Once again, the U.S. men’s national team found a way. On the ropes in the first half against Qatar and with seemingly little hope of finding their way, the Americans rose up in the end to win Thursday’s semifinal 1-0 and advance to their 12th CONCACAF Gold Cup final.
The deciding goal was scored with four minutes remaining by substitute forward Gyasi Zardes, who, along with four other players, came off the bench in the second half to provide just the spark the U.S. needed after Qatar spared the Americans on a missed penalty kick on the hour mark.
“First half we were pretty poor,” Paul Arriola said. “There was definitely a response in the second half and the momentum shifted after the penalty kick and I think we wore them down. We continued pressing and we had some subs coming in that have made a huge difference in the last couple of games.”
Here are the biggest takeaways from another big U.S. win:
USA needed a missed penalty to get going
Out of ideas and seemingly baffled about how to solve the riddle that was Qatar, the U.S. was stuck about an hour into the match.
Then it conceded a penalty. And suddenly the way forward became clear.
That’s because Qatar captain Hassan Al-Haydos was as confused at the penalty spot as the U.S. had been during the game and he skied his shot, seemingly undecided about where he was going to place it. The Americans celebrated the miss like it was a goal.
It was an injection of energy that was magnified by the insertion of three fresh players — Gyasi Zardes, Cristian Roldan and Reggie Cannon — and the Americans gained a permanent edge in the game with Qatar dropping deeper to defend and making more errors under the increasing U.S. pressure. The breakthrough goal eventually came with four minutes left as two more subs — Eryk Williamson and Nicholas Gioacchini — combined with Zardes to push the USA over the line and into the final.
“Unfortunately, I think after we missed the penalty we changed a little the game,” Qatar head coach Felix Sanchez acknowledged after the match.
“The problem in the first half was that our attacking mids [Sebastian Lletget and Gianluca Busio] weren’t in the pockets enough and we didn’t find them enough in dangerous positions to then activate the wingers and forwards behind the back line,” U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said of the team’s stunted performance before the missed penalty.
Zardes or Dike to start Gold Cup final?
That’s one of several debates that is likely to take place in the lead-up to the final. That’s how much more impressive the subs were.
The hard runs and constant movement by Gyasi Zardes was enough of an upgrade over starting center forward Daryl Dike (above) make it a legitimate question. But Eryk Williamson, Cristian Roldan and Nicholas Gioacchini also made strong arguments to be considered for more prominent roles. They were more resourceful and had more ideas with the ball at their feet.
Berhalter spent most of his postgame press conference answering questions about the subs’ performances. His most telling answer came when he was asked whether Zardes had done enough to earn a start.
“It’s two games in a row that we felt that Gyasi had a big impact [off the bench]. Again, I know every player wants to be on the field and wants to be able to perform. We can only pick 11 and decisions like that, you test a player,” Berhalter said. “You back Dike and you say, ‘Show me what you got.’ And for Gyasi — he is the ultimate team player and he supports the whole team and all he wants is for the group to win.”
It’s safe to say that Dike did not show Berhalter what he had, making the decision whether to start Zardes or Dike on Sunday a fascinating one.
“One thing I never do is I never question the coach’s decision,” Zardes said after the match. “They’re the ones, they do months of research on teams and game models and methodologies. And if they have me starting or on the bench, that’s their decision. I’m going to do what I can to make a difference. . . . I have full faith in the coaching staff and continue to try to be the best player I can be.”
Matt Turner’s stock keeps rising
Zardes may have scored the goal, but the U.S. goalkeeper will go down as the Americans’ man of the match. Turner came up with two big saves in the first half to keep the U.S. in the match. The Americans were outshot 13-3 in the opening 45 minutes.
The impact he has had throughout this Gold Cup in making timely saves and providing the team a real lift is having some wonder whether he has elevated himself into competition for the No. 1 spot currently held by Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen.
— Taylor Twellman (@TaylorTwellman) July 30, 2021
“Coming into the tournament, we all thought Matt was a great shot-stopper and now it was about putting that into play with the national team,” Berhalter said. “He’s a gamer. He stays calm, he makes the saves when he needs to make the saves. To me the poise that he plays with is pretty good considering he doesn’t have many caps — this is his sixth cap. But he plays with poise like he’s been here before, and he bailed us out today in the first half. He made two great saves and he was our man of the match.”
Ethan Horvath’s Nations League showing, Turner’s Gold Cup heroics and the fact that Steffen doesn’t see much playing time with Man City all figure to make for a legitimate competition when World Cup qualifying starts in September.
Emotions boil over for USMNT
Opponents will know by now that it doesn’t take much for the U.S. national team to get fired up and use that emotion to change the course of a match. It happened in the Nations League and it happened in the semifinal, too.
That emotion boiled over on two occasions. The first came from Matthew Hoppe, who shook his head as he was subbed off the field in the second half and then exchanged words with Berhalter near the bench area, with the coach asking him to take a seat.
Then, after the U.S. scored its goal, Berhalter immediately targeted the fourth official for his celebration:
Berhalter started his postgame press conference with a message for the official.
“I just want to start by apologizing to the fourth official,” he said. “I think my reaction after the goal was a little bit overboard. There was some frustration with the refereeing today, but that poor guy, he wasn’t the cause of it.”