How do you keep your buzz going after a thrilling victory over your toughest competitor in front of a raucous crowd at home?
How do you keep that momentum alive after days on a nearly empty stadium, in a field full of holes, a thousand miles from home?
Those were the questions asked by the United States men’s soccer team on Tuesday night, as they lined up to face Jamaica in their eighth qualifying game for the 2022 World Cup, four days after their thrilling and emotionally exhausting victory over Mexico.
And for the 90 minutes or so in Kingston, the Americans never came up with answers, and most looked soulless with a 1-1 draw.
“It was a tough game, not the result we wanted,” said Timothy Weah, whose first-half goal was a bright spot on the team’s lackluster night. “With the entry into the game, we wanted to win.”
USA coach Greg Berhalter described the result as good: a hard-earned point in a challenging environment on the road. But he admitted that the result may be less than the expectations of some players.
As the match approached, he warned them not to lose their energy after their big win over Mexico.
“In the world of training you talk about trap games,” he said. “You talk about putting that last game behind you, and the next game is the most important game.”
He described this meeting against Jamaica as a “huge game”.
But neither the way the team plays nor the atmosphere reflect this hypothesis.
The stands were mostly empty as a result of pandemic restrictions, and the match was played in a dry, tattered stadium that grew increasingly green as the minutes progressed.
On the shredded grass, each team was at least able to create one moment of beauty.
In the 11th minute, he missed a penalty with Ricardo Pepe and sent Weah a dangerous jump into the penalty area, where he was waiting for the Jamaican crowd. But Weah continued to dance between the two defenders, keeping his balance as he tiptoed around a last-gasp challenge, before hitting the ball with his left foot off the far post into the net.
Weah said the game had a special meaning to him: his mother’s side of the family was Jamaican, and his aunt was in the game.
“My parents talked about it for me,” Weah said before the match. They said do not be hard on their country. But it is clear that business is business.”
Jamaica means business too. Mikhail Antonio, the Premier League’s third-best scorer, scored in a sensational fashion after just 11 minutes when he dribbled into a tiny hole more than 30 yards from the goal and decided on a speculative shot towards the net. . The ball flew over the outstretched arms of American goalkeeper Zach Stephen and under the crossbar, to the stunned cheers of the scattered crowd.
“It’s one of those goals where you turn and clap your hands and say, ‘Great goal, amazing individual effort,'” Berhalter said.
Jamaica was stable through the first seven World Cup qualifiers, amassing just six points. But the United States has historically struggled to make an impact in Kingston, having racked up one win, one loss and four draws in their previous six World Cup qualifiers in Jamaica before Tuesday.
The Jamaicans lacked ambition and at times ideas about attacking, but they made up for it with a physical level approaching roughness. They seemed to take the lead in the final minutes of the match when Damion Lowe headed home. But he received a whistle due to an error (replay shown to be doubtful) that invalidated the goal.
The US also looked tough, particularly in midfield, where Weston McKinney, who missed the match due to a yellow card pile-up, appeared to be missing out.
“It was a great experience for our team to go through,” Berhalter said, noting that on-field conditions had disrupted some of his team’s passing efforts, “but you can see the players’ disappointment.”
Christian Pulisic, still working his way back to fitness from a sprained ankle, entered the match as a substitute with about half an hour left. He entered the match in a similar situation on Friday, and scored the go-ahead.
But he failed to conjure any salve for Americans’ troubles Tuesday night, leaving the United States wondering where all the energy and urgency went.