ORLANDO, Fla. -- The U.S. went backward -- in a good way -- in Friday's Nations League clash against Canada.
The side's work rate and intensity were evident from the start. A dose of pragmatism also found its way into the Americans' game in that the U.S. was direct when it needed to be and defended tough for much of night. Yes, the home side lost its way a bit in the second half, and in fact it was downright ugly at times. But by then the U.S. had already raced out to a 3-0 lead after 34 minutes on its way to a 4-1 victory. The Americans did what they had to do. Any concern about style points was forgotten.
It's easy to discount such traits as work rate and competitiveness, particularly when they're used as an excuse to mask deeper problems. But the U.S. coaches and players alike noted that this was an area that was lacking in last month's 2-0 defeat to this same Canada side, and it needed to be present this time to achieve a different outcome.
"It was all about intensity for us and what we could do to improve on that," winger Jordan Morris said. "I think that was the biggest disappointment that we had in Toronto was we kind of got outcompeted. And so to come in today, our whole focus was on being more intense."
All of this was accomplished without attacking lynchpin Christian Pulisic, who was out because of a hip injury. There was legitimate concern about where the goals would come from, so the U.S. relied on some old standbys: pace, physicality and dominance on set pieces. Gyasi Zardes silenced his critics -- this writer among them -- with two goals, and Morris continued his torrid form with a goal and an assist just days after winning MLS Cup with the Seattle Sounders.
The U.S. wasted no time here, seizing the momentum from the opening kickoff with a direct approach that shook Canada.
"As soon as the first whistle blew, we wanted pounce on them immediately," Zardes said.
He added, "The game plan was just to get Canada facing their own goal. As much as possible we wanted to play behind their back line."
Morris put the U.S. ahead with the game not even two minutes old when he rifled home Sergino Dest's deflected pass from a short corner. Twenty minutes later, Zardes doubled the advantage, finishing off a counterattack by nodding home Morris' cross, and then Aaron Long essentially put the game away in the 34th minute with a header from a set piece. After Canada's Steven Vitoria got a goal back after 72 minutes, Zardes put an exclamation point on the night with a powerful finish in the 89th.
And with that, the U.S. -- including Berhalter -- can now breathe again. The negativity that has surrounded the team for the past month hasn't evaporated, but it has subsided -- at least for now. A victory of any kind in four days against Cuba -- in the neutral venue of the Cayman Islands due to problems with Cuba's home stadium -- will be enough for the Americans to win their group and progress to the Nations League semifinals next summer.
Adding to the good feelings is the fact that there were some impressive individual performances beyond those of Zardes and Morris. John Brooks has often been an enigma with the national team, unable to reproduce the performances with the U.S. that he delivers more consistently with club side Wolfsburg. Often, he hasn't looked very engaged in a U.S. jersey. But there he was Friday, providing precisely the kind of physical presence that his 6-foot-4 frame would suggest, and better yet, directing some of the younger members of the team.
Brooks seemed bemused by the suggestion that any radical change had taken place. But it was precisely the kind of performance Berhalter wanted out of a veteran player. Both center backs, Brooks and Long, were stellar on the night in terms of their defensive duties.
"The conversation I had with John before the game was, 'I watch you in Germany all the time and you're a leader in your group. Let that come out here as well,'" Berhalter said. "Because it was really important that we would take advantage of those qualities that he has."
The U.S. also benefited from a three-man central midfield of Jackson Yueill, Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lletget that seemed more cohesive than one would expect, especially since both Yueill and Lletget hadn't played a competitive game for several weeks. McKennie and Yueill cleaned up plenty of loose balls, and there always seemed to be a spare man to help defensively while Lletget did his bit to keep the attack ticking over.
"I thought we got on the attack much quicker than I think we usually do with the team. I think that was our approach tonight," Lletget said. "Of course we take pride in our buildup, but if it's not on, we need to win the ball in transition and play forward quickly, and I think that's where we created a lot of chances."
If the U.S. needed a reason to not get carried away, it found it in the second half. The U.S. bunkered in at times, with Canada having nearly twice the possession the home side did. This was dictated somewhat by the circumstances of a three-goal cushion, but a better team probably would have punished the U.S. more than once. The question of how the U.S. would fare against the better teams in the region -- and beyond -- remains.
Yet sometimes a team needs to establish its fight first. The attractive soccer, if circumstances warrant, can still come later. That seems to be the case with this U.S. side, not only in this game but as a blueprint going forward. Given the way the U.S. took apart Cuba 7-0 at home last month, Tuesday's encounter probably will be more skewed toward aesthetics. But at least now the U.S. is aware that it not only needs a foundation, it knows where it can find it, too.
Now perhaps the U.S. can take some different kinds of steps forward.