ORLANDO — In the lead-up to Friday’s must-win CONCACAF Nations League contest against Canada, members of the United States men’s national team weren’t naive to the negativity surrounding the program. Not after losing three of their last five games, and especially not after Les Rouges defeated them in October — the USMNT’s worst defeat since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup — for the first time in more than three decades.
Almost as much as three points, the USMNT needed to make a statement in the rematch. They did, routing the Canadians 4-1 at Exploria Stadium despite playing without injured Chelsea star Christian Pulisic and at least three other surefire starters.
“In a world like we live in today it's hard to not be aware of that kind of stuff,” admitted U.S. winger Jordan Morris, who sent the Americans on their way to a 4-1 win with a well-taken goal less than two minutes into the game, before he set up the first of Gyasi Zardes’ two tallies later in the opening half.
The early strike stunned the Canadians. It also helped settled whatever nerves the hosts came in with, if there were any at all. For it was clear, even in the seconds before Morris converted Sergino Dest’s corner kick, that Gregg Berhalter’s team had come to play.
The most damning part of the October defeat in Toronto was that the U.S. was out-competed all over the field. If nothing else, the U.S. was hellbent on making sure that that wasn’t going to be be repeated on a misty night in central Florida.
“That's what we wanted to do, to press high, to be aggressive,” said veteran defender John Brooks, finally healthy and making his first national team appearance since March. “Especially in the first half, [it] showed.”
The fight was apparent, too.
“You need to show the type of effort and type of tenacity that the group showed today,” Berhalter said. “There was some real big criticism on the group. It was a perceived lack of effort [in Toronto], lack of heart. You couldn't mention that today at all, the way the guys were fighting for each other.”
The pressure on Berhalter was real. U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart gave his manager the dreaded vote of confidence earlier in the week. But Berhalter showed plenty of guts by starting Zardes and young midfielder Jackson Yueill, who had hardly played since the MLS regular season ended on Oct. 6, over German Bundesliga regulars Josh Sargent and Alfredo Morales. The move paid off handsomely, with both players turning in superb performances in a match the Americans simply had to have.
Berhalter’s team also displayed a pragmatism that had been missing through much of his almost 12 months at the U.S. helm. They took what their opponent gave them in this one, content to let Canada, which also needed a win to climb the FIFA rankings and qualify for the final “Hexagonal” round of 2022 World Cup qualifying, keep the ball and chase the game with the home side looking to beat them in transition.
“A big focus of the game was to have the [Canadian] defenders face their own goal, turn, and run at them,” Berhalter said. “We were able to take advantage of that.”
And when they got forward, the Americans capitalized on their chances, scoring on four of five shots on frame.
“That was a big point of emphasis going in the game, that we had to counter and do it quickly when the ball turned over,” Morris said. “I thought we did that well.”
The addition of Brooks and Dest was crucial given the absences of Pulisic, starting goalkeeper Zack Steffen and veteran midfielder Michael Bradley, not to mention fellow vet Jozy Altidore and highly regarded youngster Tyler Adams. Dual-national Dest, who recently committed his international future to the Stars and Stripes after being pursued by his native Netherlands, played like a man with a weight off his shoulders. The 19-year-old Ajax fullback sat out last month’s international window as he mulled his decision. The injection of quality he provided was obvious.
“He's a great player, you can tell,” said the German-born Brooks. “You see it in training. You saw today.”
“It’s just a great feeling to play your first official game for your country,” Dest said. “I’m glad I made this choice. And as a team, I thought we did a good job.”
They did, even if it wasn’t perfect. It’s not always going to be.
“We have our tactics and we have a style of play that we want to show but we can never … it's not always going to be your day on the ball,” said defender Aaron Long, who scored the backbreaking third goal and formed a stout partnership with Brooks in central defense. “The fight and the will to win always has to be there, so I think we learned a good lesson and hopefully we we build on that.”
The next test is just four days away, against Cuba in the Cayman Islands. And while it seems like a formality on the surface — the USMNT dismantled the Cubans 7-0 in October — this a program that doesn’t have the luxury of taking anything for granted ever again.
“We haven't done anything yet,” Berhalter said. “We had an objective to go to the next round. We're not in the next round yet. It was a good result, the effort was amazing. We could have played better. There's a lot to work on, man.
“It's one of those games that galvanizes the group because how much you need to put into it, and then when you get a victory, it's nice. But we're nowhere near where we need to be.”
More from Yahoo Sports: