WASHINGTON — Put aside for a moment how overmatched Cuba was in the U.S. men’s soccer team’s 7-0 win Friday night.
In fact, go back to before the game even kicked off.
When the starting lineup was unveiled for the Americans’ Concacaf Nations League debut, did you look at the front line of Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent and Jordan Morris, and think: Yes, that’s what it should be?
If so, you were far from alone. And while the quality of opponent is an obvious disclaimer, there were clear signs of talent and chemistry from an attacking trio that’s currently the best the U.S. has to offer: Pulisic on the left wing, Sargent at striker and Morris on the right.
But Friday’s starters made for a fine combination: Pulisic’s creativity, Sargent’s instincts and hold-up play in tight spaces, and Morris’ speed and big engine. Pulisic took 3 shots, scored from the penalty spot and completed 32 of 34 passes. Sargent had 6 shots (3 on target), scored once and completed 13 of 19 passes. Morris had 2 shots, 1 goal and 3 assists, created 4 chances and completed 8 of 11 passes.
“Today is an example of using Josh in a good way, you know, playing balls into him, letting him lay off and have him [with] runners behind,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “I thought Jordan was fantastic with his movement behind the back line, and then Christian is very good with the ball in his feet. So it’s a completely different skill set from all three attackers, which gives us options.”
The players were satisfied, too.
“It’s not hard to play with good players, you know, [and] these guys are good players‚” said Pulisic, who had his first stress-free game in a while after a rocky debut at England’s Chelsea. “They play at high levels. So when we come together, it feels natural. And yeah, we looked good.”
There was plenty of work in the days before the game, building that chemistry on and off the field.
“We’re all very happy with one another, and we work very well with each other,” Sargent said. “Hopefully we can build off of this game going into the next games. ... The team was playing great together."
Pulisic had high praise for Sargent, who followed Pulisic’s path to Germany’s Bundesliga and is playing well for Werder Bremen.
“I’ve known what a good player he is for years now,” Pulisic said. “Now he’s at a really high level playing in the Bundesliga, so it’s great for him. ... He’s great with his feet and he’s strong. He’s just a really smart player. He’s fun to run off of.”
Sargent’s runs don’t just benefit the wingers. They open up space for midfielders to run into from behind, and that’s exactly what Weston McKennie did in scoring a hat trick in just over 12 minutes — the fastest in U.S. men’s team history.
“It’s my job to go to the first post, and if the defender comes with me, then he [McKennie] is going to be open every time,” Sargent said. “That was the case today and I’m very happy for him.”
Morris’ performance was the most meaningful of the three. He exploded onto the national team as a striker prospect four years ago while still a sophomore at Stanford, and it remained his position until an ACL injury derailed almost all of his 2018 season. This year, he has reinvented himself as a winger for club and country, and it has paid off: 10 goals for the Seattle Sounders and 2 for the national team.
“At the beginning of the season, in the past, I was kind of — when I would move out there [wide], it would be frustrating, and I’d rather be playing up front,” Morris said. “This is my position moving forward, where I feel like I’ll be playing. I’m definitely feeling a lot more comfortable there having a full season under my belt in Seattle.”
He credited former Sounders player Steve Zakuani, who similarly played as a striker and winger, with giving a pep talk that helped the transition. Morris said Zakuani, now a high school soccer coach in the Seattle area, told him “I just need to change my mentality: that I am a winger now, and that I need to not perfect, but get better at that craft.”
As Friday’s game showed, the pep talk worked. Morris is back to his best, at the same time that Pulisic is taking command of the national team and Sargent is arriving as a starter.
The games will get harder, starting with Tuesday’s Nations League road game against Canada in Toronto (7 p.m., ESPN2, UniMás and TUDN). But the signs are there that the U.S. men’s team now has a top attacking line worthy of the title.