Playing against a country rated 177th (of 211) in the FIFA world rankings was never going to serve as the magic elixir to cure all symptoms and obviate all fears for the US men's national team, especially the ones diagnosed following a pair of entirely disappointing friendly defeats to Jamaica and Venezuela.
It wasn't perfect, and head coach Gregg Berhalter may be disappointed his side didn't find the back of the net more times. But it sure felt good to see the USMNT plunder four goals against Guyana in their victorious Gold Cup Group D opening match. Posting a shutout wasn't bad, either.
But Berhalter's reign won't be judged on Gold Cup group-stage games against minnows. It was the bare minimum. Anything short of a comprehensive victory would have triggered a sky-is-falling meltdown, particularly after how a shorthanded Mexico demolished Cuba 7-0 a few days prior.
All that said, some data can still be analyzed from the United States' first competitive match in 20 months:
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It's time for Pulisic to take over this squad
...And he seemed to embrace that on Tuesday night. He's undisputedly the best player on the squad at the moment, something he wasn't in his time at Borussia Dortmund, nor in his first run with the national team. As such, he carries more expectation and responsibility, both to perform consistently and also be a leader.
From the opening whistle, Pulisic was demonstrative in his movements, confident in his touches and didn't drift out of the game until his substitution after 60 minutes. For young wingers – a position he played for Dortmund and is expected to play with Chelsea – that last part can be tricky. The U.S. attack won't float on if Pulisic goes missing.
What will he look like against Panama, then Trinidad and Tobago in group play. What about Mexico, should the two regional powerhouses meet in the final? How will he deal with the full-on Concacaf star treatment from opponents should they deem he's worthy to be kicked at every chance?
Still, the attack didn't quite hum as hoped
...Especially against an inferior opponent. It's a concerning trend of late. Would Panama or T&T capitalize on a number of loose passes in their own half? Breaking lines from the defensive third to midfield, then midfield to the attacking third, weren't always smooth, the former of which specifically when Guyana focused on man-marking Michael Bradley. Things started to break down when he wasn't quarterbacking possession.
That's why it was so important that Pulisic demanded the ball, seeking not just the creative burden but helping out as much as he could in building possession. Jozy Altidore's underrated hold-up play should help on this front whenever he makes his tournament debut.
Starting places on the wing are up for grabs
...And Tyler Boyd went ahead and took one. Paul Arriola did, too.
Seems to me Tyler Boyd strolled straight into the USMNT XI because he's a goal-dangerous winger and from what we know of Berhalter from his Crew teams, those take on outsized importance in his system. Question is whether the wider pool has/will have enough of those going fwd.— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) June 19, 2019
Arriola did what Arriola does: High work-rate, unselfish, solid (if unspectacular) for much of the game, and even opened the scoring.
Boyd's ceiling is higher, in part because he is more unknown, but he showed real upside with regularity against Guyana. Daring forward passes, direct runs and a pair of goals is an injection of creativity Berhalter's side have been lacking on the wing as long as Pulisic has featured through the center.
Keeping in mind the caveat above regarding Guyana's standing in the FIFA rankings, it's still a strong Gold Cup debut for the 24-year-old.
Left back is also up for grabs
...While Tim Ream has it now, he's not the long-term solution. His once-a-game mistake manifested itself Tuesday night in a nutmeg that set Twitter ablaze, which, considering recent cases of fatal back passes, isn't too bad.
I hope Chris Gloster finds a good club that plays him a ton of minutes next year.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) June 19, 2019
Berhalter unfurled another little tactical wrinkle
...Which showed he isn't married to one ideal, one philosophy. More on that abstract thought in a second; first the literal tweak: Instead of the right back (Nick Lima) joining central midfield in possession as the left back (Ream) shifted to form a back three, it was the right winger (Boyd). So, with the ball, Arriola provided the width down the left flank, Lima on the right with Boyd drifting infield.
One way to view it, with a positive outlook, is that Berhalter won't be stubborn. Being flexible, and bending the tactics to the personnel, is a good trait. But, how much is too much? What is there to be said of picking one system with the aim to master it, or at least maximize it? TBD.
• Still left entirely unanswered: What is this squad's strongest XI? Obviously, in a macro sense, we won't see it at this tournament. Tyler Adams and John Brooks feature in that. Tim Weah and Josh Sargent (hopefully) will in the near future.
For this squad... it's still very much up in the air. Altidore and Matt Miazga started on the bench. Ream remained unconvincing. Will Berhalter reinstate Wil Trapp over Bradley at the base of midfield? What if Arriola or Boyd go cold? It'll be a game-by-game development on this front until the US are eliminated or lift the trophy.
• Weston McKennie limped out of the game injured: It was a brutal sight for USMNT supporters because, simply put, that would be a gut punch if it's serious enough to keep him out of a team already missing a few regulars. But after the game Berhalter downplayed the significance, saying he "should be okay" and that he had "a little bit of a cramp."
So, on to Trinidad and Tobago in Cleveland on Saturday, out to exorcise the demons from 20 months ago. Oddly enough, the last time the US won a competitive match 4-0? The game before that fateful day in Couva.