Breakdown of the goal that cost the US
The US men’s first World Cup qualifying loss to Canada in 32 years was the product of a disastrous ten seconds.
It was 90 minutes and a thousand decisions and wonderfully complex, as is the case with any football game. And the US had chances to reverse it. But it was decided in less than seven minutes by seven touches and a goal, raising countless questions about how such an important game could so quickly spiral out of control.
And the answer, while nuanced, was also devastatingly simple.
It was, in short, a keeper and maybe the freezing cold.
That doesn’t cost the Americans a place in the World Cup. They remain on course to qualify for Qatar 2022. Sunday’s 2-0 did not reflect any major flaws that could derail the campaign. “It’s hard for me to recall a more dominant performance away from home without a result,” said head coach Gregg Berhalter.
However, that performance was dashed by an early mistake.
Six minutes into Sunday’s game between CONCACAF’s top two sides, the USA were preparing for their second goal-kick of the afternoon. It was trying to do exactly what it had done the first time. It dropped its centre-backs alongside goalkeeper Matt Turner, pushed its full-backs wide and waited to see how Canada would react.
As the Canadians pressed, pushing up forwards and midfielders and preparing to strike if America fell short, Turner evaluated his options and went too far.
A few minutes later, he and his teammates were doing exactly the same thing — until Turner swung his leg and didn’t walk nearly long enough.
He aimed at striker Gyasi Zardes. His goal kick didn’t reach Zardes or midfield. An undisputed Canadian defender, Kamal Miller, won it easily, and a touch later the hosts had a 2-on-2, forward versus American centre-backs, in midfield. Why?
For the Americans were not naturally in a defensive state. They had the ball. They were preparing to either own it or take their chances with a 50-50 ball – if Canada’s aggression gave them favorable numbers further down the field. When they chose the latter 70 seconds earlier, the trick went exactly as planned. Turner’s long ball led to a US attack.
The problem was that Turner didn’t hit a 50-50 ball this time. He hit a 0-100 ball. Why?
“I think it might have been a little miss from Matt,” Berhalter said.
Or maybe it looked that way because the ball was frozen.
Turner wasn’t the only player who failed to lift a long ball in 20-degree air in Hamilton, Ontario on Sunday. In the first five minutes alone, Canada keeper Milan Borjan hit an even worse goal kick; and Christian Pulisic failed to beat the first man with a free-kick aimed at Canada’s penalty area.
When temperatures get cold, soccer balls get rock hard and harder to control, stroke, curl and pump into the field. Wind can also kill them in the air. “There was a bit of wind,” Berhalter said.
“Yes, the wind destroyed the flight of the ball,” Turner said, according to a US soccer spokesman.
Whatever the reason, Turner’s gap remained 20 yards short. It seemed to some that Zardes had been beaten on the ball, but he had positioned himself alongside Canada’s right centre-back Steven Vitoria. Turner’s ball was so misplaced that Vitoria didn’t even go for it. His defensive partner Kamal Miller danced away unchallenged in front of Zardes.
And instantly the US was exposed, unprepared for an unexpected defensive transition. The middle of the field gaped.
What happened next looked like a weak defense. “It was a double combination and they bypassed us,” said Berhalter soberly. “I think it’s avoidable.”
It was all a function of the weak goal kick that swayed the US midfielders and defenders. Just seconds after they went into scramble mode, before they could stop and think for a moment, the ball was in the back of their net. A comeback was announced. It never came.
Instead, Canada ended the game with a second goal in second-half injury time, and the USA fell to the new CONCACAF kings.