Veteran forward Jozy Altidore rescued a game that needed rescuing for aesthetic reasons, if not for competitive ones. His impressive bicycle kick goal lifted a makeshift, overhauled U.S. men's national team to a 1-0 win over Panama on Wednesday night in Kansas City, Kan., where the three points clinched first place in the group for the Americans and sends them to a Concacaf Gold Cup quarterfinal against unheralded Curaçao on Sunday.
The USA and Panama now have played in eight straight Gold Cups, and the games are typically tight. On Wednesday, the close nature of the contest had a lot more to do with the brand-new nature of the lineups than anything else (and maybe a whistle-happy referee). Both coaches relied heavily on reserves with passage to the quarterfinals already secured. All that really was at stake at Children's Mercy Park was bracket position.
Here are three thoughts on a game that meant little and will be remembered for nothing save Altidore’s goal:
It wasn’t pretty, but it was proper
There are no medals for winning a group. It’s pretty much irrelevant. Once you’ve advanced, all that matters are the potential knockout round matchups, and avoiding injury/suspension. And since there’s not enough variety in the former to risk the latter, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter did the right thing Wednesday by benching every single starter from the first two Gold Cup wins. Even if Altidore hadn’t scored, Berhalter’s decision was sound.
Considering Jamaica’s experience and history against the USA, one certainly could make the case that the Reggae Boyz–the other possible quarterfinal matchup–present a more challenging foe than Curaçao. But the day a U.S. manager prioritizes avoiding Jamaica over his players’ fitness is the day the national team program should be shut down. Several key Americans started the Gold Cup coming off layoffs or injuries, and reaching the final would mean playing six games in just 20 days. Wednesday was the best, and perhaps only, opportunity to give them a rest.
A new starting 11 also allowed Berhalter to give the remainder of his squad a chance to get involved and feel more a part of the team and tournament. For a coach so interested in culture, this likely was a consideration as well. You never know when you might need someone later on, and you want everyone committed and engaged. Twenty-two of the 23 men on the Gold Cup squad have now seen action. Third-string goalkeeper Tyler Miller is the only exception (and it’s a third-string goalie’s job to be the exception).
“We want to compete for a title. It would be a great accomplishment for this group,” Berhalter told SI.com prior to the tournament. “I think it’s a great challenge for this group to navigate through this tournament—a number of different venues, a lot of travel. I think it’s going to be a good challenge for us. And for this group in particular, it’s how do we deal with all that stuff and stay calm and stay focused.”
Panama manager Julio Daly Valdés had a similar approach, leaving out seven of the nine players who started Los Canaleros’ first two games. Only two Panamanians started all three group-stage matches. He apparently was fine with playing Jamaica as well.
In the 65th minute, Berhalter made his first change, bringing Christian Pulisic on for Jonathan Lewis, perhaps as a favor to the viewing public. Pulisic hadn’t played in a month before making his Gold Cup debut against Guyana, so maybe a 25-minute run-out was in order. Seconds after the U.S. star stepped on the field, Altidore tallied the winner.
The unbeaten USA won its group for the 14th time in 15 Gold Cup tournaments. Much more importantly, it appears to be entering the quarterfinals with its most important pieces intact.
Opportunities go unseized
Collectively, the game was always going to be pretty rough around the edges. It came as no surprise, then, that with a new starting 11, runs were late and players often were indecisive or uncertain with the ball. What was in play, however, was the opportunity for a few individuals to give Berhalter something to think about as the tournament progressed. Maybe a shakeup in the depth chart would be in order.
But nobody really did. Panama barely did enough to make the U.S. back four work, although Matt Miazga did fine and right back Reggie Cannon did a decent job providing the width and options that Nick Lima offered in the first two games.
Going forward, the USA did well finding runs in behind a Panamanian center back and his adjacent outside back, but the rest of the defense did a good job sealing off the ensuing American crosses. Jordan Morris, who was excellent as a sub in Saturday’s victory over Trinidad & Tobago, seemed to have a good grasp of Berhalter’s system and should remain an asset off the bench. But playmaker Djordje Mihailovic—a late addition to the Gold Cup roster—struggled, and the USA was unable to turn its prohibitive possession advantage into many clear-cut scoring chances.
The best one in the first half fell Altidore’s way in the 21st minute. Cannon fed Cristian Roldan on one of those runs that split a center back and left back, and the Seattle midfielder then cut the ball back to Altidore. But the veteran striker scuffed his left-footed shot, and the game entered intermission scoreless.
Altidore has been returning from injury and played a reserve role against T&T. His start Wednesday was his first in a U.S. jersey since the World Cup qualifying debacle in Couva 20 months ago. Although he missed his first good chance against Panama, he was active. And in the second half, he delivered a spectacular winner. In the 66th, a long Mihailovic corner kick was headed by Miazga and then a Panamanian defender, all before Altidore converted on a full, right-footed bicycle kick from about four yards out.
It remains to be seen whether he’s fit enough to do the work Berhalter requires of his center forward for 90 minutes, but Wednesday’s goal suggests Altidore will have a role to play before this Gold Cup is over. He’s the one starter who made a definitive mark.
“It’s been a rough time waiting, just trying to get an opportunity to get out there and score in these colors again. It means everything to me,” Altidore said after the win.
The Gold Cup path is now mapped out
After group-stage wins over two bad teams and Panama’s reserves, the road now should get tougher for the Americans. Maybe. The USA has just about the most favorable draw imaginable as the Gold Cup reaches the quarterfinals, as both Mexico and Costa Rica are in the other half of the bracket, while Group C favorite Honduras stumbled and was eliminated.
The Americans (3-0-0) will meet Curaçao (1-1-1) in the second game of Sunday’s quarterfinal doubleheader at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia. Playing in just its second Gold Cup, Curaçao advanced thanks to a 1-0 upset of Honduras and then a stunning stoppage-time equalizer against Jamaica on Tuesday. A lot of its roster plays in the Netherlands. Captain Cuco Martina is an Everton player who spent last season on loan at Stoke City and Feyenoord.
The U.S. played Curaçao twice back when it was called Netherlands Antilles. The Americans won a home-and-home World Cup qualifying series in 1984, 4-0 on aggregate, thanks to a 4-0 second-leg triumph in St. Louis.
A win Sunday would mean a semifinal in Nashville against the Jamaica-Panama survivor, which is, again, a game a full-strength U.S. squad should be expected to win. So far, Berhalter’s first team has beaten the foes it should beat, and done so handily. And his second team played well enough to get a result. That’s a good start, and the best way to build momentum toward a potential showdown with Mexico.