USMNT rides its luck, but can't do the same against Mexico

Gomez: Mexico picked Panama apart (1:49)

Herculez Gomez believes that Mexico dispatched Panama easily by letting their opponents keep the ball and hitting them in transition. (1:49)

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Could a win still mark the worst U.S. men's national team performance in the Gregg Berhalter era? Thursday's 3-1 triumph over Jamaica in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals makes a case for such a distinction. It was definitely the luckiest.

There were efforts to find positives in a match that, when you look at the numbers, looks like an epic comeback win -- thanks to a stoppage-time equalizer and a pair of Haji Wright goals in extra time, with both coming via assists from fellow substitute Gio Reyna.

"You don't always play your best, but champions find a way to get it done and win," Berhalter said. "And that's what I think we're taking away from it."

The U.S. certainly showed some fighting spirit, which has long been the team's trademark, to gain the victory. But closer scrutiny reveals that no amount of burnishing could put a shine on this one.

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Talent-wise, the U.S. had a clear edge. Yes, the recent encounters with the Reggae Boyz have been close; they are organized and tough defensively. And while there have been some humbling results during the Berhalter era, including a 2-1 defeat last November to Trinidad and Tobago, this is a test that the U.S. should have passed without a ton of difficulty.

Instead, the U.S. had spent the first 95 minutes, including stoppage time, chasing the game thanks to Greg Leigh's goal just 31 seconds after kickoff, when the entire U.S. defense fell asleep. Jamaica, as is its right, proceeded to bunker in with a 5-4-1 formation that often looked like 5-5-0. For most of the night it worked. The U.S. rarely looked like it had the kind of inventiveness needed to break down the Reggae Boyz; Reyna provided a spark off the bench, but a humbling defeat loomed.

Then, with literally seconds remaining in second-half stoppage time, came a goal that made for a different kind of March Madness. Berhalter called it "miraculous." Christian Pulisic swung in a corner, Miles Robinson got the slightest of touches with his head, and that was enough to throw off Jamaica forward Corey Burke, who ended up sending a powerful header into his own net. The USMNT was not only off its deathbed, but soon sprinting around as if it was in full health and took complete control in extra time to seal a place in Sunday's final against Mexico.

So just how lucky was the U.S.?

According to ESPN Stats & Information, the USMNT hadn't benefited from an opposing own goal in stoppage time to tie the score or take the lead in the past 30 years. At 95:24, the goal was the latest in regulation during the Berhalter era, and it was latest goal the USMNT has scored in regulation since Ricardo Clark's effort in the seventh minute of stoppage time against Venezuela in a friendly on Jan. 21, 2012.

The luck didn't end there. Jamaica had a glorious opportunity in the second half to put the game away when Renaldo Cephas escaped on a clear breakaway in the 62nd minute, only to shoot tamely at goalkeeper Matt Turner.

As for Wright, his moment almost never happened. Last Sunday, having been originally left off the U.S. roster, Wright was at the airport with his girlfriend and family, getting ready to head to Dubai for a vacation. But then he got a call from Berhalter informing him he was to be a late addition because Josh Sargent was injured. Berhalter gave Wright a few minutes to tell his family. When Wright called back, he told Berhalter: "I'm in."

Wright added: "I was a bit [shocked], but I'm a professional player, this is my job, so I was immediately excited when he called me and informed me. So just wanted to get in and help the team really."

That he did, providing the kind of offensive push the team had been craving, even if most of his family still didn't know what he had done given the time change. Wright said: "My mom texted, but I don't think anybody else is awake." Wright is the first player in USMNT history to score multiple goals as a substitute in a knockout match.

Wright and Reyna notwithstanding, this victory isn't one to be celebrated, but remembered as a cautionary tale. This was a fortuitous, not-so-great escape. Is Berhalter responsible? You bet, but so are the players. There's simply no excuse for the defensive lapse that put the U.S. in an early hole. And the USMNT is still struggling in attack, especially against teams that tend to bunker in as Jamaica did. Berhalter chalked it up to an inability to find and exploit space on the wings.

"To me it's about speed of ball movement, combinations, particularly in wide areas to get behind them and hurt the defense," he said. "And we didn't do that enough. When we did, we created chances. I think the Expected Goals was 2.6 or something, so we had enough there but ... I don't think it was consistent enough."

At the risk of being repetitive, starting a match with Reyna on the field would help in this regard. Berhalter's preference to give minutes to players getting playing time with their clubs is understandable. And given Reyna's lack of minutes with Nottingham Forest, it wasn't a huge shock that he wasn't in the starting XI, with Malik Tillman getting the nod. But in Reyna's case, it's time for Berhalter to make an exception. Reyna's creativity makes a noticeable difference when he's on the field, and Thursday's game was no different. The tempo of the U.S. attack is kicked up a notch, and there is an air of unpredictability about him. The U.S. is simply better with him on the field.

Whether Reyna can last a whole match is an open question. He wisely declined to back Berhalter into a corner after the match, saying he was "ready to do whatever it takes for the team on Sunday." But it makes sense to get him on the field in whatever manner will maximize his minutes. The numbers bear this out as well: Since Berhalter's first match back as U.S. manager last September, Reyna has the most goal contributions (three goals and two assists in five matches) of any U.S. player.

Gomez and Keller make their USA-Mexico final predictions

Herculez Gomez and Kasey Keller make their Concacaf Nations League final predictions on Futbol Americas.

More mental sharpness from the team is needed. If Jamaica is good enough to pounce on such a slow start from the U.S., imagine what a revitalized Mexico side can do following its 3-0 win over Panama in the night's other semifinal.

"We came in after the game and we weren't celebrating at all," said Tyler Adams, who made a successful return to the USMNT with a 37-minute stint. "In fact, we were a little bit disappointed because it feels like almost like a loss, because we know we can do so much better and we can finish that game within the first 90 minutes. We just lacked that competitive edge from the first minute."

The good news is that Mexico isn't going to sit back like Jamaica did, making for a more open match. That will suit the U.S. better, and perhaps allow it to shake off a poor performance.

The USMNT will need to bounce back. It can't count on being this lucky again.