Five weeks after a dismal loss in Canada left the United States on the verge of elimination from the first CONCACAF Nations League, the Americans advanced to the semifinals with their second straight win and started looking ahead to World Cup qualifying next year.
Josh Sargent scored the first of his two goals 34 seconds in and Jordan Morris also had two goals Tuesday night in a 4-0 rout of Cuba at George Town, Cayman Islands. The U.S. finished 3-1 in Group A along with Canada and earned first place because of a better goal difference, plus-12 to plus-six.
“I think it’s the first time in a while this team has felt something special kind of happening,” Sargent said after his first two-goal international match gave the 19-year-old five goals in 12 games with the national team. “It’s been a long journey. Obviously, we still have miles to go.”
Qualifying for the 2022 World Cup starts with two matches each in September, October and November, followed by two games apiece in March and September of 2021. The U.S. will be joined in the six-nation hexagonal by Mexico, Costa Rica, Honduras, Jamaica and most likely Canada or El Salvador, and the top three will earn berths at the 2022 tournament in Qatar.
“We think we’re moving in the right direction,” Morris said. “We’re just excited for the future.”
Trying to rebound from its failure to qualify from the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. finished Gregg Berhalter’s first year as coach with 11 wins, five losses and two draws, a record that included a 1-0 defeat to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. The Americans ended an 11-match winless streak on foreign soil (six losses, five draws) dating to a 2-0 victory at Havana in an October 2016 friendly.
Quite the turnaround from a 2-0 loss at Toronto on Oct. 15, the Americans’ first defeat against Canada in 34 years.
“When I look back at 2019, I think the group has really come together nicely,” Berhalter said. “We had a number of challenges in this year that the group needed to respond to, and I think we responded well. When I look at our overall goals of the year, it was to win the Gold Cup and to qualify for the semifinals of the Nations League. And we came up short in the first one but we achieved the second one.”
The U.S. plans March friendlies in Europe and will play Honduras in the Nations League semifinals in June, with Mexico meeting Costa Rica.
Cuba, outshot 20-6, finished last in the group at 0-4 and was outscored 18-0.
Recovered from a torn right anterior cruciate ligament that sidelined him for most of 2018, the 25-year-old Morris scored in the 26th and 39th minutes. He had five goals and six assists in 14 games for the U.S. this year.
Last month in Washington, D.C., Weston McKennie scored 32 seconds in and started the U.S. to a 7-0 rout, the second-fastest U.S. goal after Clint Dempsey’s score at 30 seconds against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup.
The 23rd-ranked U.S. went ahead nearly as quickly in the second match against No. 179 Cuba despite missing five regulars because of injuries: midfielders Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams and Michael Bradley, goalkeeper Zack Steffen and forward Jozy Altidore.
DeAndre Yedlin took a throw-in that Paul Arriola redirected toward the goal, and Sargent knocked the ball past goalkeeper Sandy Sánchez.
“Our whole mentality was to come out fast and try and get on top of them early,” Morris said.
The U.S. doubled the lead when Jackson Yueill’s long pass was headed on by McKennie to Morris, who controlled the ball, broke in alone, then slotted in a right-footed shot from 8 yards. The lead stretched to 3-0 when Aaron Long’s cross deflected off José Almelo and came down at the goal line, where Morris stuck out his right foot to deflect the ball in for his 10th goal in 39 international appearances and fifth in five games.
Sargent got the final goal in the 66th minute when Reggie Cannon crossed and Tyler Boyd’s back-heel pass left Sargent with an open left-footed shot from 6 yards.
“I’m proud of the group, proud of the response after a disappointing game in Canada,” Berhalter said. “It was a professional performance, not letting off the gas.”
Notes: Yedlin limped off in the 59th minute. “It didn’t seem too bad. We thought it might have been a cramp or something,” Berhalter said. … The U.S. has won 12 straight games against Cuba over 70 years. This match, moved because of stadium renovations in Havana, was played on the 30th anniversary of the United States’ 1-0 win at Trinidad and Tobago that returned the Americans to the World Cup for the first time since 1950. … U.S. goalkeeper Brad Guzan earned his 20th shutout. … Fox announcers John Strong and Stu Holden broadcast the match off a monitor in Fox’s Los Angeles studio.