Though they made very rough sledding of the task, the US men’s national team eked out the result they needed to win Group B on a sultry Sunday in Kansas City.
The Yanks made the absolute most of Shaq Moore’s 1st-minute goal to hold off a fierce but goal-shy Canada side – and rode their luck like a thoroughbred as their northern neighbors were denied a penalty kick when Walker Zimmerman tangled with Richie Laryea in the first half.
Here’s three observations from the United States’ side of the ledger.
The USMNT surged out to a dream start via Moore’s far-post tap-in a record 20 seconds after the opening whistle – then spent most of the rest of the afternoon struggling mightily.
It’s understandable (to a point) that such a startlingly early goal might trigger a bit of complacency, and losing defensive anchor Zimmerman to an early injury didn’t help. But both individual and collective shortcomings played their role in handing Canada the initiative for such long stretches, practically inviting them to equalize for the draw they needed to top the group.
Donovan Pines, Zimmerman’s replacement, looked nervous and nearly handed Les Rouges a breakaway. Gianluca Busio and Kellyn Acosta lost too many duels in the center of the park, and the latter was imprecise with his distribution as well. Asked to partner atop a 3-5-2 formation, Gyasi Zardes and Daryl Dike didn’t seem all that familiar with one another and couldn’t unlock their own best selves when working solo, either.
So the Yanks had to bunker in and soak up pressure, with the Canucks bossing possession after halftime and pushing forward again and again. If such passivity is presented to teams in the latter stages of this tournament – or in the crucibles that await in away World Cup qualifiers in the months to come – there will surely be negative consequences.
“In these type of conditions, when you have the ball, you need to keep the ball. Because when you don't have the ball, it's going to be difficult to get it back. It's hard to bring the high intensity in weather like this,” said Gregg Berhalter postgame. “So you need intensity to win the ball back, and for us it was a matter of just keeping the ball, making them run. At times we did it really well in the first half; second half, very rarely did we keep it, and then we ended up defending.”
Sure, it was hot at Children’s Mercy Park. But that’s nothing compared to what awaits in places like San Pedro Sula, Mexico City or even Panama City.
There’s an old soccer saying that if you don’t win, you learn. Berhalter might have the best of both worlds from this one, however, in terms of his use of this Gold Cup to evaluate players ahead of qualifying.
It was a rough outing for Pines, Dike and Zardes, and things were only marginally better for Acosta and substitutes Jackson Yueill and Cristian Roldan. But Miles Robinson and James Sands were bright spots, keeping their composure both with and against the ball under sustained pressure despite their limited international experience.
“Miles and James, they were fantastic. They were on the ball, they were smart, they were savvy,” said Roldan. “Defensively, they were our rock. Miles, in particular, saves us so much running with his one-v-one defending. He's such a fantastic guy to watch and the way he covers ground is something that we love about Miles. James, he unlocks the game with his composure and his ability to break lines with his passes. So those guys will have many more caps to come, and we have so much depth in that position.”
Sebastian Lletget provided a reminder of why he’s earned such enormous trust from Berhalter, assisting on Moore’s goal, winning most of his duels and completing 92.25% of his passes in advanced central midfield. And Sam Vines largely handled his business along the left flank, showing European scouts again that he’s competent in both directions and equally comfortable as a wingback or fullback.
And for all their good buildup work, Canada were much less impressive in the USMNT penalty box, directing just three shots on goal, but Matt Turner still deserves a nod for a composed clean sheet.
Canada deserved a better result than they got in this one, but they didn’t get it. And that might epitomize the current state of this rivalry, which remains statistically one-sided despite how obviously the northern side of the border has closed the gap in quality, depth and experience.
After the game John Herdman harked back to his team’s Concacaf Nations League win over the Yanks in Toronto in October 2019, explaining how his staff showed their players photos of their US counterparts, and the surprise and doubt on their faces after their program’s first loss to Canada in 34 years.
“For 34 years, there was never a doubt in their mind they were going to beat Canada,” said Herdman of the USMNT. “There was never a doubt in their mind even if Canada showed up and were gritty and resilient, that they would find a way to win in the final 20 minutes. And we just said, ‘Look, you earned that right to put that doubt in their mind.’”
That may be. And I’m confident no one in the Octagonal round of World Cup qualifying will look forward to an away qualifier on Canadian soil, particularly during the cold-weather months. But Les Rouges aren’t going to inspire actual fear in the USMNT until they actually beat them more than once in a blue moon. Berhalter alluded to that with a fleeting comment that was the press-conference equivalent of calling ‘scoreboard.’
“We wanted to win the group and we won the group. They had to come into the game only needing a tie, and they didn’t get it,” said the USMNT boss. “So for us, we’re happy.”
The US will continue to command the psychological high ground in this matchup until Canada fully seize opportunities like the one they fumbled in KC.