For the second straight match, the US national team looked well short of their best, and a far cry from last month's heady wins over the Netherlands and Germany. And for the second straight match, their plucky CONCACAF adversaries were plenty good enough to expose it, but not good enough to actually win the game.
Many USMNT fans probably found Friday's 1-0 win over Haiti unsightly on several levels – Les Grenadiers, conversely, were actually pretty fun to watch – but there's a lot to be said for the ability to beat spirited opposition on an off day.
#USMNT clinches 1st place in Group A, will play CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal next Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) July 11, 2015
There's also plenty to appreciate about clinching first place in your Gold Cup group with a game to spare.
My Three Things from USAvHAI:
1) Now hiring
For all the talk about Jurgen Klinsmann prioritizing experience above all in his Gold Cup roster selections, his back line is actually a youngish, and motley, bunch. There's utility men, talented enigmas, no-nonsense types and international works-in-progress. And just 180 minutes into the tournament, Klinsmann has given all of them a runout in the starting lineup. Literally.
The USMNT fielded an entirely different back four against a resurgent Haiti than they did in Tuesday's win over Honduras, and on first glance, none of the eight did a whole lot to raise their stock. (Fabian Johnson started the first game and came off the bench in the second, and showed what we already knew: He's an automatic starter, it's just a question of where.)
But Klinsmann probably isn't setting them up for success with this level of upheaval. This group has had limited time to work together over the past couple of weeks and they reported to camp at a range of different fitness and sharpness levels thanks to their disparate club locales.
We knew we'd win the group after winning our hardest game so we tried some weird stuff. Most of it didn't work at all. That's fine.— Kevin McCauley (@kevinmccauley) July 11, 2015
That's not to say that this is a bad time to hold auditions on the fly, as the Yanks' 2-0 record suggests (more on that in a minute). But as with previous examples of Klinsmannian experimentation, it's unclear how many useful lessons the technical staff can pick up with so many factors being changed simultaneously and no obvious “control” to contextualize them. So these are basically tryouts, which shows how little the boss is sure of when it comes to his defense.
2) Know your mudders
I'll be charitable and just say that the temporary grass surface atop Gillette's turf was heavy and slow – and hey, it was a big step up from that Texas cow pasture the USMNT beat Mexico on at the AlamoDome in April.
Pitches like that present a different sort of challenge, one that some players are better suited for than others. It didn't seem to flatter Graham Zusi out on the right flank, as the Sporting KC man just couldn't quite find his fifth gear. And it definitely wasn't ideal for Jozy Altidore, who could be seen waving to the kitman for a footwear change during the walkout and lasted just 45 minutes despite having so much to play for against his family's' homeland.
Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and Gyasi Zardes, on the other hand, seemed downright comfortable, using their wits and technique even when matched up with stronger, faster Haitian players.
The US apparently didn't even get to kick a ball on the pitch until just a few minutes before the anthems, so there's some clemency to be granted there. And thankfully, they don't play on that kind of soft stuff all that often.
But they'll probably encounter quite a few suboptimal playing environments when CONCACAF World Cup qualifying gets underway in the months ahead, and Klinsmann can save himself a lot of stress by knowing who in his squad is best suited – physically, tactically psychologically – for which scenarios.
3) Respect, but not fear
Italian journalist Gianni Brera famously dubbed it “the right of the weak” – the allowance granted to underdogs who pack their defenses and stifle the flow of the beautiful game in order to give themselves a chance against superior opposition.
The USMNT has advanced to a point at which they routinely expect to encounter that sort of thing from their smaller CONCACAF neighbors, and most of us expected it from their group-stage opponents at this Gold Cup.
But that's not quite how things have unfolded. Honduras were organized, well-prepared – and yes, bruisingly physical at times – but got forward with panache, including some straight-up YouTube wizardry from Andy Najar. They created more chances than the Yanks, but finished one fewer.
Haiti were arguably even better, harrying US attempts to build out of the back and causing quite a few dangerous turnovers, often pushing their lines well up the field to compress the midfield. Though their finishing in front of Brad Guzan's net let them down, they controlled the tempo in Foxborough, and that should give Klinsmann pause.
This is another level. Thank goodness Haiti have the shooting accuracy of an Imperial Stormtrooper. #USAvHAI— Matthew Doyle (@MLSAnalyst) July 11, 2015
Growing the fanbase, beating European powers in friendlies, even advancing out of the so-called “Group of Death” last summer – that's all great and important stuff, but it hasn't exactly left the rest of CONCACAF quivering in fear. Even teams like Haiti – a program beset by adversity on all sides – are professionalizing their programs, getting more of their top players into challenging club environments and entering matchups with the US believing they can get a result.
What's that mean for the US? I'm not entirely sure. But it portends more hard work and tricky steering both in this tournament and on the road to Russia 2018.