The 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup presents another opportunity for the U.S. men’s national team to win a trophy, but more importantly for the collection of new faces making up the USMNT squad, it presents a chance to show Gregg Berhalter they deserve to be part of the team even once it returns to full strength in the fall.
Sunday night’s Gold Cup opener against Haiti offers a competitive and potentially tricky opponent for this young USMNT roster, which is fine with Berhalter, who sees it as the first of what should be several opportunities to test some new faces.
“It’ll be a challenge,” Berhalter said. “(Haiti is an) athletic team, athletic at the back, athletic in midfield, so we see this as a good test for us, especially as an opening-round game. You always want to be tested in these games and this is going to be one that’s certainly going to push us, so we’re looking forward to that.”
Haiti enters Sunday’s contest at Children’s Mercy Park in Kansas City, Kansas as the clear underdog, but the Caribbean nation does have the advantage of having spent considerable time together in recent weeks, both in World Cup qualifiers and more recently in Gold Cup qualifiers.
“It’s no secret. It’s a little bit more of a challenging group than some of the other ones,” USMNT goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “Haiti is a team that took Mexico to extra time the last Gold Cup. So it’s going to be intense, but I think everybody here is is up for the challenge.”
Haiti failed to qualify for the third round of World Cup qualifying after a 4-1 aggregate defeat to Canada in mid-June, but recently qualified for the Gold Cup with dominant wins over St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Bermuda.
Haiti’s potency in the final third will be key. Duckens Nazon had four goals in World Cup qualifying, and Columbus Crew midfielder Derrick Etienne is a fast and dangerous winger.
Sunday’s match will be an interesting first look at a number of young USMNT players, but veterans are present, too. At striker, Daryl Dike and Gyasi Zardes are competing to start. Berhalter could opt for experienced players such as Kellyn Acosta or Sebastian Lletget in midfield, or throw Gianluca Busio or Eryk Williamson into the fire right away.
The Haitian team enters the Gold Cup with its country enduring a period of political unrest. Haitian president Jovenel Moise was assassinated on Wednesday, sending the country into disarray. Haiti’s government has requested military assistance from the United States while it tries to regain stability.
“There’s a lot of things more important than soccer, and this is certainly one of them,” Berhalter said. “We are thinking about the Haitians, I’m thinking and we’re thinking about their team. We know it’s not an easy time for them. In sport sometimes, actually participating in sport gives you that freedom and gives you that that feeling where you can put your mind somewhere else. But (we are) thinking about their team and hoping all is well.”
Haiti is also dealing with a reported COVID-19 outbreak within the squad, with a report out of Haiti stating that at least five players have tested positive, including lead striker Frantzdy Pierrot.
As Haiti deals with multiple challenges of its own, the USMNT enters the Gold Cup looking to add to the momentum generated by the Concacaf Nations League triumph in June. Though the current squad has a far different look, there is a sense in the team that lifting another trophy is possible, even without many of the team’s top stars.
“We’re focused on on making it to the final on winning, and that’s what we’re going to do,” Busio said. “Coming off a big win in the Nation’s League, it shows that we can do it, and it may not be the same group, but it just shows the passion that we’re playing with now, and showing that we can do it.
“There were a lot of young guys also on that field, playing in a final like that, that’s big,” Busio said. “It shows us that we can do it, and with the right amount of work and passion, we can do the same thing.”