Wiebe: Breaking down the big questions before US vs. Curacao Gold Cup clash

It’s money time for the US men’s national team. The baseline expectation is the Gold Cup final. It’ll take two wins to get there.

First up, plucky (but not to be overlooked) Curacao. After that, one of Panama or Jamaica. It’s the weaker side of the bracket, by far, given that Mexico, Canada, Costa Rica and Haiti will battle for the other place in the final. Gregg Berhalter should coach for his first trophy on July 7 in Chicago. But in Concacaf, as the US well know, not everything that should happen does.

Before we dig into Sunday’s quarterfinal (8 pm ET | FS1, Univision, UDN in US), let’s quickly revisit where my mind was at before this tournament began. These were my five big questions for the USMNT back on June 8, with a status update for each.

How quickly can the group pick up Berhalter’s tactics?

Pretty quickly, it turns out. The ideas are there, and the execution is beginning to be more precise. Now, that may also be the level of competition. The knockout rounds ought to answer this one with more certainty.

How influential will Tyler Adams be as a right back?

Yeah, about that. Adams’ absence is a bummer, but Nick Lima and Reggie Cannon don’t look out of place at all. More depth coming, too, when DeAndre Yedlin returns from injury.

What’s the No. 1 partnership in central defense?

Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman, it seems. Matt Miazga made a case for himself against Panama, but I think Berhalter will go back to Long and Zimmerman against Curacao.

Which wingers will separate themselves from the pack?

Tyler Boyd and Paul Arriola… but Jordan Morris’ return to fitness and form gives the USMNT another potential game-changer, as the Seattle Sounders star showed against Trinidad & Tobago.

Will Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie take over?

In moments, absolutely. They may not need to do more than that until the final, should the US get there. I don’t share Bobby Warshaw’s opinion of Pulisic’s place in the team – chisel him in the XI in stone, if available – but it’s a conversation worth listening to as you finish this article. I’ve got the player cued up. Just hit play.

Will Berhalter’s wholesale changes against Panama backfire?

I doubt it. The top-to-bottom shift change feels like a stroke of genius with hindsight. Berhalter got the result he needed, Jozy Altidore got 82 minutes to get back in the swing of things and everybody on the roster now has some “ownership” in the Gold Cup run.

I do, however, expect Berhalter to go right back to the lineup that got the job done against Guyana and T&T, with one or two potential exceptions. As you may have heard, he’s got a big decision to make up top…

Gyasi Zardes or Jozy Altidore?

Honestly, it shouldn’t matter.

Zardes gets a lot of hate, but he delivered against Guyana (with his face) and T&T. The man is approaching 50 caps and leads the US in goals this calendar year. He can do the job, even if it’s not exactly the way the USMNT fanbase would like it to be done. If Berhalter felt he needed to save Altidore’s legs, I’d feel comfortable that Zardes would deliver again.

But Altidore is the US’s No. 1 striker – Berhalter left no doubt there – so this decision, in my mind, comes down to doing whatever gets the Toronto FC man best prepared to help the US make a run to the final and then win the damn thing.

If that’s getting Altidore 75 minutes with the first-choice attack against Curacao, awesome. It’d be nice to get some reps and confidence built up before Jamaica, presumably, in the semifinals. If that’s bringing Altidore off the bench to lessen the load on his body and inject instant offense just in case Curacao manage to keep the game tight, I’m good with that, too.

Do what’s best for the team, and do what’s best for Jozy. Those things ought to overlap.

Can Weston McKennie avoid a yellow card?

Two yellow cards, automatic one-game suspension. I think the rule is ridiculous – c’mon, who really believes that cautions in two separate games ought to carry the same punishment as a red card? – but that’s the way it is. Cautions clear after the quarterfinals.

The US are in pretty good position when it comes to discipline. Only one player is in danger of missing the semifinal should they see yellow against Curacao: Weston McKennie.

Have you been paying attention to which midfielder tracks and smothers counterattacks? Which is most likely to put in a hard tackle? Which isn’t afraid to step to an opponent in a tense moment? It’s McKennie.

Those are moments to watch, not just with the result in mind but also looking ahead to the semis. Cristian Roldan has proven he can fill in ably, but it’d be better to have McKennie than see him suspended. Could that lead Berhalter to make a lineup change? Perhaps.

Who are Curacao?

Curacao celebrate their late equalizer vs. Jamaica] | USA Today Sports Images

Someone smart wrote the following before the Gold Cup began: Looking for a giant killer? Curacao is your best bet. That was me. No, I wasn’t the only one who saw this coming.

Curacao is here because they shocked Honduras, 1-0, and delivered the most dramatic moment of the tournament on the final day in Group C, scoring a stoppage-time GOLAZO (all caps absolutely needed) to draw with Jamaica and qualify for their first Gold Cup quarterfinal. They hadn’t even scored a goal in this tournament before this year!

Curacao are minnows – the island has just 160,000 inhabitants – but the national team is rising rapidly thanks to a large contingent of professionals born in the Netherlands. The USMNT would be wise not to take this one lightly.

This is a team that beat Jamaica in the 2017 Caribbean Cup final. Since then, Curacao knocked off Asian champions Qatar – who were more than respectable at Copa América – tied and defeated Bolivia, waltzed through Nations League qualifying by a cumulative scoreline of 21-2 and won the Kings Cup by taking down India and Vietnam (PKs).

Curacao have some quality, and they’ve been living dangerously. Had Honduras or Jamaica finished at even a below-average rate, the results would have been different. But they weren’t, and now it’s the US’s job to break Cinderella’s slipper in the quarterfinal.

We’ll see you before and after the game on Club & Country. Enjoy your weekend!