The US men’s national team got their 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup off to a winning start on Sunday, as Matt Turner and his defense posted a clean sheet, Sam Vines scored his first senior international goal and Gianluca Busio, James Sands and Eryk Williamson stabilized the side as they made their USMNT debuts.
But… things were pretty choppy for long stretches. Here are three talking points from the 1-0 Group B win over Haiti in Kansas City.
USMNT fans have a tendency to pop off after games like this, frustrated at the perceived inability to properly put a pronounced underdog to the sword on home turf. That’s understandable to a point, and head coach Gregg Berhalter made clear afterward that he wasn’t wowed by his team’s performance.
“We still need to go to another gear. You can see we're a little rusty, the movements weren’t as clean as they normally were, and we didn't create enough and we didn’t finish enough chances,” he said, then later dialed up the criticism a bit more specifically.
“I missed the urgency to score more goals, to be dangerous, to play first pass forward and aggressive. To me, it was way too slow, way too backwards and not enough intent to turn Haiti around and get them defending in the penalty box. And then once we were in the penalty box, I didn't like the runs and movement in the box – I didn't like the service. So from the attacking end, we were disappointed with the intent that we showed tonight.”
But this is a new group that didn’t have any warm-up friendlies before this tournament – and given how many soft-tissue knocks are piling up, that decision is understandable. Besides, lambasting the US at length here does a disservice to Haiti. Les Grenadiers were rugged, resilient and kept the favorites on edge right until the final whistle, all against the backdrop of political violence and turmoil back home. They won’t be an easy out for Canada and Martinique, either.
Berhalter has readily admitted that he picked a squad with limited wing depth, seemingly comfortable to try forwards like Nicholas Gioacchini and Matthew Hoppe out wide:
That decision looks a bit dodgier after Paul Arriola limped off with an apparent hamstring issue in the 14th minute, and then a formation shift to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 shape to solidify things after the break.
“Nicholas, first of all, he's still in preseason, he's not 90-minutes fit, so we had to remove him from the game and move Gyasi \[Zardes\] to the wing,” said Berhalter of the Caen (Ligue 2) forward. “So it was mixing and matching a little bit, and I thought we lost our effectiveness – Paul is really drilled on how we want our wingers to play. So that was a big loss in the game, you could see how effective he was early.
“We have to gather information to see what this is about, to see how we need to adapt to be successful. We may need to move to a 5-3-2, but we’ll have to see.”
I’m not sure yet if Gioacchini is suited for a wing role, but it’s clear that Zardes hasn't played there in quite a long time (dating way back to his LA Galaxy days) and was never as impactful there as he can be up top (as his Columbus Crew performances show). Don’t be surprised if a fullback or two is pushed higher, and/or Sebastian Lletget is moved out wide in the coming matches.
Shaq Moore plays in Spain's second division and is currently deep into his club’s offseason. He only got the starting right-back nod after Reggie Cannon tweaked his hamstring in training on Saturday. He dominated the right flank in the first half and should’ve picked up multiple assists with his probing deliveries into the Haiti box; he earned U.S. Soccer’s man of the match honor.
“Shaq got the notification that he was in the starting XI hours before the game,” said Berhalter. “ And to come in and have that performance – you know, he's not even in preseason. He was training individually at home before this. So I think he did a great effort, and there's more to come from him."
Busio made his senior international debut when he came off the bench in the second stanza, but you wouldn’t know it based on his calm, decisive reading of the game as he shored up the midfield in front of an adoring home crowd that was chanting his name well before he entered.
Sands, too, is new to this level but showcased the same cerebral intelligence that is so massive for NYCFC’s organization and composure at the back. Though not as striking in their impact as Busio, both Sands and Williamson showed enough in their cameos to earn heavier minutes in the next two games.
Overall, lineup changes are likely not only because of Sunday’s weak spots, but the physical demands this bi-annual tournament places on the players. So it’s okay to consider this game a modest baseline rather than anything remotely definitive.
“We’re still getting accustomed to each other,” said Kellyn Acosta, another dependable performer. “We’re still trying to build some chemistry, so I think as the tournament goes on we’re going to continue to be more cohesive and fine-tune some things. And we're just going to build off of this result.”