USMNT routs Grenada in Nations League as Jesús Ferreira scores four

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AUSTIN – As the months have passed and the World Cup has neared, Coach Gregg Berhalter has been waiting for someone, anyone to stake claim to the starting striker’s job.

On Friday night, with a record-tying performance during a 5-0 victory over Grenada in the Concacaf Nations League, 21-year-old Jesús Ferreira moved to the front of a crowded pack. The level of competition must be considered. But four goals is four goals, and with only three tuneups left before the US men’s national soccer team arrives in Qatar, the race is beginning to take greater shape.

Ferreira became the fifth U.S. men’s player – and first since Landon Donovan in 2003 – to score four times in a match.

“Anytime a player is under pressure, you look for how they respond,” Berhalter said. “That’s the important thing, and no matter what the opponent’s level is, the player still has to perform. And I sense he was under pressure. ”

Ferreira had scored just once in his previous eight national team appearances, a troubling stretch for a player locked in a battle with Ricardo Pepi, Jordan Pefok and Haji Wright, among others, for a place on the World Cup squad and playing time in Qatar.

“Lately, I’ve been trying to work on my mind, knowing that I haven’t been performing at the level that I’m supposed to,” Ferreira said. “I’m trying to focus more on having a good game, making sure that my first touch is good, helping my teammates any way I can, and the goals will come.”

Berhalter said he spoke with Ferreira earlier Friday and told him he doesn’t judge him strictly on goals.

“He does a lot of other stuff that really helps this group be successful,” Berhalter said. “And so I just said, ‘Go out there and relax and play your game.’ He had four goals and it’s great for him. I’m happy for him. Those goals matter and the finishes that he had were excellent. Against any opponent, you look for the quality of the strikes and where he’s putting the ball – the placement. ”

Ferreira scored in the 43rd, 54th, 56th and 78th minutes, increasing his haul to seven goals in 12 appearances. His FC Dallas teammate, Paul Arriola, scored in the 62nd minute.

Ferreira’s best goal was his third – a 16-yard one-timer off a corner kick that streaked into the near top corner of the net.

Arriola endorsed Ferreira’s case to become the team’s top striker, saying, “Jesus has all the qualities. He really does. He worked so hard. We talked about it after the game. Everyone in that locker room knows how amazing Jesus is and what he does on the field for us. ”

Berhalter said Wright, who enjoyed a fabulous campaign in the Turkish league this past season, will make his starting debut Tuesday against El Salvador.

The victory extended the United States’ home unbeaten streak to 26, tying the program record set in 2015. They’ll cap this four-game stretch against El Salvador – an uptick in competition but still far from World Cup quality.

If he had his druthers, Berhalter would have chosen far stiffer competition for the last home appearance by his team before the World Cup in November. But because the Nations League is a mandatory competition and two group-stage matches had to be played this international window, the 15th-ranked Americans had no choice but to play Grenada, the world’s 170th-ranked team.

Not exactly the best way to prepare for Wales, England and Iran in the World Cup.

Nonetheless, the Americans overcame a sluggish start, scoring late in the first half and three times in the first 16 minutes of the second before an announced 20,500 at Q2 Stadium.

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“It was always going to be about us and our mind-set and what our focus was in this game,” Berhalter said. “Although it took a bit to get into top gear, we certainly did.”

The Americans (1-0-0) are the tournament’s defending champion and heavily favored to top El Salvador (1-0-1) and Grenada (0-2-1) in group play, which carries into next spring.

Of greater importance, of course, is positioning themselves for the World Cup.

The final tuneups will come in friendlies in late September against Asian teams that qualified for the World Cup. The identities of those opponents will be announced soon. One friendly will be played in Germany, the other in Spain. (Because of their own Nations League schedule, European teams aren’t available for friendlies.)

After starting this camp with difficult friendlies against World Cup-bound Morocco and Uruguay, Berhalter said this week the emphasis in the Nations League games would be on intensity and mentality.

The Nations League best serves small countries that otherwise have a hard time arranging matches with bigger teams. But bigger teams that have qualified for the World Cup have little use for these early-stage matches.

Berhalter used Friday’s match to start a mix of regulars and reserves. Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams weren’t even in uniform, and Walker Zimmerman, Yunus Musah and Tim Weah were on the bench.

The Spice Boys’ lineup included players from clubs in England’s fifth and sixth divisions, the US second division and Grenada’s domestic league.

For most of the first half, the visitors hung in there. They were no threat going forward, but thwarted the US push. The Americans played hard but not very well, failing to synchronize the attack or show polish in and around the penalty area.

Their most clever move was Berhalter’s no-look, behind-the-back bounce pass to a Grenadian player for a throw-in.

The breakthrough finally came in the 43rd minute. Arriola pounced on the ball at the top of the box. His cross was deflected back to Ferreira, who shifted to his left to create a pocket of space, then ripped a left-footed, 10-yard shot into the far corner.

“When we went into halftime, I think they were quite buoyant,” Grenada Coach Michael Findlay said. “But you could see when we started in the second half, we had trouble handling the pace of the game, the transition of the game.”

Arriola was the orchestrator again in the 54th, threading a through ball to Ferreira for a composed finish. Two minutes later, off Kellyn Acosta’s corner kick, Ferreira scored in spectacular fashion with the one-timer.

Arriola scored on a backside run, set up by Luca de la Torre’s pass, and Ferreira added his fourth by scoring from close range, assisted by Brenden Aaronson.

“I don’t really want to think that much ahead,” Ferreira said of his World Cup hopes. “There’s a lot of good players out there that can take care of that spot. What I want to do is just keep the focus, keep working hard to earn more minutes to show what I can do for the team. ”

Notes: Aside from Pulisic and Adams, the other player not in uniform was center back Erik Palmer-Brown (hamstring soreness). ⁇

The pairing of Cameron Carter-Vickers and Aaron Long was the 20th center-back combination deployed by Berhalter in his 3½-year tenure. ⁇

Earlier Friday, Carter-Vickers agreed to a four-year deal with Glasgow Celtic. He spent last season on loan from Tottenham Hotspur to the Scottish champions, who had an option this summer to purchase his contract. ⁇

The US team will remain in Austin until Sunday afternoon before chartering to San Salvador. All 26 players are expected to travel.

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