For most soccer fans in CONCACAF nations, Qatar was something of an unknown coming into this tournament. That was especially true for me heading into this semi-final as I hadn’t been able to catch Qatar’s earlier Gold Cup matches. As it turned out, Qatar proved to be the kind of team that sat back and attacked on the counter. While their tactics fit right into CONCACAF, they didn't quite feel like the CONCACAF archetype. Not enough CONCACAFing (more about that later).
Historically, Qatar have not had a distinguished history. They have never qualified for the World Cup, with the team set to make their debut in 2022 through hosting. Similarly, the team had an unremarkable record in the Asian Cup through 2015, advancing out of the group stage just twice going back to 1980.
However, in the last few years, Qatar have reorganized their program, resulting in a 2019 Asian Cup title, and now, a semi-final showing at the Gold Cup. The strategy for the Maroon will be familiar for USMNT fans well versed in the team’s history. Qatar manages to punch above their weight by making up for talent deficits with team chemistry and organization. Just over half the squad and 6 of the starting line up play for the same club, Al-Sadd of the Qatari Stars League, while another 7 play for Al-Duhail. Not only are so many of the players familiar with each other from their own club teams, but the fact that all the players play for teams based in Doha allows for the national team to train year round. This is pretty similar to how the USMNT trained for the 1994 World Cup ahead of the formation of MLS. The USMNT trained extensively together in Bradenton, Florida ahead of that tournament, eventually showing up as hosts with a tightly organized team. That US team was able to scrap their way out of the group stage before losing to eventual champions Brazil. And I get a similar impression from this Qatari team; that they’re organized enough that they may be able to scrap out of the group stage of the World Cup.
In any case, that still leaves us with the US’s performance. Well how did the US do against Qatar? Well, for the first time this tournament, I’d say that the USMNT was pretty lucky to get a result. The US struggled to break the Qatari defense and were fortunate that Qatar couldn’t convert on any of their big chances, nor on their penalty.
Let’s get into specifics.
Turner Based Strategy
James Sands has had a good tournament. That is, up until last night. James Sands had a rather poor night against Qatar. He made a poor pass early that was intercepted and led to a threatening moment that Qatar could only turn into a half-chance. Later, Sands deflected a ball right at goal, forcing an excellent save from Turner. And then Sands gave up the penalty, only to get bailed out when Hassan Al Haydos went and didn’t put his shot top bins. All told, Sands was fortunate not to be punished for his mistakes. Miles Robinson had a better night, but still made some significant mistakes. In particular, he kept a Qatari striker onside, allowing a dangerous shot that required a spectacular save from Turner.
Which brings us to why the USMNT kept the clean sheet. Through the tournament, the USMNT has only sporadically called upon Turner. But in this match, the New England Revolution keeper had to pull out all the stops.
Good goalkeeping has been a keystone for success for the USMNT for 30 years. Part of the failure of the mid 2010’s was a decline in our goalies as Tim Howard aged. But now, the USMNT is back to having a collection of excellent shot stoppers.
Got your Loadout?
For this match against Qatar, Berhalter opted to field the same starting line up as against Jamaica. The team was perhaps a bit more cohesive than against Jamaica, but against a well-organized Qatari side, that wasn’t enough to generate chances. As a result, the team didn’t really get anywhere on attack. And, as mentioned above, the team’s defensive performance declined from the previous round. This meant for a really muddled first half for the US. The team had a lot of stale possession, struggled to find and exploit space on the wings, and couldn’t quite threaten from set pieces. In particular, Daryl Dike looked a mixture of hurt and not-quite-there-yet.
However, Berhalter clearly was playing for the long game. The ultimate measure of a soccer match isn’t shots or even xG, both of which saw the US fall behind. The real measure is goals. And the simple truth is that the US took their chances while Qatar didn’t. And the longer that it took for Qatar to get a first goal, the more and more the odds favored the USMNT. Take this quote from Qatari defender Tarek Salman:
“The last half an hour we were really tired, and this has affected us negatively.”
One of the big strengths for the US is the high level of fitness. Against most opposition, the USMNT is able to out-hustle and outwork the opponent. And that goes a long way. In this match, combined with the demoralizing effects of Qatar’s missed PK, the fitness of the US and the amount of work they forced upon the Qatari players allowed the MNT to shift the balance of the game in the US’s favor in the closing minutes. Combined with the energy from the substitutes, the MNT was simply able to run Qatar ragged. And that created space for Gioacchini and Zardes to combine and finally score. It was actually very similar to what the team did against Jamaica, though with Hoppe serving as the goalscorer.
But when I say that Berhalter’s playing the long game, I don’t just mean the tactic of wearing down the opponent. He’s also looking beyond this game. Why did Dike and Busio play in this game even though they struggled? Why did they play instead of Zardes and Roldan, two players who showed well as subs against Jamaica? Because Dike and Busio will have future roles with the national team. And giving them minutes in difficult situations pushes them to grow and become better players.
A Final Fantasy
For me, winning in the semi-finals is a Mission: Accomplished.
While Canada and Mexico fielded at least somewhat depleted rosters on the other side of the bracket, their squad omissions are nothing compared to the USMNT’s. With only a few exceptions, the players selected for this roster at nearly every position going in were third or fourth choice, if that. This group is also astonishingly young, with 6 players 21 or younger, and with an average age of just over 22 for out-field players. And yet, they managed to grind results all the way to a Gold Cup final. Mind you, these results are significant. Sure, Haiti and Martinique were pretty weak. But Canada, Jamaica, and Qatar have all been decent opposition. The US will face Canada and Jamaica in World Cup Qualifying and, not only did we beat them, but we beat them with a bunch of depth players.
Given all the restraints on the roster, given the disruptions caused by injuries, this Gold Cup run has been a triumph. You can’t judge a team without context. The coaching staff has made it clear since the spring that they were going to prioritize the Nations League knockout rounds and would send a depleted squad for the Gold Cup. That the Gold Cup would serve to expand and strengthen the depth of the player pool. It’s fine if you disagree with that decision. But it’s clear that the decision was made and that it was made with some forethought and intention. Given the expectations that the staff and the team put on themselves, they have met their stated expectations. And making those expectations deserves recognition.
I hope Berhalter starts getting credit for rebuilding the USMNT identity and attitude. We're back to a team that will scrap and fight, and I could not love it more.— Ryan Rosenblatt, World Series Champion (@RyanRosenblatt) July 30, 2021
Given how limited this roster is, if this USMNT team goes and beats Mexico in the final — which they might! Mexico has struggled this tournament — just imagine how demoralizing and humiliating that would be for the Mexican team and fans.
Shaq Moore’s yellow card foul was hilarious (and effective). Right before coming off for Reggie Cannon, Moore bungled into a Qatari player, conceding a foul. That foul killed the Qatari attack’s momentum, allowed the US to reorganize, and gave a chance for the USMNT to make three substitutions. Because he was coming off, Moore obviously didn't have time to get a second yellow or a red. And because yellow cards don’t carry over from the earlier rounds into the semis, Moore couldn’t miss out on the finale through a suspension due to yellow card accumulation. Smart. Also, very amusing.
Speaking of shenanigans, Kellyn Acosta delivered an absolute masterpiece in CONCACAFing.
Matt Doyle usually does a Face-of-the-Week for his MLS column. Well, this is clearly the face for this Gold Cup.
That’s all from me. What do you guys think? Did I miss something? Let me know in the comments below!