As International friendlies go, our first official meeting with the USA, or the USMNT (Men’s National Team), in 73 years was likely to carry a little more significance than usual. Ian Baraclough is nine games into his tenure without a win and fifteen goals conceded in 90 minutes of open play before tonight. So this was the gaffer’s final opportunity to test and decide who starts and who doesn’t, in what has now become a must-win game with Bulgaria on Wednesday.
It was of little surprise to see Corry Evans as the only starter from Thursday’s defeat in Parma and Kyle Lafferty given the honour of captaincy. A nice touch there from Bara for sure.
Celtic’s Conor Hazard swapped places with BPF and a back three of Daniel Ballard, Conor McLaughlin and Ciaron Brown complimented five in midfield with Linfield’s Shayne Lavery a surprise starter up front ahead of the much-mooted Dion Charles, who many hoped would make a start.
Following encouraging signs on Thursday, despite the result, this game was not so much about the outcome, but more a case of seeing who’s capable of stepping-up to full senior international level football.
It was plain to see from the start that both Ballard and Brown’s regular game time at club level saw them look settled from the start and comfortable in their roles, distributing well and keeping cool heads between them.
The US were never going to be a pushover and led by Christian Pulisic had regular first teamers playing at a decent level. So, in the end this evening’s final result matched those expectations.
A fortuitous deflection from a Gio Reyna strike off Ciaron Brown on the half hour saw the USA take the lead. Up to that point Northern Ireland had held their own, with both Saville and Lavery linking well and covering significant ground.
Our best chance of the half came when George Saville fed the ball to Laffs, who shot a gilt-edged opportunity well wide of the post. This perhaps summed up perfectly our inability to capitalise in that crucial final third, and a pointer to why Lafferty has not had an international goal in over four years.
The second half didn’t start with quite the same gusto as the first and it didn’t take long for the US to double their tally with a dubious penalty. Daniel Ballard had impressed in the first half, barely breaking sweat and doing everything being asked of him.
On the hour, Pulisic picked up the ball on the edge of the box and quickly hit the deck following Ballard’s intervention. Penalty given. As it stood, the replays clearly showed no foul and contact with the ball, but it’s easy to say that with televisual hindsight! Where’s VAR when you most need it?
Baraclough took the opportunity to immediately make four changes, with Ali McCann, Paddy McNair, Jamal Lewis and Dion Charles replacing Saville, Evans, Ferguson and Lavery respectively. It was good to see Dion Charles get his opportunity and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact, curling over the bar shortly after coming on.
Conor Hazard had not exactly been kept busy but managed to block Daryl Dike, who’d threatened since replacing Siebatcheu, and denying him further at his near post moment later. BPF take note.
Moments later Matty Kennedy was swapped for team-mate Niall McGinn, hoping to make an impact since last appearing in the play-off final with Slovakia in December. Moments later, a long ball saw Lafferty control the ball just inside the box, perhaps unintentionally laying on for McGinn to strike superbly over Zack Steffen into the top corner for his sixth international goal. He won’t score many better than that.
Whether McGinn gets a start on Wednesday is one thing, but he’s a handful on the right wing and we need experienced players like him to take opportunities on the rare occasions they present themselves. Three shots on target and two corners in 90 minutes of football isn’t going to get results.
The final change of the game saw Hearts defender Michael Smith replacing Ballard with three minutes remaining. Baraclough can take heart in a few notable performances that clearly separated the men from the boys.
Ballard and Brown stepped-up admirably and surely deserve a start on Wednesday, although both were hugely unlucky playing an unwanted role in both US goals. Shayne Lavery and Jordan Thompson both did really well and deserve to give the gaffer something to think about at least.
It’s twitchy hole time for Ian Baraclough now. He’ll certainly be feeling the pressure, but his record so far will be quickly forgotten if we get a result on Wednesday. Bulgaria are dangerous on the counterattack and came close on a number of occasions in tonight’s home defeat to Italy. This will be far from a walk in the park, with both countries now desperate for points.
Northern Ireland 1 (McGinn 88)
USA 2 (Reyna 30, Pulisic 59 pen)
Hazard, Ballard (Smith 79), McLaughlin, Brown, Kennedy (McGinn 67), Thompson, Saville (McCann 60), C Evans (McNair 60), Ferguson (Lewis 60), Lafferty (c), Lavery (Charles 60)
Subs Not Used: Peacock-Farrell, Dallas, Whyte, Cathcart, Magennis, Hughes
Steffen, Long (Richards 63), Miazga, Ream, Dest (Reynolds 45), Acosta (de la Torre 74), Musah (Lletget 45), Robinson, Reyna (Aaronson 63), Siebatcheu (Dike 63), Pulisic
Subs Not Used: Sargent, Otasowie, Cappis, Horvath, Palmer-Brown, Odunze
Not Brazil MOTM: Ciaron Brown