That’s the very short version of the US men’s national team’s Sunday night. Jamaica gave their hosts all they could handle during a tense, scrappy 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal on the imperfect grass of AT&T Stadium before a late Matthew Hoppe header nudged the Yanks through.
Now Qatar awaits in a Thursday semifinal at Austin FC’s Q2 Stadium, which should be rocking for the first tournament match in that venue’s brief history.
Here are three observations from the 1-0 nail-biter.
The Octagonal round of World Cup qualifying casts a long shadow across this tournament, with Gregg Berhalter and other coaches making clear that they’re approaching the Gold Cup with that upcoming gauntlet in mind. For most of this young USMNT side, that means an ongoing audition for a place on those rosters, and Berhalter can learn a lot from how his group managed Sunday’s challenge.
This wasn’t an exemplary display of virtuoso football. It was a rough-and-tumble tussle on an uneven pitch that at times threatened to devolve into an outright back-alley brawl with some stakes attached. After some potentially disastrous wobbles and stumbles in the first half, most of the starters – led in particular by deep-lying midfielder Kellyn Acosta, who earned plenty of praise in the postgame media availability – came to grips with that reality, responded to the Reggae Boyz’s physicality and eventually outlasted them.
“We talked about what type of game it was going to be,” said Berhalter postgame. “And so the guys were prepared from that standpoint, but when you actually get in the game, it's a different deal. And I thought our guys competed unbelievably. We had eight guys playing in a knockout round for the first time; second youngest team ever in a knockout round, and the guys were resilient. They just kept going. They were relentless in the way they played.”
Hoppe has experienced an unconventional year in a lot of ways, this tournament included. He made his professional breakout on a doomed Schalke side that shuffled their way to Bundesliga relegation in a pandemic-impacted season – these Gold Cup matches are the first he’s taken part in as a top-flight player that actually have fans in the stands. And this month Berhalter has asked him to adapt to different positions and roles than he’s used to, despite this being his first extended run with the USMNT.
It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. But the 20-year-old Californian has applied himself to the tasks before him, flashing a confident, inventive, slightly angry edge that already has some of us comparing him to the greatest outsider in US soccer history: Clint Dempsey.
Playing as a wide forward in Sunday’s 4-3-3 shape, Hoppe took some risks, tried some stuff, made some mistakes and above all kept attacking. He led the USMNT with four shots, three of them on target, and finally broke through with his 83rd-minute finish of a smart Cristian Roldan cross to the far post.
“He was grinding, and when a guy puts that type of effort in and hangs in there and keeps going, we want to stick with him because we thought it was doing a good job and because he's goal-dangerous,” said Berhalter of Hoppe. “So it was great to see him score.”
Notably, the coach quickly pointed to the service provided by Roldan, who along with Gyasi Zardes changed the game when they subbed on in the 63rd minute – and that’s more than just collective-oriented coach-speak.
The USMNT fanbase can often swoon over exciting young prospects with high ceilings and European opportunities, while not fully appreciating MLS-based players like Zardes and Roldan – and criticizing Berhalter for relying on them. But on this night we saw why the coach values not only lofty ceilings but also high floors: He can trust that they will be prepared for the moment and provide dependable output.
“Our starters did a really good job of wearing them down, relentless running in behind, making their jobs really difficult. So once I got in the game was a little bit stretched,” said Roldan. “We inverted the triangle a little bit on their right side so I was able to get a little bit more space out wide; they kept dropping and dropping. So my ability to get wide and then get high and get the ball to cross was really important.”
Goalkeeper Matt Turner made five saves against Jamaica and has now posted clean sheets in three of the United States’ four matches in this tournament. Considering his limited exposure to this level, that’s worth lauding. The same can be said for center backs Miles Robinson and James Sands, who responded to the injury-imposed loss of Walker Zimmerman with excellent outings on both sides of the ball.
Considering their ages and the layers of nuance that accompany the position, Robinson (24) and Sands (21) continue to impress with their decision-making, whether picking passes out of the back, facing up to onrushing attackers in transition situations, or striding into midfield to kick-start passing sequences. Think back to the first area above, then ask yourself: Would you be comfortable with one or both of them starting in a big World Cup qualifier?
It sounds increasingly like Berhalter is.
“One of our concerns was how our center backs were going to deal with [Jamaica's] physicality; Cory Burke, [Shamar] Nicholson are tremendous athletes and I thought Miles and James did an excellent job, controlling buildup but also battling. For young players, inexperienced players in knockout rounds, I thought they had an excellent game,” he said.
“Any time you're high pressing, any time you're high in the opponent’s half, you always have the risk of transitions, and you want to be in good positions while you're attacking to control transitions, but nonetheless, they happen. And you need guys that can put out fires. James reads the game extremely well, puts himself in good positions to make plays, and Miles can recover on anything. It's really impressive how he recovers. So it gives us the confidence to say, 'OK, we know we're playing against an athletic team, we know we’re playing against a team with speed, but we can handle it because of the players we have in the back.'”