The USMNT played out a 1-0 game against the small island nation of Curaçao to advance to the semifinal of the Gold Cup. Even though the team played what appears to be their starting line up minus Altidore (for this tournament, at least), the USMNT struggled. The game itself was essentially a snoozer.
The best reply.— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) July 1, 2019
Curaçao were clean, comfortable, organized and entirely too patient. The US were almost completely uninspiring. The game was a nap. https://t.co/3lumNt8n2g
Here’s what we learned.
Getting the Narrative Right
The buzz following the match was that the USMNT was battered and on edge and put to the sword against Curaçao. I mean, MLS’ website has a headline titled USMNT hang on for dear life vs. Curaçao. So, were the USMNT hanging on for dear life? No.
Look, the United States did not play well against Curaçao. I’m not going to pretend otherwise (in fact, we are going to to talk about it). But the US was not actually seriously tested in the back in this match. I am so frustrated at this trend, where if anything in a game goes wrong, it is blown up and turned into hyperbole. Curaçao was able to suffocate the US attack (AFTER THE USMNT WAS ALREADY AHEAD) and play for long shots. Indeed, all but one shot was from outside the box (excluding two blocked shots). And that single shot from inside the box was from the top left corner, a mere yard inside.
Curaçao was trying to play hero ball, trying to force a moment of magic. They were not comprehensively taking the US apart. They were not battering the US defense. They looked like a bland and option-less attack trying to take potshots and bad crosses into big American center backs. Remember how bland and one dimensional the USMNT looked in the opening against Guyana, and in the whole matches against Venezuela and Jamaica? Well, Curaçao looked like that.
Look, if this game had been against Mexico, we would have been ecstatic with this performance. If we had looked at this game and this performance against a different opponent, we would be talking very differently about it. But it wasn’t against Mexico. It wasn’t against a top team. It was against a small Caribbean island nation. And it’s fair to have different expectations for such a team. It is fair to expect that the US will beat them handily because they have more talent. But it is unfair to take a negative attitude, to overstate what actually happened, just because the team did not meet our expectations. Down that path of hyperbole is nothing but negative spiraling.
The fact of the matter is, team’s sometimes have bad days. Sometimes, games, even winnable games, don’t go as planned. Good teams figure out how to win in those matches. When the USMNT had these kinds of games in 2016 and 2017, they lost to teams like Guatemala, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. But this USMNT won in this game. That’s a big difference.
I don’t know why but the USMNT, particularly in the second half, stood back from Curaçao and let them take possession. Apparently, most people expected them to play like Trinidad and Tobago or Guyana and break on the counter (ahem, stereotypes) but they did not do that. Curaçao came out ready to game. They actively sought to hold possession and pressed high up the field in a 4-3-3. The USMNT took up a low block and struggled to get down the pitch after scoring their goal. Curaçao successfully stifled the US as they attempted to play out from the back. The ball was frequently turned over as Bradley was isolated and the center backs pressured into stale passes. In attack, whatever the team was trying to do was not working.
I highly doubt this was planned. This game looked very little like what Berhalter has been describing up until this point, what we have seen from the team in this tournament. The formation was the same, but the execution was utterly lacking. A lot of that has to do with where players were on the field. Essentially, Pulisic played as a winger. He didn’t really stay in the center as a Center Attacking mid, he went over to the left. That meant that the US midfield was only a two-man team against Curaçao’s three. When Pulisic goes wide, the team needs to have either Boyd or Arriola (or I guess Lima, but that plan seems on hold, at least for now) come inside to help provide outlets. They came inside, but they were respectively poor and very poor while on the ball. The alternative is for the striker to drop deep and link up play. But that’s not Gyasi Zardes’ game. While he did a great job of it against Trinidad and Tobago, he didn’t pull it off nearly as well in this game. That’s far more aligned with Altidore’s skill set and, without him in the team today, the US suffered.
On top of that, you had McKennie whose tendency to disengage with the play was on display in the second half. As good as McKennie was in flashes and on recoveries (particularly in the first half), he is too disconnected too often and does not help enough in build up play. As good a soldier as Michael Bradley has been through his career and through his tournament, he’s not 21 anymore. At 31 years of age, he can’t cover the same ground he used to. McKennie, on the other hand, happens to be a stupendously athletic youngster. As a Bundesliga starter, he should be bodying players left and right and dominating in midfield. He wasn’t. I don’t know what’s happening. Maybe McKennie doesn’t have a grasp on where he needs to be in this line up. Maybe his positioning just naturally isn’t a strong trait and he needs to work on it. Maybe Berhalter’s instructing him to take up bad positions. But he’s not been the force that the US has needed. With McKennie out on the field, the USMNT ought to be able to impose a suffocating press — the young Texan has the perfect skill set for that. Instead, as a whole, the team is —STILL— way too slow on the press. That goes for McKennie and it means he needs to step it up.
A Goal 20 Years in the Making
That said, McKennie got a goal. It was a great run, with a great header. And the play came from a brilliant cross from Pulisic from the left.
These two guys, along with Tyler Adams and Zack Steffen, are the core for this national team going forward. They essentially have to be. They have the tools to be, if not the absolute best, among the best players in all of North America. For most of the game, it really was clear that Pulisic was the best player in the US, the player in the highest profile team in CONCACAF. While he was sloppy in possession at times, you could see very clearly, when he got a chance to attack, how he created space like nobody else. That cross is an absolute testament to that skill. In games like this, you need to have your best player show up, even for just a moment, and demonstrate that they are the best player on the field. As ugly as the rest of the game was, Pulisic had that moment, and the US got a win because of it.
The good news is that there will be more players coming into the USMNT. Throughout this tournament, we’ve seen precious little of the likes of Djordje Mihailovic, Wil Trapp, and Cristian Roldan. Combined with Bradley’s age-related limitations, and you have a clear case where new players have an opportunity to walk into the lineup. With CONCACAF Nation’s League (ugh) starting up in the fall, followed by CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, there will be plenty of opportunities for the likes of such young players as Weah, Pomykal, Sargent, and Adams to be integrated into the USMNT. This team that you saw out there is not the final product. It’s just where the team is currently in this tournament. And there’s reason for optimism.
Respect the Diaspora
Why are Curaçao punching above the expected weight of a tiny island nation? The diaspora. Curaçao is an autonomous region controlled by the Netherlands. As such, the citizens of Curaçao are Dutch nationals. This has resulted in immigration to the Netherlands, so much so, that the national team of Curaçao is able to scout and recruit players from the Dutch tiers of professional soccer. How extensive is this? Only four of the starting eleven players on the Curaçao line up were born in the Caribbean (and one those players was born in a different Dutch island colony.) Isn’t it shocking how much these Dutch players played in a Dutch style, instead of what we tend to expect from Caribbean national teams? Hmm...
You better get used to this because this is the future for CONCACAF. Indeed, in a lot of ways, this is the present. Seven of the starting players in Haiti’s victory over Canada were born outside of Haiti. The players in the small Caribbean nations that the US is increasingly going to see come up and make it to the Gold Cup and other CONCACAF tournaments will scout heavily from their diasporas. And that’s going to make CONCACAF both more competitive going forward, and give it a more diverse feel to the teams.
That’s all from me. As always, let me know what you think in the comments below. The USMNT will be back in Gold Cup action against Jamaica (for the third consecutive tournament!) on July 3rd for the semifinal. The USWNT have their own World Cup semifinal against England on the 2nd.