dozen performances were, not surprisingly given the mix of players and opposition, a mixed bag.
And even if you want to drag some truths out of that, what can you compare it to, progress-wise? Dave Sarachan’s interim stint in charge of the team included a 1-1 draw with France, a 1-0 loss to Italy, and a 1-1 draw with Portugal’s B-team when a lot of these players were even greener in international and club experience.
It’s almost like you look ahead at the calendar and see a Switzerland friendly on May 30 before the Nations League final stage, the Gold Cup, the Olympics (hopefully), and World Cup qualifying. You’ll expect to beat most of the teams and measure yourself against Mexico. Everything else feels like a shoulder shrug and fingers pointing to how the gents do at their top clubs.
2. Pulisic is a boss, Reyna rewarded: The two goal scorers were rewarded for their industry and clever play. Reyna has looked exhausted at times for Borussia Dortmund and even in this game, but his willingness to push into open space to receive the ball and dribble into and out of danger is an asset. His deflected goal was aided by poor defending but he deserved it and it could help him kick back into scoring form for Dortmund. Shooting is funny that way.
As for Pulisic, he was far and away the best player on the pitch. Perhaps that’s not a surprise, but he could’ve won several free kicks and Northern Ireland hacked away at the Chelsea star, who was eventually rewarded with a penalty. Pulisic does have his injury concerns but his mentality doesn’t keep him away from contact and he’s going to be a CONCACAF killer. At age 22, he has 15 goals and 10 assists in 36 caps.
3. No closer to center back answers beyond John Brooks: This is a real worry for the United States men’s national team. While John Brooks has stayed healthy and is clearly the No. 1 center back in the pool, the questions of Nos. 2 and 3 are huge ones. Walker Zimmerman wasn’t healthy for this window and may be the answer for 2. Berhalter is giving Aaron Long every single chance to cement himself, and the New York Red Bulls man is a threat on set pieces and plays physically, but he’s not very good on the ball.
Then there are the kids. Chris Richards could and should grow on the way from 21-year-old to the 2022 World Cup, but he’s also played some right back at Bayern Munich. Matt Miazga is playing a lot at Anderlecht but is better on the same side of the pitch as Brooks. Mark McKenzie didn’t get a call despite moving to Genk. Cameron Carter-Vickers stayed with Bournemouth. Justen Glad is with the Olympic team. Miles Robinson? Erik Palmer-Brown?
While this isn’t exactly a case of the ol’ American football maxim of “If you can’t choose between your quarterbacks you don’t have your quarterback,” it isn’t too far off. Who is going to be the answer? And what happens if Brooks’ injury problems return?
Man of the Match: Christian Pulisic
Northern Ireland – USMNT recap
The USMNT burst out of the gates against a second-choice Northern Ireland side, feeding Christian Pulisic on the left.
The Chelsea star, playing in a formation Thomas Tuchel has been using in England, played Antonee Robinson down the left and the Fulham man’s pass through the six was absent receiver.
Kellyn Acosta gave away a dangerous free kick to the Norn Iron just outside the 18 and that was the tip of the iceberg. He was slow on the ball in a giveaway that allowed George Saville to spring Kyle Lafferty on a breakaway that the striker hit wide, and then gave the ball away again moments later.
The U.S. went ahead through Reyna, who took a square pass from Tim Ream and had some time to line up a shot that took a wicked turn to defy Celtic goalkeeper Conor Hazard.
The next chance came to Shayne Lavery of the hosts, and Steffen got low to slap away a shot after a Yunus Musah giveaway saw Matt Miazga and Tim Ream scrambling to cover the left of their 18.
Musah departed at halftime for Sebastian Lletget while AS Roma man Bryan Reynolds replaced Sergino Dest.
Reynolds probably could’ve won a penalty in the 57th minute but the referee was unswayed by the hand that moved the right back to the turf.
Brenden Aaronson couldn’t adjust to a wicked deflection of Antonee Robinson’s 65th-minute cross and the ball popped over the bar.
Lletget gave the ball away in midfield and Dion Charles flashed over the American goal from 21 yards.
Pulisic won his penalty with a dribble into the mix, cooly dispatching the finish. The Chelsea man then played Daryl Dike in on goal with a terrific pass but the Northern Ireland goalkeeper Hazard came up big.
Dike had another chance fed by Luca de la Torre that couldn’t find the goal and Pulisic then cued up a cross that either Dike or Miazga could’ve potted at the near and far post, respectively.