WASHINGTON, D.C.—An early-June friendly three years before a World Cup isn’t exactly a make-or-break moment for the United States men’s national soccer team, but the U.S. men are nonetheless navigating a critical stage of development and transition.
Wednesday’s match with Jamaica at Audi Field—the U.S. team’s first-ever game at D.C. United’s gleaming new home stadium—was one of two tune-ups the Americans and new head coach Gregg Berhalter have before the June 18 start of the Gold Cup, the biennial championship cup of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF).
Against Jamaica, the Americans scarcely mustered any offense and fell, 1-0, via a dazzling strike by second-half sub Shamar Nicholson, who curled a right-footed blast from 24 yards in the 55th minute to beat the dive of U.S. goalkeeper Zack Steffen at the top far corner.
For better or worse, the result is the jumping-off point for a U.S. team looking to reenter the global soccer discussion ahead of its first international tournament since 2017’s World Cup qualification failure.
Berhalter knows his team must be better to have a chance at advancing deep into the Gold Cup.
“It was really something to learn from,” said Berhalter. “There were some positives. One of the objectives of this first camp was to play an alternate [five-in-the-back] formation, so we achieved that. I think there’s tweaks that we can make to that formation to make it better, make it function better. But overall I think that was positive. The negative, I think we just lacked speed. We lacked aggression in the final third. When you talk about when the ball’s wide, there should be four guys in the penalty box. We only had two half the time. Even when we won the ball in good positions, now it’s time to counter, now it’s time to really force ourselves on the opponent. We didn’t do that. So, we lacked speed in the final third, and it was good that we got to see how this formation can work…Overall, the effort was okay, but we performed poorly tonight.”
Under new leadership and with an influx of young talent, the U.S. men are on their first steps back to international relevance as the team wishes to show international strength ahead of its next World Cup qualification cycle, which begins in March of 2020.
How long and arduous that path is depends largely on how fast the young players progress. The USMNT trained all week at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis leading up to Wednesday’s friendly, winnowing a preliminary roster of 40 down to a training-camp group of 29. The final roster for the Gold Cup was announced Thursday morning and includes a mix of veterans and young talent.
Notably absent Wednesday against Jamaica were Christian Pulisic and Tyler Adams, both of whom were resting following their league seasons in the German Bundesliga at Borussia Dortmund and RP Leipzig, respectively. Pulisic, the U.S.’s most high-profile player and most creative offensive playmaker, recently secured a $73 million transfer from Borussia Dortmund in Germany to Chelsea of the English Premier League, where he will play next season. Pulisic will join the U.S. team in time for its June 9 friendly against Venezuela in Cincinnati.
Adams, a strong defender, will join the team next week and is on the final Gold Cup roster.
Notably present but not playing against Jamaica were experienced veterans Michael Bradley (145 caps), Jozy Altidore (110), Gyasi Zardes (44) and Jordan Morris (27), all of whom are on the final Gold Cup roster.
With personnel in flux, that led Berhalter to roll out an inexperienced 11 against the Reggae Boyz in front of an announced Audi Field crowd of 17,791. Omar Gonzalez anchored a five-in-the-back defensive formation and earned his 50th cap for the senior squad, and he was by far the most experienced player on the field.
Steffen, who played at University of Maryland, earned his ninth cap against Jamaica and figures to be the U.S.’s top goalkeeper moving forward. Steffen will transfer from Columbus Crew of MLS to Manchester City this summer, and reports are that City will loan him to Dusseldorf in the Bundesliga.
Defender Matt Miazga captained the side against Jamaica in his 13th senior-team appearance and is on the final Gold Cup roster.
D.C. United forward Paul Arriola received a warm ovation from the home crowd and helped engineer one of the team’s only scoring chances with speedy play and good crossing in the first half. Arriola was named to the Gold Cup roster officially on Thursday.
Duane Holmes came on as a midfield substitute to make his first senior-team appearance, and he impressed with enough pace and aggression to make the Gold Cup roster.
Josh Sargent played the full 90-plus minutes on Wednesday and appeared for most of the game to be the U.S.’s best attacking threat, coming up with a header in the first half that went wide and a shot in front of the goal late in the second half that was saved, the U.S.’s only shot on goal for the game. Yet Thursday morning Sargent was left off the Gold Cup final roster, a somewhat curious move considering that Sargent, 19, is young enough to be competing with his countrymen at the U-20 World Cup in Poland, where the United States came from 2-1 down in the second half on Tuesday to knock out France, 3-2.
Fans can expect a stronger personnel group and performance on Sunday when the U.S. takes on Venezuela in a friendly in Cincinnati, the team’s final exhibition before Gold Cup group play begins against Guyana at Allianz Field in Minneapolis on June 18. The U.S. also has Panama and Trinidad and Tobago—teams that played an integral role in the program’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup—in Group D in the Gold Cup.
The Gold Cup final is on July 7 in Chicago.
Berhalter said on Tuesday that the 16-team tournament is naturally filled with tough opposition, and the U.S. is eager to compete.
“It’s just an opportunity,” Berhalter said. “It’s an opportunity for us to show what we’re capable of. We know that we’re going to prepare. We’re going to prepare the team, we’re going to try our best, we’re going to play hard, we’re going to try to learn from this experience of the Gold Cup, but we see it as a good opportunity for this group. We also realize that it’s not always going to be easy, things are not always going to go our way, and we’re prepared to deal with that.”
U.S. Gold Cup roster by position (CLUB; CAPS/GOALS):
GOALKEEPERS (3): Sean Johnson (New York City FC; 7/0), Tyler Miller (LAFC; 0/0), Zack Steffen (Columbus Crew SC; 9/0).
DEFENDERS (8): Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 10/1), Omar Gonzalez (Toronto FC/CAN; 50/3), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes; 3/0), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 5/0), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact/CAN; 4/0), Matt Miazga (Chelsea/ENG; 13/1), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 29/1), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC; 6/2)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Michael Bradley (Toronto FC/CAN; 145/17), Duane Holmes (Derby County/ENG; 1/0), Weston McKennie (Schalke/GER; 8/1), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 25/10), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC; 10/0), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew SC; 16/0)
FORWARDS (6): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC/CAN; 110/41), Paul Arriola (D.C. United; 22/3), Tyler Boyd (Vitória Guimãres/POR; 0/0), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids; 4/0), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC; 27/5), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew SC; 44/7).