Sunday’s Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal against Jamaica was never going to be easy, and you get the feeling Gregg Berhalter was happy knowing that. The U.S. men’s national team coach has a squad loaded with players experiencing their first international tournament, and having them endure and conquer tough tests is the point.
As much as a fantasy where every single inexperienced player handles the challenges of tournament play perfectly is a nice idea, it was always going to be a case were some players rise to the occasion, while others struggle as the road grows more difficult.
We watched that play out on Sunday, as the USMNT endured a hard challenge from Jamaica, particularly in the early going as some players struggled to acclimate. The second half was a different story, as the Americans took control and Jamaica began to fade.
USMNT fans watched some young players grow up on Sunday, and also watched some veterans come off the bench to help deliver a victory that earned the team its 11th consecutive trip to the Gold Cup semifinals.
Here is a closer look at some of the key takeaways from the USMNT win vs. Jamaica:
Hoppe gives USMNT attack needed flavor
One constant throughout the Gold Cup has been Matthew Hoppe’s ability to make things happen in the attack, and he kept that going against Canada by providing all of the best USMNT chances.
Hoppe is by no means the finished product, and some of his decision-making showed the hallmarks of a player who could use more experience, but his ability to get into dangerous spots and keep defenders on their toes is an ability lacking in the current group.
Something else to note is that while he may be 6-foot-3, he isn’t a prototypical striker. Hoppe isn’t a back-to-goal forward, and is much more adept at squaring up and taking people on than being the target who teammates can play off of. That has become very clear during the Gold Cup, and eased the fears raised by some who questioned Gregg Berhalter’s decision to bring Hoppe to the Gold Cup with the intent of deploying him as a wide forward.
Hoppe doesn’t have the speed of a traditional wide player, but he’s good on the dribble, and his well-timed runs can be useful working out wide. That, coupled with his incompatibility with the striker position in Berhalter’s 4-3-3 makes him more well-suited to be a wide forward for the USMNT. Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna are Berhalter’s first-choice options at the wide forward roles in the full-strength USMNT, but if Hoppe continues to develop then there is no reason why his evolution couldn’t allow Berhalter to slide a Pulisic or Reyna into a central midfield role.
Acosta rises to the occasion
The USMNT was going to need bite in the midfield to deal with Jamaica, and Kellyn Acosta was the man on the USMNT roster to provide that and he showed once again why he’s currently the best defensive midfield option in the pool after Tyler Adams.
Berhalter had deployed Acosta in a more advanced role during the group stage, which allowed him to take a look at some other players in the defensive midfield role, but with the knockout rounds presenting a more difficult challenge, Acosta was called on to man the role. His ability to cover ground, break up Jamaican possessions and even find time to jump into the attack helped the Americans endure a slow start and eventually take control of the match.
Acosta did have more turnovers than you would like to see, but most came as he was trying to push the attack, and it should be noted that if he is called on to fill the defensive midfielder role in World Cup qualifying he will be playing in a lineup with far more attacking firepower, which would allow him to focus on his defensive responsibilities.
Busio battles and shows growth
The Jamaica game played out as an exact opposite of the Canada match for Gianluca Busio. Against the Canadians, Busio started well and looked sharp in the first 25 minutes, but he eventually tired and found himself overwhelmed by the more experienced Canadian midfielders.
Berhalter gave Busio the start against Jamaica despite that lackluster showing against Canada, and in the opening 25 minutes it looked like Berhalter might have made a mistake. Busio repeatedly lost the ball and appeared rattled by Jamaica’s pressing and speed.
Rather than replacing Busio at halftime, Berhalter allowed the teenager to figure things out, and as much as he struggled early, Busio never stopped battling and didn’t shy away from the challenges. He was eventually rewarded in the second half as Jamaica began to slow down and the USMNT made tactical and personnel changes that freed up Busio to have more room to operate.
The result was a strong finish to the match for Busio, who looked more comfortable in a more advanced role.
As encouraging as his overall performance was, Busio will struggle to remain in the starting lineup, but the Gold Cup has already provided him with valuable learning experience ahead of his expected move to Serie A, and ahead of the Fall, when he could be in position to challenge for a role in World Cup qualifying if he is able to earn playing time upon his arrival in Italy.
Zardes and Roldan make case to regain starting roles
Gyasi Zardes and Cristian Roldan could have sulked after being left on the bench in favor of younger options on Sunday, but neither player would ever be accused of being that selfish, and the two veterans showed their savvy and worth as impactful substitutes in the second half.
Zardes immediately provided more energy, defensive work and better positioning at the striker positioning while Roldan delivered some needed energy to the right wing, where he helped create a pair of chances in his cameo appearance, including the beautiful assist on Hoppe’s winner.
Zardes should start against Qatar, and as much as Daryl Dike has more potential as a national team prospect, right now Zardes is the better fit for the current squad, and has the experience edge heading into the toughest matches.
Roldan is a tougher one to call. He had an okay showing as a starter against Martinique, a forgettable cameo off the bench against Canada, and now his impressive stint off the bench against Jamaica. Paul Arriola’s flat showing on the right wing against Canada could open the door for Berhalter to give Roldan a starting nod in a wide role, a position he has played regularly in MLS with the Seattle Sounders.
Dike struggles again, but is still a top striker prospect
Daryl Dike’s national team stock has endured more swings during the Gold Cup than Bitcoin, but while he is definitely in the midst of a dip, much like cryptocurrency, you will want to buy the Dike dip.
There is no denying he has struggled in consecutive matches, with his flaws exposed, but Dike is still young and in just his second full season as a professional. The natural ability is there to develop into an elite striker, but he needs more seasoning, particularly for the international level.
There is also something to be said for the idea that the current USMNT squad isn’t well-suited to play to Dike’s strengths. Wing service is scarce given the lack of true wingers on the roster, and the lack of a game-changing playmaker means there aren’t many defensive-unlocking passes making their way out of the USMNT midfield.
All that said, Dike needs to get better, which is entirely fine for someone who just turned 21 last month, and was still playing college soccer less than two years ago. It might feel like he has been a major disappointment in the eyes of some, but that’s more down to the unrealistic expectations sparked by his goal-scoring run in England, and the allure of him being a relatively new face in the USMNT striker mix.