Eletiofe'Miraculous' own goal spares USMNT from its worst loss...

‘Miraculous’ own goal spares USMNT from its worst loss in years

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ARLINGTON, TEXAS - MARCH 21: United States players celebrate a last minute goal in second half stoppage time against Jamaica during the Concacaf Nations League semifinal match at AT&T Stadium on March 21, 2024 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The USMNT ultimately beat Jamaica 3-1, but trailed for 94 minutes, and very nearly lost Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The U.S. men’s national team got punched in the metaphorical mouth, then spent 94 minutes stumbling toward its worst loss in years — until a fluky own goal spared them Thursday night in the Concacaf Nations League semifinals, set the stage for two heroes and sparked a 3-1 win.

The USMNT trailed an understrength Jamaica team for nearly the entire match after the Reggae Boyz scored within a minute after kickoff. When the U.S. won a corner kick in the 95th minute, it was seconds away from a first competitive defeat on home soil in nearly half a decade.

But Christian Pulisic swung in that corner; Miles Robinson got to it first with the slightest of flicks; and Jamaica’s Cory Burke nodded it into his own net.

It was “miraculous,” U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said postgame.

The equalizer gave the U.S. life, and 30 minutes of extra time, at a mostly empty AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. And in those 30 minutes, Gio Reyna finally unbolted Jamaica.

In the sixth minute of the 30, Reyna picked up a stray ball and burst into a small pocket of space, out of a broken play. And with one brilliant flick of his right boot, with one pass that nobody else on the U.S. roster ever sees, he released Haji Wright toward the Jamaican goal.

Wright, a game-saver for Coventry City in the English FA Cup quarterfinals just last weekend, had initially been left off this USMNT roster. He was at an airport, off to a family vacation in Dubai, when Berhalter called and asked if he’d join the squad as an injury replacement for Josh Sargent. Wright’s girlfriend had planned the trip. His agent was already there, Berhalter said. His bags were all packed. Berhalter told him to hang up, and take some time to think.

Ten minutes later, Wright called and said: “I’m in.”

Five days later, he scored his second dramatic winner in a week.

And 14 minutes after that, he and Reyna combined again to bury Jamaica.

American fans, players and coaches alike exhaled in relief. But for much of the evening, their smiles had been absent.

Jamaica, without several stars, came out swinging in the game’s first minute. Greg Leigh’s goal, just 31 seconds after kickoff, was the earliest the USMNT had conceded in decades.

“It was a poor play — by a number of players,” Berhalter said. “We shut off.”

It provoked shock, which spawned frustration, which simmered for almost the entirety of the 90 minutes.

The Americans huffed and puffed after the opening-minute blow. They dominated the ball, to the tune of 82% possession. As the game wore on, they tilted the field. But they lacked creativity and urgency in the final third. They were blunt and sloppy in the penalty box. Folarin Balogun lacked sharpness. Pulisic squandered the first half’s best chance.

“We have to improve,” Berhalter would later say. “Especially against a 5-4-1 [formation], which has given us problems in the past. To me, it’s about speed of ball movement. Combinations, particularly in wide areas, to get behind them and hurt the defense. And we didn’t do that enough.”

They had talked all week about building — toward this summer’s Copa América, and toward the 2026 World Cup. Instead, to begin this massive year, they were staggering toward a massive flop.

They arrived in Texas with arguably their most talented squad ever. They were on course to leave with the Nations League trophy in somebody else’s hands.

At halftime, Berhalter inserted Reyna, who has hardly played competitive soccer since his January loan to English Premier League club Nottingham Forest. Reyna injected some life. But after a sprightly opening 15 minutes of the second half, stagnancy returned and persisted.

By the 75th minute, the U.S. had seemingly run out of ideas. Jamaica’s low block was holding firm. “I felt really comfortable, even though the possession was U.S.,” Jamaica coach Heimir Hallgrímsson later said. “I even felt that they kind of gave up trying to score in the end.”

And as the minutes waned, pressure started to mount. Seats started to warm, none more so than Berhalter’s. The USMNT has not noticeably improved since he re-took the helm last summer. Against Jamaica, they struggled with the same attacking impotence that plagued them at the 2022 World Cup. By around 7:45 p.m. local time, anti-Berhalter sentiment was as loud, as widespread and as legitimate as ever.

And then the own goal, at least momentarily, masked all of it.

In extra time, Reyna took over, and wrote a different story.

“Amazing quality, amazing talent,” Berhalter said of Reyna. ” … He has that quality that not many players have.”

Reyna, meanwhile, had not spoken to media in 15 months, since his World Cup drama exploded into public view and engulfed the Berhalter and Reyna families. Fans were left to wonder about his relationship with Berhalter — and, by extension, about whether the coach could unlock his top playmaker’s talent.

On Thursday night in Arlington, Reyna finally did speak.

“Obviously what happened happened,” he said of Berhalter. “But I think both of us are so far past it, and just so focused on the group that, yeah, it’s not even an issue at all anymore.”

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