The U.S. Gold Cup team had almost no opportunity to prepare for this summer’s Concacaf championship tournament. Usually there’s some time to train and gel, and then a friendly or two, before the event kicks off. This summer, however, because of the competition’s late start and a crowded calendar, the untested Americans had to hit the ground running.
As a result, the first two group-stage games against heavy underdogs Haiti and Martinique were going to present coach Gregg Berhalter with a chance to get a handle on his team. Last Sunday against the Haitians—after five days of practice—he deployed a relatively experienced lineup. The U.S. got the job done, but the choppy one-goal win was unimpressive. Thursday’s late match against Martinique, a far-less problematic opponent, then gave Berhalter the opportunity to blood the younger, more intriguing part of his roster.
Martinique was poor, but a young U.S. side featuring seven new starters and averaging only five senior caps still delivered, easily winning 6–1 at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park. U.S. striker Daryl Dike was a force, scoring two, then three, then two goals (explanation below), while his teammates played with dynamism and freedom against a visitor unable to mount much resistance.
The victory sealed a quarterfinal berth and, in a sense, marked the end of the Gold Cup’s experimental phase for the Americans (2-0-0). Canada (2-0-0) is up next in a group stage finale that could wind up having a significant impact on the rest of the tournament. And then come the knockouts.
“It’s a nice feeling when you give guys opportunities and they take advantage of them,” Berhalter said following the win. “It was a really young group today and to have that performance in a game that we wanted to win, and we wanted to improve and we wanted to win convincingly, it shows what type of quality they have.”
Goalkeeper Matt Turner, defenders Walker Zimmerman and Miles Robinson and wingback Shaq Moore were the only holdover starters from the opener, and the U.S. came out in a fluid, three-back set that featured several players whom fans had been clamoring to see. The composed James Sands, from New York City FC, manned the middle of the back three. Sporting Kansas City star Gianluca Busio and the Portland Timbers’ Eryk Williamson, who some thought should’ve been on the U-23 side that failed to qualify for the Olympics, anchored central midfield. Moore and George Bello were on the flanks, while debutant Matthew Hoppe, from Schalke 04, and Seattle Sounders veteran Cristian Roldan ran the channels off of Dike.
The Americans had ample time and space to play and they did so, showing off some of the energy, movement and verticality that Berhalter said was missing against Haiti. Martinique, an overseas French territory that isn’t a FIFA member, simply couldn’t keep up.
Hoppe’s speed and range were the attacking story early, and even though his touch let him down in the penalty area a couple times (he’s in the middle of his offseason), he was dangerous and increasingly effective as the match progressed. His beautiful cross to Dike in the 14th minute resulted in the Americans’ first goal. With Sands, Williamson and Busio controlling play, additional goals were inevitable. The second came in the 23rd minute, when Busio, after a layoff from Hoppe, hit the underside of the crossbar. Dike rose to head the rebound off a Martinique defender. The goal was ruled an own goal, then was credited to Dike, but then somehow was an own goal again.
“I think [Hoppe] did an excellent job," Berhalter said. "For Matthew, we had him slated as a winger [in a 4-3-3]. Today he played as an attacking mid in the pocket sometimes, sometimes running behind or going high, and it’s not easy to take in all that information and perform as well as he did. He also showed quality. The pass he gave to Daryl was a high-level pass. I think he did well. And we’re also bearing in mind that he is in preseason and hasn’t played in competitive games. He’s been at home training, and this is the output you get. So overall we’re pleased with his performance.”
An unmarked Robinson scored off a Williamson cross in the 50th minute, and then Dike took a feed from Roldan, powered through three helpless Martinique defenders and chipped goalkeeper Gilles Meslien nine minutes later. It would’ve been a hat trick but for the scoring reversal of the scoring reversal in the first half.
"It's great to [score my] first official goals and then of course on top of that a win. I think it gives us good momentum going into the next game, because we know Canada is going to be a tough opponent," Dike said following the game. The Orlando City star opened his U.S. account in last month's friendly against Costa Rica.
“I think he performed well, scored some good goals," Berhalter said of Dike. "He showed why we really rate him and we think he’s an important part of our team. But we’re not jumping to any conclusions on anyone based on tonight.”
Martinique got on the board with a 63rd minute penalty kick by Emmanuel Rivière, and then substitute Gyasi Zardes added the Americans’ fifth in the 70th after a long run and nice finish down the right. Nicholas Gioacchini, another reserve and a Kansas City native, redirected a cross from SKC’s Busio, making it 6–1, as the U.S. kept its foot on the gas into stoppage time.
Why try to run up the score? Because a new Gold Cup format wrinkle has opened the possibility of a U.S.-Mexico meeting before the final. In the past, the tournament’s knockout rounds were bracketed to ensure the two regional powers, who’ve combined to win 14 of the 15 previous Gold Cups, were kept apart before the decider. Now, in a nod to global tradition and competitive integrity, Concacaf seeds each half of the quarterfinal bracket with a team from each of the four groups. If the U.S. and Mexico each finish first during the group stage, as expected, they’ll be on opposite sides. That would also be the case if they both finish second, as unlikely as that may seem. But if just one comes in second, they’d be on course to meet in the semis for the first time since the inaugural Gold Cup in 1991 (the U.S. won, 2–0).
The Americans were trying to score a seventh on Thursday because it would’ve lifted them above Canada in the standings’ first tiebreaker, which is goal differential. Absent that goal, the two sides remain level on points and goal difference, with the Canadians edging out the U.S. on goals scored. That means Canada wins the group with a draw on Sunday, while the Americans will have to win.
Ironically, a Mexican first-place finish is far from assured. El Tri’s surprising tie against Trinidad & Tobago leaves them needing to defeat El Salvador on Sunday in Dallas to win the group. La Selecta would remain on top with a tie.
“We still need to get better from tonight’s game," Berhalter said. "But I like how the guys responded. I like how they had an urgency to get goals, to push the attack, to move the ball forward and get the ball in front of goal. All those things are how we want to play soccer. I can understand the nerves in the first game and all we were asking was, ‘Hey, just get better this game.’ And we saw that. For us it’s about, can we keep that progression? No matter who we’re playing, can we still continue to grow as a group?"
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