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A win, a clean sheet, but too many chances missed – USMNT need to be more ruthless

The debate around the U.S. men’s national team going into Sunday’s Copa America group-stage opener was about the balance between performance and result.

The consensus landed on this: in a tournament, the results are all that matter.

The hope is that performance goes along with that, and against Bolivia, there were positives to take away in both categories. The U.S. dominated possession and generated numerous chances. They limited Bolivia to almost no real threats on goal. And they got that all-important result: a 2-0 win.

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The United States will now head into the middle group game, against Panama, knowing that a win would essentially secure passage through to the knockouts. They must hope, however, that the nuance of this first result, instead of a three- or four-goal victory, doesn’t end up being the difference at the end of the group stage in a tournament in which goal differential is the first tie-breaker.

After the game near Dallas, the team insisted they were worried less about the score and more about the bottom line.

“Goal differential is important, but the most important thing is to get the win,” winger Tim Weah said. “Once you’re winning, you don’t have to worry about goal differential.”

The night started about as perfectly as the U.S. might have hoped. Less than three minutes in, Christian Pulisic curled a shot from the top of the box into the far corner to give them the lead. Just before half-time, Folarin Balogun doubled it.

In the second half, the U.S. time and again found space to attack a Bolivia team trying to find their way back into the game. But repeatedly, they didn’t take the chances created.

Pulisic forced a save from Guillermo Viscarra in the 60th minute. Ricardo Pepi registered six shots despite only coming on in the 65th minute — the most by a USMNT substitute in one game since Opta began detailed data collection of all U.S. matches in 2010.

“It’s about winning tournament games,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We look at the final results. If you get some precise data, we probably have over three expected goals in the game (2.51). They had 0.18. That’s comprehensive.

“I guess there’ll be an angle, maybe from you (the media), that says, ‘OK, they should have scored more goals, should have created more chances.’ But it’s a 90-minute game, and over the course of a 90-minute game, we created enough chances, we denied them enough chances. We’re happy with the result. We move on.”

Berhalter acknowledged that Pepi, especially, was disappointed. As a former FC Dallas youth player, he was performing in front of a hometown crowd that cheered his entrance just after the hour mark.

Pepi has been an effective supersub. He scored all seven of his goals for PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands’ top division last season (2023-24) off the bench, and going into Nations League play back in March had scored five times in his previous nine appearances for his country, all five coming as a substitute.

On Sunday, things just didn’t drop for him. Pepi had a chance in the box with his first touch of the game in the 67th minute, but couldn’t redirect Antonee Robinson’s cross. Then he forced a save from Viscarra with a 79th-minute shot.

Group C MP W D L GD PTS

Uruguay

1

1

0

0

2

3

USA

1

1

0

0

2

3

Panama

1

0

0

1

-2

0

Bolivia

1

0

0

1

-2

0

In the 90th minute, it looked like Pepi would surely notch the U.S.’s third goal when Robinson’s cross found him again at the top of the six-yard box, but his close-range shot was kept out by Viscarra. When the rebound bounced off of Pepi and toward the net, Viscarra again denied him.

After the game, Weah said he told Pepi to “just stay focused, keep his head up”.

“There are days where you score a hat-trick, there are days where you don’t; I think that’s what comes with being a striker,” Weah said. “As we see, even with (Belgium’s 85-goal record-scorer Romelu) Lukaku and the Euros, he’s having a tough time.

“The best of the best know how to just keep it together and we have another game, so he’s (Pepi) gonna have plenty of other chances to get it in the back of the net. And obviously, we have confidence in his ability in front of goal.”

Berhalter backed Pepi, too.

“I thought he had a great impact on the game,” Berhalter said. “In that short period of time, to have that many goal-scoring opportunities, to be that relentless with his running, with his pressing, with his hold-up play, he had an excellent game.

“I know he was a little bit disappointed after the game, but when you get that many chances in that short period of time against an aggressive team, you’re doing something right. And we’re confident that the finishing will come.”

A few hours after Sunday’s win, Uruguay beat Panama 3-1 to move level on points and goal differential but ahead on goals scored. The U.S. have CONCACAF rivals Panama next, in Atlanta on Thursday.

“There’s a lot of soccer to play in this group,” Berhalter said. “And it’s not done. We have two more games. We’ll always look at the chance creation as a marker of performance, and we created enough chances today. Most days, those chances are going to go in, and today they didn’t but that’s fine. We’re pleased with the result. The game was never in doubt.

“It’s a good starting point on which to build throughout this tournament.”

go-deeper

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(Top photo: Robinson chats with Pepi at the end of the match. Aric Becker/AFP via Getty Images)

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