ST. LOUIS — Rarely is a 3-0 victory accompanied by the kind of emotions that were present in Saturday’s win by the United States men’s national team over Uzbekistan.
Typically it’s the kind of margin that induces backslaps and high-fives. Three goals? Check. Clean sheet? Also a check. And it’s the kind of scoreline that one would expect given that the U.S. is 11th in FIFA’s World Ranking of men’s national teams, playing against 74th.
If only it were that simple.
The way the U.S. went about the victory was reminiscent of its performances at the World Cup in Qatar. There was plenty of solid approach work. The USMNT held a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in terms of possession. The home side even got a fourth-minute goal from Timothy Weah to give it an early lead. One would have expected the U.S. to build on its advantage, and it nearly did in the 16th minute, when Folarin Balogun’s header hit the post. After that moment, however, the U.S. labored for much of the time that remained. Chance creation once again proved to be difficult, and the U.S. gave the ball away in bad spots often enough to force goalkeeper Matt Turner into a pair of stellar saves. The woodwork saved it during another sequence.
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It wasn’t until second-half stoppage time — after an injury to Khojiakbar Alidzhanov forced Uzbekistan to play with 10 players given it was out of substitutes — that the U.S. managed to put the game away. Substitute Ricardo Pepi banged home a goal in the first minute of added time, and Christian Pulisic converted from the spot four minutes later.
Yet all that did was put a shine on a match that was much closer than the score indicated. Granted, this match was one of those no-win situations for coach Gregg Berhalter and his team. Win by a big scoreline, and the response is, “Well, it’s Uzbekistan.” Do anything other than that and it’s “HEY! IT’S UZBEKISTAN!” and the alarm bells start going off.
The USMNT certainly wasn’t doing cartwheels after this game.
“We know it’s not even close to a top performance,” U.S. defender and captain Tim Ream said. “The guys know that. It’s already been discussed. But you come away with a win and you work on things and you look at video and you look at where you can improve. But yeah, I don’t think anybody’s overly impressed inside the changing room, but I think that shows where we are as a team and where we know we need to be.”
Heading into the match, there was plenty of discussion about what changes returning manager Berhalter would make as the 2026 World Cup cycle — one that won’t include qualifying matches for the U.S. since it is co-hosting the event with Canada and Mexico — begins in earnest. This was particularly true of the team’s attack. On this day, that meant the U.S. was trying to move the ball in a way that would draw Uzbekistan out of its shell, daring it to come out to try to win possession.
The U.S. was only semi-successful on this front. Both Luca de la Torre and Yunus Musah had an easy enough time finding pockets to break the first line of pressure. But then when it came to continuing that surge into the attacking third, the U.S. found itself operating at a slower tempo, which essentially played right into the teeth of Uzbekistan’s backline.
“[We] started well and then lost our way a bit at times,” Ream said. “Too slow, not aggressive enough. I mean, there are things that we’re trying to do in terms of pulling players out and keeping tight connections and trying to get a team to jump when you’re trying to break them down. And if they don’t jump, we need to make better, quicker decisions and not put each other into tight, troubled situations.”
Sure, it’s early days in Berhalter’s second stint as U.S. manager. The goal is to be peaking by the summer of 2026 rather than now. There are bound to be some hiccups as Berhalter adds some tactical tweaks.
“Obviously, as you saw, we have some struggles because we’re trying something new,” Weah said. “I think these are opportunities to try different things, work on some stuff. So we’re definitely going to keep working on it, work on the positive, work on the negative, the training, and yeah, we’ll be back.”
But the concern is that some of the same issues keep cropping up. When the tempo slows, the U.S. becomes predictable. There was also still a lack of precision in the attacking third. They weren’t necessarily glaring errors, either; a ball just a smidgen behind its intended target, or a player not being given enough lead time and thus having to wait on the ball to arrive, which gives the defense precious time to recover. Or a pass into the penalty area that is just an inch too high. Balogun may be the best striker the U.S. has ever had, but his talents will be wasted if his teammates can’t get him the ball consistently.
It was enough to give one flashbacks to the Wales game at the World Cup, when the U.S. played some impressive soccer, but failed to build on its lead. On that occasion, the U.S. was made to pay when it conceded a late penalty. This time, it got away with it, but no one — neither Berhalter nor his players — is under the illusion that this is sustainable. Berhalter, while praising his team’s mentality over the last 10 minutes to close out the game, is well aware of his team’s shortcomings, including the bad giveaways, the shaky transition defense, and the team’s lack of attacking tempo.
All the more reason that Berhalter and Giovanni Reyna need to find a way to meet up and sort out their differences. Reyna’s return from the fractured leg he sustained at the Concacaf Nations League in June meant he wasn’t available in this window, and this isn’t to say that he’s some kind of one-man attacking savior. But he’ll no doubt help. The fact that it has taken this long for Berhalter and Reyna to have their meeting of the minds is as confounding as it is counterproductive, especially since Reyna was back in the team as recently as last June, when it was being managed on an interim basis by B.J. Callaghan.
Those matches in the Concacaf Nations League witnessed a more fluid U.S. attack with Reyna deployed centrally. And it came against Mexico and Canada, teams ranked higher than Uzbekistan and Oman, which the U.S. faces on Tuesday.
Yes, the U.S. needs to try out some tactical wrinkles. But the attacking upgrade in the form of Reyna will need to be tried as well. The October window can’t come soon enough.