It was supposed to be a very straight-forward affair: The US men's national team would come out in a variation of The System™, grab 60% of possession and spend most of their time probing around the attacking third against a deep-lying, uncomplicated, banks-of-four-playing Jamaica side.
Turns out a bit of a tactical chess match broke out. That was partially – or maybe largely – due to a 90-minute weather delay 15 minutes in, which allowed Jamaican head coach Theodore Whitmore to reconfigure his side and adjust to what had the made the US dominant right out of the gates. Regardless, the tactical back-and-forth combined with the weather delay and everything else on the night to make for a pretty fascinating Gold Cup semifinal.
And in the end, the US got a deserved 3-1 win.
• Jozy Altidore's hold-up play was the biggest game-over-game difference from the quarters to the semis for the US. For that first 15 minutes they almost exclusively played through him, which pretty well validated the ideas I'd put forth in my newsletter after the Curacao game:
So in my last newsletter I wrote about how the #USMNT system designed by Berhalter – one in which so much of the play goes through the #9 – was obviously meant for Jozy and not Gyasi, and would work better w/ Jozy out there.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 4, 2019
First 7 minutes is showing the hell out of that. pic.twitter.com/sZGIBw48rG
Yeah... I understand that everybody was flogging the idea that Gyasi Zardes was actually the first-choice No. 9, but that was just never, ever the case. This team is playing a style that was built to feature a center forward who could both link play and create chances, and that's what Jozy did. The game-over-game difference was unmissable, and that was the biggest reason the US could (maybe should?) have been up 3-0 by the time the lightning struck.
• Zardes has all sorts of culpability on the Jamaica goal as he gave the ball away so, so cheaply in central midfield while attempting a pretty simple turn.
His struggles in situations like that cause problems for the entire US team. They're unable to push forward, so everything becomes isolated. And quite obviously: turnovers in bad spots can be killer.
The US badly need another center forward – one who's more secure on the ball – to step up soon. Gyasi can't do the job.
• The big tactical switch from Gregg Berhalter was to move the US closer to something of a true double-pivot, with Weston McKennie staying much deeper, almost next to Michael Bradley for good portions of the match. That allowed the US to have multiple avenues of distribution, and also allowed right back Reggie Cannon – who was excellent – to pretty constantly bomb up and down the right flank.
The thing is, though, that even with both Bradley and McKennie deep, both players were able to get forward with regularity. Altidore's ball security in his hold-up play was a big part of why:
Nice combination play by Altidore and Bradley.— Joga Bonito (@Jasoninho10) July 4, 2019
Jozy's great link-up play has made a significant difference tonight. And that was a terrific entry pass by Bradley to McKennie.#USMNT #USAvJAM #GoldCup pic.twitter.com/GCaV59SyZD
• The big tactical change after the weather delay was Jamaica deciding to straight-up man-mark Bradley and do something close to that to McKennie, while trying to force the US center backs to do the bulk of the distribution. In very meaningful ways it worked, as it broke the US rhythm and created a path back into the game for the Reggae Boyz.
Until the US finally figured out they could release Cannon over the top. And then Jamaica had to adjust again.
It really was a lot of fun.
• McKennie played a much cleaner, more involved game in central midfield than he often does. On the USMNT version of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, "Wes becomes a true, Champions League-caliber No. 8" is below "Josh Sargent becomes an excellent No. 9" and "someone shows they can play left back," but is probably above almost everything else.
This performance suggested that it's not a lack of ability for McKennie, but a lack of reps. I hope, with almost every fiber of my being, that he gets a whole season at that spot for Schalke.
• Christian Pulisic had two goals, and was the best player on the field (other than maybe Aaron Long)... and he spent even more time on the wing than he usually does:
I don't think that's a coincidence. The issue, then, is maintaining midfield balance if he's the nominal "10," as those kinds of runs often leave the midfield naked.
Sometimes the US compensated by having Paul Arriola dive inside, and sometimes it was from Altidore dropping back, and other times (as in the clip above), Bradley or McKennie would fill the gap.
It worked pretty well. At the same time, it remains a work in progress.
• So too does the USMNT as a whole, but here's the thing: They've made it to the final, they've got Mexico next, and they've generally improved upon many of the things that were a legitimate worry ahead of this 2019 Gold Cup.
It's a good set of circumstances to be in. And it leaves them 90 minutes from a trophy. Nobody can be too frustrated with that.