Well, how about that!
I’ll admit I’m not entirely sure what to call whatever that was that transpired in North Austin on Thursday night. It was definitely a soccer game at Q2 Stadium, a Gold Cup semifinal between Qatar and the US men’s national team, in fact – but at times felt more like a Richard Linklater project.
This was the USMNT’s inaugural visit to Texas’ famously quirky capital city, and they got into the local spirit eventually. But for the first hour or so, this one sure wasn’t shaping up as an arthouse flick; more like one of those fascinating but morbid videos of a python moving in on a rat at feeding time.
That’s because the home nation were pretty poor in the first half – and that isn’t just my word choice, but also that of US winger Paul Arriola postgame.
Quick and clever as they are on the counter, Qatar readily conceded possession, as has been their approach most of this tournament, and the USMNT did precious little with it. Their buildup was hesitant and ponderous, marked by an excess of lateral passing, static movement away from the ball and a hesitance to drift into the half-spaces where packed defenses are usually pried open.
“I think the problem in the first half was our attacking mids weren't working the pockets enough,” said coach Gregg Berhalter postgame, “and we didn't find them enough in dangerous positions, then activate the wingers and the forward behind the backline.”
All this played right into the Asian champions’ hands. The lively Akram Afif was a constant menace down the Qatari left – he would tab four key passes on the night – and he eventually broke through with a slashing run into the US box that provoked a clumsy stab from James Sands and, eventually, a penalty kick decision from referee Juan Calderón… one that Afif made sure got a belated look from VAR by laying out on the slick Q2 pitch for the better part of 10 minutes, grimacing under extended treatment from the physios.
That’s when things got hazy. The USMNT seemed to take note of their opponents’ gamesmanship and upped the ante dramatically. First Kellyn Acosta and then Matt Turner did their best to get into the head of PK taker Hassan Al Haydos – who’d coolly dispatched a gorgeous panenka from the spot against Panama in the group stage – with some yapping and needling.
Apparently it worked, because Al Haydos ballooned this attempt over the bar, sparking new life into the Austin crowd, letting the USMNT off the hook and landing a brutal blow to the confidence of the tiring Qataris, the combination of which flipped the game on its head.
The New England Revolution goalkeeper was the clear man of the match, the sole reason the US didn’t walk into the locker rooms down 2-0 at halftime. On a night when heretofore steady performers like Sands, Sam Vines and Gianluca Busio showed nerves and made potentially disastrous errors, Turner was the rock throughout, bailing out his defenders’ gaffes with spider-like agility on his three excellent saves.
That was the kind of shot-stopping display we’ve come to expect from the New Jersey native. What we didn’t, necessarily, was that psych job on Al Haydos, the match’s defining moment.
“Tensions were high, emotions were running high,” said Turner. “I just tried to let the guy know that I knew, I've been watching his penalties. I think even beforehand I kind of mimicked his run-up as I was headed back to my goal to try to just mess with him a little bit, wait as long as possible in the middle, because I knew that he’d chipped down the middle earlier in this tournament, and see what happens from there.”
All in all, he played like a starter, and not just ‘the Gold Cup starter.’ It’s no longer too soon, or too rash, to ask whether he deserves a fair shot at unseating longtime No. 1 Zack Steffen, as illustrious as the latter’s club locale (Manchester City) may be.
“He's a gamer,” said Berhalter of Turner. “He stays calm, he makes the saves when it needs to make the saves. To me, the poise that he plays with is pretty good, considering he doesn't have many caps. This is his, what, sixth cap? But he plays with poise like he's been there before, and he bailed us out today in the first half.”
I suspect Berhalter was already planning his triple substitution before the penalty drama unfolded. But coming on in its wake, the trio of Gyasi Zardes, Cristian Roldan and Reggie Cannon had more scope to press the issue against a suddenly broken-looking Qatar.
Zardes was an immediate upgrade on the clearly injured and hampered Daryl Dike up top, doing his usual unspectacular work of smart movement and relentless pressing of defenders. Meanwhile, Roldan brought more vertical passing and overall urgency than the entire team had in the first hour. When Eryk Williamson and Nicholas Gioacchini entered in the 81st minute, both of them purposeful and clearly hungry after scant minutes in the previous matches, the field began to tilt in the USMNT’s favor.
“I looked over at a couple of their defenders and I saw them huffing and puffing after I ran the channel once,” said Zardes. “That's going to motivate me to keep running and working hard, just so we can we can bury this game and not go into overtime.”
The Maroon had shown heavy legs in the quarterfinal, where El Salvador stormed back from a 3-0 deficit to make it a 3-2 nail-biter and probably would’ve dug up an equalizer with a few more minutes on the clock. This time, Qatar’s tiring lungs had to bear the additional emotional burden of their missed chances, the galling sensation of opportunity squandered.
“We had many chances, but we lost these chances, unfortunately. And this has affected our morale,” said defender Tarek Salman. “The last half an hour we were really tired, and this has affected us negatively.”
Sure enough, Gioacchini and Williamson combined to set up Zardes for a deceptively simple short-range finish, the kind that rarely makes “bangers only” highlight comps but keeps the Columbus Crew striker in steady and lucrative employment. This was the USMNT as a steamroller, less a finely-tuned machine than an inevitable force, a blunt object powered by long-life lithium batteries.
It’s not sexy, and it might not be enough to win the final, but it sure will make them a tough out.