For the United States men’s national team, Friday night’s match against Canada in Orlando will mean one thing — payback.
It’s been one month since the Canadians earned a 2-0 win over the Americans in the opening round of the Nations League tournament. In the first round of the derby, the U.S. came out flat footed while Canada brought ceaseless energy. At Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium, the team’s main focus is to flip that dynamic.
“We have to be ready to kill them,” Alfredo Morales said, reflecting a tone of desperate intensity the Americans are bringing into the revenge match.
It’s not just a revenge match against a rival. For the Americans, a loss on Friday would mean an early elimination from a Concacaf tournament. The stakes have been heavily discussed among players, who are eager to wipe away the sour taste of the last loss.
For coach Gregg Berhalter, the key to reversing the sluggish energy of the last match will come in the opening 15 minutes of the game.
“You obviously want to get off to a good start at home, you want to utilize the first 15 minutes to make a statement of what the game’s gonna be like,” Berhalter said. “That’s clear. But the other side of it is it’s a 90 minute game and our objective is to win the game. So we can’t get carried away, we can’t expose ourselves early in the game. It’s gonna be a balance.”
The stakes of this game might also cause Canada to make some adjustments of its own. After winning against both Cuba and the United States, the Canadians only need a draw to advance into the next round of the Nations League. This means that the Canadians could reasonably bunker down in the rematch, preferring to focus on defense to grind out a draw.
This would be a break from the style the Canadians have implemented in the opening round of the tournament, which relied on high pressure that pushed numbers into the middle of the field. If the Canadians continue this pressure on Friday, the Americans will look to use it to their advantage, striking in transition whenever they reclaim the ball in midfield.
The key to breaking Canada down in transition will come from efficiency, which will keep the visitors from regrouping.
“Sometimes they do push high and have a lot of numbers in the midfield,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “If we can win it in the midfield and play forward quick, I think there’s no need to have 100 passes. We can get there faster.”
One main improvement that Berhalter is looking to make in the rematch will come in the attacking third. In the last game, the Americans failed to move balls deep behind the Canadian backline, which in turn prevented the wings from being able to feed crosses into the box to break down the defense.
With star forward Christian Pulisic out of commission due to a hip injury, Berhalter will further look to lean on his wings to stretch the Canadians shape. Even with the forward missing, Berhalter says that he isn’t looking to replace Pulisic.
“I don’t think we have a like-for-like replacement for Christian Pulisic,” Berhalter said. “When you think about his dynamic dribbling, you don’t see players like that around that much. We’ll have to compensate with other types of skills, but what we do have is speed, what we do have is physicality and we want to take advantage of that.”
Throughout the week leading up to the match, the team emphasized the upset was a learning experience for the Americans. The Canada match was the first time that Berhalter led the team during an away match of that caliber. Even more important, it was the first away match at the international level for seven players on the roster.
With leaders Pulisic and Michael Bradley out of commission, players like Weston McKennie — a 21-year-old who has thrived in the Bundesliga this season — have been called upon to step up.
“A lot of the players have to step into that leadership role,” McKennie said. “Even though you’re young, I don’t think age has anything to do with being a leader. You see it on the field who’s prepared for it or not. For me personally, I like to show my presence on the field. I play with the crest on my heart and I give everything for it.”