It certainly won’t erase the bad memories, but it will put the U.S. men's national team in position to create some new positive ones.
In their first meeting since that traumatic World Cup qualifying defeat 20 months ago in Couva, the USA crushed Trinidad & Tobago, 6-0, on a much flatter and more forgiving field at FirstEnergy Stadium in Cleveland. It was the largest margin of victory ever achieved by the U.S. against the Soca Warriors, and the win clinched a spot in the Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinals with one game remaining in the group stage. And this time, it’s Trinidad that’s eliminated.
There was no revenge or redemption available Saturday night, but a second straight win and improved performance should have U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s team feeling a bit more buoyant heading into the business end of the continental championship.
Here are three thoughts on the win:
Inevitable avalanche blows the game open
“For us—and it's something I've stressed to the group—is being patient, just being patient in the game,” Berhalter said Friday. “It's a 90-minute soccer game, and I think that's a key message to our group.”
He knew what was coming. T&T may have ended the USA’s World Cup hopes, but it is not a good soccer team. Its 2-0 loss to Panama in the Gold Cup opener, during which it failed to put a single shot on target, was the sixth consecutive match in which it failed to score. The Soca Warriors would pack it in, break up the game’s rhythm, dare the U.S. to break them down and try to hit the hosts on the break.
Trinidad (0-2-0) did indeed create a couple chances on the counter, and it did prove difficult to dismantle in back. Although the USA (2-0-0) held the vast majority of possession, it wasn’t until the 41st minute that it found the breakthrough. The goal didn’t come on a set piece, but it came thanks to one, as defender Aaron Long pushed forward on a Christian Pulisic free kick and hung around the penalty area long enough to head home Pulisic’s cross after his original bid struck the wall.
It was a crucial goal, because T&T now needed one of its own to stay in the Gold Cup. And when the game opened up a bit after intermission, the Americans tore the visitors apart. During a 10-minute stretch midway through the second half, Gyasi Zardes scored twice, Pulisic extended the U.S. lead to four goals and Trinidad goalkeeper Marvin Phillip made two point-blank saves.
“Trinidad, they set up really well in the first half and it was tough to break them down,” Pulisic said following the game. “After we got that one goal at halftime, we said, ‘just keep going and going’ and eventually the goals started to flow.”
It was everything Berhalter has wanted to see—U.S. players switching the point of attack, playing passes between opposition lines, flooding the attacking third with runs and hitting diagonal balls behind defenders. Trinidad appeared to simply give up, and Paul Arriola and Long scored later to provide the final margin.
American patience was rewarded.
Significant Improvement from Pulisic and Zardes
Pulisic wasn’t poor in the 4-0 win over Guyana, he just looked a bit rusty. And that was understandable. It was his first game in a month and after a few promising early runs, he faded. On Saturday in Cleveland, it was his start that was on the tentative side, as his dribbling was less effective against a packed T&T defense. His shifts toward the left wing suggested he might be more comfortable wide than in the playmaking position Berhalter prefers.
But Pulisic worked through his issues, hit the cross that led to Long’s opener and then played a massive part in the second-half U.S. onslaught. He interchanged more effectively with Arriola, pressed intelligently and did a better job finding space, both to collect the ball and to attack on the dribble. Attacking space rather than defenders pulled Trinidad apart, and it was his 64th-minute dribble toward the end line, which led to a close-range Arriola shot, that set events in motion.
In the 69th, Pulisic set up Zardes’s second goal in four minutes with a charge toward the penalty area and an easy pass to the Columbus Crew striker. Then in the 73rd, Pulisic scored his second goal under Berhalter with a smart, against-the-grain finish off a feed from Jordan Morris.
“I didn’t like to say it, but I definitely had a little chip on my shoulder today, So I hope you guys could see that,” said Pulisic, who started and scored as the USA lost in Couva in the fall of 2017.
Zardes was another player who was much improved after some opening-match jitters. His accidental goal against Guyana came off his face. The pair on Saturday were more impressive. The first, in the 66th, followed another beautiful, lofted cross from Michael Bradley and a header by Nick Lima, which set him up for a one-touch finish. Zardes’s 69th-minute tally required two touches, one to settle the pass from Pulisic and another to hit a perfect, curling shot over Phillip.
Zardes was inches from a hat trick, and he was embraced by Berhalter after exiting in the 74th minute. Zardes still may be keeping the seat warm for Jozy Altidore, but a two-goal, six-shot night is pretty good.
Berhalter has flexibility vs. Panama
There were some jokes when Berhatler unveiled a starting lineup unchanged from the Guyana game. The last time a U.S. coach fielded an unchanged XI against Trinidad, things didn’t work out so well. But conditions and circumstances were far different this time, and this American lineup was far more balanced. Saturday’s result now gives Berhalter plenty of flexibility heading into the Group D decider against Panama on June 26 in Kansas City, Kan.
Both the USA and Panama (2-0-0) are through to the quarterfinals, and there’s next to no reward for winning the group. Both teams will face one of Jamaica, El Salvador or Curaçao in the quarterfinals, and then one of those teams—or each other—in the semis. A meeting with Mexico or Costa Rica isn’t possible until the Gold Cup final. Neither the USA nor Panama is going to feel it needs to go all out to win, or play nothing but reserves, when there’s so little separating the potential quarterfinal opponents.
With Pulisic and Bradley still returning to full fitness, one or both may sit. Center backs Matt Miazga and/or Omar Gonzalez could get a look. And Altidore, who replaced Zardes and helped set up Arriola’s 78th-minute goal with a really nice flick, could be ready to see more time. Panama is strong defensively and traditionally has given the U.S. trouble at the Gold Cup, so would provide a better measure of Altidore’s progress than T&T.
Tyler Boyd has been excellent in both games. The right winger scored twice against Guyana, and although he didn’t get on the scoresheet Saturday, his consistent knack for finding the ball and making smart decisions with it kept the defense honest and on its heels until the USA finally broke through. He’s not flashy, but his vision and decisiveness with the ball is excellent, and he almost always seems to be a step ahead.
That being said, Morris was an outstanding substitute, as a tiring Trinidad had no answer for his speed and direct play. It was Morris’s alert steal that set the table for Pulisic’s goal, and his cross that was finished by Arriola. Morris could be in line to see more time, while his Seattle Sounders teammate Cristian Roldan could come in for Weston McKennie.
The USA doing what it needed to do on Saturday, and doing so in style, gives Berhalter the option to bring the rest of his team up to speed as it launches an assault on a second straight confederation championship.