Ask supporters of the Philadelphia Union and Jamaica's national team about the value of Andre Blake, and you’re likely to hear a litany of points gained and results saved by his clutch saves, like the one he made on Jordan Morris to preserve the Reggae Boyz’ 1-0 lead on the stroke of halftime at Soldier Field on Saturday night.
The three-time Allstate MLS Goalkeeper of the Year and five-time Gold Cup participant got eclipsed on this occasion, however. Because the only thing that stood between Jamaica and a head-turning victory on the tournament’s opening night was his opposite number Matt Turner – and that turned out to be plenty enough.
Competing on his 29th birthday, Turner denied Leon Bailey on a first-half penalty kick that would’ve doubled Jamaica’s lead, stemming the tide after the Caribbean side seized the early advantage in this Group A encounter and setting the stage for Brandon Vazquez’s late equalizer to hold the islanders to a 1-1 stalemate.
Opponents have now scored on just two of the six PKs Turner has faced for his national team, and the USMNT have conceded two goals across his five starts this year. Barely 29 months after his Cinderella-story arrival at international level, he’s become a leader and difference-maker.
“We gave him the captain's armband. I think that's a great starting point for us, to see how valuable he is to the group,” said USMNT interim head coach B.J. Callaghan of Turner, one of five holdovers from the Yanks squad that beat Mexico and Canada to claim a second consecutive Concacaf Nations League championship earlier this month.
“He's a player that came to us and wanted to play both tournaments,” Callaghan added of the Arsenal 'keeper and New England Revolution alumnus.
“His commitment to this team, the commitment to the craft – and then I always say big players make big plays. And Matt made a big play there where I think it also shifted the momentum a little bit with that. So those are what we expect. That was his moment to step up, and it's the same thing we preach to all of the guys, that when your number is called, you're going to be expected to step up.”
That concept also very much applied to FC Cincinnati’s Vazquez, who came off the bench to save the USMNT from what would’ve been just their second-ever group-stage loss in the Gold Cup. Notably, the teammate he’d relieved in the No. 9 spot was still on the pitch when he scored, and would play a major role in the circumstances that led to Vazquez’s equalizer.
Jesús Ferreira got the nod up top ahead of Vazquez in the US starting XI, then showcased his soccer IQ by dropping deeper after the Cincy star’s entry and hitting the cross that led to Vazquez’s opportunistic goal, even if he didn’t qualify for an assist on the play. It provided another chapter in the running debate about where and how Ferreira is best utilized at international level.
“Jesús was able to find the game in different ways,” said Callaghan of the FC Dallas man, “and as he continues to mature in our group, he can find the spaces, he can come low, link up play, he's able to run behind. Additionally, I thought that he led the front line defensively in coming back and helping win second balls; he did a really good job with that. So proud of his performance.”
Both sides had reason to feel both gratitude and annoyance at the scoreline. For Blake and Jamaica, it was a promising data point as well as a missed opportunity to skewer the region’s top team at the moment.
“Normally we take a little bit of time to get going. But this is also a very good US team,” said the Philly Union icon, noting the match-fitness concerns around the Reggae Boyz’ British-based contingent. “We lacked the killer instinct. We needed to score that second goal. We had the chances. Unfortunately, when you let a very good US team hang around, playing in the US, they’re always one goal away from getting back into the game … Hopefully as the tournament goes on, we’ll get fitter.”
There was also a sense that these two sides might see one another again later in the tournament.
“I have to give, and I want to give US credit,” said Jamaica manager Heimir Hallgrímsson, both content and rueful about the result. “There was a lot of energy in their team. I think that was where they had the upper hand. They are in season; young, energetic team. A lot of our players are coming from a break from their season, so I knew this game would be tricky.
“Tomorrow I think I will be more happy than now.”
“I know how hard those guys work,” said the former Villanova coach. “I know how committed they are to the Jamaica team. And I just encouraged them to push, push the group because I think that they can make a really big run in this tournament if they can kind of keep it going.”