For U.S. Men’s Soccer Team, Gold Cup Offers Path Back From the Abyss

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Tyler Boyd? Walker Zimmerman? Aaron Long?

You might be forgiven if you happen to don’t acknowledge three of the starters from the United States males’s soccer group’s first two Gold Cup matches. You may even be forgiven if you happen to didn’t know the Gold Cup had began. After all, the United States girls’s group is busy advancing to the quarterfinals of the World Cup an ocean away.

The Gold Cup — the biannual match for nations in North America, Central America and the Caribbean — started final weekend. The United States gained its opening two video games, towards Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago, by a mixed rating of 10-Zero.

The group’s remaining group stage match is towards Panama on Wednesday evening. While the United States has already certified for the knockout spherical, it should draw or defeat Panama to win its group. Los Canaleros additionally might be the first high quality group the Americans have confronted in the match.

“I think Panama, they bring a little more possession to their game, maybe a little more dynamic attack,” Zimmerman mentioned Monday. “Probably a little bit more organized as well, and they definitely have more experience.”

Zimmerman was attempting to keep away from slighting Guyana or Trinidad and Tobago, however he couldn’t sidestep the apparent: Panama is a a lot more durable opponent. Then once more, Trinidad and Tobago was adequate to defeat the United States 20 months ago, ensuring the Americans missed the World Cup for the first time since 1986.

Berhalter’s “we” is instructive. It is not just his coaching staff going through a tournament for the first time, but most of the players, too. Half of his roster had fewer than 10 appearances for the national team when the tournament began, and even fewer had played in meaningful matches.

While Berhalter noted that there are some veterans on the team — Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Omar Gonzalez — the roster was intentionally stocked with younger players. Berhalter knows his task is not only to win the Gold Cup next month, but to get the United States back in the World Cup in 2022.

“We thought it was very important to give young guys tournament experience, as we develop toward 2022,” he said.

The best known young players are Christian Pulisic, 20, the undisputed star who will play for Chelsea next season, and Weston McKennie, 20, the next great midfield hope. They also include players like Boyd, 24, a tenacious wing who could have played for New Zealand’s national team instead; and Long, who with Zimmerman forms a strong center-back pairing, both 26, that isn’t necessarily young in age but in international experience.

The Gold Cup has always been a bit of an awkward tournament for the United States. As the regional championship, it trails only the World Cup in competitive importance, but few would say teams or fans value it anywhere close to as much.

The United States is expected to advance easily — it has lost only once in the group stage — and rarely gets credit for victories. The only losses that aren’t considered catastrophic are those against its archrival, Mexico.

And winning the Gold Cup isn’t necessarily a sign of better things to come. The United States won the last edition, in 2017, shortly before the disastrous final legs of the team’s World Cup qualifying campaign. And perhaps playing the tournament at home, on pristine fields in friendly stadiums, isn’t the best preparation for road matches in the Caribbean and Central America.

When the former coach Jurgen Klinsmann took charge of the national team eight years ago, he spoke often of installing a playing style based around possession, of dragging the United States away from the direct physical style for which it was most known. But in big matches against talented opposition, that stylistic approach proved untenable, or at least unsuccessful, and he never seemed able to reconcile his ideal with the reality.

Berhalter’s style of play seems a better fit for the current American talent pool. His Columbus Crew teams valued possession and defenders passing the ball, but they also pressed the opposition to create chances. He speaks often of line-splitting passes, and of attackers getting in behind the opposition.

He benefits from the maturity of Major League Soccer, from which the majority of his roster hails. Tactically, the league’s best teams now mirror those found in South America and Europe, where two-way players are common. Increasingly defenders are expected to possess the ball, fullbacks have as many attacking responsibilities as defensive one, and strikers must harry and press the opposition. Berhalter needs only to refine, not reinvent, what his players practice with their club teams.

But as much as he wants his team to learn and coalesce, he also wants it to win. After pummeling Trinidad and Tobago, 6-0, he insisted the game’s only meaning came in qualifying the United States for the next round, though Pulisic, who had been on the field for the bitter World Cup elimination, wasn’t quite so circumspect.

“I definitely had a little chip on my shoulder today,” he said after scoring a goal and assisting two others.

This is the balancing act Berhalter must navigate. He wants to win big but knows it means little. He wants to protect his young players but also prepare them for the future. He wants to win the Gold Cup but also recognizes its true value may lie in how it sets up his team for World Cup qualifying.

Panama is the first chance to see if the United States can find that balance.

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