FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A soccer game typically is defined by tactics and trends, but it’s also about discrete moments. Those players who can make or master them, ones who can alter or even defy the run of play, are the ones who often shape the outcome. A given team can be outshot, out-possessed and outplayed, but might win anyway thanks to one magic moment.
Through two CONCACAF Gold Cup matches, the U.S. national team has been fueled by big moments. Overall, despite two victories and a confirmed berth in next weekend’s quarterfinals, the trends haven’t looked great. The Americans failed to establish any rhythm in the group-stage opener against a well-organized and physical Honduras side and prevailed, 2–1, despite facing considerable pressure in the opening and closing stages. On Friday evening in Foxborough, the U.S. had more of the ball against Haiti but had difficulty creating clear-cut scoring chances. Haiti’s speed and skill proved problematic, as did its defensive commitment, and the U.S. was fortunate to escape with a 1–0 win.
The difference in both games was individual execution in front of the goal. It came down to moments—a key defensive intervention, a save from Brad Guzan (his second-half stoning of Haiti’s Duckens Nazon was world-class) and the ruthless finishing of forward Clint Dempsey, who has scored all three U.S. goals. That extra bit of quality in otherwise even games made the difference.
It may not be ideal, but it’s not unexpected.
“You play against teams in this tournament that are determined to make the game difficult,” captain Michael Bradley said following Friday’s win. “They put a lot of guys behind the ball. They’re organized. They’re committed to slowing down and destructing and making every single play as difficult as possible. And then when you add in the fact that a team like Haiti has athleticism and skill and some guys who, especially on their own, are able to take certain plays and cause real trouble, then it’s always going to be a difficult game until you can get the first goal.”
The Americans finally got the first goal on Friday. In fact, they sort of got it twice. In the 34th minute, a Jozy Altidore pass was deflected and fell to Aron Jóhannsson, who settled the ball beautifully with his right foot before sliding it into the net with his left. It was an impressive bit of skill that was nullified by the assistant referee, who incorrectly flagged the play offside.
Nevertheless, it was a sign of Jóhannsson’s “tremendous instinct in the box,” according to coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Said Bradley, “[Aron is] able to find to find different spaces, find little gaps, pop up in different areas and still be technically good enough to make some difficult plays in tight spots.”
“At halftime, we had a little team meeting, but as Jurgen stepped out of his little office he told me, ‘Gyasi, go outside and get ready,’" Zardes said. "I just went outside with the trainer and prepared myself to step on the field and try to make a difference."
He stayed high and wide, helped stretch Haiti out a bit with some combination play along the left flank then slid back inside and found the seam between the left and center backs. U.S. defender Greg Garza’s looping pass was perfectly hit but still presented Zardes with a challenge. He calmly chested the ball down and quickly cut it back toward the top of the penalty area where Dempsey was waiting to finish. After a half of frustration, the U.S. had broken through.
“He brings energy. He brings mobility. He’s dynamic," Bradley said of Zardes. "He can obviously find the space underneath and still connect with guys, but he’s also a threat to run behind and whether he plays out wide or up front he’s somebody who other teams really have to respect. He has certainly shown over the last few months that going forward, he’s a guy who has to be a big part of this. He’s a great kid. He wants to take every chance he can. Tonight, he made a big play for us.”
Zardes, 23, made his senior international debut only five and a half months ago. He was called into Klinsmann’s January camp after a stellar season with the L.A. Galaxy, during which he scored 19 goals in all competitions, including the opener in the MLS Cup final. Spending the first two seasons of his pro career playing alongside the likes of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane left Zardes feeling confident he eventually could integrate with the country’s best players, he said.
“I always picked their brains at the L.A. Galaxy and they always gave me helpful tips," Zardes said of Donovan and Keane. "That’s what helped me feel at home with these guys on the national team as well. It’s just phenomenal to be in the same atmosphere as all these top talents."
Zardes is far from a finished product. His performance against Honduras revealed some limitations in his defensive and possession games (he’s not a natural outside midfielder) and like any younger player, he can drift in and out of a match. But for a player less than six months into his international career, that’s nitpicking. His confidence, creativity and ability to make an impact in those moments that can decide a game have been impressive.
His first start came in February’s 2–0 win over Panama (also Monday’s opponent in the group stage finale), and Zardes announced his presence with a through ball that split the defense and led to a Dempsey goal. Zardes was involved in the buildup to Jordan Morris’s game-winner against Mexico in April, and last month he scored the Americans’ first goal in the stunning 4–3 upset of the Netherlands off a cross from Fabian Johnson. Then in the pre-Gold Cup friendly against Guatemala, Zardes punctuated the Americans’ 4–0 win with a deft dribbling run that set up Chris Wondolowski’s late strike.
“That’s what you got to do if you want to have a good career with the national team," Dempsey said. "With the opportunities you get, you have to take advantage of it. So it’s good to see."
Said Zardes: “When I first came to the national team, I was kind of timid. But I feel the more games, the more training sessions I have with the coaches and this team, I’m going to become more comfortable. My own character is starting to prevail and I just really love being with this group.”
The U.S.’s inability to put its 90-minute stamp on a game is frustrating, but not inexplicable. Klinsmann repeatedly has referenced the difficulty in bringing together players on different schedules (MLS is in full swing, the European and Mexican seasons ended more than a month ago, etc.) and getting them to gel with only a week to train before the Gold Cup kicked off. Playing a game every three days isn’t ideal, and it’s even tougher against teams set up in defensive postures. In addition, two of the national team’s top players are battling injuries. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya has remained on the bench while recovering from a knee ailment and Altidore, the team’s go-to striker, is working his way back from a hamstring strain.
“Just slow,” Altidore said Friday when asked how he was feeling. “I’m not up to full speed with everybody else.”
But he’s not worried about the team.
“Tonight showed a guy like Gyasi can come in and can do just as good, if not better," Altidore continued. "I think that showed the depth that we have in the team. A lot of guys can step up. Aron was fantastic tonight. The way he plays, the pockets [he finds], he’s creative. So we have a lot of options. There’s no reason to be worried about it. You see guys like Gyasi, guys like Aron, who’ve been waiting and playing and doing everything right. You see they can bring something different to the team, something positive, something that we don’t have—a different look. That’s important for any team, to have options.”
It’s especially important when facing a team that, as Zardes said, “is just back and tucked in.” That scenario calls for a player who can deliver the sort of creativity or flair that can unlock the opposition. From Dempsey, it’s expected. From Zardes, it’s been a revelation. And from Jóhannsson, who finally hit his stride at AZ Alkmaar in late April after a World Cup summer and an ensuing season filled with nagging injuries, it’s a relief. Combined, they’ve offered a spark that’s made a difference while the rest of the U.S. waits to catch fire.
“I think [Zardes and Jóhannsson] continue to show that they’re important guys for us," Bradley said. "It’s never going to be smooth sailing in every way, but they know that and we know that."