After a 20-month lull between competitive games and the two poor friendly performances that kicked off this Gold Cup summer, perhaps it wasn’t much of a surprise that Tuesday’s tournament opener started slowly for the U.S. men's national team.
The opponent was Guyana, a first-time Gold Cup qualifier ranked 177th in the world. Its starting attacking center midfielder, former Rochester Rhino Brandon Beresford, plays for a club from the Atlanta suburbs called Peachtree City MOBA, which competes in the fourth-tier, semi-pro/amateur USL League Two. The Golden Jaguars were thrilled just to be at Allianz Field in St. Paul, Minn.
They had almost no business keeping up with the USA. But for about 25 minutes, Guyana did, thanks to a willingness to take the space the Americans offered and the tepid pace of the game. After a dreary half hour, D.C. United’s Paul Arriola broke the deadlock, and the hosts then cruised to a 4-0 triumph. The six-time Concacaf champion USA is now 33-1-4 all-time in the Gold Cup group stage.
Here are three thoughts on the win:
Wingers Arriola, Boyd ease the tension
It was the wide attackers in coach Gregg Berhalter’s 4-3-3 who finally unlocked Guyana. Arriola and Tyler Boyd, who recently transferred his international allegiance from New Zealand and was capped for the second time on Tuesday, were the mobile, incisive and decisive antidotes to the game’s languid pace.
The Americans didn’t win the ball high up the field with frequency, so they relied on Arriola and Boyd to get Guyana’s defense moving. They hooked up for the first time in the 26th minute. Arriola’s bid was blocked, but their energy was enough to finally put Guyana on the back foot. Two minutes later, the breakthrough came as Arriola fed Weston McKennie on the left sideline and smartly continued his brisk run toward the penalty area. McKennie’s return pass was perfect, and Arriola curled his shot past Guyana goalkeeper Akel Clarke.
Boyd nearly doubled the lead in the 30th minute, but the first half sputtered to a close and Guyana was still in the game. He then removed any doubt in the 51st, settling a beautiful cross from captain Michael Bradley, holding off a defender with a couple of touches and hitting a shot across the goal and inside the left post.
After striker Gyasi Zardes scored on an accidental pinball header that was delightfully symbolic of his rough night on the ball, Boyd scored his second off a short feed from Arriola. Boyd’s shot took a slight deflection, but his ability to receive the ball, turn with it and create space for a shot at the top of the penalty area was impressive.
On a night when the U.S. wasn’t threatened but didn’t look in sync collectively, Boyd and Arriola provided the width, the speed, the shots (a combined 11) and the goods that Berhalter wants.
“After breaking the ice, we were really able to break them down,” Arriola told Fox after the game.
Spotlight on central midfield
For the first time, we saw what likely is Berhalter's preferred central midfield trio: Bradley as the No. 6 behind McKennie and Christian Pulisic. It not only was their first time starting together, but each was coming off a bit of a layoff. Bradley, nursing a hamstring injury, hadn’t played in a month. Pulisic and McKennie each had a break after their Bundesliga campaigns, with McKennie playing for an hour in the June 9 exhibition loss to Venezuela.
And so at times they looked like the best the USA has to offer, and at times they looked rusty and disconnected. The absence of the injured Tyler Adams, who would have supported Bradley from his hybrid right back role, left the veteran alone in front of the American back four. That was a problem on occasion as Guyana had room to play a pass or two and slow the game down. But Bradley clearly was an upgrade over Wil Trapp, who started the recent friendlies, and his assist on Boyd’s first goal—the 1,000th in program history—was exquisite.
Pulisic started the game brightly on the ball, and his confidence and technique showed through on a couple of occasions early on. That burst of creativity and ability to create or combine from different spots on the field is why Berhalter wants Pulisic playing inside. His passing and shooting were not of the same caliber, however, and he faded before being substituted in the 63rd (Bradley exited simultaneously).
McKennie’s performance and exit will be the most scrutinized. At times, his role as the USA’s box-to-box dynamo for the next decade looked certain. He was active, imposing and at times was the lone link between Bradley and the attackers. He set up Arriola’s opener, played Boyd through on the chance that came a couple minutes earlier, and in the 44th minute, he did some nifty dribbling near the end line before a pass to Pulisic that nearly led to a goal from right back Nick Lima.
But there were concerns, including several turnovers and five fouls, not to mention the apparent injury to his left hamstring that forced McKennie from the match in the 74th minute. Berhalter certainly doesn’t want the 20-year-old’s difficulty maintaining good health to be a story early in this tournament. He told media following the game that McKennie had suffered a cramp.
Stiffer tests to come
This was the USA’s easiest game, by far, of the Gold Cup. The Americans got the win they had to have, but a true assessment of their performance will be limited by the sample size and the quality of the opposition.
It’ll get tougher. On Saturday in Cleveland, the U.S. will meet Trinidad & Tobago in a game that’ll be a bit more poignant than your average group-stage encounter, thanks to the events in Couva in October 2017. T&T lost to Panama, 2-0, earlier Wednesday, but the Soca Warriors have the experience and quality to cause a bit more trouble on the counter if the U.S. leaves the kind of midfield room it offered Guyana. Group D play closes against Panama, which is typically stout defensively and has consistently given the U.S. trouble at the Gold Cup. That ‘one’ in the all-time group-stage record came courtesy of Los Canaleros.
The USA had to beat Guyana and had to do enough to spark some confidence following those friendly defeats. And it did. But it didn’t do enough–and isn’t yet good or deep enough–to believe that it won’t be getting considerably harder from here.