The US men’s national team’s Gold Cup triumph is old news at this point, but I was on vacation for the semifinals and final. That means I didn’t get to write about either game or the immediate aftermath, so you’re going to have to indulge me here.
I will start by making the same point here that I’ve made in every previous Gold Cup column I’ve written over the past month: the only rational lens to view this tournament through is one labeled “How does this help the World Cup qualifying campaign?” As nice as it is to win a trophy -- and my word, was it nice to see the US win that thing then take it to the club -- it doesn’t actually matter at all if the next chapter in the USMNT story is one of failure in qualifiers.
Remember the 2017 Gold Cup? The US won that one. They were arguably better throughout that tournament than this group was. Do you recall that team or their celebration with any fondness?
You do not. Neither do I. That is probably unfair to the players from that summer, but we all know where the real stakes are in this region.
With that in mind, here are the best things US fans can take from this tournament, ranked:
Far-and-away my No. 1 worry about the US player pool was the lack of a clear-cut backup for Tyler Adams at the back point of the 4-3-3 head coach Gregg Berhalter prefers.
- I worried that Jackson Yueill couldn’t do it at an acceptable level due to a lack of physicality and a current case of the yips in regard to his distribution (both were born out this month).
- I worried that Gianluca Busio couldn’t do it at an acceptable level due to a lack of physicality and defensive instincts (both were born out this month, though I remain bullish on his ability to contribute at the international level in the future).
- I worried that Berhalter wouldn’t give James Sands a chance to do it for potential fit reasons (Sands still hasn’t played as a true No. 6, though my guess is Berhalter has softened on the fit issue).
- I worried that Kellyn Acosta couldn’t do it because he’s always been such a low-usage player on both sides of the ball.
You see, the knock on Acosta was never talent; he’s got plenty of that. He's comfortable on the ball, vicious in the tackle, and more two-footed than any other US central midfield option, including Adams. I mean, this dude’s not a lefty:
No, the knock on Acosta was that he didn’t really ever find and dictate the game on either side of the ball. If you can’t trust a player to be around the game then you can’t trust him as a solo No. 6, and so even in the biggest games of Acosta’s life -- including the Nations League final against El Tri -- he didn’t operate as a solo No. 6. He was part of a double pivot in a 3-4-2-1 on that day, and while he put in a very nice shift it was more about his baseline utility, functionality and versatility (remember, he finished that game as a left back) than about his commanding presence in the center of the park.
That’s the version of Acosta we got in Group B play. He was fine as a No. 8 in the opener against Haiti, poor as a late sub at right wingback against Martinique (he committed the foul that led to Martinique’s penalty, which was the only goal the US conceded in this tournament), and then distressingly non-existent as a shuttler in the 1-0 win over Canada to close the group -- he had the fewest touches of any midfielder who saw the field that day. It was a definitive “Acosta doesn’t find the game” performance.
And then Berhalter said screw it and threw him into the deep end. Acosta played the entirety of the knockout rounds, first against a good Jamaica team, then against the reigning AFC champions Qatar and finally vs. what was pretty close to a first-choice El Tri, as a solo No. 6 in a basic 4-3-3. And while he wasn’t flawless… I am no longer concerned about who the second No. 6 is in the US depth chart. It is, quite clearly and resoundingly, Kellyn Acosta.
I highly recommend this compilation if you want the full Acosta experience from his Man of the Match performance in the final. But what I really want to highlight is the improvement in “finding the game” using two clips.
Here was, in my opinion, his worst moment against Jamaica:
He needs either to retreat and cut off that passing angle or (my preference) attack the ball-carrier and blow up the play. He does neither, and the US were very, very lucky this counter resulted only in a scuffed shot.
Understand that I’m not saying this entire sequence is his fault. It’s clearly not. But the No. 6’s primary job is to put out fires that teammates create, and Acosta never got close to that in this moment.
Here he is in a similar situation against Mexico two games later:
He read the play earlier, and so is closer to the play. Because of that, he's in the perfect position to be decisive and just immediately blow it up, which he does, and which he did repeatedly throughout the second half of the semis and all 120 minutes of the final.
This is what I mean by “finding the game.” These early reads and these decisive moments are exactly what any good team needs from its No. 6, and in three of the biggest games of Acosta’s life, he produced more of them than anyone had a right to expect.
So now what I would argue was the biggest weakness in the pool a month ago -- no clear, high-level back-up for Adams -- might actually be its biggest strength. Acosta’s last 300 minutes were that good, and answering the question was that crucial to the US’s qualification hopes.
If we only got that data point and literally nothing else positive from the Gold Cup, I’d still consider the tournament a resounding success.
Happily, we got some other strong answers as well. Onwards!
And now Miles Robinson is the first-choice partner for John Brooks, right? Robinson is the answer to the “imagine if our best athletes played soccer” daydream, but for a variety of reasons -- being left off the U-20 roster back in 2017; being buried on the bench and denied the opportunity to play through “young player” mistakes by Tata Martino in his first two years in Atlanta; untimely injuries and Atlanta’s refusal to release him for non-FIFA-mandated competition -- we haven’t gotten to see a lot of him in Red, White & Blue.
Well, now we’ve seen a lot of him. And while I’d argue that Acosta was the best US player in the final, I don’t think there’s much doubt that Robinson was the best US field player over the course of the entire tournament. In fact, I can’t think of a better tournament-long performance (and for what it’s worth, he did play every single minute) by a US center back over the course of any tournament.
Understand that the trophy-clinching goal was just the cherry on top of a month-long defensive masterclass. Robinson is dominant in the air and a menace against teams in the build-up, constantly making the right reads to turn play backward. He is also, without question, the best center back in the US pool at emergency defense, just snuffing out transition moments left and right.
Understand, too, that he is an asset with the ball. Moments like this are not unusual from Robinson at the MLS level, and he began showing more and more of them with the US as the tournament marched onwards:
Robinson’s pretty much the ideal partner for the relatively slow-footed Brooks, and an easy No. 2 for me on the depth chart as qualifying begins.
Bear in mind that neither of those two guys will play every single minute during these three-game WCQ windows. We’ll get to see Chris Richards and Walker Zimmerman, and maybe a bit of Sands (more on him in a bit), Mark McKenzie and even Tim Ream as well. The roster presents a lot of solutions to a lot of the potential problems of qualifying.
One of the things Berhalter talked about on a pre-Nations League podcast with Bobby Warshaw is how the 4-3-3 isn't necessarily a super stable mid-block defensive shape. Berhalter had always trended toward a 4-4-2 (or a 4-2-2-2 if you want to get nitty-gritty) during his Columbus Crew days, and had done the same throughout 2019 during his first year in charge of the USMNT.
He didn't get overly specific in the podcast about the 4-3-3’s shortcomings, but the obvious lever is when opponents push a fullback up past the strong-side winger with the intention of drawing a central midfielder out.
Once that pass eliminates the winger, the central midfielder has to come out and get pressure on the ball, and when that happens the three-man central midfield of the 4-3-3 becomes a two-man central midfield, setting off a cascade of events where the No. 6 (Acosta) has to step higher and potentially leave the half-spaces exposed.
Mexico are trying to set off that chain of events right here, playing to right back Chaka Rodriguez in order to skip winger Nicholas Gioacchini and pull central midfielder Gianluca Busio out to the touchline. Meanwhile, d-mid Edson Alvarez glides into space to try to create a 3-v-2 in the most valuable part of the field:
Look at how damn precise the rotations from Acosta and Gyasi Zardes are. Time and again Mexico attempted this sequence of play or something close to it, and time and again the US, with Zardes dropping into the middle and Acosta rotating up while the weakside central midfielder pinched in, refused to let the overload happen.
This may look pedestrian, but it’s not. Brazil’s inability to make this exact defensive rotation (watch Neymar) led to the only goal in the Copa America final.
Here’s why this is so important, other than the obvious: Berhalter is something of a tinkerer. We saw it especially in the final group stage game against Canada, when he did everything in his power to avoid playing a 4-3-3, and we’ve seen it at various other times throughout his tenure.
But he stuck with a straightforward 4-3-3 throughout the knockout rounds, and while it wasn’t perfect, the formation’s stability in mid-block defense was a strength. It was not a weakness.
I am wildly pleased by this because I think the USMNT's personnel lends itself pretty easily to a 4-3-3. I’m not saying it’s the only formation the US should use -- winning the Nations League in a 3-4-2-1 is a pretty damn valuable data point -- but it should be the primary formation and one with limited frills.
It was. It worked. We’ll probably see a lot more of it. This is all really, really good.
I don’t think Shaq Moore pushed ahead of Reggie Cannon, let alone Sergino Dest* on the right back depth chart. Not sure he even pushed ahead of DeAndre Yedlin, who’s had relatively little (though relatively high-leverage) playing time under Berhalter.
(*) Moore played a lot better against Mexico in the Gold Cup final than Dest did in the Nations League final, though. And it’s worth remembering that every coach Dest has ever played for, including Berhalter, has yanked him at least once for what we’ll politely call “uneven defensive commitment.”
But the 19-year-old Bello went toe-to-toe with Tecatito Corona, which is one of the toughest assignments in the region, for 65 minutes in the final. Vines scored the game-winner in the group stage opener and was generally solid throughout, including the final 55 minutes of the final after replacing Bello.
Mexico absolutely went at the US fullbacks on Sunday night, and while there were some rough moments, it's worth remembering 1) Mexico’s good enough to create rough moments against anyone, and 2) the US fullbacks held up fine. The US kept that zero.
I still (as of now) want Cannon and Dest to be the fullbacks in the biggest US games, but if Cannon’s struggling with his club or Dest is having one of those days where he’s, uh, disengaged from his defensive duties, Berhalter’s suddenly got lots of potential solutions at his disposal. None of them have been overwhelmingly great, but most of them have been pretty damn good.
Sands is not a natural center back. At least, he’s not a natural center back in a back four, which is a position in a formation he’s only rarely played for New York City FC, and only rarely played in the youth ranks for club and/or country.
He was thrust into that position for each of the knockout round games, and while he wasn’t great -- which is the word I’d use to describe his play in the middle of the back three, or as a hybrid CB/D-mid vs. Canada -- he fought, he scrambled, limited his mistakes, and generally met the moment despite playing out of position. Or, if you want to soften it: Despite circumstances forcing him to play a position to which he is not entirely suited.
I think that speaks to Sands’ character as a player. It was the games in the middle of the back three or when he was able to step up into defensive midfield as a d-mid that spoke to his skill as a player, and his usefulness on gameday rosters. When the US goes to that 3-4-2-1, Sands is almost certainly the best option to play in the middle of that back three. If, for some cursed reason, neither Adams nor Acosta are available, Sands seems a pretty clear choice to play defensive midfield in a 4-3-3.
And either way, he’s got to be on basically all the rosters. One player offering depth at two key positions and the ability to seamlessly change formations is a club you’ve got to put in the bag even if you’re not intending to use it on the day. Because you never know.
The USMNT’s best goalkeeper finally got an extended run to confirm that, yes, he is in fact the USMNT's best goalkeeper.
He had five shutouts in six games over the past month, and now has six shutouts in seven career US games. He has not been beaten from open play. Turner, like Robinson, is an answer to the “imagine if our best athletes played soccer” daydream. His reflexes are elite, and his footwork is impeccable (that’s called a “power step,” and you’ll see he did it on that spectacular save vs. Jamaica as well).
Turner also completed 153 of 164 passes throughout the Gold Cup, which is to say that concerns about his distribution are overblown. He had one very bad touch early in the Mexico game, but was smart and disciplined enough not to compound the error by diving in.
Given the types of errors Zack Steffen has repeatedly made for club and country over the past year and the fact that Ethan Horvath hasn’t been a consistent starter for half a decade, this should be a pretty easy call on the No. 1 kit.
If I had confidence Berhalter saw it that way, I’d move this all the way up to the second-best data point from the tournament -- the upgrade from Steffen to Turner is that large. He will win us games in World Cup Qualifying, just as he did in the Gold Cup.
I’m not sure it’s that cut-and-dry for the coach, though. Big “wait and see” energy on this one.
Matthew Hoppe led the US in both chances created and xG over the course of the tournament, doing so while playing as a winger. It’s important to note that he's not actually a winger! I think Berhalter’s rationale for trying him there was good -- he flares wide a lot with Schalke both as a center forward and as a second forward -- and there were definitely some promising moments.
But as the Gold Cup finished, I had Hoppe higher on the US center forward depth chart (fifth, even though he’s literally never played there for us) than on the winger depth chart (sixth at best).
Regardless, I am a fan:
Hoppe is fun in a lot of ways that are going to delight US fans and enrage fans around Concacaf. I’m not sure he’s ever going to be a first-choice player, but… god, that type of stuff coming from a sub is even worse, right? Hell, the kid even sassed Berhalter!
I debated putting this in as a negative data point since I'm still frustrated that Eryk Williamson didn’t get more playing time. But hell, he started the final and had some very nice moments going against El Tri’s central midfield trio, which is probably the best in the region:
Busio got more than twice-as-many minutes as Williamson and the 19-year-old, as expected, struggled mightily with the physical side of the game. But he generally improved over the course of the tournament, and while he doesn’t necessarily check the “ready to contribute in qualifying” box, I’m not going to complain at all about a high-upside teenager getting meaningful minutes against the best in the region. By the way: Williamson, despite some rough moments in possession that seem born of overconfidence, absolutely does check that box.
So yeah, about 400 minutes for Busio and just shy of 200 for Williamson. I wish those numbers were reversed, but I’m pretty happy coming out of this summer with one guy who’s clearly able to play high-value minutes right away, knowing there's another on the way.
Gyasi’s never going to dominate a game himself, but he’s miserable to play against because of his movement and physicality, his first touch is much-improved, he’s smart as hell (watch him directing both Busio and Gioacchini in the 4-3-3 clip), and his off-ball movement remains elite.
He’s going to score so many goals during qualifying when playing with the first team, and a certain type of fan is going to be angry about that. It's going to be so wonderful.
And now for the bad. I’m not going to rank these, nor go into as much depth. But it wasn’t all sunshine and roses for the US this past month:
• Zimmerman’s injury robbed us of potentially valuable data on his ability in big games against the likes of Jamaica (he’d have been very useful in that one), Qatar and Mexico. I still have a lot of trust in him, but it would’ve been nice to see him play in those games and potentially push up the depth chart like Robinson did.
At the same time, his injury lost us the chance to see Sands at d-mid. I feel like Sands would’ve gotten at least one game there in the 4-3-3 if not for that, and while I have Sands third on the depth chart there regardless, I'd be more confident in that if he'd gotten just a few reps there.
• Sebastian Lletget wasn’t really able to elevate his game and function as a focal point for the US midfield. Lletget is smart and good enough to be a super-useful cog with the first team -- if you surround him with the likes of Adams, Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic he’ll play really well, and we know that for a fact because we’ve seen it happen -- but that’s his ceiling. If he needs to be the showrunner he can’t really do it, which is a big reason the US attack was a slog for most of the month.
Lletget is just fine as the third name on the No. 8 depth chart, but right now the second guy on that list -- Yunus Musah -- is hurt and seems a good bet to miss the first round of qualifiers. So expect Lletget to play a lot of US minutes in September, and I’d be more confident in those minutes if he’d been a bit better this past month.
• Daryl Dike played himself well down the depth chart. It’s not just that he wasn’t finding the ball or being dangerous off the ball, or even that his touch in hold-up play was poor. It’s that the stuff that made him successful at Barnsley -- physical dominance -- was missing as well. A shoulder injury he picked up along the way might've had something to do with it, but it's not like Dike was making an airtight case before he took that knock.
I think a lot of fans went into this tournament hoping Dike would emerge as the No. 1 choice at center forward. At its conclusion, I didn’t even have him in my top five.
• Wing depth isn’t necessarily great. Hoppe and Gioacchini were functional, but both are forwards. Jonathan Lewis played 60 poor minutes vs. Haiti and then disappeared for the rest of the tournament. Paul Arriola works hard as hell and does lots of smart things, but his end product is lacking.
This is probably alright in the big picture since Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah and Brenden Aaronson are the top four on the depth chart, but two of those guys are injury-prone, one (Reyna) probably isn’t a winger and another (Aaronson) has never been a goalscorer.
Even younger players like Cade Cowell, Caden Clark (I think he’s a winger for the US long-term) and Konrad de la Fuente are all breaking through to varying degrees. Richie Ledezma is also close to returning for PSV, and while I see Paxton Pomykal as a No. 8, right now Luchi Gonzalez does not and it’s hard to argue with that. So there are answers beyond that first four on the depth chart and beyond playing Hoppe or Gioacchini out of position if things suddenly go haywire.
But those answers are all just theoretical at the international level at this point. It's not a huge worry, but it's there, and it's yet another reason you should go ahead and root for a Cowell hat-trick this weekend.