The USMNT took on a familiar foe in Jamaica for the Quarterfinals of the 2021 Gold Cup. The first half was a bit nervy for the USMNT, with the defense forced to stand tall at times as Jamaica found space on the break while the attack struggled to break into the opposing box. However, in the second half, the MNT took control of the match, eventually finding a late winner through Matthew Hoppe. Here’s what we Learned
A Familiar Foe
Jamaica actually happens to be a familiar foe for the USMNT. Including this match, the US has played them four times since Gregg Berhalter took over, twice in the Gold Cup, and twice in friendlies (including one earlier this year), winning 3 and losing once. We’ve also seen them very often in the Gold Cup. In fact, this is the fourth consecutive tournament where the two teams met in the knockout rounds (for reference, there are currently no other similar active streaks between nations in the Gold Cup knockout rounds.)
Not only is Jamaica a familiar opponent, but they are also pretty good. Fifa has them ranked 3rd in CONCACAF, and they rather deserve it. They’ve got a solid, well organized squad made up mostly of players in MLS and the English Championship. While their best player, Leon Bailey of Bayer Leverkusen, sat out on the bench for this one, this was still mostly their A team out there.
On the other hand, as we’ve consistently pointed out here at SSFC, this is not a full-strength USMNT squad. With the vast majority of the starting squad rested after victory in the Nation’s League knockout rounds, this roster served mostly to fill out the bottom of the depth chart and to integrate a few new players into the pool. Players who stand out in this tournament will appear in World Cup Qualifying simply because the schedule was condensed due to delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. With games every three days, and with players flying literally thousands of miles, the team will need to rotate between a larger pool of players. Players who can perform against Jamaica here in the Gold Cup provide faith that they can plug into the line up and perform against Jamaica in qualifying. I mentioned that the Canada game was the first significant test for this group of players. Well, this Jamaica game represented a second test, this time, with the stakes raised just a little.
With that said, did the USMNT perform on this test? Well, for the most part.
Overall, it wasn’t a dominant performance by any means. In particular, the team had struggles in the first half, letting Jamaica get a few big chances while failing to create many of their own. But the MNT seized control in the second half and created more, higher qualify chances. Perhaps Jamaica have reason to feel unlucky not to score. But the expected goals, the statistical measure of how good the shots were for each team, clearly favors the US. In any case, the US won. And I think that bears a little bit of reflection. In 2017, the USMNT beat Jamaica in the Gold Cup final with essentially the A team by a late goal. Now, what is ostensibly a reserve roster (C string?) just beat Jamaica by the same margin. That’s some serious improvement in the depth of this squad and that’s really, really encouraging.
Grow a Backbone
The consistent through line for the USMNT in the Gold Cup has been just how good the defense has been. Through four games, they’ve conceded just a single game, limiting the opposition to less than one xG each game (excluding the penalty conceded to Martinique). Some of that praise obviously goes to Matt Turner, who has been solid when called upon. But much of that praise also goes to the defenders for being consistently dialed in this tournament. Their play has been particularly impressive given how much change there has been through this tournament, what with the formation changes each match and the injury to Walker Zimmerman.
While the fullbacks were good, the big highlights for me in this match were the center back pairing and Kellyn Acosta. Let’s start with Miles Robinson and James Sands. Here’s what Berhalter had to say about the two of them after the match:
Berhalter on the Robinson-Sands CB duo: "One of our concerns was how our center backs are going to deal with [Jamaica's] physicality; Cory Burke, [Shavar] Nicholson are tremendous athletes and I thought Miles and James did an excellent job, controlling buildup but also battling"— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) July 26, 2021
Indeed, matching the physicality of the Jamaican attackers was a big deal. Robinson and Sands needed to match the physical and mental intensity of the Jamaican attackers. With Jamaica attacking on the break, there was no time to recover if a defender did make a mistake. While the center backs were both effective in defending, they were also defensively tidy. Neither Sands nor Robinson committed a single foul. In contrast, their opposites on the Jamaican team committed several bad challenges, with Damion Lowe receiving a yellow card.
This isn’t to say that the defense was perfect. It wasn’t. Jamaica still got a few seriously dangerous looks at goal but couldn’t convert them. But for the most part, the Sands and Robinson held up and successfully limited both the number and quality of shots.
Looking at the depth chart, center back suddenly feels a lot more comfortable than it did in May. John Brooks is almost certainly the number one, but the spot next to him could be filled by a number of different players without a meaningful drop in quality, including Robinson and Sands. And that’s welcome news.
The final piece to the defensive shape was Kellyn Acosta, who returned to the number 6 role after an ignominious showing as a box-box mid against Canada. It was a welcome return to form, with Acosta focused in and breaking up plays across the pitch. His passing was ... inconsistent... but the defending was most certainly effective. I get the feeling that simplifying his game, along with simplifying Busio’s role, helped make for a more balanced midfield and helped Acosta dial in where he could be most effective.
Hoppe and Failure
While the defense was superlative, the offense was... less so. Daryl Dike in particular looked basically to be a non-factor against Jamaica, perhaps even a net negative. I mean, look at how disconnected he is in this passing network, courtesy of MLSoccer.com.
As you can see here, Dike (11) just wasn’t involved at all. When he did get the ball, his touch often failed him. There was one point where Dike received the ball only to backtrack something like 10 yards away from goal just to try and get control of it, killing all the attacking momentum.
Unfortunately, a lot of the shine has come off Dike since he burst onto the scene with Orlando City as a rookie last year. While he caught a lot of attention with his goals, first with Orlando and then with Barnsley in the English second division. But Dike’s limitations have been seriously exposed during his time with the national team. Dike’s most certainly a physical presence, but his lacking touch means he isn’t effective in holding up the ball during build up. And he doesn’t quite make the highly-effective runs as Zardes. As of now, Dike really doesn’t look ready for this level. He looks to much like an unpolished youngster. Which, you know, he is. Given time, he will get better. But he’s not there yet.
One player who did look the part was Matthew Hoppe. While Hoppe, a natural striker, didn’t quite look like he fit on the wing, he most certainly was up for the game. He was very willing to drive at the Jamaican backline, pulling out step-overs and feints all along the way. It was refreshing to see a player take on defenses and really try and make something happened. It made Hoppe the most threatening player for the US. And it eventually came good.
While Hoppe eventually proved effective, his play otherwise was a bit uneven. In particular, his decision making demonstrated his naivety, with passes that put teammates in bad spots and turnovers in dangerous places. But that’s something that comes with time and experience. Just as with Dike, Hoppe is not yet a finished product. He remains a young player with a lot of promise, but not yet a well rounded one. But for the time being, he at least looks like he fits in on the national team, at least with this depleted squad.
As is the case with the likes Sands and Acosta, Hoppe’s versatility is a major asset. His wing play needs to be cleaned up, but being able to fill as depth at both striker and on the left is a big deal, especially given the injury histories of Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris, and Paul Arriola.
Sam Vines’ play was good, but his “beard” was bad. He needs to shave.
Even though I am a noted Roldan skeptic, he helped transform the game when he came on and put in the cross for the winning goal. He’s earned his way back into the depth chart. Just, please, don’t play him in midfield.
Credit to Gregg. He dropped Busio deep and let Moore and Roldan combine higher up. That settled the play and eventually unlocked the goal. Hope to see more of that against Qatar.— Markel Santi (@_Susaeta) July 26, 2021
Busio came into the match with a lot more defensive effort, which is a big plus for me. It wouldn’t be until the second half that his passing began to match, but when it did, the US really took control of the game. Those adjustments were good, but I want to stick on Busio’s defensive effort for a sec. A lot has been said about Busio’s lack of physicality, granted, with the player still just 19. However, at 5ft 9, Busio is the same height as me, and perhaps more relevantly, the same height as Tyler Adams. By no means is he a big guy, but he’s not small either. It really was a matter of Busio learning to use his body more effectively so that he could close out space from opponents. Here’s a great video about how the legendary Yaya Touré learned to do just that in the Premier League. If you’d like a longer break down of how Busio adapted in this game, I can do another Play Like the USA article explaining in more depth. Just let me know in the comments.
That’s all from me. The USMNT will return for the Gold Cup semifinal match vs. Qatar (?!!) on July 29th in Austin, TX. In the meantime, we want to know what you thought of the game! Tell me, what did I get right, and what I am I straight-up wrong about? Drop a comment down below.