It was the gritty, nerve-wracking knockout-round test that Gregg Berhalter was expecting—and perhaps hoping for—and his young U.S. men’s national team powered through and passed. It may not have been with fluid flying colors, but there was mettle and maturity that could end up being just as vital down the road. Sunday’s hard-earned, often-in-doubt 1–0 Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal win over Jamaica—the third-ranked team in the region—was a significant step for an inexperienced squad.
Berhalter chose to use this tournament to see which of his second-tier players might rise to the occasion in World Cup qualifying, and the closest thing he’ll get to that level of competitive tension is an elimination game at the confederation championship. Sunday’s showdown on a patchy, temporary surface at AT&T Stadium outside Dallas came with all that intensity. The Reggae Boyz entered the Gold Cup with many of their top players and presented the U.S. a robust challenge. Although undefeated during the group stage, the youthful Americans had yet to really impress.
But the U.S. survived some early miscues on Sunday, grew into the game and finally won it on an 83rd-minute goal from Matthew Hoppe, a Schalke 04 forward who made his senior national team debut just 10 days earlier. This Gold Cup is precisely for players like Hoppe, who played with courage—if not always control—and demonstrated the sort of confidence and creativity that might be useful this fall.
“We talked about what type of game it was going to be, so the guys were prepared from that standpoint. But when you actually get in the game, it’s a different deal. I thought our guys competed unbelievably,” Berhalter said following the win. “The guys were resilient. They just kept going.”
The U.S. will move on to a unique semifinal assignment: Qatar. The Asian champions are a guest at this Gold Cup and will present a cohesive and experienced obstacle. That game will be Thursday at Austin FC's Q2 Stadium.
Berhalter had used the group stage to test different formations and a variety of players—he tried four- and three-back sets and deployed 21 of the 23 men on the U.S. roster. Come Sunday, he reverted to the 4-3-3 with which the Americans are more familiar. But he stuck with a few of the more junior faces who were introduced later in the first round.
Among them were center back James Sands, 21, who started alongside Miles Robinson in the back. That center back pairing, necessitated by Walker Zimmerman’s hamstring injury, entered the quarterfinals with nine caps combined. They played like veterans. Also featuring in the U.S. XI were right midfielder Gianluca Busio, 19, who struggled at times in the 3-5-2 last weekend against Canada; and the energetic Hoppe, 20, who did enough against Martinique and in a short stint against the Canadians to warrant the start. Striker Daryl Dike, 21, and veteran right winger Paul Arriola, who had injury concerns, also were in Berhalter’s lineup, but neither would make much of an impact.
It was the second-youngest lineup (averaging 23 years, 280 days) ever named by a U.S. manager for a knockout-round match, according to U.S. Soccer.
“These are young players,” Berhalter said Saturday. “Our whole player pool is young, and we’re trying to get them experience. And games like [Sunday’s] are what does it.”
Knockout matches are indeed their own animal and in addition to Sunday’s stakes, the U.S. and Jamaica have history. They had met in each of the three previous Gold Cups, once in the final (won by the U.S.) and twice in the semis (split). And so another generation of Americans would get the Reggae Boyz experience, this time against a side that is “basically as good as it gets for Jamaica right now,” according to Berhalter, and just 10 weeks before their World Cup qualifying showdown.
It was tight and challenging, as Berhalter predicted. The tempo was vigorous, the duels full-bodied and the turnovers frequent. The Americans had more of the ball during the first half and, consequently, more of the turnovers. Kellyn Acosta, playing as the lone pivot in the three-man midfield, was active and well-positioned but struggled along with several U.S. teammates to spark sustained possession. Every less-than-perfect touch or slightly-mistimed pass was punished, although the hosts never paid the ultimate price thanks to Jamaica’s poor shooting.
The goalkeepers, Matt Turner and Andre Blake, traded spectacular saves to ensure the game remained scoreless heading into intermission. Blake denied a Hoppe half-volley in the 22nd minute, and Turner leaped to his left to parry a swerving bid from Jamaica’s Junior Flemmings in the 39th.
The U.S. demonstrated a bit more mobility, enterprise and connectivity in the second stanza—Hoppe was stymied again by Blake early on—but Jamaica remained menacing. Still, as the half wore on, the Reggae Boyz’ line of confrontation fell further and further back. They were still dangerous in isolated moments, but the U.S. looked more comfortable on the ball, and Berhalter was able to refresh the squad by bringing Gyasi Zardes and Cristian Roldan off the bench in the 62nd.
“They gave us a boost. It was really important to get that in that phase of the game,” Berhalter said of the veteran subs.
Extra time loomed when Hoppe finally got the bounce he’d been pursuing so relentlessly all evening. With two U.S. substitutes waiting for a break in play so they could relieve Hoppe and right back Shaq Moore, the latter fed Roldan in the right channel. Roldan’s lofted cross drew Blake off his line, but the Philadelphia Union star got only as far as Zardes. The cross floated over both of them to Hoppe, who headed the ball home. He tossed his jersey to his parents in the stands following the whistle.
“The way he was able to get chances—he had a couple clear looks at goal and that’s due to his movement in the box and he was grinding,” Berhalter’s said of Hoppe’s evening. “When a guy puts that type of effort in and hangs in there and keeps going, we wanted to stick with him because we thought he was doing a good job and because he’s goal dangerous.”
The Americans were able to hold on and see the game out, and they’ll feel good about the win, their second-half improvement and a challenging test of their resolve. The U.S. has yielded just one goal, on a penalty kick, in four games. And they’re learning and growing. Qatar is next.
“We always want to get better. There’s no question about it,” Berhalter said. “For such a young group, I think the poise was really remarkable in a game like this. [Jamaica] had moments where they took a little bit of initiative but overall, we controlled the game. We won a ton of duels and proud of the effort.
“Qatar’s a good team,” he concluded. “This game is going to really help prepare us. We talked about using this tournament to prepare the players, and playing against Qatar is going to do that.”
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