It was a modest conclusion to a memorable weekend.
The night after Lionel Messi joined his legend in Brazil and hours after an Italian renaissance ended in glory at Wembley, a U.S. men’s team lacking nearly all of its big-name players started a Concacaf Gold Cup of ambiguous significance with a 1–0 draw victory over Haiti.
Concacaf’s biennial regional championship has neither the history nor the indispensable prestige of its counterparts in South America, Europe and elsewhere. And this year’s edition is being held in more extenuating circumstances than usual. Other competitions pushed him further in the summer, and he will face the European club campaign and then preparation for World Cup qualification in September. So many familiar names are missing.
For USA coach Gregg Berhalter, these factors reduced this Gold Cup from a “must win” to an “attempt to win while tackling the big picture.” And so he named a 23-man team that features 19 MLS players, including just four who were part of last month’s Nations League triumph. Lifting the Gold Cup would be great. But the bigger goal is preparing for fall, whether that means resting certain key contributors or refining a roster that will have to handle those three-game World Cup windows.
It would be a little surprise if this American team had enough to win a seventh continental championship, especially considering Mexico’s most loaded squad (despite Saturday’s injury to Hirving Lozano). But the Americans should have enough to make a run, and they had enough to defeat the Haitians at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park in the opener of the group stage on Sunday.
The United States was far from dominant, but was good enough within the offensive and defensive penalty areas to earn all three points. The Americans (1-0-0) will continue the first round of the Gold Cup against Martinique (0-1-0) on Thursday night. The Caribbean nation lost, 4-1, to Canada in their first match of the group stage.
“It’s about being patient,” Berhalter said after the victory. “It’s about learning. It’s about gathering information about the players and how we can play with this group and then adapt. It will be a great experience to have to do that.”
Haiti was playing in its own challenging circumstances. Whatever advantage Les Grenadiers might have enjoyed being together for the recent Gold Cup qualifiers (the United States met on Monday) was likely diminished by turmoil at home and coronavirus issues within the team. While the riots in Haiti continue after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse last week, a moment of silence was observed before the game, it was revealed early Sunday that five players and an assistant coach were isolated after positive tests for COVID- 19. Among them were striker Frantzdy Pierrot, the 26-year-old Guingamp forward who is Haiti’s second-leading scorer, and starting center-back Jems Geffrard.
Before the news broke, Berhalter acknowledged that Haiti would almost certainly benefit from the extra time and games together. But he had faith in the experience and quality of his own team, even if it didn’t have the biggest names on the show.
“This has been a group of players that we have been working with for two years,” he said on Saturday. “There are only a couple of guys who have never been involved in our program. So we started working. “
Berhalter did it with a lineup that was about as experienced as he could get, minus Matt Turner in goal (veteran Brad Guzan is a backup) and right back Shaq Moore starting in place of Reggie Cannon (hamstring). Otherwise it was an XI peppered with players Berhalter has come to know and trust, anchored by center back Walker Zimmerman, a midfield with Jackson Yueill, Kellyn Acosta and Sebastian Lletget and a forward led by Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola ( who came out with an early hamstring problem).
Zimmerman hit the crossbar with a header in the sixth minute, but then helped the United States take the lead two minutes later. The Americans found plenty of room in the correct channel, and Zimmerman found Acosta there with a low, penetrating pass. The Colorado Rapids midfielder slid the ball toward Moore, whose cross was deflected and then tossed into the air by Zardes. Left-back Sam Vines was left alone at the left post to head the ball. It was his first goal for the United States.
It seemed that defeat might have started. But those recent friendly jabs from Concacaf foes aren’t indicative of how games tend to go once they get competitive. The Gold Cup can be routine. Mexico learned that lesson in Saturday’s 0-0 draw with Trinidad and Tobago.
“I think we had a wake-up call when we got to the Nations League for the guys to see the level of competition in Concacaf when there is a prize at stake, and it will be very similar in the Gold Cup. The first round is going to be difficult.” Berhalter warned last week.
Haiti made it difficult. It is a fast and direct team that plays with intelligence and confidence when the ball turns. There was too much space in the United States’ midfield – and between the midfield and the back four, too often – and Haiti exploited it enough to throw the Americans out of their rhythm and out of their attacking form. Leading scorer Duckens Nazon and Columbus Crew’s Derrick Etienne were threats, but the brave visitors lacked the last bit of quality necessary for the United States to pay. Etienne had what was probably Haiti’s best chance, but he connected his 12-yard shot in the first half to the side net.
“I missed the urge to score more goals and to be dangerous and [to hit] the first forward and aggressive pass, “Berhalter said of his team’s inability to push Haiti away.” For me it was too slow, too backwards and there was not enough intention to turn Haiti around and have them defend in their penalty area. … From the attacking end, we were disappointed in the intention we showed tonight. “
Berhalter made a handful of changes in the second half, and local favorite Gianluca Busio, who came on for fighter Yueill, landed a long-range shot that forced a good save from the Haitian goalkeeper. Busio, 19, played as a candidate to start moving forward. Acosta and Zimmerman also looked relatively good, while Moore showed a spark on the right. Arriola’s replacement, Nicholas Gioacchini, hit the post in the 66th minute. But that shot, and Busio’s gamble, came in isolation and not as a result of sustained US hegemony. The game was choppy, too open and too tight for America’s comfort. But the Golden Cups are not about comfort, especially this one.
This is a team from the USA that has mainly support players, so the leaders, the focal points and the breakers will have to emerge. That’s what the Gold Cup group stage is for. For now, at least, it’s about getting results until the team settles down, the chemistry improves and the favorite players find their way.
“I feel like we still have to change gears,” Berhalter admitted. “You could see we were a bit rusty. The moves weren’t normally as clean as they normally were, and we didn’t create enough and we didn’t finish enough chances. From that point of view, there’s room for improvement. But happy with the shutout, happy of not having yielded a goal and happy to add the three points “.
Coming into Sunday’s game, Haiti was one of only two Concacaf nations against which the United States did not have an all-time winning record (the other being Mexico, of course). The victory in Kansas City lifted the Americans to a 7-6-5 mark against Les Grenadiers, whose last series win was in 1973.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.