National Writer: Charles Boehm

Job one finished: USMNT pivot to "fine margins" of Gold Cup knockouts 

23MLS_Gold Cup_Ferreira

It was a sign of how comfortably the US men’s national team dispatched Trinidad & Tobago in their final Gold Cup group match that B.J. Callaghan could dish out a healthy array of compliments in his postgame press conference at Charlotte's Bank of America Stadium on Sunday evening.

On Jesús Ferreira, the tournament’s current scoring leader, who became the first player in program history to record hat tricks in back-to-back matches:

“All forwards are going to be judged by the goals that they score, first and foremost. When I see his movement and his confidence in the penalty box, you can tell that the game has slowed down for him. And he's just placing balls into the back of the net, and that's a positive sign,” said Callaghan of the FC Dallas star after the 6-0 win that clinched first place in Group A. “It lets us all know that he's focused and committed to being a goalscorer for us.”

For DeJuan Jones, the New England Revolution standout who notched his first career USMNT assist on Ferreira’s opener and completed a perfect 50/50 passes in a superb showing at left back:

“DeJuan really stepped up tonight, especially in the first half. He had a really difficult matchup with [Levi] García, and that's not an easy winger/forward to go up against, and he really rose to the occasion,” said his coach. “Not only that on the defensive side, but then helped us in the attack, helped us create wide overloads, was able to get some crosses in the box.”

How about Cade Cowell, the San Jose Earthquakes wunderkind who embraced the super-sub role with a fine solo effort for his first USMNT goal?

“What you saw tonight is what he's strong at. He was running at defenders relentlessly, he was able to go inside, he was able to go outside, he was able to create combination play and then he gets rewarded with the goal,” said Callaghan. “So that's a performance that we expect from Cade, I think he expects from himself, and it's going to be one that we want to build on.”

Southern hospitality

Those were just some of the many standout performances at the home of Charlotte FC, where 40,243 fans gave the USMNT a spirited reception in their first-ever match in the North Carolina metropolis. And yes, Callaghan had warm praise for them, too.

“This place was rockin’ tonight. I have not been here before. I know the men's national team has not been here before, and what a welcome,” said the Yanks’ interim boss. “Right when we walked out of the tunnel, you could feel the energy from the crowd. And for us, the result was 6-0, but the crowd was into it the entire time, and that's what you really – you know that that group is an educated fan base and really supporting and behind us through the whole 90 minutes, and we felt it.”

Sunday capped a full recovery from the States’ underwhelming 1-1 draw vs. Jamaica in their tournament opener on June 24, and they now can recuperate for a full week until their quarterfinal match (July 9) against a Group D opponent still to be determined.

Their combined 12 goals vs. St. Kitts and Nevis and the Soca Warriors proved enough to edge the Reggae Boyz for first place on goal differential, important for keeping on the opposite side of the knockout stage bracket from Mexico. Each match, each training session helps build connection and understanding among a USMNT squad that had played precious few minutes together before this event.

“When we talk about getting better, it’s that we have a clear identity on how we want to play, and then it's the process of how do we get there,” Callaghan told FOX’s Jenny Taft in a postgame interview. “We only had three days of training before the Jamaica game. I feel like for us, it's about building those connections and just getting in sync with one another. And then the games like tonight bring that out where they're all sort of moving and working together.”

Leveling up

Such continued improvement will be necessary, he warned, as both the stakes and the caliber of play ramp up significantly in the next phase.

“We wanted to expose as many players as we could to our group stage and how to navigate that, and now we have a week and a buildup to discuss and get the mentality right on how we're going to handle knockout,” explained Callaghan. “The knockout games, we know the margins are super fine. So we're going to have to improve and get better in all phases, and be even more, I would say focused and consistent. And that's going to be the message.”

He and his staff now have some decisions to make.

Callaghan confirmed that playmaker Alan Soñora has been ruled out for the remainder of the Gold Cup due to a hamstring issue, while Columbus Crew midfielder Aidan Morris has been cleared to depart camp to deal with a personal matter. That means an injury replacement is incoming, the identity of whom Callaghan hasn't yet confirmed. Whoever is chosen must come from the 60-man preliminary roster released on June 1. Jordan Morris and Miles Robinson have been dealing with knocks, too, but will remain with the group.

In the bigger picture, the USMNT’s leadership must decide whose group-stage performances merited significant roles in the elimination rounds, and whether the younger or less experienced players are ready for more pressure-packed situations. Are veterans like DeAndre Yedlin and Aaron Long more trustworthy here than Jones, Bryan Reynolds or Jalen Neal, all three of whom have been excellent considering their relatively limited number of caps before this summer?

Though Callaghan didn’t drop too many hints on Sunday, he sounded convinced by the likes of Neal, the 19-year-old LA Galaxy homegrown center back who’s been outstanding since replacing Long at halftime of the Jamaica match after the LAFC defender picked up a calf injury.

“For me it's not about, like, trust,” Callaghan said of Neal and his “really solid performances” in the group round. “His performances have been consistent; he's putting together good performances. And as we continue to evaluate our opponents, we're going to look to put the best players out there. But Jalen has certainly shown that this stage, for him, is not too big.”

Next week the scene will shift to Cincinnati, where on July 9 the USMNT will meet the runner-up from Group D (7:30 pm ET | FS1), which could be Guadeloupe, Guatemala or Canada, depending on Tuesday's results in Houston, Texas and Harrison, New Jersey.