PHILADELPHIA — Granted, you need to dig pretty deep to find a silver lining to the U.S. men's national team’s World Cup qualifying humiliation in the fall of 2017. But if you drill down far enough, you might find something about the perils of overconfidence.
Everything about Bruce Arena’s lineup and approach that fateful night (and if you believe the former USA coach, the federation’s social media strategy as well), dripped with overconfidence. Fresh off a home demolition of Panama, the same attack-heavy American lineup surely would spend the qualifying finale on the front foot, boss the inexperienced Trinidadians and then pack their bags for Russia.
We all know how that turned out. And we should learn Sunday evening here at Lincoln Financial Field if the program, now led by manager Gregg Berhalter, is aware of those potential lessons.
Unbeaten and unscored upon so far in this Concacaf Gold Cup, the in-form USA (3-0-0) will start the knockout stage with a quarterfinal game against tiny Curaçao (1-1-1), a surprise participant competing in the continental championship tournament for just the second time. On the surface, Curaçao is a footballing “minnow” in just about every sense, and exactly the sort of opposition a bigger nation might overlook. It’s ranked 79th in the world by FIFA, represents an island with a population of around 160,000 and has scored just two goals at this Gold Cup. Sunday’s quarterfinal is the highest-profile game in Curaçao’s modest soccer history.
“Part of the nice stories of the Gold Cup are teams like Curaçao, that are very small countries, and they’re able to come to this competition and have a great run,” Berhalter said Saturday. “[But] we just see this as another team in our way, and we’re determined.”
Seeing Curaçao as “another team” begins by understanding that the population from which coach Remko Bicentini can draw is far larger than 160,000. Bicentini himself was born in Nijmegen, Netherlands, and many of his players—14 of the 23, in fact—are Dutch as well. But they’re eligible to play for Curaçao thanks to family connections. Among them is captain Cuco Martina, a defender from Rotterdam who spent the past season on loan from Everton to Stoke City and Feyenoord. And leading scorer Leandro Bacuna, who tallied the only goal in the 1-0 upset of Honduras during the group stage, was born in Groningen and has played for Aston Villa, Reading and now Cardiff City. Goalkeeper Eloy Room, also from Nijmegen, is on the books at PSV Eindhoven.
The country may not have a ton of soccer pedigree, but some of its players do. And if there’s anyone who won’t overlook Dutch players and coaches it’s Berhalter, who spent six years at clubs in the Netherlands.
“We know them extremely well,” the U.S. coach said. “We’ve been watching them in all their games. We’ve been watching them in their lead-up games. And we’ve presented it in a way to the players where we know this is a good test. We know this is a difficult opponent and we’re ready to perform.”
Although the two countries haven’t met since 1984–Curaçao was known as Netherlands Antilles back then–Berhalter has plenty of tape to draw on thanks to the Gold Cup’s group stage and the recently completed qualifiers, during which Curaçao went 3-1-0. He said he’s already aware of some of its strengths and tendencies.
“I don’t think they could be a dangerous team. They are a dangerous team,” he said. “It’s a good team. A lot of flexible movements offensively. They get into high positions with their fullbacks. The wingers are tucking inside overloading the middle of the field, and they have good players. We’re familiar with all the players that play in Holland and we’ve been watching them for a while, and it’s a good team.”
U.S. midfielder Christian Pulisic, who has one goal and two assists so far in the Gold Cup, was on the field that miserable night in Trinidad 20 months ago. He said Saturday that he’s well aware that anything is possible over the course of 90 minutes.
“You go into it just like any other game,” Pulisic said. “Once you get in these knockout rounds, you might be a favorite or whatever, but they’re coming to fight, and we’re coming to fight and we want to move on just like they do, and it’s not going to be easy.”
Added Berhalter: “If you ask Christian about the preparation for this game, he’ll probably attest to the fact that it wasn’t any different than our other games in terms of the thoroughness and how we’re analyzing Curaçao.”